Skip to main content

Shell Oil's multibillion dollar Arctic hoax

By Travis Nichols, Special to CNN
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Wed August 1, 2012
Greenpeace activists demonstrate in Helsinki as others occupy a Shell-contracted icebreaker preparing to sail for the Arctic.
Greenpeace activists demonstrate in Helsinki as others occupy a Shell-contracted icebreaker preparing to sail for the Arctic.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Travis Nichols: Shell Oil spoof website creators criticized for not saying site was fake
  • But, he writes, creators announced it was fake hours after it went up
  • Greenpeace, Yes Men wanted to point out unethical behavior of Shell Oil, he says
  • Nichols: Shell is exploiting the Arctic with dangerous drilling and trying to fool public

Editor's note: Travis Nichols is a polar and oceans media officer with Greenpeace USA.  He collaborated with the Yes Lab and Occupy Seattle on the ArcticReady.com website and the #shellFAIL video campaign.  He is the author of "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder" (Coffee House Press) and "See Me Improving" (Copper Canyon Press).

(CNN) -- A recent CNN.com op-ed asked "Was the Shell Oil hoax ethical?" We at Greenpeace, along with the activist group Yes Men, are behind the Shell Oil website ArcticReady.com, which we created to call attention to the company's Arctic destruction. So we were intrigued by this question.

The writer, Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, said the spoof website did not announce itself as a parody and that omission could be called misrepresentation. And that could possibly be called unethical. But we revealed our role just hours after the site went up, and the site is so over-the-top -- it has a kids' game called "Angry Bergs" -- that people realize very quickly that it is fake.

But mispresentation is Wolpe's concern, which is why he should have addressed the ethics of Shell's multibillion-dollar international hoax perpetrated on Earth itself. A hoax the company has failed to reveal to the public.

Royal Dutch Shell made $31 billion in profits last year, while its CEO took home $15 million in compensation during one of the worst economic crises in a century. The company's lobbyists in Washington, London and other global capitals work to slow the development of clean technologies and renewable energy, preferring instead a status quo that benefits their shareholders and leaves the massive costs of climate change to the 99%.

Travis Nichols
Travis Nichols

And yet Shell proudly advertises itself as a corporation deeply concerned with developing clean energy and ensuring a viable energy future, even going to great lengths to organize well-branded "eco-marathons" completely at odds with its relentless fossil fuel extraction.

In the Arctic, the oil giant is exploiting melting sea ice to drill for more of the oil causing global warming in the first place. All of this is happening despite clear evidence from the best scientists that global warming is already causing extreme weather events and it's only likely to get worse.

In the past few weeks, Shell's communications team has been busy trying to spin its way out of a series of recent crises, but it can't change the facts.

The Shell fleet's 14,000-ton drill ship in Alaska, the Discoverer, slipped anchor two weeks ago. The same drill ship can't meet the Clean Air Act standards the company agreed to earlier this year, and so Shell is asking the EPA to bend the rules at the 11th hour. An oil spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, which Shell promised the U.S. Coast Guard was "Arctic ready," is in Washington state, beset with technical problems.

The company plays down these events and seeks to reassure investors that these major errors are par for the course, but these systematic attempts to mislead the public are clearly unethical.

Shell has been relentlessly conducting its own PR campaign to distort the truth about what the company is doing in the Arctic. To get the truth out, we wanted to make a website that imagined a world in which Shell was a little less guarded about the implications of drilling for oil in Alaska. We asked ourselves: What if Shell really did ask people what they thought? What would that look like?

We came up with ArcticReady.com.

The response has been staggering -- nearly 4 million page views, 12,000 user-generated ads and a cascade of tweets. This reaction from the public shows Shell has serious problems in the court of public opinion, and that it ignores Arctic defenders at its peril.

By using the most popular form of contemporary communication -- social media -- to bypass Shell's billions, our supporters undermined the company's social license to operate and brought global attention to its greed and willful ignorance of science.

The site is a parody. And when people realize it's a parody, they like it even more.

We've announced it as a parody after it went up and over and over again in the media since then. We have an ad generator: We provide a gallery of photos and readers provide the captions. New ads keep pouring in. People clearly want an opportunity to tell Shell what they think of the company's Arctic drilling program, and our site has provided them with a voice.

It's also highlighted some of the major environmental issues with Arctic drilling that have been green-washed away.  For example, the U.S. granted Shell an "incidental harassment permit" allowing the company to work near whales and seals while drilling this summer, which could interfere with their breathing, breeding and nursing.  To put this issue forward, we created an online "Mercy Poll" in which users can vote for which Arctic mammal they'd like Shell to harass the least as a funny way to draw attention to these brutal facts.

But Shell and its sympathizers would like people to talk about Greenpeace and the Yes Men rather than what the company is doing in the Arctic. That's fine. We welcome the discussion. As Wolpe himself says, "Let's keep it clean, everyone -- tell us who you are, and then take your best shot."

We're Greenpeace and the Yes Men, and we're ready to sit down with Shell any time to debate the ethics of Arctic drilling.

Let's go.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Travis Nichols.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:17 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT