Saturday, January 26, 2008

Running out of oil ?

We'll begin to run out of oil in 7 years, says Shell

Plus ça change! When I was in The Netherlands in the early 1980s I sat on the Energy commission of the Ministry of Economics as Shell’s representative. There was much debate at the time over the high levels of profits that Shell was making from its (part) ownership of the Groningen gas reserves. Part of Shell’s defence of these profits was that the reserves were finite, that much investment had been made upfront, and that, therefore, it was legitimate for the company to get a good level of financial return. The key variable in this argument was the extent of the reserves. Obviously Shell’s argument to be allowed to secure high levels of return on capital was boosted if the reserves were estimated at a lower level - the higher the actual reserves then the longer they would last and the longer that Shell’s profit streams would last as well. Shell’s reservoir engineers and others assessed the Groningen reserves at a particular level and published their estimates. Shortly after this the then Professor of Energy Studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Peter Odell, went public saying that Shell and other oil majors consistently underestimated hydrocarbon reserves. His argument, as I recall it, was that insufficient attention was given by Shell to future scientific and technology advances that would allow difficult reserves to be tapped or would turn uneconomic reserves into viable ones.

Given Shell’s more recent propensity to over-estimate rather than under-estimate reserves the Groningen story is somewhat ironic! However the substantive point of Odell’s argument remains valid and he was certainly proved right over Groningen where Shell’s estimates of the early 1980s have proved to be huge under-estimates. Odell knew that it was in Shell’s interests to preach a pessimistic credo about Groningen – and it is in Shell’s interests to continue to be pessimistic about reserves at a global level. Why? The main reason is the same as it was back in the 1980s – the wish on the part of the Oil majors to avoid the imposition of windfall profits taxes. The three largest oil companies (Exxon, Shell and BP) made nearly $60billion in profits over the last year between them (Shell $18.2billion). With oil continuing to be priced at around $90 these levels of profits are pretty much assured for the foreseeable future. Shell argues that it is up to governments to support diversification away from traditional energy and is looking for subsidies to develop its Renewables activities - again this argument is reinforced with a doom and gloom scenario over reserves in relation to increased demand. Similarly Shell has a huge potential profit stream from the development of its oil sands projects – especially in Canada. These projects are controversial for environmental reasons but permissions to proceed can be expected to be easier to obtain if legislators are worried about future energy supply security.

History teaches us that man has an almost infinite capacity to innovate – not least where hydrocarbon production is concerned. High oil prices are a driver of innovation and this, when combined with the certainty of increased global oil demand and the near-certainty that energy use throughout the 21st century will continue to be dominated by hydrocarbons means that we can expect the spur for innovation to be high and the technology effects on production to be considerable, if unpredictable. But to suggest that “We’ll begin to run out of oil within 7 years” as the Shell-inspired Daily Express headline suggests is nonsense and alarmist. Calculated self-interest is at play here and nobody should be fooled by it.

© Paddy Briggs January 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008

Making it green and keep them clean

Comment on article in The Guardian:

This is a timely article, and of course the ASA was right to castigate Shell for its particular lie about CO2 and flowers. But really this was just a trivial little porky pie in the context of the mendacity of much of the oil giant’s corporate adverting in recent times. Shell is not alone in this of course, but there is a special offence given when the facts of the company’s business – facts which are open for all to see – are glossed over and instead we are subject to a barrage of greenwash on a daily basis.

Having worked for Shell for 37 years I know what the business imperatives are – and I wouldn’t have stayed so long if I didn’t think that these imperatives were perfectly honourable. It shouldn’t need saying but here is a précis of what those imperatives are. Around 99% of Shell’s efforts are focused on the search for, and the discovery, harvesting, transporting, processing and marketing of oil and gas - hydrocarbons from that diminishing stock of geological formations under the ground. That’s what Shell does, what drives their profits and what they are, in the main, very good at. It is fantasy to suggest that that there is any other strategy than the continuation of this business – this is the business! Now Shell likes to operate cost-effectively so there is a bias to ensure that waste is reduced as much as possible – but only if it makes economic sense – not because there is a spurious corporate conscience. So flaring (for example) is reduced primarily because it is waste of assets. But where the costs of reducing flaring exceed the benefits then it doesn’t happen – unless legislation says that it must. Technically Shell could have eliminated flaring in Nigeria years ago – but the cost/benefit analysis didn’t give the right numbers. So they dragged their feet.

Let’s look at processing – for example in refineries. The imperative to reduce waste is an economic one – efficient refineries are those which do not waste fuel. So reducing the amount of energy needed to refine a tonne of crude oil is primarily an economic issue. Shell does avoid waste because it believes that it is environmentally irresponsible not to do so. It does so because the bottom line benefits.

Finally the old chestnut of “Renewables”. I and others have argued for a while that Shell is only in non-traditional energy such as solar and wind for the PR benefits that accrue. There is some simplistic communications strategy going on that says that if your advertising focuses (say) 80% on something that is in reality less than 1% of your business the public will be fooled. But as David Ogilvy once said the public is not a fool – she is your wife!

Not all bad news

Whilst much of Shell’s advertising is like the CO2 flower example direly misleading there is hope. The “Eureka campaign” (see: I thought was excellent because it told the truth.

Shell should stop posing as some sort of environmentally virtuous benefactor to the world and concentrate (as it did in “Eureka”) in telling the truth about what it does. Then it might be more believed on other things as well.

© Paddy Briggs January 2008

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The phoney hype from Shell on Scenarios

The phoney hype from Shell on Scenarios

And so another Shell CEO is to be feted at Davos as he presents the oil giant’s latest “scenarios” – the hype being , of course, that these scenarios shows the company’s intellectual edge in planning and decision-making. Having been involved in Scenario planning from time to time during my Shell career I can see this phoney exercise for what it is – pompous and self-aggrandising PR which has little or no benefit to any of Shell stakeholders.

Here is what the Wikipedia entry on Shell’s use of Scenario planning says:

“Observers of Shell's use of scenario planning have suggested that few if any significant long term business advantages accrued to Shell from the use of scenario methodology. Whilst the intellectual robustness of Shell's long term scenarios was seldom in doubt their actual practical use was seen as being minimal by many senior Shell executives. A Shell insider has commented "The scenario team were bright and their work was of a very high intellectual level. However neither the high level "Group scenarios" nor the country level scenarios produced with operating companies really made much difference when key decisions were being taken". The use of scenarios was audited … in the early 1980s and they found that the decision making processes following the scenarios were the primary cause of the lack of strategic implementation, rather than the scenarios themselves.”

In my experience this is a very accurate description of what really went on and I have no reason to assume that it is any different today. I worked as part of a small team in Rotterdam on long term scenarios for The Netherlands in the early 1980s. It was very interesting work, intellectually stimulating and directed by very clever people. Over a year or so we created three scenarios (internally consistent possible futures) for The Netherlands each of which addressed economic, social and energy developments over 20 years. The scenarios were launched with much panache, placed firmly in the public domain – and then quietly forgotten. The principle that when considering a major strategic decision you test that decision against possible futures was as far as I know never followed. Later in the decade I was in Hong Kong and contributed to a similar scenario process for China. Grappling with uncertainty (and the future of China was very uncertain at that time) scenarios were supposed to give us the edge – especially when it came to strategic investments. But once again although the scenario work was robust and intellectually meretricious there was no actual use made of the scenarios at all.

One clear illustration of how decision making in Shell was and is always expedient, self-interested and often hugely over-cautious (as the Wikipedia entry rightly says) is with regard to Russia. Scenarios for Russia in its post USSR mode were certainly under preparation in the late 1980s/early 1990s and although I was not involved I would be surprised if one of the scenarios was not a “Resurgent Russia” story. Under this scenario Russia would pick itself up from its low ebb in 1990/1991 and, driven by high oil prices, recover economically, socially and politically. Under “Resurgent Russia” there would be a strong and popular leader, some watering down of the commitment to parliamentary democracy and a more dirigiste and nationalist approach to financial planning and management. Let’s assume that such a scenario existed at the time of the original Sakhalin negotiations – carried out at a time of extreme weakness on the Russian side in the early 1990s. Had scenario planning meant anything then surely the possibility of the resurgence of Russia would have been taken account of in the negotiations? Surely in those circumstances a deal with Russia which was more equitable to them would have been struck – rather than the unequal contract that so strongly favoured Shell and which President Putin later tore into pieces as Russia became stronger and more confident?

The invitation to Jeroen van der Veer to speak to world leaders at Davos will no doubt give him a warm glow that he, and Shell, are legitimate movers in the refined air of the “World Economic Forum”. And there will no doubt be approval of the new scenarios as I am sure that they will be as intellectually solid and stimulating as ever. But if pressed (as he should be) to give one example of how these scenarios are actually to be used in Shell strategic decision-making he will struggle. Because there is no evidence at all that Scenario planning has made a hapeworth of difference to Shell’s actions or performance over the years. Like so much of the public face of Shell the rhetoric is a long way from the reality.

© Paddy Briggs January 2008

Monday, January 07, 2008

Employees as valuable assets in building your brand

I attended the memorial service today of David - an old colleague and boss of mine who joined Shell way back in 1952 and who had been retired a couple of decades. He was a wonderful man - individualistic, cantankerous, intelligent, rude, caring, creative, trusting and above all humane. The church was full and there were many of his old colleagues present to pay their tributes. As I watched them, and thought about David, I wondered what he and they would make of the spiteful, greedy, selfish, ignorant bunch that run the show today. Perhaps David would have shrugged his shoulders and said something about bygones…and maybe he would have been right! But he would certainly have been disillusioned and disappointed by the Shell hypocrisy that on one hand says that it will:

“respect the human rights of our employees and provide them with good and safe working conditions, and competitive terms and conditions of employment...promote the development and best use of [their] talents …create an inclusive work environment where every employee has an equal opportunity to develop his or her skills and talents… encourage the involvement of employees in the planning and direction of their work… provide them with channels to report concerns.” (Shell Group Business Principles or SGBP)

whilst on the other hand laying them off in vast numbers in homage to the great God of “outsourcing”.

I have told a personal “outsourcing” story from my last years in Shell elsewhere before - but it is worth repeating again to throw light on the current imperatives.

Seven years ago I was working for Shell in Dubai where there was a small and successful downstream (marketing) operation. This was a fairly conventional business involving the marketing of a wide range of petroleum products to a variety of different customers across the United Arab Emirates. A key element of this business was, and always had been, the operation of a product distribution/transportation activity involving oil depots, vehicles and drivers. For more than thirty years this business had been built up as a professional, cost-effective and customer focused operation. It also had an admirable safety record (in a high risk area) and the staff of thirty or so tanker drivers were a loyal, skilled and motivated team. In the late 1990s Shell’s Central offices sent a new Distribution man to the region and, operating out of Oman, he visited Dubai charged with the responsibility of “outsourcing” the transportation operation. When challenged by me and others in the management team in Dubai as to why this was necessary he said that it was now “company policy” to outsource this business (i.e. to sack the drivers and sell the vehicles). A number of us were incensed by the insensitivity of this and we demonstrated that not only would no cost savings occur but that we would be needlessly disposing of the services of a team of loyal and skilled drivers each of whom was proud of his personal safe driving record and a motivated member of the local Shell family.

Well the battle raged on for a while with the argument that to go arm lengths in an area as safety sensitive as dangerous fluids distribution was bad practice – especially as no possible cost savings would result. Furthermore to dispense with the services of the drivers many of whom had up to thirty years service hardly sat well with the SGBP! But this was ideology at its most sinister. The man from Oman had on his “scorecard” the target of outsourcing in Dubai. If he succeeded his remuneration would benefit – as well, of course, as showing that he was a loyal implementer of the new edict. He didn’t care one jot about the employees or their futures – all he cared about was showing himself off in a good light. Well we did fight on but in the end we lost. The drivers were sacked and the operation was outsourced. The irony of this story is that there was no financial benefit to Shell at all from the decision. Outsourcing (in this instance) wasn’t cheaper – it was simply the application of a dogma!

Back to my late friend David. He worked in Shell in an era (as did I mostly) when the commitment to employees wasn’t just words but reality. That was why so many of us, including David, were “one company” men and women. It wasn’t perfect and it had its frustrations and disappointments – but it was rarely if ever malign or uncaring. A business like Shell is about people – and when people are treated as disposable commodities then the values of the corporation disappear and the rot sets in. And today, sadly, Shell is rotten at the core.