In the age of ESG – NGOs and big oil are the new unlikely bedfellows

It is safe to say that NGOs and multi-nationals have never seen eye to eye. When it comes to international oil companies, particularly those who operate in emerging markets, the relationship between the two can easily be described as acrimonious and often outright hostile.

Campaigns are regularly framed as a David Vs. Goliath battle, often presenting the NGO as the underdog fighting for the just cause against the greedy corporations looking to cash-in.

Historically, this may well have been the case, however, both sides have come a long way since the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The big multi-nationals, now find themselves under increased corporate scrutiny with a marked shift towards credible and impactful ESG and CSR policies. Sustainability has become a key influence in the employment sector alongside ethics, with the emphasis on employers to demonstrate their socio-economic credentials to attract the best talent entering the workforce.

In recent years, some NGOs have become increasingly politicised, and several prominent groups have found themselves at the centre of controversy when their campaigns and protests have gone too far to the point where their actions are not reflective of the good intentions at the heart of their cause.

From barricading oil refineries, to running highly-charged misinformation campaigns, environmental NGOs in particular, are often criticised as being too militant, reacting more for the sake of spectacle and failing to look at the bigger picture. Just last week, Greenpeace found themselves in the headlines for all the wrong reasons when several spectators were hospitalised after a protestor lost control of his parachute as he flew into the stadium ahead of the France-Germany match for the Euro 2020 tournament. The slogan atop the campaigner’s parachute? ‘Kick out Oil’.

However, there are NGO campaigns that are less about the spectacle and have much more far-reaching and serious financial and legal implications. A landmark ruling by a Dutch court in May 2021, ordered that Shell must cut its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. The case, brought by Friends of the Earth’s Dutch Chapter, alongside Greenpeace and other groups, was the first of its kind in which a multi-national corporation has been held liable for its impact on the climate and opens the door to future lawsuits in several other jurisdictions, particularly in emerging markets where the involvement of oil companies has historically been much more contentious.

Another example where the actions of NGOs have caused significant long-term challenges to oil companies is Lundin Energy, who, alongside Petronas OMV and Sudapet, was named in a 2001 report by Christian Aid, accusing them of complicity in alleged war crimes in Southern Sudan during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, allegations all three companies have strongly refuted.

A full investigation by the EU at the time found no evidence of wrongdoing and determined that the allegations were found to be without merit. None of the three national authorities took further steps to investigate and the matter seemed to have settled. However, Human Rights Watch and the European Coalition on Oil in Sudan (ECOS) republished the allegations, which surprisingly prompted a new investigation into Lundin Energy by Swedish authorities that has played out for more than 10 years.

Yet, despite instances like those above, in recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of partnerships between ‘big oil’ and NGOs and other pressure groups, with some more surprising than others.

From partnerships like the WWF’s ‘Save the Polar Bear’ campaign with Coca-Cola to The Nature Conservatory’s collaborations with Boeing and Monsanto. As the business of NGOs has also become more corporatised, so too has their modus operandi, with some now even accepting corporate funding, such as The Nature Conservancy, who has accepted millions of dollars from BP and is currently working with the oil giant to “ensure their oil exploration efforts in the West are done sustainably.”

These partnerships reflect the significant change to the NGO business model, that no longer perceives these corporations as the enemy, but rather as allies who are best placed economically, politically, and socially, to pursue their objectives, particularly in complex jurisdictions where access to resources is not always straightforward or forthcoming. Such partnerships can help provide an NGO with direct access to government institutions and cut through bureaucratic red tape and the ability to get their messages to a much wider audience.

Today, we can clearly see the impact of climate change on the environment, and sustainability must now become a just as big a priority for oil companies as much as profit. Credible ESG policies are needed to secure the future of the planet’s resources and communities. Big oil companies have now woken-up to the reality that without natural resources, without the local communities, the well literally and figuratively runs dry. NGOs are increasingly aware of this and capitalising on the opportunity to join forces. Whether this is for genuine altruistic reasons, or because it fits in with more corporate objectives is open to interpretation, but for now, we are likely to see the two become increasingly familiar, albeit wary, bedfellows.