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Shell boycott can be a turning point to reckon with unholy alliance between fossil fuel corporations and governments destroying our future

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Dr Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition and a climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org. He holds a PhD on climate and energy justice from the University of Washington.

The real hypocrites are not those boycotting Shell while driving fossil fuel cars. Rather we can turn to the likes of Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe, who claims he is fighting Western imperialism when resisting clean energy. Then he sells out our precious Wild Coast to Shell — one of the most rapacious Western imperialist corporations.

It has been beautiful to see South Africans from all walks of life revolt against Shell’s plans to bombard our precious Wild Coast with harmful seismic testing so that they can explore for yet more oil and gas.

One of the tools that they have been deploying is the boycott of Shell. It’s a powerful tool that hits Shell in one of the only places they seem to care about: their profits.

The boycott is a welcome step to put pressure on Shell. At the same time, boycotting them is not enough. After all, what alternatives can we turn to when we boycott Shell?

If we go to Total, we support their plans to build the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which will displace communities in Uganda and Tanzania, destroy irreplaceable ecosystems, and put at risk the water source of millions of people.

If we go to Sasol, we support one of the world’s most polluting companies, whose toxic coal-to-oil process fouls the air and water of South African communities, killing and sickening thousands each year.

If we go to BP, we support a company responsible for major oil spills across the world, including my family’s home island of Mauritius, where BP supplied a highly toxic experimental shipping fuel. Trying to avoid accountability, after the spill, BP even refused to supply a sample for analysis so that locals could understand what was poisoning their environment.

Caltex is a subsidiary of Chevron, which has polluted, intimidated, and harmed communities in Ecuador and across South America. When Chevron was finally held liable in court for the damage they had done, instead of paying court-ordered reparations they chose to try avoiding accountability and even worked to imprison the lawyer representing the communities harmed.

If we turn to Engen, their oil refineries are responsible for polluting and harming communities, such as those in South Durban. Communities there have long protested Engen’s harmful practices and lack of accountability for the cancerous pollution and even explosions coming from Engen’s refineries.

In the end, all major oil and gas companies have blood, devastation, and destruction on their hands. In addition, every bit of oil, gas and coal burnt contributes to climate change, pollution, and ecological harm, which falls disproportionately on poor, black, brown, and indigenous communities.

So, there is hardly an ethical oil and gas company we can choose from when boycotting Shell. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t boycott Shell though. We should. We need to put pressure on them at this particular moment in time to get them to pull out of the Wild Coast.

The long-term goal though must be to end the fossil fuel era altogether and rapidly move towards a more socially and ecologically just renewable energy powered future. Otherwise, we will constantly be relying on exploitative oil, gas, and coal companies who devastate communities and ecosystems.

Some disingenuous commentators will take the fact that we currently rely on fossil fuels now, to argue that those who are boycotting Shell are hypocrites. There are three responses we can issue to the charges of hypocrisy.

The first is to recognise that the transition will not happen overnight. So, while we might be dependent on fossil fuels now, and must work to reduce our dependence as much as possible, it will take time and investment to shift vehicles, infrastructure and energy systems.

That we need fossil fuels now, does not mean that we need Shell’s Wild Coast drilling though. As a major recent report from the International Energy Agency showed, we have more than enough oil, gas, and coal in current reserves for us to transition to clean energy in line with the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

As such, we do not need to explore for new coal, oil and gas reserves as Shell aims to do in the Wild Coast. Rather, we should be using those resources to invest in a clean energy economy.

Fortunately, as another vital report from the University of Technology Sydney detailed, the world also has more than enough renewable energy potential to replace fossil fuels. Every region on Earth can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy fast enough to keep warming below 1.5ºC and provide reliable energy access to all.

The second response to the charge of hypocrisy is to realise that a big part of the reason why we haven’t moved away from fossil fuels is precisely because of companies like Shell. Fossil fuel corporations have used their immense power, money, and influence to stop governments from responding to crises like climate change.

Even more so than tobacco companies before them, coal, oil, and gas companies have spread misinformation and lies about the science and economics of climate change and clean energy. They have spent billions sabotaging efforts and movements working to clean up our energy systems.

The evidence shows that, if done right, a renewable energy future would be more affordable, job-creating, and prosperous. Yet, we have been locked into our fossil fuel dependence corporations and their bought-off politicians who keep us locked into polluting and expensive energy systems.

This brings us to the third reason, which is the unholy alliance between fossil fuel companies and governments. Across the world, governments have been captured by the fossil fuel industry, which is one of the richest and most powerful industries on earth.

As such, instead of investing in alternatives like electric vehicles, renewable energy, mass transit, and energy efficiency, governments across the world subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of $11-million a minute, keeping us locked into our polluting system.

The unholy alliance of government and fossil fuel corporations is blatantly on display in South Africa, where the ANC-linked Thebe Investments has a stake in Shell SA, so our ruling party stands to win big if the company strikes oil.

A similar story unfolded in the electricity sector, where the ANC investment company, Chancellor House, held a R3-billion stake in the corruption-riddled Medupi power station through its 25% ownership of Hitachi. It’s little wonder the ANC has been so reluctant to move off coal.

Both such investments and the corruption surrounding them help explain why South Africa’s government has failed so dismally to clean up our electricity and transport sectors. We lag far behind the world on electric vehicle uptake and have one of the world’s most polluting electricity sectors.

In the end, the real hypocrites in this space are not those boycotting Shell. Rather we can turn to the likes of Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe, who claims he is fighting against Western imperialism when resisting clean energy. Then he sells out our precious Wild Coast to Shell — one of the most rapacious Western imperialist corporations.

The uprising against Shell provides us with a moment to reckon with the broader corrupted politics of fossil fuel corporations and politicians who are hijacking our future for their own profit. Let us boycott Shell, and then use that momentum to end the fossil fuel era altogether. Let us build in its place a society that is more just, equitable, and powered by renewable energy. DM

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All Comments 12

  • I have seldom read a more polemical, brainless article. “Shell — one of the most rapacious Western imperialist corporations.” “Let us boycott Shell, and then use that momentum to end the fossil fuel era altogether. Let us build in its place a society that is more just, equitable, and powered by renewable energy.” Did he type this on a computer, using electricity, or did he use a quill pen?

  • The article is spot on. The only important factor not mentioned is the investment houses. Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Barclays, BNP, etc. and the fossil fuel states like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Australia, US and Canada collude to ensure short term profit for long term damage. They fund misinformation through captured media organisations and bogus academic research. As they tide of public opinion inevitably turns against them, they now engage in ambiguity by simultaneously funding niche renewable energy projects (look how responsible we are!) while continuing the development of new fossil fuel resources. Ultimately, we the public need to make the financial services companies accountable.

  • You have your priorities wrong – the damage caused by a seismic survey is unproven and probably minimal. Soekor and other companies have for many years conducted thousands of kms of seismic surveys (without protest) all around our coast – from northern KZN to the mouth of the Orange river, and yet, the dolphins, wales and other marine life are still with us. Also, why has the present group of activists not fought Total when it drilled the Brulpadda prospect (discovered through seismic surveying) off the southern coast?

    The real cause to fight for in this day and age is against all fossil fuels and, in this country, the continued use of coal. The author does point this out, but it’s a matter of priorities – in my view the biggest evil has to be fought first. When last did you go and see how Mpumalanga has been devastated – the open coal mines, the hundreds of trucks on the road, the sulphur in the air, the water pollution, the destroyed livelihoods of ordinary people??? What are the activists doing about this?? Or have you given up on this because there is no publicity to be gained, no “precious Wild Coast” to defend? Perhaps you are just riding on emotion and being not willing to take on the grind of fighting the coal industry? Perhaps it’s time to think about the priorities…

    • I don’t think you’ll find any disagreement on the need to fight big coal, Wilhelm. And if you do a little more digging, you’ll find the activists are doing quite a lot – try Googling the #cancelcoal campaign, for starters.

      Re Soekor, the fact that seismic surveys have been happening for decades does not prove there has been no damage. This is an emerging area of science.

  • Oil and gas are not just used for petrol and diesel for transport but the entire $3.9 trillion pa petrochemical industry uses oil and gas as a feedstock. A battery-electric vehicle is 20% polymer by weight. Its not as simple as the author suggests

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