Given the decades-long lives of most big companies, it wasn't eons ago that oil giant Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A ) was persona non grata -- or at least the corporate equivalent thereof -- among energy investors. But if you look at the company's active pace and array of global activities of late, you'll likely think more positively about the prospects for Europe's oil and gas behemoth.
Oh sure, the company did step in it, as they say, just a few years ago. As you may recall, in 2004 it came to light that Shell had inappropriately bumped up its reserve estimates. As it turned out, in the case of its Oman operations, the difference between the actual numbers and those reported by the company was about 40% -- or billions of barrels.
In addition to besmirching its own reputation, Shell's numbers games also cast something of a temporary pall over reserve reports by its peers. Nevertheless, in 2007 the company agreed to cough up total compensation of more than $350 million for its past and present shareholders. Now, when we routinely spit out numbers in the "trillions," Shell seems to have gotten off lightly, but that's another argument for another time.
Now, when we talk about Royal Dutch Shell and its world, we generally adopt a positive tone, perhaps with a dash of amazement at the company's frenetic array of global activities. That's not to imply that life has become a bowl of cherries for Shell. The world of the major integrated energy company can require downing a steady diet of sweet and sour results -- typically with at least a dash of diplomacy -- as Shell's executives have had reinforced again this week alone.
Back to playing Gulf
As we found out earlier in the week, after the infamous BP (NYSE: BP ) tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, and with deepwater Gulf drilling having been suspended, the Obama administration has said it will permit 13 specified companies (including Shell) to resume projects they had under way when the April accident occurred. For obvious reasons, that serendipitous event belongs on the positive side of the company's ledger for the week.
And on Tuesday, The European Commission blessed the creation of a joint venture between a unit of Shell and a Brazilian company, Cosan S.A. The venture will produce, sell, and trade sugar and ethanol, both in Brazil and worldwide. It'll also develop and license ethanol technologies and sell transportation fuel in Brazil. That's clearly not a company-maker for Shell, but in our world of sweet and sour, the company clearly will take all the positives that come its way.
Whose fault is this?
That approach appears especially prudent in a week when the company announced that, later in the month it faces questioning by Dutch authorities regarding oil spills in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. This effort seems ludicrous to the extreme, given that spills in the oil-rich African country are almost always precipitated by terrorists or military attacks. Indeed, the likes of Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) and France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) , among others, have also been victimized by the violent atmosphere that pervades the prolific producing area. Indeed, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) was hit by militants as recently as November.
But Dutch opposition parties apparently have precipitated the planned grilling. With their members having pushed for open discussions of the company's role in Nigeria's energy scene, the Gulf of Mexico tragedy has only served to increase their determination. As added inducements, a Shell joint venture, Shell Petroleum Development Corp, ranks as Nigeria's top onshore producer, while the country accounted for about 20% of Shell's total worldwide production in 2009. So it seems that we have a pending entry for the negative side of Shell's weekly ledger.
A chill in Alaska
Also among Shell's negative surprises, conservationists and Native American groups in Alaska appear to have chilled the company's plans to drill in the state's Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Based on a finding of inadequate information on the impact of nitrogen-dioxide emissions on people indigenous to the North Slope, the Environmental Appeal Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sent air quality permits previously issued to Shell back to the EPA for rewrites.
How about the longer term?
While this clearly has been a busy week for Shell, the company obviously didn't hang out its worldwide energy shingle as recently as Monday. In addition to its aforementioned reserves scandal, it's endured other instances when it's taken the sour with the sweet. For instance, you probably recall the forced sale of its controlling interest in Russia's Sakhalin-2 project in 2006 to that country's Gazprom. The transaction clearly occurred at a below-market price and cost Shell its operating position on the project.
But I view it as far more positive that last year. Like most members of Big Oil, the company moved increasingly into North America's unconventional gas plays. In the process, it purchased East Resources Inc. for $4.7 billion, thereby gaining 1.25 million acres in the giant Marcellus Shale play in the Northeast U.S. At the same time, it's working with Encana (NYSE: ECA ) in the development of acreage in the Haynesville Shale, which is located in parts of Texas and Louisiana.
And then there's Shell's participation in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. That presence precipitated a shareholder revolt at the company's 2010 annual meeting. Partially as a result, with an eye toward the environmental implications of oil sands development, Shell participated in the announcement of a unified effort among several companies, such as Canada's Suncor Energy (NYSE: SU ) , to oversee the environmental aspects of their work in Alberta.
Chasing the speedy Shell
Finally, Shell is involved with Chevron and ExxonMobil in the development of the giant Gorgon gas project off Western Australia. That's yet another major effort that's filling the company's global plate.
So, while I continue to emphasize Exxon as my top choice among the members of Big Oil, I wouldn't discourage Fools with a yen for gathering up shares of this rapidly moving Shell.