John Donovan in 2009. On its website, this former adman has posted more than 25,000 items on oil giant Shell.

John Donovan, Shell’s nightmare

Thanks to a network of “moles” inside the company, this early retiree from Britain is posting on his website reports on shortcomings inside the world’s largest oil group. It’s a dogged pursuit that has already cost the Anglo-Dutch giant several billions.

Published on 27 March 2012 at 14:23
John Donovan in 2009. On its website, this former adman has posted more than 25,000 items on oil giant Shell.

The enemy is on his way. Waking early, he drives to London, leaves the car around the corner in a parking garage, and heads to York Road and the entrance of the Shell Centre, the headquarters of the most powerful oil company in the world. The Centre is a huge gray concrete block right by the River Thames. When the oil executives look out their windows, they see the British Parliament and the London Eye, Europe's largest Ferris wheel. And now and then, peering down at the entrance, they can see John Donovan, the early retiree from Colchester in East Anglia. The man who is costing Shell billions.

John Donovan, 64, has put on a tie, and the broad overcoat hides the stately stomach. He has let his white hair grow and combed it neatly over his bald head. “Here, read the truth about Shell,” he says, and tries to hand one of his green sheets to a puzzled assistant in a suit. She walks past him without saying a word.

John Donovan used to be more successful at handing out pamphlets. Every day, someone from the troops of the homeless he hired would be standing in front of the headquarters. Today he no longer needs the green sheets of paper to badger Shell; he has found another and far more effective way.

For more than ten years John Donovan has been running the website, where he posts reports on the wrongdoing of the Anglo-Dutch group, and he has written at least 25,000 articles. More than 20 senior Shell insiders regularly feed him information. Never before has the inner machinery of a global group been so well documented as that of Shell.

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Spending no more than $2,000 a year, John Donovan has put pressure on a group with an annual turnover of $380 billion, which is more than the gross domestic product of countries such as Denmark and Thailand. Without John Donovan's website out there, the revenues would probably be even higher. “I’ve probably already cost the guys up there a few billion,” says Donovan, pointing to the Shell Centre.

An e-mail to Vladimir Putin

After 30 minutes, he takes a break from the distribution campaign; maybe 20 hand-outs have been picked up. “Not many, but it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that they see my face now and then.” Leaving the Centre he walks to his car and drives home to Colchester, to his personal office and the ongoing battle against the multinational.

If you ask about John Donovan at Shell, the communications professionals stay tight-lipped: “No interviews! No comment!” Internal e-mails reveal the fear. On 15 July 2009, at 5:16 p.m. London time, a Shell manager wrote: “This website has already cost our company many billions in revenue. Is there any plan to shut it down?” Corporate security and corporate communications monitor John Donovan's website on the weekends as well.

How dangerous the early retiree Donovan turned out to be started to become evident to Shell on 25 November 2005. “It was my letter to Putin,” he says. “I really hit Shell hard with it.” In the e-mail, he informed the Russian government in detail about lax safety standards in Shell’s Sakhalin-II 2 oil-drilling project. Shell was then the majority leader of a joint venture with the Russian oil company Gazprom. The joint oil field in eastern Siberia is one of Shell’s most important projects, pumping out 180,000 barrels of crude per day and 9.6 million tonnes of gas a year.

In his e-mail, John Donovan refers to an exchange of internal e-mails that was leaked to him. In the document, one of the employees warns his colleagues in London that a disaster on one of the drilling rigs could be devastating. “He wrote that the oil spill off the coast of Alaska from the sunken 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker would be trivial compared to what could threaten in Sakhalin,” Donovan says.

Less than two years after the e-mail to Vladimir Putin a Russian court stripped Shell of its majority leadership and downgraded the company to a minority partner with a stake of 27 percent. When Shell suspected espionage, the then Russian Deputy Environment Minister Oleg Mitvol explained his source in a newspaper interview: “The information we needed came from John Donovan, from Colchester in England.” And every couple of months, Donovan came up with a new scoop.

“The other oil companies aren’t a lot better”

What drives this man? Why is he going after just Shell? Until 1992, John Donovan and Shell were partners. Together with his father Alfred, he ran the two-man advertising agency Don Marketing. They designed and organised small scratch-and-win cards for Shell customers that tanked up with more than 50 litres.

The business relationship took a turn for the worse when Shell’s marketing department hired a new employee, who appropriated countless ideas that the Donovans had come up with and refused to pay for them. They saw each other again in court. After four long trials, the agency was bankrupt, the father’s property was sold, and John Donovan had to take out a huge mortgage on his own house.

In 1999 he accepted a settlement with Shell. The company agreed to take over the legal fees, which amounted to several hundred thousand pounds. In return, both parties pledged to keep quiet about the trials. “Fortunately, Shell didn’t stick to the agreement and talked about the trial in the media.”

John Donovan parks his car in the driveway of his small terraced house, unlocks the side door and steps straight into the kitchen. “Well, you can’t really cook here anymore,” he grins, and opens the refrigerator. From the vegetable drawer he fishes out a sheaf of folders and invites us into the next room.

This room doesn’t look like much, but it’s at the heart of a global energy rivalry. The heart of a billion-dollar game. And John Donovan, retiree, is one of the main players. “The other oil companies aren’t a lot better,” he says, “but Shell is the one I’m taking on.” And Shell will remain in his sights for years to come. “My father is over 90 now. Should I even live that long, I’ll have plenty of time for my little hobby.” Turning to the computer screen, he calls up his e-mails. Shell is there waiting for him, as it is every day.

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