The company and its executives are already the focus of investigations by European regulators and officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission. But the Justice Department, unlike the commission, has the authority to bring criminal charges as well as civil ones. British and Dutch regulators are also examining the company.
The Justice Department inquiry, which was opened in recent days, is being conducted by prosecutors in the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan. Shell, the world’s third-largest publicly traded oil company, is controlled by Dutch and British executives. It has publicly traded shares on major exchanges around the world, including the New York Stock Exchange.
Two months ago, the company lowered its estimates of proven oil and gas reserves by about 20 percent, or 3.9 billion barrels. Company documents from two years ago show that current and former top executives were aware of a significant shortfall in reserves and came up with an “external storyline” and “investor relations script” that minimized its significance.
Two weeks ago, the group dismissed its chairman, Sir Philip Watts, and its head of exploration and production, Walter van de Vijver.
Sir Philip was succeeded by Jeroen van der Veer. The 2002 documents describing the shortfall in reserves were sent to the committee of managing directors, which at the time included Mr. van der Veer. A memorandum dated July 18, 2002, and sent to the managing directors and Judy Boynton, the current chief financial officer, predicted a “shortfall” of two billion to three billion barrels of reserves.