Shareholder concern as Shell board meets

Shell's board of directors will meet today to discuss the results of the internal probe into why the oil and gas giant had to slash its forecasts in January.

The move comes amid increasing concern among shareholders at attempts by various parties involved in the fiasco to shift the blame for their failings on to others.

The report, which is awaited keenly by shareholders, will be discussed in draft form by the company's overarching board, known as Conference. This comprises executives and non-executives on the boards of both Royal Dutch and Shell Transport. The document, which was compiled by Shell's own audit committee and is several hundred pages long, has become increasingly controversial as its publication approaches within the next few weeks.

Some observers have said the committee will face accusations of a "whitewash" because the group is thought to have placed the blame for most of Shell's woes on Sir Philip Watts, former chairman, and Walter Van de Vijver, former head of exploration, both of whom were forced to resign last month. Critics have said the report does not give sufficient weight to the systemic failings at Shell.

The impending publication of the report prompted Mr Van de Vijver to issue a statement though a Washington law firm earlier this week saying he informed other senior managers as early as 2001 about problems with assessing reserves.

Several of Shell's non-executives on its audit committee are also seeking advice from the financial public relations firm Brunswick about how to handle any criticism which may follow publication of their findings.

At least six law firms are thought to have been retained to represent the audit committee, the company itself and various current and former executives.

The strained relations between different factions have prompted calls from shareholders yesterday that Shell should focus on putting right the internal failings which forced it to cut its proven reserves by 20 per cent in January, and again reduce its oil and gas reserve accounts last month.

Eric Knight, managing director of the US fund group Knight Vinke, which speaks for 1 per cent of Shell's equity, said: "There is much speculation about who knew what and when, and this is essentially retrospective and best left to the regulators. Shell is a fabulous company and what we and other shareholders want to ensure is that such problems do not reoccur in the future."

Richard Singleton, the head of corporate governance at ISIS, said: "We understand that particularly when there are legal threats, there is a wish on the individual's part to protect themselves. The question is whether that needs to be done in the public domain at the moment."

Knight Vinke and ISIS both favour Shell having a more unified management structure.

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