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The skeletons in Shell’s closet

Pasadena Star-News

Questions raised about Shell Energy’s desirability as Marin business partner

By Richard Halstead
Posted: 11/02/2009 06:38:50 PM PST

Critics are raising questions about Royal Dutch Shell and its subsidiary Shell Energy North America, which has the inside track this week to sign a contract with the Marin Energy Authority.

In March, Royal Dutch Shell, a multinational corporation based in The Hague, Netherlands, announced it was ending all new investment in wind, solar and hydrogen energy and would instead concentrate its remaining renewable energy investments on biofuels.

In June, the company agreed to pay $15.5 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged complicity in murder, torture and other human rights abuses by Nigeria’s former military government. In 1995, the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwawas was hanged by Nigeria’s military regime after protesting Shell’s environmental practices, including gas flaring and the destruction of mangroves to make way for pipelines.

“This business about the human rights record and environmental actions in Nigeria just drove me up the wall,” said Bill Rothman of Belvedere, who wrote a letter of protest to Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan, chairman of the authority’s board.

Rothman is just one of several Marin residents who have objected to doing business with Shell since the authority announced last month that the Houston-based company was leading a field of bidders and that it had entered into detailed contract negotiations with the authority.

The authority was formed last year to explore projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Chief among those projects would be the Marin Clean Energy initiative, which calls for the authority to compete with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. as a retailer of electricity in Marin. Eventually the authority intends to build and own its own renewable energy projects. Currently, however, the authority is selecting a wholesaler to sell it the electricity it will need over the next five years.

“Shell has a hideous human rights record. It has a very bad environmental record. Shell donated $1,182, 717 to try to defeat AB 32 in this state,” said Juliette Anthony of San Rafael, referring to the 2006 legislation that set greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals for 2020.

Phil Paisley of Ross said, “If your goal is to reduce your carbon footprint, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy renewables from somebody who is backing away from the renewables process.”

Paisley worries that if the Marin Energy Authority buys its renewable energy from Shell, it will simply be using renewable energy that some other customer would have purchased from Shell without causing any new renewable energy production to be added to the system.

“The net is probably not a gain for the Earth; maybe for Marin, but not for the planet,” Paisley said.

This is the same argument that PG&E spokesmen have been making in their presentations to local city councils.

McGlashan said, “This is a typical attempt by an opponent to mislead the public.” He said that while Royal Dutch Shell may have stopped investing in renewable energy, its subsidiary, Shell Energy North America, has not.

“They already have and are developing more renewable power in California than PG&E is,” McGlashan said. “What this line attempts to do is mislead people into thinking that Shell Energy North America is bailing on renewable energy. That is just patently false.”

McGlashan said PG&E has announced it will fail to meet the legal requirement for renewable energy use by investor-owned utilities in 2010.

“Shell is already going to meet it and potentially beat,” McGlashan said. He said that in North America, Shell is vigorously increasing its wind and solar procurement and development.

“In fact, they just sold off a gas-fired plant to PG&E,” he said. “So while PG&E is building and buying gas, Shell Energy North America is building and buying renewables.”

As for Shell’s besmirched human rights and environmental record, McGlashan said many energy companies, including PG&E, have skeletons in their closets.
In a case made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich,” PG&E paid $333 million in 1996 to settle a case accusing it of contaminating drinking water with hexavalent chromium in the Southern California town of Hinkley.

“All of these companies have bad track records, from PG&E to Shell to Chevron,” McGlashan said.

Dawn Weisz, interim director of the Marin Energy Authority, emphasized that Marin Clean Energy intends to move quickly to build its own renewable energy sources.

“This initial contract gets us started and allows us to greatly increase the amount of renewable energy people have access to, but that is not the end game,” Weisz said. “The end game is to shift to our own assets, and we’ll begin doing that in 2011.”

On Thursday night, the Marin Energy Authority board will vote on whether to approve a draft contract. The board could vote on a final contract by Feb. 4. Until a final contract is approved, the authority could still decide to substitute another energy supplier for Shell, Weisz said.

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at [email protected]

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