Blog / May 20, 2014

Do investors know what Shell is up to?

Business people sometimes think we campaigners are a bit naïve. Our lofty ideals should be accommodated as far as possible, but business is business. We need to be realistic about how the world works.

Well, we are idealistic. But that doesn’t mean our arguments don’t make business sense.

Take what Shell has been up to in Nigeria.

In 2011 Shell and the Italian company Eni agreed to make a payment of US$1.1 billion to acquire an oil concession from the Nigerian government. At the same time, the Nigerian Government agreed to pay precisely the same amount to Malabu Oil & Gas, a company known to be controlled by Dan Etete, a former Nigerian oil minister and convicted money launderer.

Details of the US$1.1 billion payment only came to light by chance through court cases in New York and London that focused on a different aspect of the oil deal. The New York court judgement and subsequent statements by the Nigerian Attorney General suggest that Shell and Eni must have been aware that the money would ultimately be transferred to the company controlled by the former oil minister.

This case raises such big corruption questions that the deal is being investigated by authorities in the UKItaly and Nigeria.

What is Shell up to?

The Nigerian House of Representatives called for the deal to be cancelled, saying that it “ceded away our national interest”.  They condemned Shell’s lack of transparency and described the deal as “contrary to the laws of Nigeria.”*

Is this good for business?

Shell’s AGM is today. Do investors think it’s good for business to be dealing with crooked politicians? Is it good for business relations – in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality – if Nigerian citizens watch as billion dollars are diverted from the public purse and into the hands of an ex minister? Is it good for business to keep the details of these sorts of payments secret? Is it good for business for Shell to risk losing such a valuable asset and potentially billions of dollars’ worth of future production?

There’s a way to stop this happening.

Over the past few years, Global Witness and others have campaigned for laws to make these deals wholly visible to the public. That way, people can see who pays, how much they pay, and where the money goes. Initially people laughed at us – we weren’t being realistic. But gradually the consensus has swung, and now there are laws in the EUand the US to make sure companies declare the payments they make for oil and gas deals.

This is really promising not least because companies are getting behind it alongside governments. The only problem is that a group of big oil companies keep trotting out the same rhetoric to try and block the laws, or weaken them to the point of uselessness.

This is starting to feel like a Groundhog Day of bankrupt arguments repeated by an ever dwindling group of oil companies. But this group is shrinking – with giants like Statoil now pushing for transparency.  Others like Tullow Oilare disclosing even before the requirements kick-in.  But a stubborn group of nay-sayers continue to resist, despite publicly claiming to support the shift towards transparency.

Shell is foremost amongst the blockers, and seems determined to protect the status quo. While the laws were being proposed in the EU, its lobbyists were hard at work behind the scenes, pushing for changes that would result in the kind of payments they made in Nigeria remaining hidden.

Even after 96% of MEPs voted last June for the law, Shell made further doomed attempts to introduce amendments. They failed – but Shell has a way of finding fresh ears for old arguments.

In the US, they’re pushing to prevent disclosure of payments made under individual contracts.  A 6 year run-up to the passage of a law saw full-blown congressional and regulatory consultation, and generated bi-partisan political support. But implementation of the law is on hold after the American Petroleum Institute sued the US regulator (the Securities and Exchange Commission) on behalf of Shell and others. This led to a court ruling in June last year that further holds up an already delayed implementation.

And in the UK, despite the fact that the EU directive is hard law and is being championed internationally by the Prime Minister, Shell continues pushing to slow down its implementation. Thankfully, EU member states have no leeway to change the directive, contrary to what Shell and other oil companies are saying. But we expect oil lobbyists to continue pushing for delays.

Shell and its partners need to face facts. The world has recognised that secret payments are bad for business. They are fighting to keep payments for deals like OPL 245 hidden – with much needed money funnelling out of poor countries and chunks of their business at risk.

Their desperation to keep fighting a losing battle begs questions about what Shell and its partners in the counter-reformation have to hide?

With so much at stake, Shell should say exactly what they knew about where the money for OPL 245 was going, and should stop lobbying to try to weaken laws in the US that require these sorts of payments to be made public.

*On 18 February 2014 the Nigerian House of Representatives voted on the recommendation of an investigation into the deal, calling for the deal’s cancellation and criticised the deal for being contrary to the laws of Nigeria, committing the country to unacceptable indemnities and liabilities while acting as an obligor, ceding away the Nigerian national interest and censured and reprimanded Shell and Eni’s subsidiaries for their actions; House of Representatives Federal Government of Nigeria, Votes and Proceedings, 18 February 2014, p994.

Photo: Flickr/O.F.E.