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'I'm really very worried for the planet'

Thursday June 17, 2004

The Guardian




Ron Oxburgh is chipping away at the fossilised thinking that cost Shell its reputation.   David Adam meets the geologist in a big business hotseat

Thursday June 17, 2004
The Guardian


It's a still day and the flags mounted on the imposing Shell corporate headquarters building on south bank of the Thames are lying limply against their poles, stirred only by the occasional river breeze.  As they flutter it's easy to make out that distinctive logo against the blue sky, but it's also clear they could do with a clean - the famous red and yellow clam is lying on a distinctly off-white beach.

Shell has not had a good year; it has already admitted overstating its oil reserves, sacked its chairman and been forced to watch its marketing soundbite take a gleeful snap at the hand that created, raised and fed it as investors discovered they could no longer be sure of Shell.  The company clearly has things other than laundry on its mind.

The man charged with rebuilding its battered reputation has other things on his mind too.  Dinner.  After three months pondering the barely perceptible rotation of the London Eye immediately outside the window of his new office, Ron Oxburgh is convinced that, with perfectly timed deliveries as the cabins briefly kiss ground level, the giant landmark would make an ideal riverside restaurant.

The views would be spectacular, he says, though on reflection the service could be a problem.

Oxburgh — strictly The Lord Oxburgh (he is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords and chairs its science and technology select committee) — was catapulted into his new role in March, replacing the ousted Philip Watts.  As non-executive chairman of the UK half of the group, he is excused day-to-day running of the business, but is expected to steer it towards calmer waters, rebuilding city and public confidence along the way.  Plans for the capital's latest revolving restaurant will have to wait.

Promoted from his long-standing post as a non-executive director, the 69-year-old geologist followed a formidable academic career with spells as chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence and rector of Imperial College London.  Sufficiently independent to restore some credibility to the office, and astute enough to know that it's more than his credibility that gives it a view stretching half way across north London, Oxburgh could be a smart choice.

He didn't volunteer for the role.  "Not exactly, no," he says, relaxing on a sofa in the corner of the top floor office.  "Situations come up.  I was the senior non-executive director and normally that position doesn't have to do very much except when things go wrong.  And things did go wrong."

He plays down his own role in trying to fix things: "There certainly are problems we didn't know about and we are now working for solutions in a whole range of areas.  I'm just one of a team and I'm trying to help that team along."   He claims that he only agreed to the job because Shell HQ is close enough to parliament to allow him to yo-yo between the two.

Shell's problems came at the start of what is shaping up to be a defining year for the oil industry.  Political upheaval in Venezuela and no signs of improvement in the Middle East have combined to send crude values soaring, and the prospect of the £1 per litre price at the petrol pump have seen oil prices join house prices on the front pages of Britain's newspapers.


Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004









 
 































































































































































































 
 





 
For archive purposes, this article is being stored on Kewe.info website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.