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An oil industry consultant explains why she’s had enough

She says Shell “blatantly doesn’t care” about climate change.

Shell has pledged to reduce its climate emissions to net zero by 2050, yet continues to expand its oil and gas drilling.
Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Caroline Dennett was in her 11th year as an operational safety consultant working with the oil giant Shell when she saw a news clip of a climate protest outside of its UK headquarters. One of the protesters, from the group Extinction Rebellion, carried a sign that said “Insiders wanted,” asking employees to get in touch if they had something to say.

She did. On Monday, Dennett said it as publicly as possible — breaking her contract with the company in an email sent to the executive committee at Shell over its hypocrisy on climate change. In her letter of resignation, she accused Shell of “failing on a massive planetary scale” noting that it is “not winding down oil and gas, but planning to explore and extract much more.”

Shell has promised to reach net zero emissions in less than 30 years and touts its support for climate action in press releases and advertising. But the company continues to expand new drilling that all but ensures the world will barrel past 2 degrees Celsius of warming.

Her letter of resignation stated, “Shell is operating beyond the design limits of our planetary systems Shell is not implementing steps to mitigate the known risks. Shell is not putting environmental safety before production.” She posted the accompanying video online:

For the past decade, Dennett, who runs a small business that counted Shell as its biggest client, has surveyed 20,000 employees across at least 65 projects around the world to find weak points in the company’s safety procedures. Her last assignment for Shell was surveying for two new projects in the Niger Delta, a particularly polluted region of oil operations in Nigeria.

Asked for comment on Dennett’s accusations, a Shell spokesperson replied, “Be in no doubt, we are determined to deliver on our global strategy to be a net zero company by 2050 and thousands of our people are working hard to achieve this.” The spokesperson added, “We’re already investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, although the world will still need oil and gas for decades to come in sectors that can’t be easily decarbonized.”

The oil industry’s role in climate change has led to some notable recruitment problems for the oil giants, and its contractors, including PR agencies, are under increasing scrutiny. A growing number are refusing to work for the industry at all. Last year, an Exxon engineer of 16 years quit because of the company’s inaction on climate change. And Dennett’s email includes a plea for others to reconsider their role working for big oil. “I’m lucky to be able to make this choice, and I recognise many people in Shell may not be in such a position. But the fossil fuel industry is the past, and if you have an option to exit, please walk away and towards a more sustainable career, and help put us all on a path to a genuinely safer future.”

Vox spoke to Dennett about her decision to quit publicly. A transcript of our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

What prompted your decision today to stop working with Shell?

I can’t go on working for, with, or supporting a company that just is blindly ignoring all the alarm bells.

It’s a bit like if someone asks you to go and work in the tobacco industry. I’ve continued for as long as I have because of the firm belief that whilst they are operating, people need to be safe. We need to prevent as many leaks as we can. We need to prevent as many major incidents as we can. But there comes a time where it’s just time to divorce. I’ve come to the point where I can’t live with my own conscience for continuing to support a company that just so blatantly doesn’t care about what’s happening with the climate and the people that it will harm.

But the work I’ve done in Shell has been valuable in terms of preventing harm to individuals and preventing oil and gas leaks. I suppose I’ve comforted myself that it’s a trade-off. By doing this, I’m helping it stay as safe as it can be, whilst it’s running, but with the hope that it was going to transition and we’d be moving toward more renewables and winding down in terms of new exploration. More recently, it’s come to my attention they are still constructing new oil and gas developments and still looking for new reserves. We can’t do this anymore.

All the warnings are there: the International Energy Agency, COP 26, and the United Nations. [UN Secretary-General] António Guterres says it’s economic and moral madness to still look for new oil and gas and any new fossil fuel. The governments of the world are saying, no, you can’t have any new oil and gas extraction. I think it’s one thing to see a company safely transition to new energy, but it’s another thing to say I still support new extractions.

You’ve surveyed a lot of oil and gas workers, from on-site operators to higher-level executives. What’s company culture like on climate change?

It is double talk. On the one hand, you know, Shell is saying, “We’re very focused on safety and we don’t want any individual to come to any harm.” And yet, we are harming millions of people by continuing to extract oil and gas because of the CO2 that’s being pumped into the atmosphere.

It’s an industry that is usually very focused on mitigating risks, but they’re not mitigating any of the risks of climate change.

The surveys that we run provide an awful lot of opportunity for people to give open feedback in the questionnaires and in the online surveys. They can type in something that they feel needs to be improved. I don’t think I’ve ever once heard anything about climate change. Maybe something about, you know, not polluting locally and the risks around that, around the operational sites. But it’s incredible that nobody really talks about it. I would say very recently one did mention the net zero target by 2050. But that’s one person in 11 years, talking to 20,000-plus people, and that is quite startling.

It lives in press statements and on the website, but it doesn’t live in the [company] culture.

What kind of response would you hope to see from Shell?

I would like them to commit to not looking for more oil and gas reserves to exploit anywhere in the world. We have to transition away from fossil fuels if we want any kind of livable future for everyone. The oil and gas industry knows the science: there’s good evidence, they created the science around this. What I’d love to see is Shell use their capital, their human power, their skills, and their great pioneering capabilities that brought us oil and gas 150 years ago to rapidly progress to a renewable future.

They had a vision once of what a good future could look like, and they thought it was oil and gas. We know that cannot give us a safe future any longer.

I just would really love for the Shell execs and the board to really look in the mirror and ask themselves if they really believe that their vision for more oil and gas expansion and extraction really secures a future for humanity.

What kind of role could contractors and consulting firms play in pressuring fossil fuel companies to change?

It’s quite hard to ask individual people to walk away, and I feel a bit uncomfortable even suggesting to people that they might want to do that. Because if you are a front-line worker, somewhere like Nigeria, you have a choice between working in the oil and gas industry or not feeding your family. They don’t have the option to have an exit plan from Shell unless it’s to go to another fossil fuel company. So it’s up to those who created the problem in the first place to solve the problem.

What kind of position does that leave a company like Shell in when larger companies cut ties?

With the upcoming [annual general meeting] next week, they are looking at having some validation of their current climate policy and strategy. It’s probably not very brilliant.

Those who still have influence need to be very clear about what the ask is for the future. And I think those who have less influence but still have money in there need to take it out.

It needs to be a kind of starvation of the fossil fuel industry because it’s only, ultimately, their profit line that’s going to make them see that there’s an alternative. That’s the thing that frustrates me. I don’t understand why the likes of Shell don’t convert all of their capital and technical and human power into a greener vision for the future.

Update, May 23, 12:30 pm: The story has been updated with comments from Shell.

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