When the new chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, Andrew Mackenzie, on Friday asked shareholders to vote to move the headquarters of the world oil giant from the Netherlands to Britain and to abandon the “Royal Dutch”, he also called the return of the business to the home.
In a story better suited to fairy tales than to financial pages, Shell was born from a small shell shop in London’s East End. In the 1830s, a Jewish trinket seller named Marcus Samuel began importing tropical seashells from the Far East. Her shop sold “small seashells for ladies’ work” as well as large shiny specimens such as conchs and nautiluses for drawing still lifes.
Samuel’s idea of ââmaking boxes decorated with seashells for sale at seaside resorts made the family’s first fortune. He mass-produced the souvenirs and sold them to stores with the tags “A Gift from Brighton”, “A Gift from Margate”, etc. Similar shell boxes are ubiquitous in beach shops today, from Brighton in the UK to the Outer Banks in the US.
In the next generation, Samuel’s sons, still surrounded by seashells in the curio shop, began shipping kerosene to their father’s former business partners in the East. In 1892, they defeated John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil to build the first tanker capable of transporting bulk oil through the Suez Canal. They named their new transport company Shell after their father. They named this first tanker the Murex – for a marine mollusk that builds a shell adorned with spikes.
After the Murex successfully transported 4,000 tonnes of Russian kerosene through the Suez Canal in the fall, the company launched 10 more tankers. All were named after seashells: Conch, Clam, Elax, Bullmouth, Volute, Turbo, Trocas, Spondilus, Nerite and Cowrie. The tradition continued after Shell’s merger with Royal Dutch Petroleum in 1907. Today, Royal Dutch Shell is on its fifth Murex, a 100,000-ton tanker that transports liquefied natural gas across the seas of the world.
Live murex did not proliferate in the same way. Earlier this year, scientists studying marine molluscs – the shy, spongy animals that build the sea’s extraordinary seashells – discovered the world’s worst climate-induced loss of marine life to date in the Mediterranean Sea. Along the coast of Israel, not far from where Shell’s first SS Murex entered the Suez Canal in 1892, researchers found that mollusc populations in the shallow water had collapsed from nearly 90% in recent decades, unable to tolerate the warming of the oceans caused by transported fossil fuels. in these holds.
Principal investigator Paolo G. Albano, principal scientist at the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station in Italy, uses empty shells to understand changes in the distribution of species over time. The heat, he says, has been “catastrophic” for the native shellfish. He found this especially true for one genre: murex. The animals that gave the name to Shell’s first tanker were historically so abundant that they survived centuries of harvesting by the Phoenicians, who crushed them for the famous purple dye used in royal clothing. The region’s murex remained common until a few decades ago, says Albano. But they couldn’t survive the ocean temperatures off the Israeli coast, which have risen by 3 degrees Celsius in three decades.
What worries Albano most is seeing such common animals die long before the world reaches the planetary limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius commonly cited as the goal of avoiding catastrophic warming. âWhat we’re seeing didn’t happen with 1.5 degrees,â Albano told me. “It happened with a lot less.”
Shell’s oil and gas companies are not big enough to contain the irony. In announcing the downsizing of the business, Mackenzie underscored the need to “accelerate Shell’s transition to a net zero emissions energy business.” Moving its headquarters from The Hague to London will also allow Shell to avoid Dutch taxes – which are higher than Britain’s – and growing tensions with Dutch authorities and climate change activists. In May, a Dutch court ruled in a landmark case that the company must deepen reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to align with the 1.5-degree target. (Shell says it must follow that ruling regardless of its tax residency.) This fall, ABP, the Netherlands’ largest public pension fund, purged Shell and other fossil fuel companies from its portfolio.
The restructuring could help Murex vessels to continue sailing in the future. There is no such insurance for living murex, or any other life that depends on the seas.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Cynthia Barnett is the most recent author of “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans”. She is an environmental journalist in residence at the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.