Shell’s Troubled Relationship with the Truth

September 4th, 2008 by Phil Mattera

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell is facing accusations that it manipulated a supposedly independent environmental audit of a huge Russian oil and gas project in which it is involved. Nick Mathiason of the British newspaper The Observer reports that he obtained dozens of internal e-mails showing that Shell officials in London sought to influence the conclusions of a review of Sakhalin II being conducted by AEA Technology. The audit was used by financial institutions in making funding decisions about the $22 billion project.

The Observer quotes Doug Norlen of the group Pacific Environment as saying: “Shell stage-managed the whole process. They set the agenda, scheduled meetings and even participated in the editing of sections. I believe this to be a stark and vivid example of manipulation.” The Shell website contains a page on which it touts the favorable findings of the AEA report.

Pacific Environment, a non-profit advocacy organization based in San Francisco, has done pioneering environmental work on the Russian Far East and Siberia, collaborating with Russian activists who formed Sakhalin Environment Watch. The groups have been highly critical of the offshore Sakhalin II project because it threatens the survival of the world’s most endangered species of whales—Western Pacific Grays (photo). The campaign has pressured Shell and its partners to adopt stronger environmental protections or abandon the project.

The campaign became more complicated in late 2006, when Shell was forced by Russia to sell half of its holdings in the project at a bargain-basement price to Gazprom, which is publicly traded but controlled by the Russian government. This gave Gazprom a majority stake of 55 percent, with Shell’s interest reduced to 27.5 percent. The holdings of the other partners, Mitsui and Mitsubishi, were also slashed.

In its diminished position, Shell was even more vulnerable to attacks in the Russian and foreign press in mid-2007 after it was revealed that David Greer, the deputy chief executive of Sakhalin II, had sent out a motivational memo to his staff containing unattributed passages taken from a speech made by U.S. General George S. Patton on the eve of D-Day in 1944. Amid the ensuing furor over plagiarism, Greer resigned.

Shell’s integrity problems are not limited to Sakhalin II. In January 2004 the company admitted that had overstated its proven petroleum reserves by 20 percent. It later came out that that top executives at the company knew of the situation two years before it was publicly disclosed. Shell ended up paying penalties of about $150 million to U.S. and British authorities for the misreporting.

In his Observer article, Mathiason notes that environmental campaigners are worried that Shell’s behavior with the Sakhalin II report could be repeated in audits involving other projects such as its oil drilling leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Given the company’s troubled relationship with the truth, that concern is quite legitimate.

3 Responses to “Shell’s Troubled Relationship with the Truth”

  1. [...] year, there were reports that Shell had sought to influence the outcome of a purportedly independent environmental audit of [...]

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