ENGLAND: Shareholders Vent Anger Over Shell Scandal

Publisher Name: 
Guardian

Shell, the embattled Anglo-Dutch oil giant, today suffered further humiliation when 40% of Dutch investors voted against a routine resolution.

The vote, which is essentially an expression of confidence in the management, is usually a formality for Dutch firms, making a disapproval rate of 40% the latest blow to hit the group.

Following the debacle over Shell's overstatement of oil and gas reserves, shareholders at the Royal Dutch arm of the company rejected the resolution. It had asked shareholders to agree that the managing directors and the supervisory board of the firm "be discharged of responsibility in respect of their management for the year 2003".

Shareholders at a twin annual general meeting (AGM) in London also vented their anger at the company, with a 10% vote against the group's executive remuneration package.

As far as investors were concerned, insult was last week added to injury when Shell disclosed that Sir Philip Watts, its disgraced chairman, had received a £1 million pay-off despite his sacking in March for his part in the reserves scandal.

At the London AGM, the new Shell chairman, Ron Oxburgh, distanced himself and his colleagues from the trio of top executives who have been sacked - his predecessor, Sir Philip, Judy Boynton, the finance director, and Walter van de Vijver, head of exploration and production.

"There was no cover-up. The first time non-executive directors were aware of the problem was early January," Lord Oxburgh said.

"When some of the executive directors were as economical with the truth as they were ... it's very difficult to see how it [the scandal] could have come to light sooner on the information they had."

Earlier, the group's chief executive expressed a mea culpa for the company's disastrous last few months.

"These recent months have felt simply dreadful," Jeroen van der Veer told shareholders. "I agree that such a crisis should never have happened. But it has, and I sincerely regret this."

Shell has been in turmoil since January, when it shocked investors by slashing its reserves by a fifth. The overbookings, and subsequent evidence that the problem had been kept secret for months, infuriated shareholders, who have called for changes in the company's structure.

Investors want clearer reporting lines and a simpler structure at the world's third-largest oil firm. A full merger of the Royal Dutch Petroleum with London-based Shell Transport and Trading is among the options under consideration, although no decision on such changes will be taken until November.

At present, Royal Dutch holds 60% of the operating company, while Shell Transport holds 40%. Executives from each are not easily accountable to the boards of the other.

As well as complaints about its structure, Shell has also come under fire from environmental groups for failing to live up to its "green" image in places such as the Niger delta in Nigeria and Texas in the US.

"Not only has Shell been overstating its oil reserves, it has exaggerated its social and environmental performance, too," said Friends of the Earth executive director Tony Juniper.

The environmental group is calling on the British government to introduce corporate accountability legislation to ensure that British companies take account of the negative impacts of their operations and can be held accountable by the communities they work alongside.

AMP Section Name:Energy
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