Royal Dutch Shell Group .com

The Independent: Shell's whodunnit script is worthy of fiction


By Jeremy Warner

20 April 2004


"I am becoming sick and tired about lying" ... "we are heading towards a watershed reputational disaster" ... "the market can only be fooled if the credibility of the company is high. Unfortunately, we are struggling on all key criteria".


It is hard to imagine a greater sense of impending disaster than that communicated in a series of increasingly panic stricken e-mails and memos by Walter van de Vijver, Shell's former head of exploration and production, to his chairman, Sir Philip Watts, and the rest of the Shell management committee as the enormity of the crisis facing one of the world's most admired companies began to sink home.


Nor is it easy to imagine a more damning indictment or demonisation of the former chairman than the one contained in yesterday's internal report into the affair. At one point, Mr van de Vijver is instructed by Sir Philip, with evident menace "to leave no stone unturned" and "include consideration of all ways and means to achieve a 100 per cent reserve renewal ratio", even though Mr van de Vijver was already complaining bitterly about the appalling legacy of overbooked reserves he had been left by Sir Philip, his predecessor as head of exploration and development.


What makes this stranger than fiction report more remarkable still is that what we've had only the sanitised version so far. Large parts of it have been exorcised on the instructions of regulators, so there is presumably worse to come. You simply couldn't have made it up. Some quick minded soul will already be devising a movie script around it. The single, part time former Shell employee who Sir Philip put in charge of auditing Shell's internal reserves estimates, expresses the view that he should have been more forceful in insisting that the company comply with Securities & Exchange Commission rules, but this would probably have cost him his job.


What emerges is cover-up, delusion and management intrigue on a grand scale. Sir Philip is considered to have secured the job of chairman because there was a perception within the group and in the stock market that he had been highly successful while head of exploration and production, in part because of his ability to meet and exceed reserve expectations. As we now know, that perception was built on sand.


Mr van de Vijver is meanwhile depicted as a sulky, brooding presence, unable for reasons of internal politics and because he himself hoped one day to become chairman, fully to stick the knife into his all powerful boss. When he complains that the history of over booked reserves made it impossible to perform the "miracles" expected of him, this is seen by the management committee as more of a case of sniping at his chairman, sour grapes and management failure, than the gigantic regulatory nightmare it was about to become.


Mr van de Vijver began warning of the problem of overbooked reserves the moment he got into the job, but at all points he seems a half hearted whistle blower, who for some reason is unable wholly to shop his autocratic boss. Bizarrely, Mr van de Vijver was for public consumption still going along with Sir Philip's version of events as late as February's press conference, when the discovery of the overreserving was attributed to "catalytic" reviews in 2003. As we now know, the problem had been known about for at least two years previously.


In one of his memos, Mr van de Vijver describes the company as "caught in a box", by which he meant that external perceptions of the company were so far adrift of the reality that it made it hard to admit the truth. The management committee, on the other hand, knew the truth as early as July 2002, when minutes record a recognition of the fact that the debooking of reserves could not be delayed indefinitely.


The internal report expresses the view that the "caught in a box" dilemma had been transmitted to the management committee in "a careful fashion so as not to compromise/undermine the previous leadership". The severity or magnitude of the reserving issues may therefore not have been fully appreciated. This is a nice way of excusing other executives, and explaining their failure to act but, even assuming its veracity, it looks indicative of management almost wholly asleep at the wheel.


Why didn't Mr van de Vijver, or anyone else for that matter, alert the non executives when the problems first became apparent? There are more loose ends here than a bowl of spaghetti. The movie surely won't allow such self-evident riddles in the plot to go unexplained.


Shell is already being described as Britain's Enron, which isn't quite correct, because damaged and crisis-torn though the company might be, bust it ain't. Nor is it even in danger of losing investment grade. None the less, the repercussions will echo for years to come.


To judge by yesterday's report, both Sir Philip and the company face years of debilitating civil and possibly even criminal prosecutions. At every level, the company's management controls have been found lacking. Just as worrying, Shell hasn't been replacing its reserves as quickly as it's been depleting them, which is rather what the trouble shooting business of big oil is meant to be all about. The watershed reputational damage that Mr van de Vijver warned of has come to pass. Nobody can any longer be sure of Shell.

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