Caroline Dennett: Big Oil’s disregard for climate and people

“I can no longer work for a company that ignores all the alarms and dismisses the risks of climate change and ecological collapse.”

For eleven years, Caroline Dennett worked as a safety consultant for Shell. In the wake of the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies rushed to protect themselves from risk exposure. In this clamber, Shell hired Caroline Dennett’s research company to conduct studies on Shell’s safety performance. Her work explored the technical, environmental, and human aspects of Shell’s work.

Dennett’s safety surveys were used in production zones around the world. When she was asked to redevelop them for the Niger Delta, she realized Shell intended to commence at least seven or eight new extraction or expansion projects there. Disturbed by the irreparable damage and destruction that had already been wrought on the region, Dennett decided then and there that this would be the last time she worked with Shell.

So too driving Dennett’s decision was the human aspect. She found it unjust that citizens of one of the biggest producers of oil and gas in the world did not benefit from the country’s resources. Nigeria exported its product; only 12 percent of homes in the country even had clean cooking facilities. The industry exploited the population and environment to “turn the lights on in the West.”

In May 2022, Dennett withdrew her services entirely and publicly. She emailed the Executive Committee and 1,400 employees. Then she posted a video on LinkedIn where she accused Shell of acting with disregard to the risks of climate change and causing “extreme harm” to the environment.

A year after her public announcement, Dennett again publicly took the floor at Shell’s Annual General Meeting. She disclosed findings from a 2021 survey that had been deliberately ignored by Shell’s management. The survey collected responses from 30-40 percent of Shell’s operational workforce in Nigeria. The workers reported a “catalog of production pressures, short-cuts, budget restraints, unsafe manpower levels, poor maintenance regimes, including overdue maintenance on safety critical equipment”. They criticized the “second-class treatment of Contractors who go unpaid for months, unable to feed themselves and their families.” 

Condemning returns on investments from Shell as “blood money,” she appealed to investors to stop funding the company. She called on the chief executives and board of directors to “commit the necessary finances and resources to prevent harm to workers and the communities” and to safeguard the Niger Delta environment and ecosystems. In response, CEO Wael Sawan stated that Shell planned to withdraw from onshore oil in Nigeria. To Shell, the “risk-reward” ratio was no longer tolerable. Dennett denounced this announcement, accusing Shell of walking away after wreaking “Armageddon” on the region.

Dennett’s story is one of bravery, because she spoke publicly. But she is not the only professional who has left the oil and gas industry disenchanted; a growing number of people have walked away from the oil and gas industry for climate reasons. In her 2022 video, she addresses those who remain: “the fossil fuel industry, it’s the past, and if you can find a way out, then please walk away while there’s still time. Do it now.”