Caroline Dennett’s eye was caught by a placard with two stark words: “insiders wanted”. The safety consultant was watching a video of Extinction Rebellion climate protesters who had glued themselves inside Shell’s headquarters in April and were encouraging employees to jump ship to aid its cause.
This week Dennett, who runs the independent agency Clout, released a bombshell video severing ties with Shell after an 11-year business relationship. She emailed 1,400 Shell employees and accused the £177bn behemoth of causing “extreme harms” to the environment and having a “disregard for climate change risks”.
She believes Shell is failing to wind down its polluting fossil fuels business and urged its employees to “walk away while there’s still time”. She acknowledged that she was “privileged” in being able to make the choice to cut ties.
Speaking to the Guardian, she says support for her decision has flooded in from clients and people all over the world. Her cause may have been helped by the fact Shell has made outsized profits from the energy crisis, hitting its public image and fuelling calls for a windfall tax, which has now been introduced.
A lone troll told her: “You have taken the money and now you have run, you princess.”
Dennett’s mic drop video was the culmination of a growing sense of unease in working with the 115-year-old company. Her relationship with Shell began in the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster as the industry scrambled to tighten up safety procedures.
She studied the lessons from the Gulf of Mexico, and other tragedies, including poor handovers and pressure to take shortcuts. Clout then designed a bespoke survey for frontline workers, managers and contractors. Since then, her work has taken her to an old gas plant at Jumping Pound in Alberta, Canada, and to Qatar and Trinidad. Her in-depth studies question employees on safety processes, their training, resources and whether managers trust them to be given responsibility. She has completed several such large studies for Shell, as well as other clients in oil and gas and unconnected industries.
At the same time, Dennett had become increasingly engaged in climate activism. She has spent time addressing councils and schools around Dorset – she lives in Weymouth – leading debates and encouraging local action, such as installing solar panels on village halls.
“I’d find myself asking councils to take their money out of fossil fuels but then admitting I work in the industry and need to do this myself. We’re all hypocrites to some extent but this was starting to feel ridiculous,” she says.
“What’s clear from working with the frontline employees at Shell is that net zero is just not talked about internally. It simply never comes up where issues like safety and tensions with local communities do,” she says.
But is it fair to expect an oil-rig worker to be engaged in their employer’s overarching corporate strategy? “Yes. If it was embedded in the company you would be hearing it discussed all the time. They are experts in managing risk but are not managing the climate risk,” she says.
The strength of feeling about Shell’s impact on the environment was underscored the day after Dennett’s video was released. At the company’s annual shareholder meeting at Methodist Central Hall in London, Extinction Rebellion protesters banged drums and shouted: “Shell must fall” as people filed in.
Inside, protesters delayed the meeting by nearly three hours by shouting, and singing “we will stop you” to the tune of Queen’s 1977 hit We Will Rock You. The executive team sat still, stony faced, watching on while the chairman, Sir Andrew Mackenzie, tried to placate the protesters. “It was amazing. Singing at the board, you can’t get any more non-violent direct action than that,” Dennett says.
Her decision to snub Shell comes at a price – “around 60%-70% of my business”, she admits. There’s also the possibility of legal action from Shell.
It’s a business she built after an unlikely journey. She was born in Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales; her father fitted industrial piping and her mother worked in a leisure centre. After studying criminal justice and later marketing, she worked in social services, including a psychiatric hospital. Six years in the Netherlands followed, working first for a nascent satnav developer and then for the camera company Canon. She then worked for research agencies before setting up Clout.
So what would be the dream reaction to her very public display of dissent? “That Shell would wake up and use all of the skill, capital, the human power to genuinely transition. They were a pioneering company that had a vision. They do not have a vision now. It’s a take take take vision. All they can think of is to continue what they have been doing. To the executives, I say: take a look at yourself in the mirror.”
Shell said more than 75% of the £20bn to £25bn it intends to spend in the UK over the next decade is in low and zero carbon products and services. The company said: “We expect our energy transition spend to constitute 50% of our total spend by 2025.”