Shell, Texaco, and the Bonds of Oily Wedlock


You'd think that a merger of two oil giants giving the new partners a 15 percent armlock on the domestic fuel market would arouse some public comment, if not outrage and obloquy. In the old days members of Congress--particularly those from the Northeast and Midwest--would be turning out furious press releases and invoking the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but thus far... nothing. Back in 1973, the year the U.S. Senate almost voted to break up the oil industry, Rep. John Dingell from Michigan held a hearing on the topic of "White Collar Crime in the Oil Industry." Those were more turbulent days. No politician uses that kind of language now.

Shell Oil and Texaco, among the largest oil companies on the planet, are now well along in an engagement that is to be finalized with marriage vows sometime next year. Scheduled for merger are the U.S. refining and marketing operations of the two companies. When it comes to selling gasoline, the new entity will be the largest company in the U.S.

Thus far no one in any position of regulatory oversight has seen fit to raise a bleat, which is all the more surprising given the fact that earlier this year gas prices suddenly shot up amid much head-scratching on the TV new shows and in newsrooms across the country. The real reason, of course, was never even hinted at: The big oil companies were simply doing what came natural to them--fixing prices. The merger of Shell and Texaco will only increase the frequency of similar "inexplicable" increases in the future.

The only cautionary note sounded by the Clinton administration came from Deputy Energy Secretary Charles Curtis. Last week he addressed oil company executives at the annual confab of the American Petroleum Institute. Curtis wagged the most deferential of fingers. "Domestic energy prices have grown brittle, with troubling results," Curtis said politely. "Investors and consumers don't like surprises, but that's what they're getting. Public confidence in the free market erodes when prices suddenly increase. Too much volatility will create demand for political solutions that are short-sighted and ill-conceived."

Far more agitated than Curtis are employees of Shell. They have told company executives that they fear the merger may well bring unwelcome Texaco policies, in the form of discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, such as those that recently cost the company $176 million in a settlement of a class action suit. During the suit, lawyers for the plaintiffs released a secret tape recording made by a vice president of Texaco in which executives of the company referred to black employees as "porch monkeys," "orangutans," and "Aunt Jemimas."

Shell's vice president, Jim Morgan, responded to these fears with a letter to Shell employees sent on November 21. "I want to assure you that we have no intention of entering into any relationship that is not based on high ethical standards and the utmost respect for individuals," Morgan wrote. "Compatibility in values and standards of integrity between two parties considering entering into a relationship are critically important."

Noble sentiments indeed, albeit somewhat undercut by some unwholesome chapters in Shell's treatment of its own black employees. Shell is now facing two class action suits alleging that the company discriminates against African Americans. No black employee in the company's retail marketing division has ever made it into Shell's senior or executive ranks. In the entire history of Shell Oil USA, only two African Americans have ever been promoted to senior management in any part of the company.

As at Texaco, black employees who have confronted management about the apparent impossibility of rising up Shell's corporate ladder have been met with contemptuous rebuffs. One of the most honored Shell employees is a black engineer named Jimmy Hunter, a Shell man since 1979. He's twice been given Shell's top company honor, the Laurel Society Award. But the expected promotions never followed. When Hunter questioned his supervisor, he says he was told, "I don't know why you still have shackles around your ankles."

Another plaintiff in the class action suit against Shell is Sharon Ambeaux. She developed a sales and marketing program called "Crazy Days." The program was a huge success. But Ambeaux remained mired at a near entry level pay grade after 17 years of service.

Vociferous in denunciations of Texaco has been Jesse Jackson. When the infamous Texaco Company tapes first surfaced, with racist remarks by Texaco executives played on Ted Koppel's Nightline, Jackson called for a boycott of the company and asked drivers to cut up their Texaco credit cards. Then he warned of a nationwide stock divestiture campaign if Texaco did not change its ways.

No such fulminations have come from Jackson in the case of Shell. The reason may have to do with one of the foulest chapters in Shell's history: its role in the destruction of Ogoni tribal lands in Nigeria, and in the execution of the premier Ogoni political activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight of his colleagues. Exactly a year ago Saro-Wiwa and his friends went to the gallows, not long after Royal Dutch Shell (parent to the American subsidiary) warned the Nigerian government that Ogoni protests over its environmentally destructive drilling practices and tribal demands for a share of the billions in past oil revenues must be quelled; otherwise Shell would pull out of Nigeria altogether.

In the weeks after Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots were sentenced to death, the international campaign fighting for their lives implored Shell to take a public stand. Shell did nothing, thus signaling the Nigerian dictatorship run by General Sani Abacha that it was safe to proceed.

Right after the execution, Randall Robinson of TransAfrica sent a letter to Bill Clinton calling for fierce U.S. sanctions against Nigeria. The U.S. buys nearly half of Nigeria's oil exports (oil revenues provide 80 percent of the nation's budget) and could thus cripple the regime if it led an oil embargo. But the administration responded with only token sanctions, involving delays in some arms sales and a scolding of the country's diplomats.

Senator Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Representative Donald Payne of New Jersey denounced this as inadequate and introduced a bill in Congress calling for a full embargo. The administration was horrified. "There's plenty of oil [available on world markets]," said one U.S. government official in an off-the-record talk. "But there's only so much Bonney Light." He was referring to Nigeria's coveted sweet crude oil, which is extremely pure and economical to refine.

At this moment, pressure from Jackson would have counted for something. But he remained silent. His fellow Chicagoans, Senator Carole Moseley-Braun and Louis Farrakhan, went off to Nigeria under the supervision of U.S. lobbyists retained by General Abacha for more than $10 million. One of the key firms hired by the Nigerian regime was Symms, Lehn and Associates, headed by former Idaho senator Steve Symms. Another key player was Shell's lobbyist Tommy Hale Boggs, brother of news diva Cokie Roberts and a Clinton golfing pal. Using a PR strategy developed by these firms, Nigeria began a nationwide advertising blitz that included full-page ads in The New York Times implying that Saro-Wiwa was a terrorist and that the environmental problems of oil drilling in Nigeria had been cured.

Meanwhile, Moseley-Braun and Farrakhan returned from their Nigerian "fact-finding" mission saying that an embargo would be premature and counterproductive. Moseley-Braun testified in the Senate against the embargo bill, and told colleagues (falsely, it turns out) that the Congressional Black Caucus was evenly split on the issue. Randall Robinson then revealed that he personally had rejected an attempted bribe of $1 million by Abacha's operatives to change his position. "Oil money makes a huge difference," he said, "because it puts spunk in the spine of your enemy."

An unpublicized part of the anti-embargo campaign was the intense lobbying effort by American oil companies, including Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, and Texaco, which are planning a $4 billion natural gas project in Nigeria. As a result of all these pressures, the Kassebaum/Payne bill never even got out of committee. This came as a disappointment but not a surprise to Ken Saro-Wiwa's brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa, who has recently filed a multi-million dollar suit against Shell, charging it with crimes against the environment and human rights. "The evil alliance between Shell and the military dictatorship could only have been broken by an international embargo," Wiwa said. "Oil is the only thing that keeps the regime in power." Today, 18 other Ogoni activists await execution for their efforts to drive Shell Oil Company from their homeland. The Clinton administration remains silent.

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