The Observer: Terrorism fears fail to sway Shell
The Anglo-Dutch oil giant is under pressure to close its Manila depot, writes Conal Walsh
Sunday February 15, 2004
Disappointing financial results, overstated reserves, calls for his resignation... so far, 2004 has not been a good year for Sir Philip Watts. So the last thing the Shell chairman needs is a major terrorist attack on his massive oil depot in downtown Manila.
That, though, is just the fear of local residents and politicians in the Philippines, who have served Shell with angry demands to shut the depot, one of Asia's biggest. Hundreds of thousands of people live close by in slum housing and shanty towns, and the plant is just half a mile away from the official residence of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the country's pro-American president.
But Shell is fighting the city government's attempts to close the plant - even though the Philippines has been on heightened terror alert ever since Fathur al-Ghozi, the notorious bomb-maker, died in a shootout last year. Al-Ghozi was a leading member of Jemaah Islam-iyah, the Islamic extremist group blamed for the Bali bombing.
Local campaigners are furious with Shell. 'If the Pandacan complex is targeted by terrorists, the devastation will be unimaginable,' said community representative Hope Tura. 'This is a heavily built-up, residential area. There's a high school right next to the depot, and a university campus. Shell has no business being here.'
But the Anglo-Dutch oil giant is unrepentant. In response to fears of terrorism, it is beefing up security and shutting down 28 oil tanks closest to the dwellings that border the depot. It has refused to close altogether, however, despite Manila city council's decision in 2001 to reclassify Pandacan as commercial rather than industrial land and order Shell out.
The company has gone to court to overturn Manila's decision, and the case is likely to be held up in the Filipino court system for years. Meanwhile, the plant can stay open.
For years, residents of Pandacan have cast a wary eye in the direction of the huge depot, which is owned jointly by Shell and two other oil firms, Caltex and Petron.
Environmentalists have long blamed the plant for local pollution. It supplies half of all the fuel consumed in the Philippines and has existed for nearly a century. But in that time Pandacan has grown into a densely populated slum neighbourhood.
Since 11 September, Arroyo has aligned herself closely with President Bush's 'war on terror', and the US has lent her troops to fight militants and separatists in the south-west of the country.
'In the current climate, Pandacan's residents may have to pay the price,' said Tura. 'As far as we are concerned, Shell is defying the government. Closing a few oil tanks is not good enough. We want the depot closed entirely.'
Friends of the Earth has also taken up the cause. 'It's scandalous that Shell is putting profits before the health and safety of the people of Pandacan,' said Craig Bennett of FOE's London office.
But Shell insists that a complete closure of the Pandacan depot is not necessary to safeguard local residents. A spokesperson said it had enlisted the mayor of Manila's backing for its compromise plan to scale back operations at the plant.