Accused of pollution and shrouded in secrecy: why oil company Perenco is worth investigating

Thomas Steffen

Little-known but powerful, Perenco styles itself as Europe’s leading independent oil and gas group. It operates in 14 countries, including the largest onshore European oil farm, in England, and several gas rigs in the North Sea. 

The multinational’s success has benefited its owners above all: the Perrodo family, France’s 15th wealthiest with homes in London’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. The billionaires, who gave their name to their company (Perrodo Energy Company), feathered their nest far from media spotlight and public scrutiny. 

One of the reasons behind their discreet ascent is that Perenco is not listed on the stock market. As a result, the group is free from transparency rules that affect its main competitors. And with fewer than 10,000 employees worldwide, it is not subject to French laws requiring companies to list the risks associated with their activities abroad.

Credit: Alexis Huguet/AFP
Credit: Alexis Huguet/AFP

All this makes attempts to scrutinise the company’s operations particularly difficult. Yet, Perenco’s business is worth looking into: it specialises in buying up mature assets that other oil majors are trying to get rid of due to aging facilities and ebbing reserves. 

Perenco has been embroiled in various environmental and human rights scandals in several countries where it is present. Accused of funding paramilitary groups in Colombia and linked to the displacement of indigenous communities in Guatemala, the firm has also faced a litany of land pollution and water contamination allegation across Africa and Latin America.

In its race to become Europe’s leading private oil company, Perenco has relied on radical methods, sometimes cutting corners at the expense of the environment. 

“It is certain that compared to the standards of Total or big American companies, Perenco are not on the same level,”  a former Perenco executive in Africa told IE and Disclose. The group, he added, questions environmental norms “that they consider incompatible with their model.”

This model has led to scores of alleged incidents at Perenco sites over the years. Dumping of toxic sludge, oil leaks due to aging facilities and air pollution are common occurrences in countries where Perenco has subsidiaries, according to reports by NGOs, authorities and journalists.

In Gabon, 50,000 cubic metres of oil leaked from some of the group’s tanks last April. In the town of Muanda, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the company is burning gas day and night near homes, crops and drinking water sources. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Peru, the multinational has taken the government to court in an attempt to block the creation of a nature reserve in its operating area.

When questioned by IE and Disclose, the company said: “Perenco acts as a responsible partner. In each country where it operates, Perenco is committed to ensuring the health and safety of its employees and communities.” 

However, the group “recognises that incidents relating to our activities have occurred in the past”, but declined to comment on the ongoing legal process in Gabon. A spokesperson added that a significant investment had been made in DRC to reduce flaring, and that the company was working closely with local communities in Peru.

Hubert the “conqueror”

Perenco’s origins can be traced back to tax havens. In 1967, Hubert Perrodo, the group’s founder, who hails from a fisherman’s family on the west coast of France, was working for an American oil tycoon in the Bahamas. “If you want to make a fortune, kid, you have to get into oil!” his then boss is said to have told him. 

In 1971, Perrodo moved to Singapore. The “conqueror”, as he is described on Perenco’s website, worked in the fossil fuel industry and met his wife, with whom he had three children. In the 1970s, he created a shipping company and set up a drilling business, before establishing Perenco in 1992. Following Perrodo’s death in a mountaineering accident in 2006, his eldest son, François Perrodo, took the reins of the family empire. A car racing enthusiast, he has followed in his father’s footsteps to expand the business, which he owns with his siblings and mother. Today, in addition to their oil company, the Perrodos own a number of famous French wine estates and, more surprisingly, are the majority owners of Konbini, a popular online news outlet. 

Secret financial architecture 

If Perenco’s motto proudly states that “oil remains an adventure”, the Perrodos have become masters of a completely different trade: the creation of opaque corporate structures. While Perenco’s headquarters are located in affluent parts of London and Paris, the group is made of a myriad of companies registered in tax havens. 

In the Bahamas alone, the multinational was relying on 62 holdings as of 2016. IE’s analysis of oil contracts and public registries around the world shows that these holdings have been used to set up subsidiaries in countries where Perenco has activities, while keeping ownership and cash flows shrouded in secrecy. 

To set up this complex financial scheme, the Perrodos were helped by a handful of trusted men. Among them is the father of France’s energy transition minister, Agnès Pannier-Runacher. By Hubert Perrodo’s side from the start, Jean-Michel Runacher has remained one of the group’s key figures to this day. Previously chief financial officer, CEO and administrator, he’s still at the helm of some of the group’s companies. 

Credit: Jérémy Barande /École polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay/Creative Commons

According to IE and Disclose’s investigation, part of the wealth he amassed during his career was discreetly passed on to the minor children of Agnès Pannier-Runacher. More than one million euros of assets in hedge funds that have also counted Perenco as a client. Questioned on the scheme, the energy transition minister said she didn’t have to declare this sum to the French government watchdog and denied any wrongdoing.

#PerencoFiles is an ongoing investigation supported by the IJ4EU Investigation Support Scheme.