Ever buy petrol? What you should know about SA oil companies

So just who do you or I, typical South African drivers, give several hundred rands to each month? Well, Engen and Total are linked to human rights abuses in Burma, likewise Caltex/Chevron with additional interests in dodging climate change issues. In 1990, while it was placing ads in the then Weekly Mail & Guardian extolling the virtues of human rights and democracy, Shell had its very own, apparently forgotten Sharpeville, in Nigeria; there it continues to do huge environmental damage. BP (which may be the least of all evils) has been linked to military repression in Colombia. Overall, it’s really not a very pretty picture. I wonder how many of us give as much money to worthy causes as we do these companies? (I know I haven’t.)


Shell oil flare in Nigeria. Pic: Creative Commons, Flickr user we-make-money-not-art
  • Caltex is owned by the US oil company Chevron. “Our lives demand oil,” Chevron says in a recently launched ad campaign. Like most oil companies, Chevron is putting out lots of lovely-sounding statements about climate change. But Chevron opposes the Kyoto Protocols and is resisting attempts by some of its shareholders to get it to “Adopt Goals and Report on Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. Chevron has been implicated in human rights abuses in Nigeria and the massacre of Nigerian villagers and has ties to the Burmese junta (it is the only major US corporation still doing business there); its subidiary Unocal has been linked to incidents of rape, summary execution, torture, forced labour and forced migration in Burma. Global Exchange has listed Chevron as one of the “Most Wanted” corporate human rights violators.

    Monks protest in Burma in September 2007. Chevron and Total continue to stream profits to the Burmese military regime. Pic: Creative Commons, by Flickr user racoles

    Environment: Chevron has been linked to environmental destruction and poisoning of communities from California to the Amazon. Chevron has been sued by Nigerian communities for gas flaring which contributes enormously to global warming and has exposed Nigerian communities to terrible pollution. In South Africa, Chevron’s Caltex refinery in Milnerton, Cape Town, has aroused numerous complaints from residents that it causes pollution and health problems.

  • Engen’s dominant shareholder is the state-owned Malaysian company Petronas, which has substantial investments in Burma and Sudan, where Human Rights Watch concludes that “CNPC and Petronas operations … have been complicit in human rights violations. Their activities are inextricably intertwined with the [Sudanese] government’s abuses; the abuses are gross; the corporate presence fuels, facilitates or benefits from violations.” Human Rights Watch further says, “Petronas has a record of conducting its business in and with countries with extremely bad human rights records, including China, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam.”

    Environment: The Petronas website, so far as I can see, offers no evidence that the company is in the slightest bit concerned about or even aware of the problem of global warming.

  • Total, like Chevron/Caltex has been responsible for appalling levels of gas flaring in Nigeria. Total’s operations in Burma have been described by Sir Geoffrey Chandler, the founder-chair of Amnesty International’s UK Business Group as “in the worst tradition of corporate irresponsibility. Its presence provides economic support for the regime; its silence in the face of human rights abuses implies acquiescence and gives moral support to their continuance.” Total’s response is that “a forced withdrawal would only lead to our replacement by other operators probably less committed to the ethical principles guiding all our initiatives”. But leading Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi does not have any doubts about the effects of Total’s presence: “Total has become the main supporter of the Burmese military regime.”

    Environment: Total has a renewable fuels programme and says that it “actively support[s] efforts to help the European Union meet its Kyoto Protocol targets. We have implemented near and long-term programs and participate in the development of innovative technologies, such as CO2 capture and geological sequestration.” I was unable to find an independent assessment of Total’s non-oil activities.

  • Shell, like Chevron (Caltex) and Total has been sued by Nigerian communities for gas flaring. In April 2006, Shell was ordered by a Nigerian court to stop the flaring – but it plans to continue until 2009. It is appealing a $1.5 billion fine for polluting the Niger delta. Shell loves to claim that it helped end apartheid, but its continuation of nasty practices elsewhere suggest it is more devoted to convincing public relations than to human rights. In 1990, Shell had its own Sharpeville: at Umuechem in 1990, a Shell manager requested Mobile Police (a notoriously abusive force) protection; that force killed eighty unarmed civilians and destroyed hundreds of homes. Shell is being sued in a US court by relatives of murdered Nigerian Ogoni activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa. The plaintiffs argue the company’s complicity not only in decades of environmental destruction, but in systematic human rights abuses. Shell admits extending limited funding to the Nigerian military. Shell abuses in Ogoniland did not end with Saro-Wiwa’s death. Celebrated Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka has said that “[Western consumers] must understand that what fuels their industry is really the blood of other people.”

    Environment: Shell does now acknowledge the problem of global warming and invests significantly in alternative energy; activists dismiss its efforts as being largely greenwash.

  • BP’s human rights record, apparently better than that of other oil companies, is still far from perfect: in July 2006, the company reached a settlement with a group of Colombian farmers after the company had been accused of “benefiting from a regime of terror carried out by Colombian government paramilitaries to protect a 450-mile pipeline”. BP extracts natural gas from Tanguh in West Papua, a territory illegally annexed by Indonesia and now struggling under a notorious military occupation.
    //www.flickr.com/photos/monkeyc
    BP refinery in Australia. Pic: Creative Commons, Flickr user monkeyc.

    Environment: BP South Africa’s Environment and Society page elaborates on worthy commitments like support for the Paraffin Safety Association but offers next to no information about alternative energy or transportation. Go to their international page, however, and a solar energy programme receives top billing. The disparity suggests BP’s commitments to going “beyond petroleum” receive attention only according to the pubic relations demands of different markets: since South Africans aren’t too bothered by global warming, BP South Africa is none too bothered either. Like Shell, BP was until 2002 a member of the Global Climate Coalition, an association of corporations which opposed mandatory action to reduce global warming. But BP does now acknowledge global warming, and in February 2007 announced plans to spend $8 billion on alternative energy. In 2005, an explosion at BP’s Texas City oil refinery killed 15 people; in March 2006, the company was responsible for the second-biggest-ever oil spill in Alaska; in 2007, BP announced plans to pollute Lake Michigan, having procured an exemption from the Clean Water Act. The Chicago Sun-Times responded by calling on Chicago residents to boycott BP. BP is investigating hydrogen fuel technology which might be a good thing but appears to me to be a technological route designed to fail/fail; why is BP investing in this technology when electric vehicles (battery-powered) are three to four times more energy efficient?

  • Conclusion: At present, from both a human rights perspective and a responsible energy-use perspective, and despite its multiple failings, holding your nose and filling up at BP appears, by a narrow margin, to be the least of the various evils facing concerned South African consumers purchasing petrol. Why not cut back on car usage? Cut back on aviation fuel – take the train. Think about getting an electric bicycle.

    About David

    I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
    This entry was posted in Going greener, Human rights. Bookmark the permalink.

    One Response to Ever buy petrol? What you should know about SA oil companies

    1. Michael says:

      A good consumer guide. Be good to see it published.

      Your comments on hydrogen fuel and energy efficiency are a bit off the mark though. Efficiency is just one measure, and energy density is probably more important. Less energy may be lost in conversion in batteries but it’s just as wasteful if all that energy is used to transport heavy batteries around.

      Plus, the articles you link to ignore the fact that unlike conventional fuels, hydrogen can be produced using multiple sources of energy, not just fossil fuels. I’m not saying hydrogen is the answer, but we’ll only find out through companies such as BP investing in it.

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