Shell faces shareholder questions on tar sands

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Shell will become the latest major corporation to face investor questions about tar sands developments at its annual general meeting (AGM) today.

Demonstrations outside the meeting in The Hague will be calling for an end to tar sands exploitation, while inside the hall the Anglo-Dutch group's executives will be quizzed by shareholders on the financial risks.

Some 142 investors have backed a special resolution calling on Shell to give more details on the financial, environmental and human rights risks of tar sand, which make up a third of the major's resource portfolio.

The responsible investment charity FairPensions, which co-ordinated the action, was behind a similar special resolution put to rival BP's AGM last month, garnering support or abstention from 15 per cent of voting shareholders. Royal Bank of Scotland has also come under pressure from environmental groups for underwriting tar sands projects.

Shell has already responded to the tabling of the resolution, engaging in a "sustained dialogue" with shareholders about the risk assumptions of its tar sands plans, according to FairPensions. But investors want more.

So far Shell's tar sand projects, at Athabasca in Canada, involve open cast mining. But the majority of its undeveloped resources will require the more controversial "in situ" method, where steam is injected down deeply drilled wells to boil the bitumen out of the ground. The technique leaves less of an immediate scar on the landscape, but has a much higher carbon footprint because it is so much more energy intensive.

Shell is tight-lipped about the in situ projects and investors backing the resolution are calling for "substantive disclosures" on the plans.

The resolution will be formally proposed today by the Co-operative Asset Management. "Oil and gas companies go to extraordinary lengths – and endure formidable risks – to satisfy our demand for a fuel [which] must diminish if we are to stay within acceptable levels of global temperature increase," Niall O'Shea, the group's head of responsible investing, said. "We appreciate Shell's willingness to enter into dialogue and we agree there are no perfect solutions – but continued success as a company will depend on the providence of their investments."

The campaigners hope the sight of BP still battling the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will underline their concerns about the financial risk of unconventional oil. "The Gulf of Mexico spill has proved that environmental and social risks are also financial risks, and has made the need for shareholders to carefully scrutinise the risk management strategies of oil majors abundantly clear," Catherine Howarth, the chief executive of FairPensions, said. "Shell's AGM will provide one of the first opportunities for investors to act on this responsibility."

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