View from Dublin: the real price of Corrib
The Irish state could be a big loser from Shell’s heavy financial hit on the Corrib gas field. If tax losses racked up by Shell are carried over to the new owners, it will reduce corporation tax receipts on what will be a profitable venture for some shareholders in the years ahead.
So how did Shell manage to lose nearly $1bn (£0.8bn) on the enormous commercial gas find off the west coast? One easy but rather simplistic explanation is that the protests not only delayed the project but ended up costing Shell a fortune.
The real reason is somewhat more nuanced. There is no doubt the delays added massively to the overall cost, but there have been different estimates of the true value of the field for a very long time.
In 2008, Eamon Ryan, the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, answered a Dail question on the value of the field to the exchequer.
At the time, it was believed Corrib would deliver its first gas in 2010. In fact, it took a further five years. But Ryan said that based on development and production costs of €3bn (£2.6bn), the tax revenue would be in the order of €1.7bn (£1.5bn). The estimate put a value on the field of around €9.5bn (£8.3bn) at that time.
In 2001, the field was estimated to be worth €2bn (£1.8bn), based on a price of its 800m to 900m cubic feet of gas. But it was sold to Shell in 2002 for €7bn (£6bn).
Now, as Shell tidies up its international gas assets following a major global acquisition, the balance sheet on Corrib isn’t looking so good. In this new deal, in which it is selling its stake to a Canadian pension fund, Shell is taking an impairment charge of around $350m (£368m) and a write-off of $400m (£306m) because of currency movements, particularly in relation to the dollar and the euro.
The field is delivering revenues of around $589m (£517m) per year. It may well deliver a substantial profit for its new owners, which should in turn mean corporate profits tax revenue for the exchequer.
However, with all of those losses racked up by Shell, the deal may be quite legitimately structured in a way whereby tax losses are inherited by the new owners, which would substantially reduce the money ending up with the state.
There are clear messages in this story for other operators, who might actually find something by way of oil or gas out there.
It will probably take longer than you think to realise it. Don’t make the mistakes that Shell made in the early days in terms of how it approached the concerns of the local community.
And even finding a gusher off the west coast of Ireland is no guarantee of big profits.