Caroline Dennett was in her eleventh year as an operational safety consultant working with oil giant Shell when she saw a news segment about a climate protest outside its UK headquarters. One protester, from the Extinction Rebellion group, carried a sign that read “Insiders want,” asking employees to call if they have something to say.
She did. On Monday, Dennett said it as publicly as possible — breaching her contract with the company in an email sent to Shell’s executive committee for its hypocrisy on climate change. In its resignation letter, it accused Shell of “failure on a massive planetary scale” noting that it “is not working to liquidate oil and gas, but plans to explore and extract more”.
Shell has promised net zero emissions in less than 30 years and is touting its support for climate action in press releases and advertisements. But the company continues to expand new drilling that all ensures that the world will exceed 2 degrees Celsius of warming.
Her resignation letter stated that “Shell operates outside the design limits of our planetary systems and does not implement steps to mitigate known risks. Shell does not put environmental safety before production.” The accompanying video was posted online:
Over the past decade, Dennett, who runs a small business of which Shell is its largest customer, has surveyed 20,000 employees across at least 65 projects around the world to find weaknesses in the company’s safety procedures. Her last assignment to Shell was to conduct a survey Two new projects are in the Niger Delta, an area particularly polluted for Nigeria’s oil operations.
Asked to comment on Dennett’s accusations, a Shell spokesperson replied, “There is no doubt that we are determined to implement our global strategy to be a net zero company by 2050 and thousands of our employees are working hard to make it happen.” “We are already investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, even though the world will still need oil and gas for decades to come in sectors that are not easily decarbonised,” the spokesperson added.
The oil industry’s role in climate change has led to some notable employment problems for the oil giants, and its contractors, including public relations agencies, are also under greater scrutiny. There is a growing number of people who refuse to work in the industry at all. Last year, an engineer from Exxon of 16 years quit due to the company’s inaction on climate change. Dennett’s email includes a plea for others to reconsider their role in working for the oil majors. “I am fortunate to be able to make this decision, and I realize that many people at Shell may not be in such a position. But the fossil fuel industry is a thing of the past, and if you have a choice to get out, please turn toward a more sustainable career, and help put us all together. On a path towards a truly safer future.”
Vox spoke to Dennett about her decision to resign publicly. The text of our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
What made you decide today to stop working with Shell?
I cannot continue to work for, with, or support a company that blindly ignores all alarm bells.
It’s a bit like if someone asked you to go and work in the tobacco industry. I have continued to work as long as I have because of the firm belief that while they are working, people should be safe. We need to prevent as many leaks as possible. We need to prevent as many major accidents as possible. But there comes a time when it’s time for divorce. I’ve reached a point where I can’t live with my conscience to continue supporting a company that blatantly doesn’t care what happens with the climate and the people it will harm.
But the work I did at Shell was valuable in terms of preventing harm to people and preventing oil and gas spills. I suppose I relieve myself that it is a trade off. By doing that, I’m helping him stay as safe as possible, while he’s running, but hopefully he’s about to transition and we’ll move toward more renewables and finish in terms of new exploration. Recently, it came to my knowledge that they are still building new oil and gas projects and are 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 is both economic and moral insanity to keep looking for new oil and gas and any new fossil fuels. The governments of the world say, no, you can’t extract any new oil and gas. I think it’s one thing to see a company safely transition to new energy, but it’s another thing to say that I still support new extractions.
I’ve surveyed a lot of oil and gas workers, from on-site operators to high-level executives. What does the company culture look like in relation to climate change?
It is a double talk. On the one hand, you know, Shell says, “We’re very focused on safety and we don’t want anyone to suffer any harm.” However, we are harming millions of people by continuing to extract oil and gas due to the carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.
It’s an industry that’s usually very focused on mitigating risks, but it doesn’t mitigate any of the risks of climate change.
Our surveys provide plenty of opportunities for people to provide open feedback in surveys and in online surveys. They can write something they feel needs improvement. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything about climate change. Maybe there’s something about, you know, the lack of pollution locally and the risks around that, around the operating sites. But it’s amazing that no one is really talking about it. I would say recently that someone mentioned a net zero goal by 2050. But that’s one person in 11 years, talking to over 20,000 people, and that’s pretty amazing.
She lives in press releases and on the website, but she doesn’t live in [company] the culture.
What kind of response do you hope to see from Shell?
I would like them to commit not to look for more oil and gas reserves for exploitation anywhere in the world. We have to move away from fossil fuels if we want any kind of livable future for all. The oil and gas industry knows the science: there is good evidence, they have created the science around this. What I would like to see is Shell using its capital, manpower, skills and great pioneering capabilities that brought us oil and gas 150 years ago to rapidly advance towards a renewable future.
They once had a vision of what a good future could look like, and they thought it was oil and gas. We know it can’t give us a secure future anymore.
I would really like the CEOs of Shell and the board to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they really believe that their vision of further expansion and extraction of oil and gas really secures a future for humanity.
What kind of role can contractors and consulting firms play in pressuring fossil fuel companies to change?
It’s very difficult to ask people to walk away, and I feel a little uncomfortable even suggesting to people that they might want to do so. Because if you’re 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 of getting an exit plan from Shell unless it goes to another fossil fuel company. So it is up to those who created the problem in the first place to solve it.
What kind of job does that leave for a company like Shell when the big companies cut ties?
with the coming [annual general meeting] Next week, they’re looking to get some validation on their current climate policies and strategies. It might not be very cool.
Those who still wield influence should be very clear about the question of the future. And I think those who have less impact but still have money out there need to get it out.
It must be kind of starving the fossil fuel industry because only, in the end, their profit streak is what will make them see that there is an alternative. This is the thing that frustrates me. I don’t understand why companies like Shell haven’t shifted their capital, technical and human power to a greener vision of the future.
Update May 23 12:30 PM: The story has been updated with comments from Shell.