From Chevron to Shell, Nigeria to the North Sea, the slippery mask of big oil was briefly removed this week.
On Tuesday we learned from a leaked internal company report that Transocean – the operators of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig – had a partial “blow-out” on one of its North Sea rigs only months before the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe. Fortunately, the blow-out preventer worked on the Sedco 711 rig, the same ‘preventer’ that was to fail on 20 April this year, triggering the world’s worst oil spill.
Then came Wednesday, when we saw confidential correspondence between Chevron and the government that showed the company admitting that an oil spill at their drill site near the Shetland Islands could spread as far as Greenland and the Norfolk coast.
If that weren’t shocking enough, Chevron went on to admit that their computers kept crashing when trying to model a spill longer than 14 days. Rather than fix it, they shrug their shoulders, saying “no useable information” could be gained from a full run of the software.
Maybe this apparent culture of secrecy at companies like Chevron is more of a PR strategy, since as soon as they open their mouths the clangers drop out. Last time they were asked about the effects on whales and dolphins of a spill off Shetland they replied it was “likely” any impact would be limited, “given [the dolphins’ and whales’] good swimming abilities, relative intelligence and nomadic behaviour”.
And then yesterday. Documents released by Wikileaks show that another oil giant - this time Shell - continues to disregard people and planet. Shell has wormed its way into the heart of Nigerian politics, infiltrating every government department in an attempt to get its way.
Ann Picard, Shell’s vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa (who cuts a friendly portrait on the company website) boasted to a US ambassador that “Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries”.
This comes 15 years after Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental activist and long-time anti-Shell activist, was hanged by the Nigerian government. His crime? Peacefully resisting the toxification of his country’s politics by foreign oil companies. It seems that little has changed.
Shell’s dark shadow extends well beyond Nigeria. Recently we learned of their secret plan to cosy up to BBC editors in a bid to mislead the UK public over the type of company it really is.
Shell’s strategy to “occupy new ground” involved working with pliant critics while isolating those it couldn’t turn. One thing they got right was to put Greenpeace in the latter category, recognising that we will always stand up to companies like Shell or BP, no matter how many times they change their shiny logos.
The uncomfortable fact is that none of what we learned this week would be in the public domain if oil companies had their way. They want to continue to operate in an unaccountable bubble, shielded by armies of slick PR companies, heavy-duty lawyers and pliant politicians.
That can’t happen. We don’t want to wait for another Deepwater Horizon so we can conclude that BP and Transocean are “breathtakingly inept”, as a co-chair of the White House oil spill commission said on Wednesday. We know that already - the challenge is to stop them driving their needles into more and more remote and fragile parts of the Earth in the first place.
This week of transparency has made the situation even clearer. Big oil wrecks the climate, risks the environment and tramples on human rights. Now it falls to us to decide whether we’ll let these companies continue with ‘business as usual’ or whether we can push them, our politicians, and ultimately ourselves, and make a commitment to start weaning the world off oil.