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Last Updated: September 27, 2018
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Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 24 September 2018 – Brent: US$80/b; WTI: US$72/b

  • International crude oil prices are now at their highest levels in four years, as the market fret over tight supply following a declaration by OPEC that it was approaching the issue of raising output cautiously ahead of a meeting of OPEC oil ministers in Algeria this weekend
  • Despite President Trump’s demand that the group steps in to control oil prices, OPEC is taking a wait-and-see approach; Saudi Arabia signalled that it was comfortable with US$80/b oil and was in no rush to bring prices down from current levels
  • OPEC also is not guaranteeing that its members (and its NOPEC partners) will automatically replace lost Iranian barrels due to upcoming American sanctions; coupled with still-strong energy demand, this is leading traders to predict a very tight oil market over the next few months
  • Most financial institutions are maintaining that oil prices will stay at US$80/b, but some bullish traders, including Mercuria and Trafigura, are predicting a return to US$100/b oil by early 2019
  • Saudi Arabia’s new best (oil) friend Russia reported a surge in its crude production to a new post-Soviet record of 11.3 mmb/d, but the US has leapfrogged that to become the largest crude oil producer in the world
  • Caught in an American web of sanctions, Iran warned that it would veto any decision by OPEC that ‘harms the Islamic Republic’, setting the tone for a testy meeting in Algiers this Sunday and in Vienna this December
  • Iran also issued veiled threats about jeopardising international peace as the US and Iran butted heads at the annual International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna
  • As the noose closes on Iran, even neighbouring India is cutting down on purchases; Chennai Petroleum (partly owned by the National Iranian Oil Co’s trading arm) announced it would stop processing Iranian crude from October onwards to maintain its insurance coverage
  • Meanwhile, the imbroglio between China and the US has reached LNG, with China slapping a 10% tariff on US LNG imports in response to a new tranche of duties imposed on US$200 billion of Chinese imports by the US, threatening to upend the accelerating LNG terminal development in the US Gulf Coast
  • Despite prices tending upwards, the US active oil rig count fell by one last week as ongoing infrastructure bottlenecks in onshore shale basins, particularly the Permian, hamper the marketability of liquids
  • Crude price outlook: Prices sustaining at high levels seem inevitable for the moment, as sanctions against Iran kick in in six weeks and the full scale of its impact remains uncertain. With OPEC content to let prices rise, we see Brent trading towards US$82/b and WTI towards US$73/b this week.


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Shell is reportedly looking to sell its 22.5% stake in the Gulf of Mexico Caesar Tonga field to Focus Oil for some US$1.3 billion, as it continues an asset rationalisation process kickstarted by its purchase of the BG Group
  • Canada has decided to restart the approval process for the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, hoping to circumvent or rectify shortcomings that led to a court ruling quashing the project’s permits on insufficient environmental impact studies
  • North Africa-focused SDX Energy is reportedly in discussion with BP to purchase a ‘significant package of assets’, which would add to SDX’s current interests in the South Disouq, Meseda, NW Gemsa and South Ramadan areas
  • Mexico’s Pemex has signed a landmark pre-unitisation deal with the three-way Block 7 Consortium, which will focus on developing the JV’s Zama-1 ‘world class oil discovery’ containing 1.2-1.8 billion barrels of oil
  • CNOOC’s Penglai 19-3 oilfield project in the Bohai Sea has commenced production, with a peak of 58,700 b/d expected to be hit by 2020, which should soften the persistentn decline in Bohai Bay upstream production
  • First oil has been produced at the Tortue field, in the offshore Gabon Dussafu PSC, a major milestone for its operator Panoro Energy

Downstream

  • Eni and Pertamina have signed an MoU meant to deepen cooperation between the two firms, particularly in Indonesian downstream, leveraging Eni’s experience in developing bio-refineries
  • Uganda has delayed its planned 60 kb/d oil refinery startup to a still ambitious 2022 over delays in the design and engineering phase; the refinery is meant to take Ugandan crude from fields co-developed by Total, CNOOC and Tullow, with delays in the upstream output also contributing to the pushback
  • After years of delays, Vietnam’s Nghi Son refinery is finally entering full production mode, offering its first cargo of gasoline for export, although Nghi Son will eventually focus on supplying fuels to the domestic market
  • China is reportedly considering issuing a new tranche of fuel export permits of some 3-4 million tons to prevent state-owned refiners from having to cut runs
  • Russian petrochemical producer Sibur has been sending out feelers on a possible stock market flotation, having spoken to several banks about listing some 15% of its shares in Moscow or international bourses

Natural Gas/LNG

  • With Egypt’s giant Zohr gas field ramping out faster than expected, the country plans to revive its long-dormant Damietta LNG plant to resume LNG exports
  • Vitol has signed a long-term 15-year LNG agreement with Cheniere, with the trader taking in 700,000 tpa of LNG per year beginning end-2018
  • Trader Woodside has signed a mid-term deal with Germany’s Uniper to supply up to 600,000 tpa of LNG over a four-year period beginning 2019
  • Qatar Petroleum will be adding a fourth train to its North Field expansion project, which will expand its total capacity to 110 mtpa by 2024
  • French major Total has clarified that its LNG investment position will be to focus on what it calls the ‘Golden Triangle’ of the LNG market – cost-competitive projects in Qatar, Russia and the USA
  • Nigeria LNG expects to make a final investment decision on its planned US$7 billion, 8 million tpa Train 7 LNG expansion project by end-2018

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Royal Dutch Shell Poised To Become Just Shell

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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