Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: July 26, 2020
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Business Trends
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Amid the unprecedented upheaval that has taken its toll on the world and, in particular the energy industry in the first half of this year, life goes on. Despite shut-ins, weak prices, huge impairments, gloomy forecasts and business challenges, life still goes on. Rigs are still running, exploration is still being conducted and projects are still being approved. The oil and gas world has weathered a huge storm, but that has not stopped it from focusing on necessary work that is vital for the future of the industry itself and the global economy. We have summarised a list of key upstream announcements and developments since April.

One of the major headlines that came out over the past three months was news that Total’s giant LNG in Mozambique has secured as much as US$16 billion in funds from various financial institutions. This is the single largest foreign direct investment project in Africa ever, matching the total current GDP of Mozambique. The speed at which Total completed financing for the US$23 billion project (which taps in the gigantic Golfinho and Atum natural gas fields) is quite remarkable, when the ExxonMobil-led Rovuma LNG next door is facing delays. In fact, the funding raised US$600 million than expected, representing the faith that the 13.1 million ton per annum project, potentially expandable to 43 mtpa, will pay off in the long run. For Total, this will be a hedge, given that its LNG efforts in Papua New Guinea are currently still stymied by a showdown against the country’s new government.

Chevron also had some major news to publish. After failing to acquire Anadarko in 2019 in a dramatic storyline against Occidental Petroleum, the US supermajor has swooped in to acquire US independent Noble Energy for some US$5 billion. The acquisition neatly replaces what the original Anadarko purchase was supposed to achieve – expand Chevron’s presence in the prolific US onshore shale basins, with Noble’s 92,000 acres in the Permian noted as being ‘largely contiguous and adjacent’ to Chevron’s current assets. Noble will also bring with it established positions in the Eagle Ford basin, significant US midstream assets and upstream assets in Israel and Equatorial Guinea, swelling Chevron’s proven oil and gas reserves by 18%. For that amount of potential, the price is a steal. With smaller shale players under pressure, expect more acquisitions of this sort to be announced by deep-pocketed bargain hunters.

Chevron wasn’t the only one to make acquisitions. ConocoPhillips splashed out US$375 million to take up land in Western Canada’s liquids-rich Montney formation, taking the Inga-Fireweed asset from Kelt Exploration. Trident Energy completed its purchase of 10 concessions in the offshore Pampo and Enchova clusters in Brazil from Petrobras. And trader Vitol announced a rara avis, a new US upstream venture called Vencer Energy, focusing on acquiring and operating mature assets in the US Lower 48 region from its base in Houston.

New discoveries have also been coming at a regular speed. Despite divesting assets, Petrobras announced two new discoveries in the offshore Buzios and Albacora pre-salt fields, with reserves of ‘excellent quality’. Eni continues its winning run in Egypt with the new Bashrush natural gas discovery in the Mediterranean Sea, while MOL made its lucky 13th discovery in Pakistan with the Mamikhel South-1 well (the tenth in the TAL Block alone) that revealed ‘significant gas and condensate reserves’. ExxonMobil has restarted two of its four drillships in Guyana and Petronas has handed out contracts in Suriname, so more discoveries are due from that part of the Caribbean. Neptune Energy hit oil at the Dugong well in the Norwegian North Sea, and China’s CNOOC announced a ‘significant discovery’ at the Huizhou 26-6 well in the Pearl River Mouth Basin – the first mid-to-large sized oil and gas field in the area.

CNOOC will be hoping the Huizhou discovery will continue its streak of recent discoveries, boosting domestic Chinese upstream output. Its Luda 21-2/16-3 asset, in the Bohai Sea’s Liaodong Bay, has just started up production, reaching a peak of 25,600 b/d in 2022. Sinopec is also marshalling resources, announcing a US$770 million plan to develop the Dingbei gas prospect in Ningxia and its 230 bcm of natural gas.

Medco reported first gas from the Meliwis field off East Java in Indonesia from an unmanned platform, while the National Iranian Oil Co shrugged off a domestic economic crisis to partner with Persia Oil and Gas Industry Development Co for US$463 million to re-develop the Yaran field in the Khuzestan Province, raising output by 40 million barrels over 10 years. And then in frozen Siberia, where Novatek is speeding ahead with LNG, Gazprom Neft and Shell have agreed to collaborate on developing the Leskinsky and Pukhutsyayakhshy blocks in the Gydan Peninsula: an unusual display of cooperation between a Russian state firm and a Western supermajor.

This is not an exhaustive list of recent developments in the upstream oil and gas corner of the universe. They are the most notable, but there are other signs that the thaw is coming and the industry can recover and begin to grow again. Covid-19 may be something that we must all learn to live with going forward, but life will always go on, and this too shall pass.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$42-44/b, WTI – US$40-42/b
  • Global crude oil price markers remain stuck in the lower US$40/b area, as concerns of demand linger given the accelerating rate of Covid-19 in the Americas
  • News that OPEC+ was looking for a gradual phasing into the new supply quota level provides some support on the supply side, while key developments in potential Covid-19 vaccines indicate that first availability could be as early as September
  • A massive stimulus package agreed by the EU and positive messaging of recovery in Asia after two quarters of bad economic data also offer hope that growth could resume soon, though global trends are likely to be uneven given the situation in the Americas

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December, 01 2021
Royal Dutch Shell Poised To Become Just Shell

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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