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Shell is another country: they do things differently there

The Guardian

The oil giant handles budgets and projects of a size that would daunt nation states. The difference is that it need answer to no one … and it's running a huge surplus

What European leader would not want to swap places with Shell boss Peter Voser? He has just doubled the company's profits in the third quarter, amassed $30bn (£18.7bn) of cash over the last nine months and is now buying back shares at the rate of $800m every three months for want to anything better to do with the money.

Voser has the advantage of having everything to gain from higher energy prices. The social and political fallout from rising fuel poverty and mutinous motorists rarely touches the parallel universe that is Shell Centre in London.

Are there any Shell-shaped worries, then? Well, one of them – in a wider world of growing unemployment, of course – is concern about wage inflation. Shell frets that there is so much activity in the energy sector that it is having to fork out more and more to secure project managers and petroleum engineers.

Voser also has the advantage over the likes of embattled Greek premier George Papandreou in that he can switch spending from one country to another. Unsurprisingly, Shell has not much confidence in Europe: only 15% of
the company's investment is located this part of the world with 85% elsewhere – increasingly in high-growth Asia.

And how to deal with any worsening financial crisis in the eurozone? Well, the company has just sold its last UK refinery – Stanlow in Cheshire – and says it expects to further reduce its overall investment in Europe as time goes on. The bulk of Shell's $30bn per annum capital expenditure is going elsewhere – in North America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific.

Shell CEO Peter Voser
Peter Voser: monarch of all he surveys. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Also, unlike European political leaders, Voser does not have to worry about global warming or meeting carbon targets. Some of the company's cash is being pumped into dirty tar sands production in Canada – which is pleasing the Ottawa government if not making any new friends in the environmental movement.

But Shell is also bulking up an already world-leading position in the cleaner gas
market, particularly the liquefied natural gas sector.

And even oil companies do have to make some tough decisions. The cost
of investing in a big scheme – say the Pearl gas-to-liquids project in Qatar, for example – is more than the final bill for building the Channel Tunnel singlehanded. It is unlikely Voser would get away with letting the costs for that scheme double to £10bn, as happened with the rail link.

One oil analyst described Shell as "ticking like a Swiss watch". That might be true. But it also relies on $100-a-barrel oil prices – and if the sovereign debt crisis triggered a double-dip recession, we might hear the company squawking like a cuckoo clock.

Posted Date: 
28 October 2011