What job does Vince Cable want? Chancellor? Foreign secretary? Prime minister? It's the question everyone has been asking at this year's Liberal Democrat conference. However, documents obtained by Corporate Watch and revealed in The Huffington Post today show that it's Dr Cable's current role as 'Minister for Shell' that should be under question.
In a letter to Cable dated 19 March 2012, Malcolm Brinded, (who was, at that time, chief executive of Shell Upstream International), stated Vince's role as "contact Minister for Shell" is one he "wholeheartedly supports". The letter, released under the Freedom of Information Act (albeit heavily redacted), then goes on to outline how the oil giant would like the government to act regarding the European Fuel Quality Directive (FQD), a policy initiative aimed at reducing emissions from transport fuels. The government had abstained from supporting the FQD and Brinded, despite his company's supposed concern over climate change, was disgruntled. He tells Cable of the need for "a shift in the current UK position of neutrality/abstention to a clear vote against", adding "we judge it particularly important that a change in position is reached and communicated to other member states well ahead of time to maximize the chances of encouraging others in the same direction." A key feature of the FQD is a requirement for transport fuel suppliers to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of the fuels they supply by 6% by 2020. The UK government has recently stated that it will not impose a greenhouse gas reduction obligation on suppliers at this point.
Should we be surprised? The revelation compounds recent concerns over Shell's access to UK government officials. In August the Guardian described a Shell 'schmoozathon', revealing how the energy giant hosted a two day training course attended by officials across ten different government departments.
It is also not the first time questions have been raised about Dr Cable's close relationship with Shell. He joined the company in 1990 as an enthusiastic number-cruncher, becoming the company's chief economist from 1995 to 1997. During this period the company allegedly paid and supported the Nigerian military to commit international crimes. In 1995 the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the southern Nigerian Ogoni ethnic group were executed by the Sani Abacha military government. This was after a waves of state-sponsored violence in the south of the country. In 2011, relatives of the assassinated Ogoni 9, as they became known, began legal proceedings against Shell, accusing the company of collaborating in the murders. Shell agreed an out-of-court settlement in which they paid the victims' families $15.5m, rather then face a New York federal court.
Vince Cable has remained quiet about his time at Shell and denies any knowledge of the company's alleged links to the assassinations. However, as many have commented, it beggars belief that senior Shell officials, including Cable as chief economist, would not have been aware of Nigerian military activities in the Niger Delta.
Last month, the oil watchdog Platform revealed how Shell's funding of armed militant groups in Nigeria has continued in recent years and grown to a vast scale. In 2009, during the height of insurgency in the region, Shell paid $65m to government forces and a further $75m in "other" unexplained security costs.
Shell, the second largest company in the world by revenue, is also famous for having one of the worst environmental records on the planet. Shell was formerly a member of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a group that heavily lobbied governments and mounted persuasive advertising campaigns in the US to turn public opinion against concrete action on climate change. In 1998, following BP's lead, the company decided that such brazen lobbying was proving too costly for the company's reputation and left the coalition. It put a great deal of effort into greening its image and shifted to less overt forms of lobbying through institutions such as the Centre for European Policy Studies and the American Petroleum Institute.
Shell's 'greenwashing' wasn't entirely successful, the company has been rebuked by the UK Advertising Standard's Agency over misleading the public, including one advert suggesting its Canadian tar sands project was "sustainable" and another stating "We use our waste CO2 to grow flowers."
One of the company's current objectives is to expand its operations in the Arctic. The huge lobbying effort that has accompanied these ambitions has also attracted criticism. In May this year, the New York Times revealed how Shell had spent $4 billion on a seven year campaign to gain access to the region's oil reserves, intensively lobbying governments and bribing the local indigenous Eskimo population by funding colleges, village festivals and whaling equipment.
Shell's planned operations in the Arctic have outraged environmental campaigners who accuse the company of using the melting sea ice, itself an impact of climate change, to gain access to further fossil fuel reserves, resulting in the release of even more greenhouse gases. They have also warned about the dangers involved in Arctic drilling, saying that a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon spill would devastate the pristine Arctic environment and delicate ecosystems. Thankfully last week Shell's Arctic ambitions suffered a serious blow after a series of safety issues meant it was unable to to secure a permit to undertake full drilling operations, forcing a delay until after the Arctic winter.
With Shell's disgraceful record on human rights and the environment it's no wonder the company wants its own minister (or perhaps even chancellor), and delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference may be questioning where Cables' loyalties lie.