Last Updated: February 10, 2020
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The final set of financial numbers for 2019, and for an interesting decade in terms of oil prices, came to an end as a tale of two parts. With the quarter characterised by stubborn crude prices despite OPEC+’s efforts and slumping gas prices amid a global glut, it was always going to be a challenging quarter. Most numbers from supermajors and majors came in as disappointing, but there were several bright spots where even the most optimistic expectations were exceed.

Shell, the first to report, set the tone for the cycle, showing a 48% fall in net profits from a 19% y-o-y drop in revenue. Citing weaker refining and chemical margins from slowing global growth with China and the US still locked in a trade war, the weaker results led Shell to scale back the pace of its US$25 billion share buyback programme. With only US$1 billion of shares to be bought back in Q12020 – down from the regular US$2.75 billion per quarter. Shell warned that the programme’s schedule was still at risk due to the softening global economy. It is likely that Shell will miss its deadline of completing the buyback by end-2020; investors were not impressed, and sent Shell’s share prices down to a two-year low in response.

The US supermajors came next, with both ExxonMobil and Chevron failing to meet market expectations. For ExxonMobil, revenue and net profits were both down by 5%, with the company blaming the ‘tough environment’ and depressed margins for its oil, gas, refining and chemicals businesses that will spill into 2020. Its financials, however, were boosted by the sale of its non-strategic assets in Norway, and noted that its oil extraction in Guyana was going ahead of schedule and could have a positive impact on Q1 financials. Unlike ExxonMobil, Chevron did not have strategic asset sales to fall back on. In fact, it went the opposite way. Having warned investors that it was preparing to take a major write-down on a collection of assets, including shale gas production in Appalachia and deepwater projects in the Gulf of Mexico, the final charge came in at US$10.4 billion. That wiped Chevron’s profits out, reporting a net loss of US$6.6 billion for Q419. Segment performance was stable, beating analyst expectations in some cases. But the pressure of low oil and gas prices will persist.

Things then got better. In the final results for retiring CEO Bob Dudley, who will be replaced by Bernard Looney, BP reported net profits of US$2.57 billion, exceeding even then highest analyst estimate. With a solid upstream performance and boosted by its in-house trading arm, BP bucked the negative trend, allowing it to raise its dividend level, a notion that it had rejected in the last quarter, while also completing a US$1.5 billion share buyback programme. Rounding off the quintet, Total also exceed the expectations of the market. Although the French company was also affected by slumping natural gas prices, along with strikes at its French refineries, record production boosted net profits to US$3.17 billion, almost unchanged y-o-y. The ramp-up of key natural gas projects, Yamal in Russia and Ichthys in Australia, along with the start of the Egina and Kaombo crude oil projects in West Africa, raised upstream output by 9% over a quarter where all other rivals saw their production decline.

When the decade started in 2010, crude oil prices were riding high at US$80/b. It would soon peak at nearly US$120/b in 2011, stay elevated for 3 years, halving by end-2014, slumping down to US$30/b in 2016 before beginning a gradual recovery. This 10-year see-saw ride has been mirrored in the financial performance of the energy supermajors. With a new decade starting with plenty of uncertainty, the fiscal discipline adopted since 2015 by the supermajors will be key to supporting their business activities going forward in troubled times.

Supermajor Financials Q4 2019:

  • ExxonMobil – Revenue (US$67.2 billion, down 5% y-o-y), Net profit (US$5.69, down 5% y-o-y)
  • Shell - Revenue (US$85.1 billion, down 19% y-o-y), Net profit (US$2.93 billion, down 48% y-o-y)
  • Chevron – Revenue (US$36.4 billion, down 14% y-o-y), Net profit (-US$6.6 billion, down 300% y-o-y)
  • BP - Revenue (US$72.2 billion, down 6% y-o-y), Net profit (US$2.57 billion, down 26% y-o-y)
  • Total - Revenue (US$43.4 billion, down 6% y-o-y), Net profit (US$3.17 billion, unchanged y-o-y)

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The New Wave of Renewable Fuels

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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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$71-73/b, WTI – US$68-70/b
  • Global crude benchmarks have stayed steady, even as OPEC+ sticks to its plans to ease supply quotas against the uncertainty of rising Covid-19 cases worldwide
  • However, the success of vaccination drives has kindled hope that the effect of lockdowns – if any – will be mild, with pockets of demand resurgence in Europe; in China, where there has been a zero-tolerance drive to stamp out Covid outbreaks, fuel consumption is strengthening again, possibly tightening fuel balances in Q4
  • Meanwhile, much of the US Gulf of Mexico crude production remains hampered by the effects of Hurricane Ida, providing a counter-balance on the supply side

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