A Milan court acquitted energy company Eni, its chief executive and Royal Dutch Shell on Wednesday in the oil industry’s biggest corruption case revolving around the $1.3 billion acquisition of Nigerian OPL 245 a decade ago.
The sentence, read out in court by judge Marco Tremolada, came more than three years after the trial first began and after 74 hearings. Tremolada said the companies and defendants had been acquitted as there was no case to answer.
Rulings in Italy can be appealed and only become enforceable once they are final.
The Nigerian government said it was surprised and disappointed by the verdict and would consider whether to appeal once its lawyers had read the written judgment.
The long-running case revolved around the $1.3 billion purchase by Eni and Shell of the OPL 245 offshore oilfield in Nigeria in 2011 from Malabu Oil and Gas, a company owned by former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete.
Prosecutors alleged that just under $1.1 billion of that amount was siphoned off to politicians and middlemen, including Etete, a convicted money launderer who acquired the field in 1998 when he was oil minister under military ruler Sani Abacha.
Prosecutors had called for Eni and Shell to be fined, for a number of past and present managers from both firms, including Eni Chief Executive Claudio Descalzi, to be jailed and for $1.1 billion to be confiscated from the defendants.
The defendants all denied any wrongdoing.
“This is a huge blow for natural resource governance and transparency in Nigeria,” said Matthew Page, associate fellow at the Chatham House Africa programme. “The OPL 245 deal has been a multi-layered tale of corruption and malfeasance and international complicity that’s been going on for two decades.”
“This judgment will continue to sting, as it is a real and visible defeat for global and Nigerian anti-corruption efforts,” he said.
The verdict comes at a time when investors are putting more and more pressure on oil companies both to fight climate change and come up with sustainable business models that take into account the social impact of their activities.
Shell and Eni also face scrutiny over the OPL 245 deal in other countries. In March, 2019, Dutch prosecutors said they were preparing criminal charges against Shell and Nigeria has also launched an investigation.
Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said it had always maintained the 2011 purchase of OPL 245 was legal and designed to resolve a decade-long dispute over its ownership.
“At the same time, this has been a difficult learning experience for us,” he said in a statement. “Shell is a company that operates with integrity and we work hard every day to ensure our actions not only follow the letter and spirit of the law, but also live up to society’s wider expectations of us.”
The lawyer for Eni’s Descalzi, also welcomed the decision.
“After dozens of hearings, thousands of documents analysed and testimonies, we have finally reached a judgment that restores Descalzi’s professional reputation and Eni’s role as a leading energy company and the pride of our country,” said Paola Severino, Descalzi’s lawyer and a former justice minister.
The defendants said the purchase price for OPL 245 was paid into a Nigerian government account and subsequent transfers were beyond their control.
The exploration licence for the field, some 150 km (95 miles) off the Niger Delta, has not been revoked but it has not been converted into a mining licence and no oil has been produced.
Senior campaigner at Global Witness, Barnaby Pace, urged the prosecution to appeal Wednesday’s verdict.
“Two middlemen have already been found guilty for their role in this deal in a separate trial. A criminal trial of Shell and Eni’s Nigerian subsidiaries is ongoing in Nigeria while they also face an investigation in The Netherlands.” he said.
“Today’s verdict does not mark the final word in this scandal for Shell and Eni.”