A capacity crowd packed into the RAJ to listen to Royal Dutch Shell Senior Manager Olav Ljosne speak on Thursday afternoon. The talk covered a range of topics, from the growing demand for energy to conflict and corruption around scarce resources. But before Ljonse spoke his first word, he was interrupted.
Jay Saper and Anna Shireman-Grabowski, members of the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee, Jay Saper, member of the DLWC, and Anna Shireman-Grabowski stood up in graduation robes and began speaking loudly over graduation music played from speakers in the back of the room. The two tried to present Ljosne with a fake honorary diploma. They stated that he, as an oil executive, embodied the values of the College as expressed in Middlebury’s investments in fossil fuels. They then proceeded to further decry his wrongdoing. Offered a handshake by Shireman-Grabowski, Ljosne politely shook his head. In his 25 years working for Shell, mostly in Nigeria, he had been protested before.
Once he had the podium, Ljosne began by thanking the protesters for the “special welcome” and rejecting the premise of their characterization. Ljosne focused much of his talk on the growing demand for energy and the dependence on oil and natural gas.
“Society is 100% dependent on these products. Like it or not. That is where we are and that is where we will be for many years ahead,” he said. Much of the world wants to consume more like the United States – and that part of the world is growing at a rapid rate. As an example of Western consumption, he asked Shireman-Grabowski if she used washing machines. She responded, “Not often.”
Shell Oil is involved in sustainable development, according to Ljosne. When Shell enters a country, the people expect it to bring revenues and jobs. This revenue, however, does not always make it to the people. “Corruption is one of the biggest issues the world is facing today,” Ljosne said. Ljosne also spoke on how Shell is pushing for increased transparency in governments, to better account for the distribution of oil money.
Some of his claims were even more controversial. He asserted that “[Shell is] not getting involved in any politics,” including in the U.S. One of the first audience questions asked, however, pointed out that Shell is currently fighting a Supreme Court case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. The case rests on the question of whether or not Shell can be held responsible in U.S. courts for potential human rights violations committed in Nigeria. Despite what many find to be a firm association between Shell and the Ogoni 9 tragedy in Nigeria, he rejected any responsibility for the Nigerian government’s actions. He also argued that Shell’s set of business principles ensure that Shell takes care of human rights.
When pressed on the tragedy, however, he showed a little humanity. When asked if Shell would have done anything differently, his face turned downwards. He said, “We have not done everything perfect, but we have had security challenges.”
He recognized the need for new energy sources but put much of the burden on not-yet-found technological advances. Shell has invested some money in renewable energy, mostly biofuel from sugarcane, but he does not see any current renewable option as a viable replacement for fossil fuels. Shell also now produces more natural gas than oil, which he argued is marginally better for the environment.
One notably salient question asked about the potential impact of many colleges divesting from fossil fuels. Ljonse did not know the financial details, but he said that the public discussion and attention could negatively impact the value of the companies.
At the tail end of the questions, the protesters interrupted again.
Sam Koplinka-Loehr and Amitai Ben-Abba spoke loudly from the back of the room on the “whitewashing” and “lies” of Ljosne and the failure of Shell to take responsibility for the tragedy in Nigeria, before they each flopped to the floor.
But the interruption was interrupted. An unrelated student turned in his seat and halted Ben-Abba’s speech. “You are the one embarrassing this school,” he said. A scattered portion of the room clapped forcefully and the questions continued.