San Francisco progressives typically oppose corporate wrongdoers, but Supervisor John Avalos and others are urging the city to enter into an energy deal with the notorious Shell Oil Company. They see Shell as an “anybody but PG&E” partner for “CleanPowerSF, yet when it comes to corporate abuse of the environment, PG &E is not in Shell’s universe. Earlier this year, Shell’s Alaska drilling operation put pristine waters at risk so it could avoid taxes. This came after Shell sued the Sierra Club and other groups for opposing their drilling plans for Alaska’s Arctic Ocean.

But none of Shell’s outrages exceed its role in the murder of Nigeria’s heroic environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. This alone should unconditionally disqualify it from progressive support. Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) mounted an international campaign to prevent further environmental degradation of his homeland by a consortium of oil drillers led by Shell. He was arrested on trumped up charges, and at his trial two witnesses later said they were paid by Shell to give false testimony against him. Shell’s Nigerian government-ally quickly put Saro-Wiwa to death by hanging in 1995, with the company refusing to intervene to save his life. Nobody who heard Ken Saro-Wiwa will ever forget his courage and integrity, and San Francisco should not besmirch his legacy by contracting with Shell.


I was shocked to learn that San Francisco’s CleanPowerSF was considering aligning with one of the world’s worst corporations, Shell Oil. I hear progressives talking about the wrongs of PG&E, but they seem to need a refresher course on Shell’s environmental record.

The Heroism of Ken Saro-Wiwa

They can start with reading about the international campaign to save heroic activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who paid with his life for opposing Shell’s environmental degradation in Nigeria. Shell has never admitted its role or accepted any responsibility in Saro-Wiwa’s murder, but paid millions to settle lawsuits arising from his killing.

Here’s an excerpt from the website describing these lawsuits against Shell:

As the peaceful movement of the Ogoni grew, so did the Nigerian government’s and Shell’s brutal campaign against the Ogoni and MOSOP. In early 1993, Shell requested military support to build a pipeline through Ogoni. When plaintiff Karalolo Kogbara was crying over the resulting bulldozing of her crops, she was shot by Nigerian troops and lost an arm as a result. In a separate incident later that year, plaintiff Uebari N-nah was shot and killed by soldiers near a Shell flow station; the soldiers were requested by and later compensated by Shell.

Here is Ken Saro-Wiwa’s closing statement at the trial of the Ogoni 9:

The military dictatorship holds down oil-producing areas such as Ogoni by military decrees and the threat or actual use of physical violence so that Shell can wage its ecological war without hindrance… This cozy, if criminal, relationship was perceived to be rudely disrupted by the non-violent struggle of the Ogoni people under MOSOP. The allies decided to bloody the Ogoni in order to stop their example from spreading through the oil-rich Niger Delta.”

Any progressive supporting San Francisco partnering with Shell needs to explain why these atrocities should be ignored. And ask what Ken Saro-Wiwa would think of San Francisco aligning with his adversary.

The hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa is central to the larger story of Shell and other oil companies appropriating African resources, backing corrupt regimes, and contributing to the human misery so widely found on that continent. Shell could have the greatest clean energy program on the planet, but that would not make up for its outrageous abuse of human rights and its continuing environmental destruction across the globe.

But Shell’s “CleanPowerSF” program is “clean” in name only.

A Bad Environmental Deal

Joe Eskenazi in the SF Weekly recently exposed the fraud behind Shell’s claim it will provide San Francisco with “clean” power. It involves Shell’s reliance on an accounting strategy known as Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).

RECs are not clean power. That’s why Ed Harrington, former head of the San Francisco Public Utility Commission, opposed their use. Harrington said RECs are not "real green power."

According to the title of a 2009 article by UC Santa Cruz environmental professor Daniel Press, “Renewable energy certificates' are a feel-good scam.” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera challenged PG&E when it tried to sell RECs as green.

San Francisco progressives pride themselves on taking local actions that impact nationally. But San Francisco should not be known as the city that ignored Shell’s long and ongoing record of environmental destruction and human rights abuses for a “clean power” program that is a scam.

Instead, the city has a rare chance to tell Shell and the world that what the company did in Nigeria is not forgotten, and that progressive cities will not do business with Shell. San Francisco must move forward on clean energy, but it must do so with clean hands.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of BeyondChron. His new book is the just released, The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century. He is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century