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Shell Oil's multibillion dollar Arctic hoax

By Travis Nichols, Special to CNN
updated 2:01 PM EDT, Wed August 1, 2012
Greenpeace activists demonstrate in Helsinki as others occupy a Shell-contracted icebreaker preparing to sail for the Arctic.
Greenpeace activists demonstrate in Helsinki as others occupy a Shell-contracted icebreaker preparing to sail for the Arctic.
  • Travis Nichols: Shell Oil spoof website creators criticized for not saying site was fake
  • But, he writes, creators announced it was fake hours after it went up
  • Greenpeace, Yes Men wanted to point out unethical behavior of Shell Oil, he says
  • Nichols: Shell is exploiting the Arctic with dangerous drilling and trying to fool public

Editor's note: Travis Nichols is a polar and oceans media officer with Greenpeace USA.  He collaborated with the Yes Lab and Occupy Seattle on the website and the #shellFAIL video campaign.  He is the author of "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder" (Coffee House Press) and "See Me Improving" (Copper Canyon Press).

(CNN) -- A recent op-ed asked "Was the Shell Oil hoax ethical?" We at Greenpeace, along with the activist group Yes Men, are behind the Shell Oil website, which we created to call attention to the company's Arctic destruction. So we were intrigued by this question.

The writer, Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, said the spoof website did not announce itself as a parody and that omission could be called misrepresentation. And that could possibly be called unethical. But we revealed our role just hours after the site went up, and the site is so over-the-top -- it has a kids' game called "Angry Bergs" -- that people realize very quickly that it is fake.

But mispresentation is Wolpe's concern, which is why he should have addressed the ethics of Shell's multibillion-dollar international hoax perpetrated on Earth itself. A hoax the company has failed to reveal to the public.

Royal Dutch Shell made $31 billion in profits last year, while its CEO took home $15 million in compensation during one of the worst economic crises in a century. The company's lobbyists in Washington, London and other global capitals work to slow the development of clean technologies and renewable energy, preferring instead a status quo that benefits their shareholders and leaves the massive costs of climate change to the 99%.

Travis Nichols
Travis Nichols

And yet Shell proudly advertises itself as a corporation deeply concerned with developing clean energy and ensuring a viable energy future, even going to great lengths to organize well-branded "eco-marathons" completely at odds with its relentless fossil fuel extraction.

In the Arctic, the oil giant is exploiting melting sea ice to drill for more of the oil causing global warming in the first place. All of this is happening despite clear evidence from the best scientists that global warming is already causing extreme weather events and it's only likely to get worse.

In the past few weeks, Shell's communications team has been busy trying to spin its way out of a series of recent crises, but it can't change the facts.

The Shell fleet's 14,000-ton drill ship in Alaska, the Discoverer, slipped anchor two weeks ago. The same drill ship can't meet the Clean Air Act standards the company agreed to earlier this year, and so Shell is asking the EPA to bend the rules at the 11th hour. An oil spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, which Shell promised the U.S. Coast Guard was "Arctic ready," is in Washington state, beset with technical problems.

The company plays down these events and seeks to reassure investors that these major errors are par for the course, but these systematic attempts to mislead the public are clearly unethical.

Shell has been relentlessly conducting its own PR campaign to distort the truth about what the company is doing in the Arctic. To get the truth out, we wanted to make a website that imagined a world in which Shell was a little less guarded about the implications of drilling for oil in Alaska. We asked ourselves: What if Shell really did ask people what they thought? What would that look like?

We came up with

The response has been staggering -- nearly 4 million page views, 12,000 user-generated ads and a cascade of tweets. This reaction from the public shows Shell has serious problems in the court of public opinion, and that it ignores Arctic defenders at its peril.

By using the most popular form of contemporary communication -- social media -- to bypass Shell's billions, our supporters undermined the company's social license to operate and brought global attention to its greed and willful ignorance of science.

The site is a parody. And when people realize it's a parody, they like it even more.

We've announced it as a parody after it went up and over and over again in the media since then. We have an ad generator: We provide a gallery of photos and readers provide the captions. New ads keep pouring in. People clearly want an opportunity to tell Shell what they think of the company's Arctic drilling program, and our site has provided them with a voice.

It's also highlighted some of the major environmental issues with Arctic drilling that have been green-washed away.  For example, the U.S. granted Shell an "incidental harassment permit" allowing the company to work near whales and seals while drilling this summer, which could interfere with their breathing, breeding and nursing.  To put this issue forward, we created an online "Mercy Poll" in which users can vote for which Arctic mammal they'd like Shell to harass the least as a funny way to draw attention to these brutal facts.

But Shell and its sympathizers would like people to talk about Greenpeace and the Yes Men than what the company is doing in the Arctic. That's fine. We welcome the discussion. As Wolpe himself says, "Let's keep it clean, everyone -- tell us who you are, and then take your best shot."

We're Greenpeace and the Yes Men, and we're ready to sit down with Shell any time to debate the ethics of Arctic drilling.

Let's go.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Travis Nichols.

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