Polar Bears Can Go to Shell

By Tooker Gomberg, Toronto, Canada.

A millennial challenge to Shell to reconsider its recently-announced $4.9 billion tar sands project and to invest in solar and wind power, and energy-efficiency instead.

I had a bizarre fantasy the other day. Mark Moody-Stuart nose to nose with a polar bear drifting on an ice floe, floating in the Arctic. They aren’t talking, but the bear clearly isn’t happy.

Mr. Moody-Stuart is the top dog at Shell, the multinational oil company. The polar bears are in trouble.

As the oil is pumped out of the ground, mostly to be burned in cars, the climate is heating up. Already the worldwide average temperature has warmed by 0.6 C degrees. But that average masks the extreme warming taking place in the north.

In the past four decades, Arctic sea ice thickness has shrunk by an astounding 40%. And the polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, face starvation as the ice they rely upon to go hunting in Hudson Bay melts three weeks earlier than it did just a few years ago.

These days, the polar bears are not the only ones on thin ice. Shell talks a green line about the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, mainly caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. Three months ago Moody-Stuart said: “Shell has made a clear commitment to Kyoto and we will deliver on it.”

Shell has said it will invest in “prudent precautionary measures” to combat climate change. Moody-Stuart has committed Shell to moving away from carbon-intensive sources of energy like coal. Shell has gone so far as to state that the future is in renewable energy: sun, wind, and biogas. The company has promised to spend $750 million for renewables over the next 5 years.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, Shell has devastated the Ogoni people and their land while carting away billions of dollars worth of oil. Further south, Shell was once a target for anti-apartheid activism; today Shell earns praise from Nelson Mandela for its efforts to solarize South African villages. Shell aims to help 50,000 village homes make the transition off of petroleum products (kerosene) and on to solar power for lighting. Kudos.

With all the good words, how could Shell Canada announce last month that it would build a $4.9 billion project to strip mine tar sands, the oil and sand mixture found in northern Alberta, and refine the tar sands into synthetic oil? South Africa gets solar panels. Canada gets huge swaths of boreal forest strip mined away. What’s left is a legacy of toxic emissions going into the air and artificial ponds full of noxious tailings. And if Shell gets away with it, another $25 billion in tar sands projects are poised to move forward.

Here’s where the ice gets thin for Moody-Stuart. To produce a barrel of synthetic crude oil from tar sand puts considerably more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than producing a barrel of conventional oil (or than building a wind farm). Shell expects their tar sands project to pump out 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, not counting the additional CO2 exhausted from tailpipes once it’s burned in cars and trucks.

Two years ago, in Kyoto, Japan, Canada committed to the world that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6% by 2012 as compared to 1990 levels. In December, a progress report was released; Canada has failed miserably. Our emissions have instead increased by 13%!

If Shell proceeds with its tar sands project, emissions will continue shooting skyward, and weather will get wonkier. We’re all on the proverbial melting ice flow with the polar bear. The more we destabilize the climate the thinner the ice gets, and the more dangerous things become.

Shell is fully aware of the viable alternatives. A 1998 study by the oil company concluded that solar and other renewable energy sources could meet half the world’s energy needs within fifty years.

KPMG recently released a report (Solar Energy: From Perennial Promise to Competitive Alternative ) commissioned by Greenpeace. It concluded that when a large scale factory is built to manufacture solar electric panels the price will drop dramatically thanks to mass production. The price of getting electricity from the sun will become as cheap as buying dirtier electricity from your local electrical utility. A solar revolution will ensue. Such a plant could be built for $900 million.

Shell claims to be a good corporate citizen, concerned about social and environmental values. Instead of spending $4.9 billion to strip mine and destroy the boreal ecology, and pump millions of additional tonnes of greenhouse gases into the finite atmosphere each year, Shell could leave a priceless and profitable millennial gift to the earth. They could build the solar factory, or two, and a few wind turbine factories, and show the world that they believe it’s worth saving.

Or, they could continue with business as usual, and face a firestorm of opposition. The choice is theirs. The polar bears are watching.