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Extensive engagements with Royal Dutch Shell

29-03-2016 | Insight | Sylvia van Waveren

Like many companies in the oil and gas sector, Shell is facing a constant stream of allegations  related to environmental issues. Since the start of Robeco’s engagement programs in 2005, we have been in dialogue with this global energy company on several topics.

Speed read:
  • Engagement on several topics for many years
  • Successful results on remuneration and environmental issues
  • Engagement continues on the CO2 challenges Shell is facing

Specific issues we have engaged on with Shell are arctic drilling, shale gas, Nigerian oil pollutions, remuneration of the Board, gas flaring and, lately, the CO2 challenges Shell is facing.

Over the years, the company has seriously improved its responsiveness, has taken decisive action, and is showing good progress on our engagement objectives. Our engagement with the company continues.

Breach of the UN Global Compact
One of the most heard criticisms towards Shell’s exploration operations relates to devastating gas flarings and oil pollutions of the Niger Delta in Ogoniland, Nigeria. Various NGOs including Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International have made allegations of a breach of international norms on environmental pollution, which qualify as a non compliance with the UN Global Compact Principle on Environmental Conduct. The UN Global Compact requires companies to embrace, support and adopt a number of core values within their sphere of influence in the field of human rights, labor standards, the environment and anti-corruption measures.

Systematic and severe breaches of the UN Global Compact constitute financial, operational and reputational risks for a company and its stakeholders (e.g. shareholders). Companies must therefore avoid breaching these principles. If they do commit a breach, they should remedy it and prevent future occurrences.

For breaches of the UN Global Compact Principles we run an enhanced engagement program. This is an intensive, three-year program, aiming to effectuate a change in conduct of companies with severe controversial behavior. In 2010 and 2011, we started the engagement with Shell on two UN Global Compact breaches: oil spills in the Niger Delta and gas flaring in Nigeria

Oil spills in the Niger Delta
Key points of this engagement include:

  • Royal Dutch Shell has been criticized for frequent oil spills in the Niger Delta which have caused serious damage to the environment, human health and local livelihoods.
  • NGOs allege that the company has failed to take sufficient preventive measures and appropriate actions including swift clean-up, remediation and compensation.
  • Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) holds a 30% stake in concessions in the Niger Delta, the majority within the joint venture is owned by the Nigerian government.

Gas flaring
Key points include:

  • Royal Dutch Shell has been criticized for its gas flaring activities in the Niger Delta because the combustion of associated gas produces highly toxic pollutants including greenhouse gas, particulate matters, nitrogen dioxide, Sulphur dioxide and so forth.
  • Emission from gas flaring has led to severe damage to the environment, human health and local livelihoods.
  • The gas flaring breach has currently been lifted. Gas flaring by Shell has been significantly reduced, as the company has invested a lot in the infrastructure necessary to deal with the gas without burning it.

Results of our engagement: Shell ready to clean up its act
After three years of engagement, Shell has taken responsibility for cleaning up most of the backlog of spills at legacy sites in the Delta. These efforts however are not easily recognized by the world because there is a huge increase in number and volume of spills due to sabotage. While Shell tries to combat thefts on its pipeline with innovative techniques such as optic fibre, the company estimates that fixing the problem goes much beyond Shell’s capabilities. Shell now considers that theft and sabotage have reached an industrial level in Nigeria and they are still growing. Consequently Shell started engaging with the Nigerian, UK and Netherlands governments to find a way to fix the problem.

A hugely complicated factor is that the tremendous pollution in Ogoniland, part of the Niger Delta, still exists and although Shell is willing to play its part and is cleaning its right of way (the area on and around the pipeline), it is the main responsibility of the Nigerian government to clean up the entire area. Shell is leading discussions with the Nigerian government and other groups with the aim of setting up a USD 1 billion fund to clean up the area but the company has limited power in this complicated matter. Due to the ever increasing professional theft of oil from this region, it is currently impossible for the company and the relevant parties to clean up the mess in the Niger Delta. We therefore think that the company is no longer in charge itself to meet our commitment target. It is now in the government’s hands. Consequently, we consider the dialogue with the company successfully closed on this topic.

In addition to these two engagement topics, we also talk to Shell about other issues, such as arctic drilling, remuneration and CO2 emissions.

Arctic drilling: Prepare for environmental incidents
In 2015, Shell announced to restart drilling in in the Chuckchi Sea in the Arctic area. The environment risks are the most challenging issues. The main point of contention is the oil spill response. As US regulations require the response time to a spill to be only 60 minutes, Shell needs to take every support with them, which means 28 support vessels, 2 helicopters and other equipment as the infrastructure from the mainland is simply not there. Only in 2030 is the exploration site expected to be in production if all challenges have been dealt with. Later in 2015, Shell decided to shut down its drilling activities in the Arctic. Consequently, we have closed our dialogue with the company on this issue successfully.

Lead investor at Shell’s AGMs: sustainable remuneration and environmental issues
Within Eumedion, the forum for corporate governance and sustainability, we are the lead investor for the Annual General Meetings of Shareholders (AGMs) of Shell. This means in practice that we speak and/ or make a voting statement at the AGM of Shell, not only on behalf of Robeco but also on behalf of other institutional investors. We use our representation at the AGM as an engagement instrument where we have direct access to the whole board of Shell.

The topics we addressed over the years are a more sustainable remuneration policy and environmental challenges. In 2016, at Shell’s Extraordinary General Meeting, we expressed that we recognize the strategic merit of the acquisition of BG Group and the potential to achieve greater financial results than either company could likely generate on its own in the long term, particularly in the midst of an evolving and challenging energy industry. Our representation at these AGMs continues.

The dialogue continues on CO2 challenges
We continue our dialogue with Shell on the risks the company is facing in the light of climate change management and stranded assets. If global warming treaties are actually signed and implemented after COP21, stranded assets will become an unprecedented problem. Research by Nature magazine published in January 2015, suggests that one-third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and 80% of coal reserves might go unused up until 2050. Divestment, however, is not a solution. For reserves held by corporates, divestment simply means that one institution is buying what another is selling.

A better solution is to encourage carbon companies to change their business models. Such approaches have been echoed in recent shareholder resolutions such as the ‘Aiming for A’ campaign in the UK, which has successfully persuaded Royal Dutch Shell and BP to disclose their climate strategy and the resilience of their operating portfolios to carbon limits. Robeco also voted in favor of the ‘Aiming for A’ shareholder resolutions. We will continue our constructive dialogue with Shell on structural solutions to the carbon challenges the company is facing.

Sylvia van Waveren

Sylvia van Waveren

Senior engagement specialist
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Sylvia van Waveren
Senior engagement specialist


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