Shell's Curious Climate Straddle: Leaves ALEC but Stays in Arctic

Climate campaigners question the timing and sincerity of Shell's departure from ALEC over climate concerns, as its fleet drills for Arctic oil.

Shell's Arctic drilling has won it many enemies in the climate movement

Shell's Arctic drilling has drawn it many enemies among climate activists. Credit: Charles Conatzer & the sHellNo! Action Council via Flickr

The American Legislative Exchange Council's refusal to act on climate change has cost it another high-profile member: energy giant Royal Dutch Shell. But Shell's departure comes at a curious timeit is trying to distance itself from a group known for climate change denial while still pressing ahead with climate-threatening Arctic drilling amid determined protests and opposition from a wide range of climate advocates.

Shell made the announcement last Friday that it would not renew its membership, officially severing ties early next year with the conservative organization that has supported climate denial campaigns and opposed renewable energy initiatives. ALEC's "stance on climate change is clearly inconsistent with our own," Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, said in a statement. "We have long recognized both the importance of the climate challenge and the critical role energy has in determining quality of life for people across the world."

Although climate campaigners are pleased with the news, they question Shell's timing and sincerity.

Shell has recently faced large protests of "kayaktivists" in Seattle during the departure of its Arctic drilling fleet and most recently in Portland, where Greenpeace activists successfully kept the company's Arctic-bound icebreaker, the Fennica, in port an extra day before it could leave to support the drilling in the Chukchi Sea. Greenpeace has led the protests over the climate implications of extracting Arctic oil.

"I think it would be impossible for anybody to see [Shell] having left ALEC as anything other than a press stunt," said Nick Surgey, director of research at the Center for Media and Democracy.

"It's been very clear for a long time what ALEC's position is on climate change and corporations have been leaving ALEC in droves" in recent years, said Surgey.

ALEC, a conservative group which gets a great deal of its funding from fossil fuel interests, has long opposed environmental action and has funded climate denial campaigns. It has recently tried to counter its image as an opponent of climate action, but it has not prevented the recent departures of major companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and BP.

Although suspicious of Shell's motives, Kert Davies, executive director of Climate Investigations Center, said he was pleasantly surprised that Shell so clearly cited climate change as its reason for departing. Most of the big-name companies that have left haven't explicitly said why. One glaring exception is Google, whose company chairman Eric Schmidt said in an interview with Diane Rehm last September that ALEC is "literally lying" about climate change.

One of the groups most excited by Shell's news is the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that advocates public policy based on science, has been pressuring the European oil giant to ditch ALEC since 2014. "We are really happy that Shell has finally come around to acknowledging the inconsistency of ALEC's position and its own state position on climate change," said Angela Anderson, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But even Anderson now has many questions for Shell moving forward. "We are certainly anxious to engage with Shell on ... what does it really mean for a fossil fuel company to be a responsible actor on climate change," she said.

For Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist for Greenpeace, the only answer he wants to hear is Shell backing away from drilling in the Arctic.

Shell first attempted to drill an exploratory well for oil in the Arctic in 2012 but ran into a series of problems, including discharging dirty water into the ocean, breaking one of its drilling rigs and then running that vessel aground.

Shell is now making its second attempt and has already run into a problems, including the gash in the hull of the Fennica, one of the company's two icebreakers. While the Fennica was being repaired, the company was given the greenlight to drill up to—but not into—the oil zone. Now that Fennica is fixed and back in Arctic waters, Shell has applied for its final permit to drill for oil.

When asked whether Shell's pursuit of Arctic oil was a contradiction with it's stance on climate change, the company did not comment.

"There's no way to safely drill in the Arctic," Donaghy told InsideClimate News. "It just doesn't make sense from a climate-change perspective, it doesn't make sense from the risk of an oil spill. It's just a bad idea."

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