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Shell: Tax not Scottish independence is the key issue

Royal Dutch Shell is not planning for the prospect of Scotland gaining independence, according to the company’s finance chief who said any Government that controls the North Sea has to get the tax regime right or risk frightening off investors.

Asked what the oil and gas giant is doing to plan for the possibility of Scotland becoming independent, chief financial officer Simon Henry said: “The answer is we are not planning.”

Talking after the Anglo-Dutch firm announced a 15% drop in third-quarter profits, Mr Henry said he would not comment on the independence debate from a political perspective.

He noted Shell has underlined its enthusiasm for the UK North Sea by announcing plans to make bumper investments.

While companies face a long wait for the planned independence referendum in autumn 2014, Shell announced earlier this month it would invest in the giant Fram field. It also agreed to pay $525 million (£325m) to increase its interest in the Beryl area fields.

Noting that Shell is a big shareholder in the huge Schiehallion redevelopment and Clair Ridge projects off Shetland, Mr Henry said: “For good, large projects the UK remains an attractive place to develop, especially oil.”

Mr Henry said Shell intends to use the UK as its main investment vehicle in Europe.

However, highlighting Shell’s long term focus on supplying markets in Asia and North America, he said the UK will have to compete for investment against other areas in which Shell could secure production.

He said Shell hopes that whatever government controls the North Sea will reflect on the need to provide a “long term attractive stable investment environment”.

Perceived volatility will encourage firms to consider investing elsewhere.

Mr Henry warned any cut in oil and gas investment could have a serious impact on services firms, which employ thousands of people.

While the UK Government has introduced a series of tax breaks in recent months Mr Henry indicated Shell remains unhappy about the Chancellor’s surprise decision to increase the Supplementary Charge on North Sea profits in the 2011 Budget.

“We still believe the Supplementary Charge will have an impact long term and make gas, especially, less attractive,” he said.

The economics of gas projects around the world have been made more challenging following a fall in prices partly driven by the surge in production from unconventional sources, such as shale in the USA.

The fall in the prices realised for oil and gas relative to the same period last year (5% and 3% respectively) weighed on Shell’s third quarter earnings. Shell reported current cost of supply net profit of $6.1 billion, down from $7.2bn a year ago.

Mr Henry said macro economic conditions are challenging in much of the world.

Demand is under pressure in consumer markets in Europe and the USA.

This is affecting gasoline prices. The industrial market is difficult in Europe.

Conditions are much brighter in emerging markets such as China. Production fell 1% annually, to 2.98m barrels oil equivalent daily in the third quarter, partly resulting from disruption in Nigeria and divestments.

However, chief executive Peter Voser said: “I am pleased with our progress in a difficult industry environment. There is more to come from Shell.”

The company is investing in giant projects it believes will underpin growth for years.

Shell announced a third-quarter dividend of 43 cents (27p) per share. It paid 42 cents per share in the third-quarter last year.

Excluding one-offs Shell made $6.6bn (£4.1bn) profit, ahead of analysts predictions of $6.3bn. Global capacity constraints helped Shell achieve better than expected refining margins.

Tony Shepard, analyst at Charles Stanley, told clients: “Shell is performing well against its long-term strategy.”

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