Just a few days ago, Chevron sent a tremor through the LNG industry when it announced that it was putting its stake in Australia’s giant North West Shelf project up for sale, having received ‘unsolicited approaches from a range of credible buyers’. The term to zoom in on is ‘unsolicited’. Meaning that Chevron wasn’t actively considering selling its stake in Australia’s oldest LNG project, but had been cajoled into starting a formal sales process by attractive offers. And that itself says a lot about the state of the LNG industry going forward.
A bit of history. The North West Shelf Project kicked off in the 1980s, then the largest engineering project in the world and remains the largest LNG project in Australia, even after the new wave of Western Australian LNG projects over the last decade. Formed as an equal joint venture between Chevron, Woodside Petroleum, BHP Billiton, BP, Shell and Japan Australia (owned by Mitsubishi Corporation and Mitsui & Co) – each holding a 1/6th stake – the North West Shelf brought together gas producing assets in the huge Carnarvon Basin, tying together fields like Perseus, North Rankin and Goodwyn into total reserves of 33 tcf. It put Australian LNG in the headlines, established the healthy LNG trade relationship between Japan and Australia, and transformed the economy of Western Australia;
Three decades later, the North West Shelf is still Australia’s most prodigious LNG-producing project. But one thing has changed. The natural gas drawn from its fields is drying up, or – to use a more appropriate term – evaporating. There’s still plenty of gas in the Carnarvon Basin, but not enough to power LNG production fully for the foreseeable future. Which is why NWS has started to shift its focus to tolling. In this context, it essentially means that the NWS will sells its liquefaction and associated infrastructure capacity to other gas producers in the region, who will process their natural gas into LNG through NWS before selling it on to their own customers. That would flip the NWS – in its current structure – from having full control over assets and production to being a landlord, renting out its infrastructure for someone else to use.
And there are plenty of ‘someone’s around. BHP and Woodside Petroleum’s Scarborough natural gas development is a perfect example, with Woodside also have its Browse project. These assets are nearby, and tying them to the NWS facilities is considerably more economic than having to build a new liquefaction plant from scratch. Even Chevron has its own assets in the area – the giant Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG project – but due to geography and proximity, has developed these as independent projects with individual facilities. The problem is that the potential third-party assets to be tied into NWS are owned by some of the NWS’ own stakeholders. This would upset the delicate balance between the NWS partners – who designed the structure to be equal and equitable.
With this significant misalignment between Chevron and its partners, it makes sense that Chevron would want to sell out of the project, particularly since the sale could fetch as much as US$4 billion, which is a nice chunk of change to help Chevron weather the current Covid-19 storm. It won’t just be Chevron considering this; BP and Shell will be thinking about this as well, although the Japanese partners are likely to remain to continue siphoning the LNG back home. While the potential suitors have not been named, the most likely candidate is Woodside, who could use its additional clout to convince the remaining NWS partners to agree on feeding Browse gas into NWS, a proposal that it has had difficulties with so far. Key Asian LNG buyers could be potential suitors as well, particularly Korean or Chinese companies that are keen to secure LNG assets for their own growing demand.
This problem won’t be unique to the North West Shelf. It is one that most giant LNG projects that were developed in the 1980s and 1990s must confront soon: with associated natural gas reserves running low, these projects must now look for alternative sources to continue LNG production. For some, circumstances may dictate that decommissioning makes more sense. But for others, like the North West Shelf, the presence of other nearby assets is a double-edged sword: it means that the project can keep running, but will have change its business model to adapt. That means ruffling a few feathers. Chevron might be one of the first to take this step, but it certainly will not be the last.
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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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