5 ways that people power helped defeat Shell

Thanks to people power, Shell is giving up drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic. Here are five ways public campaigning puts pressure on a huge opponent like Shell.


Shell just announced it’s giving up on drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic. This is a huge victory for millions of people all around the world who opposed the oil giant’s controversial plans. Plans that put not only the fragile Arctic ecosystem at risk, but the planet as a whole.

Shell would love us to believe the decision to quit the Arctic was purely financial. Low oil prices, high costs and a poor quality find in Alaska did play a part. But as The Guardian and FT reported, “Privately, senior executives concede that the protests had a bigger impact than expected, and damaged the company’s reputation.”

That’s a big nod to the global opposition to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, and especially the 7 million-strong Save the Arctic movement. So here are five ways we contributed to this victory. And how, against all the odds, people power can topple even the biggest opponents.

1. Relentless scrutiny

One of the main reasons Shell gave for pulling out of the Arctic was “the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment.” They’re talking about all those pesky rules about operating safely and protecting wildlife.

This movement put intense scrutiny on the regulatory process, making sure Shell couldn’t slip through any loopholes.

We petitioned President Obama and joined other environmental groups to file legal challenges to Shell’s plans. This included the now infamous Walrusgate, when a walrus protection law that Shell had conveniently “forgotten” about cut the number of wells it was allowed to drill by half.

Campaigners stand on a platform with mountains in the background. The platform is emblazoned with 'Polar profiteer'. They hold signs saying "Shell no!" and shaped like a skull and cross in yellow and red.

We made sure that Shell (and the US government) knew that the eyes of the world were on them. This helped ensure that Shell was held accountable to the highest legal and regulatory standards. And apparently, the company didn’t like it one bit.

2. Reputational Damage

The Save the Arctic movement has exacted a huge reputational price from Shell for its Arctic drilling programme, keeping it in the public spotlight and making it more and more toxic for the company. Eventually all that pressure and adverse public opinion did the trick.

Shell executives have privately admitted that they were “taken aback” by the way that public protest threatened its reputation.

Screenshot of text. The circled bit reads "Shell has also privately made clear it is take aback by the public protests against the drilling which are threatening to seriously damage its reputation."

We know that companies like Shell can’t get away with the terrible stuff they do without the tacit acceptance of society as a whole.

So we targeted the brand partnerships that Shell was using to clean up its image. People all over the world shared a viral protest video from the Shell-sponsored F1 Grand Prix, and then LEGO dropped its 50 year deal with the oil company after intense public outcry.

The movement also tarnished Shell’s reputation by exposing the company’s dangerous mishaps in Alaska, highlighting the hypocrisy of Shell’s claims on climate, and enlisting the support of influential public figures.

3. Shifting Public Narrative

Millions of people raised awareness of the issue by: joining protests, signing petitions, sharing Facebook posts, writing op-eds, donating, creating artwork, or volunteering. We constantly linked Shell to its destructive Arctic drilling until it became common knowledge.

The big, brave, bold direct actions by members of this movement (like the incredible Portland bridge-danglers and many other people-powered moments) also helped show just how strong the tide of opposition was to Shell’s plans.

Colorful streamers float on the wind under a bridge where climbers have suspended themselves.

Climbers and kayaktivists at St. Johns Bridge attempt to stop the Shell-leased icebreaker MSV Fennica from joining Shell’s Arctic oil drilling fleet. The Fennica came to Portland to have a gash in its hull repaired after being damaged in the Arctic as Shell prepared to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea. © Steve Dipaola / Greenpeace

This perception of widespread resistance, in turn, helped open the political space for leaders to publicly oppose Arctic drilling. Two US presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spoke out. Shell was faced with the real possibility that the next president of the United States would say #ShellNo.

4. Investor Pressure

Shell is accountable to its shareholders. So the movement also reached out to those who had a unique way to influence the company’s top brass.

We worked in coalition to give investor briefings that challenged Shell’s claims on Arctic drilling. Alongside allies from Alaska, Mae Hank and Faith Gemmill of REDOIL, we visited Shell’s AGM and worked with investors to ask Shell execs the Arctic drilling questions they really, really didn’t want to answer.

And this outreach and financial argument worked: as the Wall Street Journal said on Monday, “Hug a tree; hug a shareholder. Investors and activists both had something to celebrate.”

5. Perseverance and Staying Power

Probably one of the biggest reasons we won this is that together, we showed Shell that this movement wasn’t going away anytime soon.

We said we’d play a Requiem for Arctic Ice outside its headquarters in London every day in August, and we did. We said we’d leave a giant polar bear puppet there for as long as Shell was drilling in Alaska, and we did. But those are just two examples among many in a truly global, years-long campaign that has been embraced by all sorts of communities.

A colossal polar bear puppet, called Aurora, the size of a double decker bus descends on Shell’s South Bank headquarters in a protest against Shell’s drilling in the Arctic. Just over two weeks ago, Shell got the final permits it needs to start drilling for oil in the melting Arctic Ocean, risking an oil spill in icy waters that would be almost impossible to clean up. © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Shell saw that more than 7 million people all around the world were standing up to them, and that this movement was growing stronger and more powerful with every passing year. They saw the outpouring of creativity and determination, courage and personal commitment that was gathering to confront them. And they blinked.

In essence, the movement to Save the Arctic had what Shell did not: a cause worth fighting for.

Find out more about Save the arctic

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