Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: July 17, 2020
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Business Trends
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In good times, the instinct of any company is to expand. In bad times, that instinct reverses to consolidation. This cycle is no more apparent anywhere else than in the oil and gas sector, where periodic boom-bust periods have been a regular feature since David Beaty drilled the first modern oilfield back in 1875 in Pennsylvania. The year 2020 is proving to be a year of reckoning for the entire industry, for obvious reasons, with all firms of all sizes announcing or preparing to announce major impairments. What follows is usually a swathe of divestments.

Two major sales by supermajors have captured the headlines recently: BP’s exit from the petrochemicals sector through a sale to INEOS, and Shell reaffirming its desire to sell its 35% stake in the Abadi LNG project in Indonesia. Both deals paint a picture of companies retreating from peripheral, though still profitable activities, in order to focus on core activities.

In BP’s case, it will be selling its last remaining petrochemical sites to INEOS, owned by UK billionaire Jim Ratcliffe. The sale encompasses 15 sites in the Americas, Europe and Asia focused on aromatics, acetyls and related businesses for US$5 billion, to be paid in US$1 billion instalments after an initial US$400 million deposit. Charmingly, it brings the INEOS story full circle: INEOS was first formed in 1998 to buy out a BP petrochemicals business in Belgium, and in 2005, paid US$9 billion to purchase Innovene, another BP subsidiary that made up a large proportion of BP’s then-existing chemicals assets.

For INEOS, it’s a great win as it adds aromatics and acetyl capacity where it is lacking, and significantly boosts presence in Asia, described as ‘two big pieces of chemistry in (that) portfolio that (INEOS) didn’t have before, completing the set’. From BP’s perspective, however, the sale runs counter to the prevailing trend in the energy sector where firms are actively expanding their petrochemicals presence, from China to the US Gulf Coast, seeing it as a stable and lower-carbon alternative to complement zero-carbon operational transformations. But BP’s footprint in the petrochemicals business has been shrinking over the past two decades, ceding ground to Shell, ExxonMobil, Total and other national players. It might prove to be a canny move, there has been a massive surge in capacity for petrochemicals recently, with huge oversupply in certain grades that has placed major pressure on petchems profit margins. Global campaigns to reduce single-use plastics also blunted growth prospects. A global pandemic further tarnished the lustre of the sector. For BP, it would have been easy to say yes to pocketing a pretty penny from Jim Ratcliffe, which would allow it to, in the words of CEO Bernard Looney – ‘build a more focused, more integrated BP, (with) other opportunities that are more aligned with our future direction’.

Unlike BP, Shell has announced no intention to reduce its presence in petrochemicals. But it is looking to divest its stake in the Abadi LNG project in Indonesia led by Japan’s Inpex. Why it wants to do that might throw up some questioning looks. Shell through its takeover of natural gas giant BG Group is the world’s largest LNG trader by far. Surely, then, retaining a 35% stake in a large natural gas project would be a good thing. Right?

Perhaps not. Reports that Shell has been wanting to sell its 35% stake in the Abadi LNG project surfaced in 2019. The Abadi LNG project centred on the Masela gas block deep in the Arafura Sea has had a particularly chequered past. Debates between Japan’s Inpex and the Indonesian government over the direction and location of the project has plagued it with delays. Inpex and Shell had favoured floating LNG plant but Joko Widodo’s government was pushing for an onshore plant, tempted by better local employment prospects. The government won out in the end, finally confirming in 2019 an offshore production facility and a 9.5 mtpa onshore plant that would be operational in 2028, extending the Masela PSC by 20 years. Negotiations, it was reported, were particularly strenuous. And perhaps Shell lost patience.

Shell could sell its stake, valued at up to U$2 billion to Inpex, which owns the remaining 65%, or to other players. But few players have the appetite to navigate Indonesia’s complicated upstream sector. For Shell, the exit may be a relief. Particularly since it already has other, equally gigantic LNG assets nearby in Australia. Those LNG assets are expected to take a US$8-9 billion hit as part of a potential US$15-22 billion impairment charge for Q2 2020 on low gas prices. Shell’s view on long-term gas prices is alreadt on the bleaker side. So why not divest now for ready cash, instead of waiting 8 more years for an asset that might be worth even less then?

BP and Shell have offered up an intriguing preview of where the industry could go in these trying times, exits and consolidations, and we expect that there will be a lot more similar divestment announcements to roll out over the remainder of 2020 and in 2021.

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Shell Indonesia Chevron Financial Profits Revenue divestments investments
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