Oil company Shell have launched a viral video competition, giving budding directors a brief to create 90-second films "that challenge preconceptions that fossil fuels, especially natural gas, have no part in our future lives". The films are supposed to impress the point that "fossil fuels will still provide the majority of the energy we need beyond the middle of this century". The winner will receive $20,000 (£13,000), with seven other prizes of decreasing amounts. Which is pretty sweet – or would be, if they were willing to be straight up about what kind of fossil fuels they want to continue using.
The campaign is hyping Shell's relatively clean gas production, but in putting together a brief, one filmmaker was told that there's something he definitely shouldn't mention: Shell looking for new ways to get at Arctic oil – an incredibly dirty form of energy that environmentalists say would doom us all. Or, as Ellen Booth, a campaigner at Greenpeace, puts it: "A plan for launching us into full-scale catastrophic climate change at full speed."
The competition is being run via Zooppa's creative branded content community. Through the community, Shell is targeting millennials and, specifically, VICE readers. "Animation, humour, songs, entertainment, etc are encouraged!" the brief reads. "We are looking for compelling and creative content that could run on platforms like VICE." They want you to "watch and share" the video; to make it viral.
The purpose seems clear. "With a rapidly growing and increasingly prosperous population, the world is going to need a lot more energy than we use now, probably around 80 percent more by 2050 – with demand for electricity growing even more quickly." Shell reckons they have the answer: "Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel," they say. And they're certain we won't run out of it: "Shell are one of the largest energy companies in the world and, as such, will play a key part in the development of a sustainable energy future."
It sounds fair enough on the face of it. But one concerned filmmaker, Don Shades, was wondering if this could really be legit, and contacted Greenpeace to see what they made of it.
Shades got chatting to Ian Duff and his colleagues in the Arctic team at the environmental NGO, and together they decided to put together a pitch. They wanted to find out what Shell would make of a video that briefly mentioned Arctic oil – one of Shell's most controversial and environmentally unfriendly projects.
Duff and the filmmaker put together a storyboard – "We put on our middle-aged marketing men hats," Duff told me – and the result is pretty predictable; think Ikea advert set in a Hoxton nightclub. But they weren't planning on bagging the prize.
The storyline goes that some people are having a great time in a nightclub on New Year's Eve, and then the lights go out. Everyone groans. People step on tiles on a dance floor, which activates energy sources such as wind energy and gas, and the lights and music come back on. On the last page of the pitch, Duff points out their sting: "Final shot from above of dance floor tiles lighting up in line with the music, with details of the energy projects they represent: Qatar gas, offshore wind, Alaska oil, California solar."
Would Shell be up for a campaign about their place in our sustainable future mentioning their upcoming trip to the Arctic?
The feedback came through: "I met on Monday with the Shell team and we went through your storyboard," the email begins, from a guy at Zooppa. "You should NOT mention on your storyboard Arctic Oil – you can mention instead oil, gas, wind, nuclear energy."
The US Coast Guard rescuing crew members of Shell's Kulluk oil rig after a boat tugging it stalled in stormy waters in 2012.
What does Arctic oil entail? Later this year, Shell are set to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic. It's one of the most controversial and expensive projects that Shell are currently running to find new reserves for the future. "They're basically taking advantage of climate change melting the Arctic Ocean's ice to find new oil reserves," Ian Duff tells me. "But we can't afford to burn those reserves anyway if we want to stay within two degrees warming [the accepted level that Earth can warm before things really get catastrophic].
"It's an incredibly risky project," he continues, "because of the harsh environmental conditions, which means a large spill is actually odds-on over the lifetime of the wells. Currently, there's no way to clean up oil under ice." The US government estimates a 75 percent chance of at least one major spill over the lifetime of Arctic drilling.
Thanks to the remote location, the nearest rescue fleet is currently over 1,000 miles away. Then there's the fact that during the long, dark Arctic winter, responding to any kind of oil spill is near-enough impossible.
In a follow-up phone call to Shades, the Zooppa rep said that the direction to cut any mention of Arctic oil came directly from Shell.
"The only concern was that, on the last page of your storyboard, you mention Arctic oil. They loved the idea of the young, party environment, but they're just not OK with the Arctic oil," says the Zooppa rep. "It's a very sensitive subject, and Shell didn't want it to appear very clearly in the video."
A Shell spokesperson denied this: "We said in our brief that we wanted to get these films noticed by VICE, but we didn't expect it to happen this way. At no point was any direction given by Shell to our agency to advise entrants against mentioning the Arctic in their films. We've taken the agency outside and given it a stern talking to, and it is now absolutely clear on this."
Filmmaker Shades told me how unimpressed he was by hearing what the Zooppa rep said. "I really didn't agree with what they were trying to get me to do," he told me over the phone. "They want fake user-generated content supporting the notion that fossil fuels play an important part in our future, which is bollocks."
Duff felt the same. "What they're trying to do is present themselves as a clean energy company, using gas, which is cleaner than coal, and carbon capture and storage," he said. "They aren't prepared to talk about Arctic oil – it's the skeleton in the closet. It's a blemish on their reputation.
"Consider what it means for a modern company to invest in a project that won't even start producing oil – one of the dirtiest fossil fuels – until the late 2020s," Duff continued. "While everyone from NASA to the United Nations tells us that we cannot afford to burn the already discovered reserves of oil and gas, Shell is looking for the stuff that will tip us into the danger zone.
"To respond to a storyboard and make it clear they don't want any mention of Arctic oil, well, I'm surprised they had the balls to."
As far as Shell is concerned, this is all just a mix up. Their spokesperson continued: "Anyway, there's no censorship, no boundaries, other than the pretty basic ones set out in the brief, just a strong desire to get people thinking creatively about how to challenge preconceptions that fossil fuels, especially natural gas, have no part in our future energy lives, and how to communicate the reality of the future energy system. That system will include renewables, nuclear power and oil and gas, including from the Arctic, which is already a major source of energy."
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