In April 2018, the Northern Territories of Australia lifted a ban on fracking that has been in place since 2016. It is a move that has had energy companies salivating, tempted by sky-high estimates of shale gas and oil trapped deep underneath the Outback. It is also one few of the Australian territories to embrace fracking after massive opposition on environmental and social grounds, which has already seen fracking banned by legislation in most places in Australia.
Why is this happening? With a massive onshore area, Australia is known to be onshore gas-rich. Tapping into this has long been the ambition of the country’s energy players, but they have had to face an organised grassroots and political opposition that has campaigned to prevent fracking from taking place, citing issues over water pollution, geological stability and environmental impact. Add to this conundrum of Australia’s internal supply/demand balance – where the country as a whole is a major exporter of LNG through the giant offshore projects in Western Australia, while the more industrialised and populous East and Southeast face a domestic gas crunch.
Origin Energy is hoping that it will be able to solve these issues, while proving that responsible fracking can assuage citizenry concerns and showcase it as a ‘good energy player’. It has announced plans to drill two new wells in the Beetaloo Basin this year; named after a cattle ranch the size of Hawai’i, Beetaloo has been called the ‘best immediate prospect’ the replacing dwindling gas from the Bass Strait in Victoria state. An estimate suggests that Beetaloo holds some 500 trillion cubic feet of gas, a size that would put it on par with pioneering US shale basins like Marcellus and Barnett. Drilling that occurred prior to 2016 suggested a recoverable resource of 6.6 tcf, which alone would be enough to supply an LNG export train for 20 years. The new round of drilling – at the liquids-rich Kyalla and Velkerri shale plays – is aimed to looking for liquids, the sort of shale oil that has been found in onshore USA and that truly revolutionised the industry there.
Origin Energy (and its partner Falcon Oil & Gas) isn’t the only player in Northern Territories shale. Fellow Australian player Santos is also looking to start drilling in the NT McArthur basin this year, having already submitted its environmental management plan to the NT government after calling it the ‘largest and most promising shale gas opportunity in Australia.’ If any of this gas (that is yet-to-be-explored) makes it to commercialisation, it will come to market around 2024-2025 at the earliest – just in time to stave off the chronic shortage of natural gas on the east coast.
But it won’t be easy. Even if the shale gas and shale liquids are commercially viable, the Beetaloo and McArthur basins are – to put it simply – in the middle of nowhere. Origin Energy’s permit area is roughly three times the size of Singapore in area with little human activity beyond farming. It is also some 2,500 kilometres away from Sydney and the closest industrial applications that would require that gas, necessitating a massive expansion of cross-state gas transmission networks and pipelines. Connection to Darwin and its port facilities is also possible, sending the gas overseas or within Australia as LNG, but that too will require significant investment of at least A$1.5 billion. In that sense, the issues facing Australian shale are not different from that faced by US shale: there is plenty of gas. Getting it out of the ground is the easier part; getting it to market is the far harder part.
The Beetaloo and McArthur Shale Basins:
- 600km southeast of Darwin, ~30,000 square kilometres
- Holds an estimated 70% of total shale gas resources in the Northern Territories
- Origin Energy/Falcon Oil & Gas hold exploration permits for EP76, EP98 and EP 117 (covering 4.6 million acres)
- 500km southeast of Darwin, ~180,000 square kilometres
- Very high unconventional oil and gas potential’, particularly in the Barney Creek Formation
- Santos holds exploration permits for EP161, EP162, EP189 and EP(A)288
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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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