Shell’s 108,000 employees earned “an obscene” £14 billion in profits last year.

If, as I imagine, Shell keeps a similar number of contractors off the books to keep the head-count down, the profit per head is about £70k. If you earned £70k as profit in a business, you probably wouldn’t expect to be sand-bagged with a windfall tax by a starving Chancellor. There is also some truth to Shell’s defences, “We can’t invest profits if we can’t keep them”, and “We don’t profit from petrol, it’s tax which is hammering consumers.” And nobody gave Shell a handout when the oil price fell below $10.

What is more interesting about Shell’s results is this: they didn’t publish their reserves. Memorably, they’ve been known to publish the wrong numbers, but none at all? The most Shell have revealed is that in 2007 they discovered 1 billion barrels of new “resources”, including 11 “material discoveries”. A field of well under 100 million barrels of “resource” is now material? How have the mighty fallen!

A billion barrels of “resources” means very little. It is not a reserve, it could indicate something or nothing. It’s a quantity of petroleum which might or might not be recoverable. Usually less than half of any oil field is actually produceable.

How does this stack up? In 2006 Shell added 2 billion barrels of oil equivalent (i.e. oil + gas) to their “resources”. During 2007 they produced almost 1.2 billion barrels of oil and gas. However you look at it, Shell did far worse than in 2006, they have not replaced last year’s production, and they are not revealing the actual reserve data.

This is ugly if one of the best explorers just can’t find any more conventional oil. And Jeroen Van der Veer, Shell’s boss, commented only last week that the world looked set to reach peak oil by 2015. This is not so much joined-up thinking as joined-up consequences.

And don’t expect anything better from the other majors – they’re all in the same boat. There is nowhere left to look. There are few spots left in the world where a billion barrel field could be hiding. Those few spots are increasingly closed to foreigners as a predictable wave of resource nationalisation sweeps through the industry. Shell not only failed to find much in 2007, Putin even forced them to sell back what they’d already found in Sakhalin-2.

But Shell can’t postpone the evil reporting day forever. Eventually it will have to make its annual statement to the American authorities, which must include reserves data. That could make woeful reading.

Richard Miller, BP