“Social license to operate” is one of the life-bloods of brands. Reportedly coined by Canadian mining CEO James Cooney in 1997 after a disaster, the concept is basically how much the public is willing to embrace (or at least put up with) how an industry operates.
If it evaporates, an industry’s business model can shrivel overnight. There’s perhaps no clearer sign of the oil industry’s currently unraveling business model of destroying the planet for profit than Shell gets its ass dragged straight to hell on Monday after trying to start an #energydebate on Twitter.
The oil giant decided to poll its 551,000 Twitter followers about what they were willing to do to reduce carbon pollution as part of some weird #energydebate. The frame of the poll was completely around personal choices, which has long been a deflection tactic of the oil industry to avoid scrutiny of its operating model. (Fun fact: The personal carbon footprint was an idea popularized by BP.)
In Shell’s case, its poll caused thousands of angry responses to bloom. My personal favorite was walking directions from the company’s Hague headquarters to the International Criminal Court (only 21 minutes!). But the tie that binds many together is accountability for decades of deception and destruction. Writing in Hot Take, Mary Heglar (who led a good chunk of the charge to give Shell some helpful suggestions) and Amy Westervelt said, “this was one of the most hopeful moments of 2020, and we’re grateful it came on the eve of the election.”
And I have to agree. As they note, this was a clear sign of the oil industry’s social license disappearing.
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Here are some facts about Shell. The company’s own scientists warned about its role in driving the climate crisis dating to at least the 1980s, and yet it plowed full steam ahead playing that role. Its actions since 1988 are responsible for 2% of all global emissions. It is the second-biggest investor-owned source of emissions in the world over that time, trailing only Exxon. Shell is also the seventh-biggest contributor to ocean acidification since 1880. This is a company that has never deserved the social license to operate, but as the impacts of the climate crisis have become clearer, it’s become even more constrained.
In a follow-up to its doomed poll, Shell tweeted: “Changing the energy system requires everyone to play their part. ... As for our part, we said last week that Shell will reshape its portfolio of assets and products to meet the cleaner energy needs of its customers in the coming decades.”
As you may have guessed, a report published earlier this year by Oil Change International found that Shell along with every major oil company that’s put forward a climate plan is failing. In Shell’s case, its efforts were found to be “grossly insufficient” in eight of 10 categories included in the analysis. (It was simply “insufficient” in the other two categories.) The only companies doing less are Chevron and Exxon. Many oil companies were struggling even before the pandemic, but the economic slowdown has increased pressure on them and made clear why we need to be talking about protecting workers on the fossil fuel frontlines.
That’s not what Big Oil is doing, though. The plans, just like the tweets, are a ploy to buy companies like Shell more time to continue extracting maximum value for shareholders at the expense of the planet, workers, and the future. But if the response, growing anti-fossil fuel public opinion, and a growing number of lawsuits is any indication, time and niceties are running out.