The Indonesian state oil firm now has its third CEO in two years, as Nicke Widyawati was confirmed as the new CEO and President Director of the company last week. Widyawati – the second female head of Pertamina after Karen Agustiawan – replaces Elia Massa Manik, who himself replaced Dwi Soetjipto in February 2017. In ascending to the top post, Widyawati is an example of female empowerment in Indonesia, but the position itself is a bit of a poisoned chalice. How long will she last?
Widyawati’s predecessor Manik came in with the best of intentions – promoting transparency and promising to overhaul Pertamina’s creaking upstream and downstream operations. He mostly failed, perhaps not through a lack of willpower but political reality, where the government is caught between a quixotic need to promote a nationalistic policy on resources yet in dire need of foreign investment. Worse, the state has no patience, demanding immediate results. An energy industry in terminal decline requires a long time to turnaround, and balancing that with the government’s demands will be Widyawati’s greatest challenge.
What has Pertamina achieved over the past week years? Well, there is some sign of progress – after repeatedly reaching out and rebuffing investors over refining downstream investments aimed to reducing a chronic dependence on fuel imports, some small steps forward seem to be emerging in the Bontang, Cilacap and Tuban projects, partnering with Saudi Aramco, Rosneft, Oman Oil and Cosmo Oil. That isn’t enough to please the government, though, which is dealing with a downward spiral of the Indonesian rupiah that has prompted several dramatic measures – including the immediate adoption of a hard B20 biodiesel mandate to reduce imports of gasoil and boost consumption of domestic palm oil.
In upstream, however, the trajectory is definitely backwards. Indonesia is moving in an alarming direction of resource nationalisation, scuppering plans to make its upstream sector friendlier to foreigners. Since 2015, any PSC involving international companies have been handed back to Pertamina, or at the very least seen Pertamina’s share increased. The government believes that by increasing Pertamina’s share, more crude will be made available for domestic refining. That logic works in the short term, but in the long term is scaring off firms like Total, Chevron and ExxonMobil, who not only contribute valuable capital, but also the technical know-how that Pertamina lacks.
The Rokan and Mahakam blocks have already been handed back to Pertamina and last week, the state announced that all oil contractors must sell their entire crude output to Pertamina, effectively blocking them from exporting any oil. The aim is to support the weakening rupiah and reduce imports, but the longer term damage to the confidence and health of the industry could be affected badly. Nicke Widyawati may be proving that the Indonesian glass ceiling has been smashed through, but expectations are high and demands unrealistic. Don’t be surprised if Pertamina receives another CEO next year.
A recent timeline of Pertamina CEOs:
- September 2014: Karen Agustiawan resigns as CEO
- November 2014: Dwi Soetjipto appointed CEO for the period 2014-2019
- February 2017: Dwi Soetjipto fired as CEO, Elia Massa Manik appointed interim CEO
- Marchj 2017: Elia Massa Manik confirmed as CEO
- April 2018: Elia Massa Manik sacked, Nicke Widyawati appointed interim CEO
- August 2018: Nicke Widyawati confirmed as CEO
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On 10 December 2021, if all goes to plan Royal Dutch Shell will become just Shell. The energy supermajor will move its headquarters from The Hague in The Netherlands to London, UK. At least three-quarters of the company’s shareholders must vote in favour of the change at the upcoming general meeting, which has been sold by Shell as a means of simplifying its corporate structure and better return value to shareholders, as well as be ‘better positioned to seize opportunities and play a leading role in the energy transition’. In doing so, it will no longer meet Dutch conditions for ‘royal’ designation, dropping a moniker that has defined the company through decades of evolution since 1907.
But why this and why now?
There is a complex web of reasons why, some internal and some external but the ultimate reason boils down to improving growth sustainability. Royal Dutch Shell was born through the merger of Shell Transport and Trading Company (based in the UK) and Royal Dutch (based in The Netherlands) in 1907, with both companies engaging in exploration activities ranging from seashells to crude oil. Unified across international borders, Royal Dutch Shell emerged as Europe’s answer to John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire, as the race to exploit oil (and later natural gas) reserves spilled out over the world. Along the way, Royal Dutch Shell chalked up a number of achievements including establishing the iconic Brent field in the North Sea to striking the first commercial oil in Nigeria. Unlike Standard Oil which was dissolved into 34 smaller companies in 1911, Royal Dutch Shell remained intact, operating as two entities until 2005, when they were finally combined in a dual-nationality structure: incorporated in the UK, but residing in the Netherlands. This managed to satisfy the national claims both countries make on the supermajor, second only to ExxonMobil in revenue and profits but proved to be costly to maintain. In 2020, fellow Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever also ditched its dual structure, opting to be based fully out of the City of London. In that sense, Shell is following the direction of the wind, as forces in its (soon to be former) home country turn sour.
There is a specific grievance that Royal Dutch Shell has with the Dutch government, the 15% dividend tax collected for Dutch-domiciled companies. It is the reason why Unilever abandoned Rotterdam and is now the reason why Shell is abandoning The Hague. And this point is particularly existentialist for Shell, since its share prices has been battered in recent years following the industry downturn since 2015, the global pandemic and being in the crosshairs of climate change activists as an emblem of why the world’s average temperatures are going haywire. The latter has already caused the largest Dutch state pension fund ABP to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby divesting itself of Royal Dutch Shell. This was largely a symbolic move, but as religious figures will know, symbols themselves carry much power. To combat this, Shell has done two things. First, it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of energy transition, announcing ambitious emissions reductions plans in line with its European counterparts to become carbon neutral by 2050. Second, it is looking to bump up its dividend payouts after slashing them through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating share buybacks to remain the bluest of blue-chip stocks. But then, earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s emissions targets were ‘not ambitious enough’, ordering a stricter aim within a tighter timeframe. And the 15% dividend tax remains – even though Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government has been attempting to scrap it, with (it is presumed) some lobbying from Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever.
As simplistic it is to think that Shell is leaving for London believes the citizens of the Netherlands has turned its back on the company, the ultimate reason was the dividend tax. Reportedly, CEO Ben van Buerden called up Mark Rutte on Sunday informing him of the planned move. Rutte’s reaction, it is said was of dismay. And he embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade Royal Dutch Shell to change its mind, by immediately lobbying his government’s coalition partners to back an abolition of the dividend tax. The reaction was perhaps not what he expected, with left-wing and green parties calling Shell’s threat ‘blackmail’. With democracy drawing a line, Shell decided to walk; or at least present an exit plan endorsed by its Board to be voted by shareholders. Many in the Netherlands see Shell’s exit and the loss of the moniker Royal Dutch – as a blow to national pride, especially since the country has been basking in the glow of expanded reputation as a result of post-Brexit migration of financial activities to Amsterdam from London. The UK, on the other hand, sees Shell’s decision and Unilever’s – as an endorsement of the country’s post-Brexit potential.
The move, if passed and in its initial stages, will be mainly structural, transferring the tax residence of Shell to London. Just ten top executives including van Buerden and CFO Jessica Uhl will be making the move to London. Three major arms – Projects and Technology, Global Upstream and Integrated Gas and Renewable Energies – will remain in The Hague. As will Shell’s massive physical reach on Dutch soil: the huge integrated refinery in Pernis, the biofuels hub in Rotterdam, the country’s first offshore wind farm and the mammoth Porthos carbon capture project that will funnel emissions from Rotterdam to be stored in empty North Sea gas fields. And Shell’s troubles with activists will still continue. British climate change activists are as, if not more aggressive as their Dutch counterpart, this being the country where Extinction Rebellion was born. Perhaps more of a threat is activist investor Third Point, which recently acquired a chunk of Shell shares and has been advocating splitting the company into two – a legacy business for fossil fuels and a futures-focused business for renewables.
So Shell’s business remains, even though its address has changed. In the grand scheme of things, never mind the small matter of Dutch national pride – Royal Dutch Shell’s roadmap to remain an investment icon and a major driver of energy transition will continue in its current form. This is a quibble about money or rather, tax – that will have little to no impact on Shell’s operations or on its ambitions. Royal Dutch Shell is poised to become just Shell. Different name and a different house, but the same contents. Unless, of course, Queen Elizabeth II decides to provide royal assent, in which case, Shell might one day become Royal British Shell.
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