WHAT a difference an oil spill makes. At the beginning of 2010, BP overtook Royal Dutch Shell in market capitalisation for the first time in three years. Ex-BP boss Tony Hayward had stolen a march on Peter Voser, who had just started at Shell, by cutting costs and scaling back investments in exploration and production (E&P). Shell was the laggard, BP was out in front.

In the wake of the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, things couldn’t be more different. BP is worth £80bn, Shell is worth £125bn. As BP slims down to build a war chest that must pay for a decade of litigation, Voser’s decision to maintain healthy investment in E&P looks increasingly shrewd. Despite having a portfolio that is already packed with high-quality assets, especially in the Asia Pacific region, it also has one of the most ambitious investment programmes in the industry.

The short-term view is also good. Third quarter results were ahead of market consensus, with “clean earnings” (which strip out various one-offs) up 88 per cent year-on-year to $4.9bn, against expectations of $4.3bn.

Of course, any medium-term bet on an oil company is really a play on the global economy. But the world will always need oil, and Shell’s decision to invest while others prune will serve it well. It’s the tortoise that wins the race.