It has been almost five years since the giant Khafji field shared between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was shut down. Ostensibly on environmental concerns, this precipitated a halt of all activities in the so-called Neutral Zone – a colonial-era border relic that holds a significant amount of oil and gas. After years of stop-start negotiations, reports are now suggesting that the OPEC allies are close to a breakthrough on the matter, which could return up to 500,000 b/d of oil to the market at a crucial time for the global oil supply/demand balance.
Left undefined by the Uqair Convention of 1922 that otherwise established concrete borders for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the dry piece of land that is 8 times the size of Singapore was mostly ignored until 1938, when the Burgan oil field was discovered within Kuwait’s borders. A race for exploration began, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait both awarding overlapping concessions to private companies and Getty Oil finally striking oil in 1948. The Wafra field was discovered in 1953, and in 1960, Japan’s Arabian Oil Company (which held an offshore concession awarded by Saudi Arabia in 1957 and another awarded by Kuwait in 1958) discovered the giant Khafji offshore field. Overlapping claims of sovereignty did not prevent exploitation of the resources, but opaque rights eventually led to a formal partition in 1970 where it was agreed that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would split production equally under a joint operating agreement. The unique status of the Neutral Zone is exemplified by its structure – its largest onshore oil field (Wafra) is operated by Chevron, the only remaining place in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where a major asset is held by an international firm.
And it was this arrangement that caused the current quandary. Chevron inherited the Neutral Zone assets through its merger with Texaco in 2001, which itself bought Getty Oil in 1984. In 2009, Saudi Arabia renewed Chevron’s concession for Wafra independently, angering Kuwait as the negotiations were performing without its consultation. Kuwait responded by attempting to evict Chevron from its offices in the Neutral Zone, claiming that the land was planned for the giant Ras al Zour refinery. More tit-for-tat moves escalated and eventually Saudi Arabia shut down Khafji in October 2014 and the entire Neutral Zone in May 2015, removing 500,000 b/d of crude oil from the market in one fell swoop.
That may be coming back now, with Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih stating that he hopes to reach a deal to resume production by the end of this year. It’ll be a boon not only to both countries, but also Chevron, which was in the midst of a full-field steam flood injection EOR project to boost production of heavy oil when the shutdown hit. Given that much time has elapsed, restoration of full production will take a while. If it does happen, however, those additional volumes could complicate mathematics as OPEC faces a scenario of managing global oil supply through its supply deal to account for lost volumes from Iran, Venezuela and Libya, but also surging American shale production. With total production capacity at a maximum of 600,000 b/d, Neutral Zone output is not small drop in the barrel.
But there is more than just restarting fields at stake. While Khafji and Wafra both have a long life left ahead of them (Wafra is estimated to have 4.9 billion recoverable barrels), the Neutral Zone also contains the offshore Dorra field – a politically-sensitive gas field shared with Iran. Plans to exploit Dorra have been shelved since 2013, but Dorra gas is badly needed to power domestic electricity demand in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. A restart will help in that matter, certainly in the long term. And it is the long term that is underpinning the renewed negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, even if the short-term impact might be negative on global oil fundamentals.
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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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