After over 60 years of operating in the frigid but productive wilderness of Alaska, oil supermajor BP has decided to call it quits. The entirety of its Alaskan assets and operations have been sold to Hilcorp Energy for US$5.6 billion. Why Alaska and why now? Well, that’s just a natural consequence of looking for the next big thing. Once home to the largest crude oil field in America, BP’s departure from Alaska is not a surprise but a trend of things to come.
What Hilcorp purchases from BP includes the Prudhoe Bay oil field, which produced 1.5 mmb/d per day in the late 1980s as well as BP’s stake in the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, which moves oil from the North Slope to the Port of Valdez for export. These were once crown jewels of American upstream, but are now tarnished after years of consistent production have dwindled resources. From peak production of over 2 mmb/d in the late 1980s, Alaskan crude output is now under 500,000 b/d. What oil is left is getting harder to extract, and what new oil is being found isn’t nearly enough to justify long-term investment. Particularly when cheaper alternatives that bring quicker returns – ie. shale
BP isn’t the only firm to exit Alaska, but it certainly is the largest so far. In fact, it had already halted exploration in Alaska years ago, maintaining its portfolio of existing assets only. Marathon Oil and Anadarko have already fled southwards to the shale fields in Texas and Mexico. But BP’s history with Alaska is deep, and therefore its departure is a psychological blow. Following the news, there is now already talk that ExxonMobil might be the next to leave. If it did, it would be a disappointment to the state but certainly not a surprise; oil production in the Last Frontier is projected to hit a 42-year low this year. What is BP’s loss is Houston-based Hilcorp’s gain – Hilcorp’s Alaskan operation will double in size after the deal, placing it just behind ConocoPhillips as the largest operators in the state.
Of course, this phenomenon isn’t just limited to Alaska. The North Sea, once crucial to the global crude supply chain has seen similar declines. And, consequently, the departure of once major players. Taking their place are smaller, more nimble players with a bigger risk appetite, seeking to eke out the last few drops of oil available in these maturing areas.
So where does BP and the other majors considering moving out go? The answer is predictable: shale. BP already has a toehold in US shale, purchasing BHP’s shale operations in July 2018 for US$10.5 billion its largest deal in 19 years. With assets in the Permian through the deal, BP returns once again to the US shale frontier, after being forced to leave the then-promising Permian in 2010 in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP CEO Bob Dudley called the Alaska deal a move to ‘steadily reshaping BP with opportunities that are more closely aligned with our long-term strategy and more competitive for our investment.’ In other words, once precious strongholds like Alaska, the North Sea and even Alberta oil sands are old hat. The cool new kid on the block is shale and, despite the challenges it faces in long term sustainability of production, all the majors and supermajors want to get into club. Well, maybe except Total and (to a lesser extent) Shell.
For all the talk of individual strategies and characteristics, the industry is still governed by a herd mentality. And the herds are migrating away from drying old pastures in search for fresh new grass elsewhere. Where they will go once the new grass dries up will be anyone’s guess.
BP’s main upstream assets in Alaska
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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