Apart from catastrophic spills like the Deepwater Horizon, there are a whole host of adverse impacts that are associated with the production of oil. On the local level, it often involves extreme forms of pollution for local communities, while regionally oil is frequently associated with greater militarization and conﬂict. Globally, carbon emissions, oil companies, and our collective dependence on the product they push, are taking us ever closer to the edge of climate catastrophe.
In order for an oil company to produce oil and transport it to the global market, it needs either the support or the silence of the population in those areas of the world in which this takes place. Where the necessary support - or ‘social licence to operate’ - is not forthcoming, the ability of that company to carry out its business becomes seriously impaired.
The building of this social licence takes place to some extent in the countries of the distant oilﬁelds, but to a far greater degree in the cities of the global North, such as London, one of the companies’ key centres of operation. Here, Shell and BP have between them sponsored almost all of London’s most prestigious museums and cultural institutions over the course of the last decade.
The ﬁnancial support that the companies provide strengthens their position as a part of Britain’s cultural and social elite, and creates a perception of making a positive contribution to our society. This in turn not only provides them with an important proﬁle with ordinary fuel customers, but far more importantly strengthens connections between the corporations and vital bodies such as government departments. The support of institutions such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Ofﬁce, or the Department of International Development, are far more important to the global operations of Shell and BP than that of the populations near the oilﬁelds or on the pipeline routes. These relationships are made at the gala openings and concerts, where the audiences made up of civil servants and decision makers rub shoulders with the oil executives.
A decade ago, tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions to gain support from – the current BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery was previously sponsored by Imperial Tobacco. Now it is socially unacceptable for tobacco to play this public role, and it is our hope that oil and gas will soon be seen in the same light, as the public comes to recognise that the sponsorship programmes of BP and Shell are means by which attention is distracted from their impacts on human rights, the environment and the global climate.
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