Now that the dust on the Chevron-Occidental-Anadarko acquisition battle has settled – with Occidental emerging victorious after help from Warren Buffet – the question on industry lips is: what, or who, is next? Emerging as a collection of bootstrapped pioneers and ambitious independents, the emerging profile of the onshore basin has attracted the attention of supermajors in recent years. While the likes of Chevron and ExxonMobil have acquired some acreage organically, the choicest parts and assets are in the hands of smaller players. When Chevron first announced its deal for Anadarko, it was thought of that that would kick off an acquisition bonanza. That might still happen.
Generating a lot of talk is Endeavor Energy Resources. With a huge 350,000 acres position in the Permian’s Midland Basin, Endeavor is the largest private company in the area. Chatter in the market suggest that Shell might make an official move for Endeavor soon for US$8 billion, and it’s easy to see why. Much of Endeavor’s drilling rights is mostly undeveloped; while that means that Shell can’t hit the ground running with an acquisition, it has long-term attraction considering the high depletion rate observed in Permian fields. Shell itself is reportedly on the prowl for expansion in the Permian, having largely finished its asset rationalisation programme after the US$61 billion takeover of the BG Group and the fact that it majorly lags behind rivals ExxonMobil and Chevron in the space.
Next is Diamondback Energy, a Permian pure-play firm that has valuable assets in the Midland Basin as well as the prized (and prolific) Delaware Basin. Diamondback’s asset map covers 200,000 acres – including several tracts that are contiguous with ExxonMobil and Chevron’s current acreage in the Delaware. Also worth considering is Concho Resources, another Permian pure-play with large acreages scattered across the Midland and Delaware Basins. The largest of these are adjacent to Occidental’s own areas, so it would not be a surprise if Occidental gears up appetite for another buy.
But right on top of the list of Pioneer Natural Resources. Although its CEO has recently stated that Pioneer is not for sale, things might change with the right price. With Pioneer having sold off the last of its remaining assets in Eagle Ford shale, Pioneer is now a Permian pure-play, it has over 785,000 acres in the Midland Basin. Although less prolific than the Delaware, the Midland Basin is still attractive and Pioneer’s position is particularly concentrated and contiguous. Brushing up against Pioneer’s acreage is ExxonMobil and Chevron’s own boundaries, and its new status as a Permian pure-play makes Pioneer particularly attractive for integration compared to the complex and global portfolio of Anadarko. Of course, this doesn’t preclude the scenario where Pioneer itself goes on a shopping spree. With cash on hand at US$1.4 billion and net profits for 2018 at US$1 billion, it might have to borrow to buy, but the long-term dividends might be worth it.
Other names popping up on potential acquisition lists include Parsley Energy, Centennial Resource Development, EOG Resources, Noble Energy and Apache – the latter three having expansion ambitions of their own. The list of potential suitors for these jewels is long. Besides the ambitious duo of ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as the new interest from Shell, there is also BP (which bought BHP’s Permian assets last year), ConocoPhillips and US independents Devon Energy, Marathon Oil and Encana. Interest could also come from further afield, with chatter suggesting interest from Chinese, Malaysian and even Thai players. In fact, the only major players that have largely ruled out running to the Permian are France’s Total and Italy’s Eni, both of which are concentrating on the high potential of their African assets. The race for the Permian is on and in three years, the corporate landscape there will look very much different
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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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