Challenges in a growing market
Gas looks the best bet of fossil fuels through the energy transition. Coal demand has already peaked while oil has a decade or so of slowing growth before electric vehicles start to make real inroads in transportation. Gas, blessed with lower carbon intensity and ample resource, is set for steady growth through 2040 on our base case projections.
LNG is surfing that wave. The LNG market will more than double in size to over 1000 bcm by 2040, a growth rate eclipsed only by renewables. A niche market not long ago, shipped LNG volumes will exceed global pipeline exports within six years.The bullish prospects will buoy spirits as industry leaders meet at Gastech, LNG’s annual gathering – held, appropriately and for the first time, in Houston – September 17-19.
Investors are scrambling to grab a piece of the action. We are witnessing a supply boom the scale of which the industry has never experienced before. Around US$240 billion will be spent between 2019 and 2025 on greenfield and brownfield LNG supply projects, backfill and finishing construction for those already underway.50% to be added to global supply
In total, these projects will bring another 182 mmtpa to market, adding 50% to global supply. Over 100 mmtpa is from the US alone, most of the rest from Qatar, Russia, Canada, and Mozambique. Still, more capital will be needed to meet demand growth beyond the mid-2020s. But the rapid growth also presents major challenges for sellers and buyers to adapt to changes in the market.
There is a risk of bottlenecks as this new supply arrives on the market. The industry will have to balance sizeable waves of fresh sales volumes with demand growing in fits and starts and across an array of disparate marketplaces – some mature, many fledglings, a good few in between.
India has built three new re-gas terminals, but imports are actually down in 2019. The pipeline network to get the gas to regional consumers has yet to be completed. Pakistan has a gas distribution network serving its northern industrial centres. But the main LNG import terminals are in the south of the country, and the commitment to invest in additional transmission lines taking gas north is fraught with political uncertainty.
China is still wrestling with third-party access and regulation of the pipeline business that is PetroChina’s core asset. Any delay could dull the growth rate in Asia’s LNG hotspot. Europe is at the early stages of replacing its rapidly depleting sources of indigenous piped gas with huge volumes of LNG imports delivered to the coast. Will Europe’s gas market adapt seamlessly to a growing reliance on LNG – especially when tested at extreme winter peaks? Time will tell.
The point-to-point business model that has served sellers (and buyers) so well over the last 60 years will be tested by market access and other factors. Buyers facing mounting competition in their domestic market will increasingly demand flexibility on volume and price, and contracts that are diverse in duration and indexation. These traditional suppliers risk leaving value, perhaps a lot of value, on the table.
In the future, sellers need to be more sophisticated. The full toolkit will have a portfolio of LNG, a mixture of equity and third-party contracted gas; a trading capability to optimise on volume and price; and the requisite logistics – access to physical capacity of ships and re-gas terminals to shift LNG to where it’s wanted. Enlightened producers have begun to move to an integrated model, better equipped to meet these demands and capture value through the chain. Pure traders will muscle in too.
Some integrated players will think big picture, LNG becoming central to an energy transition strategy. As Big Oil morphs into Big Energy, LNG will sit alongside a renewables and gas-fired power generation portfolio feeding all the way through to gas and electricity customers.
LNG trumps pipe exports...
...as the big suppliers crank up volumes
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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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