The Baker Hughes US oil rig count – a proxy for health and optimism in the overall upstream sector – has just reached a 31-month high to 1067 rigs, though nowhere near the all-time high of 1609 back in July 2014. This recent development is not surprising; crude prices have been trending upwards and reached a new 24-month peak last week as well.
Looking at the breakout data, it is possible that some of the gains could be from re-started sites shut down in the wake of Hurricane Michael bypassing the Gulf Coast, but the main additions are still coming from onshore Texas. The home to the mammoth Permian and the Eagle Ford shale basins, the Permian alone has 490 active oil and gas rigs. While infrastructural bottlenecks – mainly restrained pipeline capacity – have caused drilling activities to slow down since June, there are still gains to be made. Meanwhile, the lower prices caused by shale liquids being trapped in the Permian has led drillers to look elsewhere, where prices are stronger and infrastructure less clogged up – including re-looking at the Bakken and promising areas like Austin Chalk and Niobrabra. Recent auctions have seen record-high prices for acreage in Louisiana and Alabama; even in the Permian, interest remains high, with a recent sale in the New Mexican side of the basin setting a new record of more than double the previous high.
This could be key to navigating the coming global supply crunch, triggered by new American sanctions on Iran, and exacerbated by continuing problems in key OPEC producers such as Venezuela and Libya. Although Russia has raised its production and Saudi Arabia has pledged to fill the hole that Iranian crude will be leaving, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi places the Kingdom in a position of belligerence with the rest of the world. So the US may find itself in a position to have to provide extra volumes on its own – which may be why active rigs have been increasing, and new areas being sought. There is a bit of a spanner in the works, though. The trade spat between the USA and China has led Chinese importers to slam the brakes on importing US crude, even though American crude is not yet on the list of products tariffed by China. LNG and even NGLs – propane and ethane imported to produce petrochemicals – have also seen significant slowdown.
How high can the American rig count get? If prices continue to march up – and there are many that believe the US$100/b mark will be reached soon – then the number of oil rigs drilling in the US could rise past 1200 again. But to reach the dizzying heights above 1500, which was the average over most of 2014, is unlikely. Not because there are lesser volumes of liquid underground – although studies are now showing that the decline rate in mature shale fields is alarmingly high – but because of consolidation. From a collection of many, many small players in the early 2010s, the shale landscape now is consolidating into a collection of medium and large players, with behemoths like ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP also muscling in. A rising tide of crude prices is lifting American drilling activity, but the magnitude of gains in 2018 will be different – due to a combination of infrastructure bottlenecks, fragile geopolitics and sector structural changes.
The main danger is short memories – the zeal of cashing in on high oil prices is what caused the 2015 crash and high corporate debt, and the enthusiasm brewing in American shale again could lead to history repeating itself.
Baker Hughes US Active Rig Count:
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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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