Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: May 11, 2018
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Business Trends
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The first quarter of 2018 has proven to be a continuation of an upswing that settled in over 2017, at least according to the financial results of the supermajors. Aggressive cost-cutting from the past paired with a consistent rise in crude prices over the first quarter has contributed to revenue and net profit gains across the board.

In London, BP announced its highest profits in years, with net profits jumping to US$2.59 billion, even as the company continues to be burdened by payments over the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe from 2010. But investors still reacted well to the numbers, with BP’s share price reaching its highest levels since 2010 and it named a new chairman – Statoil’s Helge Lund – who will be tasked to continue this streak of growth. Fellow European supermajor Total continued its winning streak, beating expectations in both revenue and net profits, as did Shell, where net profits jumped 42% to US$5.32 billion. In fact, Shell has beaten the industry’s behemoth – ExxonMobil – in net profits for the past three quarters. ExxonMobil missed analyst expectations narrowly once again in the first quarter, although its US$4.7 billion net profit is nothing to be sniffed at. Yet, ExxonMobil shares remain on the downswing, with industry perception that new CEO Darren Woods have overseen a recovery that remains weaker than Shell’s and even Chevron’s.

The rise continues across the rest of the industry. Profits at Schlumberger are up 88%, promising a recovery in the service sector. Even Pemex, that beleaguered Mexican state oil firm, reported a 29% jump in net profits to US$6 billion. The impetus for the improvement has been rising crude prices, which averaged US$63/b over Q118 compared to US$53/b over Q117. In most cases, the magnitude of net profit increase has been matched by similar growth in revenue – which is a sign that the crude price rally is behind much of the profit gains. With crude prices trending even higher in Q218, industry financials are due for an even better quarter, though it is still too early to declare that the good times have come back for good.

Still, with numbers firmly in the black, analysts and investors are turning their eye towards more granular data to gauge performance. In this case, cash flow. Hoping that the increased profits will be passed on to shareholders through share buybacks, investors have rewarded firms that are embarking on buybacks – BP, Total – and punished those that have shied away. Shell’s share prices were hammered after it announced it was not proceeding with a US$25 billion stock repurchase program yet, and ExxonMobil still has no intention of returning to generous buybacks as of yet. The latter two argue that more work needs to be done to fortify operational foundations, but it seems that investors are getting impatient and want to be rewarded for their patience since 2015.

From a long term investment perspective, Reuters reports that “ investors remain wary that oil demand may peak due to eventual mass adoption of battery-powered cars and more curbs on fossil fuel emissions by industry to meet environmental targets. Some are hedging their bets, buying shares in battery companies and chipmakers involved in making electric cars while lessening their exposure to pure oil plays. But the shift to cleaner energy doesn’t necessarily mean investors are dumping the oil majors. Many are sticking with them but favouring companies which put more emphasis on renewables”. This seems to indicate that investors are still keen a growth story, that is sustainable from a long term perspective.

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The New Wave of Renewable Fuels

In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.

Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.

Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.

This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.

But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.

But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.

Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.

Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$71-73/b, WTI – US$68-70/b
  • Global crude benchmarks have stayed steady, even as OPEC+ sticks to its plans to ease supply quotas against the uncertainty of rising Covid-19 cases worldwide
  • However, the success of vaccination drives has kindled hope that the effect of lockdowns – if any – will be mild, with pockets of demand resurgence in Europe; in China, where there has been a zero-tolerance drive to stamp out Covid outbreaks, fuel consumption is strengthening again, possibly tightening fuel balances in Q4
  • Meanwhile, much of the US Gulf of Mexico crude production remains hampered by the effects of Hurricane Ida, providing a counter-balance on the supply side

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