Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: August 7, 2020
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Business Trends
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It is, obviously, unsurprising that the recently released Q2 financials for the oil & gas supermajors contained distressed numbers as the first full quarter of Covid-19 impact washed over the entire industry. It is, however, surprising how the various behemoths of the energy world are choosing to respond to the new normal, and how past strategies have exposed either inherent strengths or weakness in their operational strategy.

Let’s begin with BP. With roots that stretch back to 1908 with the discovery of commercial oil in Persia, now Iran – BP arguably coined the phrase supermajor in the late 1990s, when acquisition of Amoco, Arco and Burmah Castrol married BP’s own substantial holdings in Europe and the Middle East to create a transatlantic oil and gas giant. It was a trend mirrored across the industry, with the Seven Sisters of the 1970s becoming ExxonMobil (Esso and Mobil), Chevron (Gulf Oil, Socal and Texaco) and modern day Royal Dutch Shell. Joining them were ConocoPhillips (Conoco and Phillips) and Total (Petrofina and Elf Aquitaine). As the world’s appetite for oil and gas increased at an accelerating pace, the supermajors became among the world’s largest and highest valued companies across the next two decades.

That is now poised for a major change. With fossil fuels waning in demand and renewables becoming more investable, BP is now declaring that it will no longer be a supermajor. CEO Bernard Looney made the announcement ahead of the release of the company’s Q2 financials, seeking to reinvent the firm as ‘integrated energy company’ rather than an ‘integrated oil company’. To make this change, Looney is looking to shrink BP’s oil and gas output by 40% through 2030 and invest heavily to become the world’s largest renewable energy businesses, putting climate change firmly on the agenda and getting ahead of the curve in meeting European directives for a low-carbon future. This was, perhaps, already on the cards. But the Covid-19 effect has hastened it. With a second quarter loss of US$6.7 billion, BP is choosing this time to rebrand itself for long-term transformation rather than maximise current shareholder value; indeed, it will slash dividends in half in order to invest cash for the future.

On the European side of the Atlantic, that trend is accelerating. Shell and Total are also aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, alongside other European majors such as Eni and Equinor. That isn’t to say that oil or gas will no longer play a huge role in their operations – indeed Total and Eni in particular have made many recent and potentially lucrative finds in Egypt, South Africa and Suriname – just that oil and gas will become a smaller percentage of a diversified business. Both Shell and Total have also displayed how past strategic decisions have paid dividends in uncertain times. Both supermajors declared profits for the quarter, escaping the trend of underlying losses with net profits of US$638 million and US$126 million respectively when a deep red colour to the numbers was expected. The saving grace in a dramatic quarter was their trading activities, where the trading divisions of Shell and Total (as well as BP) took advantage of chaos in the market to deliver strong results. But even with this silver lining, Shell and Total are scaling back on dividends, as they join BP in a drive to diversify in the age of climate change, which has strong political backing in Europe where they are based.

On the other side of the pond, the mood surrounding climate change is decidedly different. ExxonMobil and Chevron aren’t exactly ignoring a low-carbon future but they aren’t exactly embracing it wholeheartedly either. Instead, both supermajors look to be focusing on maximising shareholder value by focusing on producing oil as profitably as possible. It explains why Chevron moved to acquire Noble Energy recently after failing to buy Anadarko last year, and why ExxonMobil is still gung-ho over American shale and its new found black gold assets in Guyana. The Permian remains on their focus; with economic pressure on, there are rich pickings in the shale patch that could turn American shale from a patchwork of ragtag independent drillers to big boy-dominated. In the short-term, that promises quick returns after the panic – especially with ExxonMobil and Chevron declaring net losses of US$1.08 billion and US$8.3 billion for Q2, respectively – but the underlying assumption to that is that the energy industry will recover and continue as it is for the foreseeable future, rather than the major upheaval predicted by their European counterparts.

For shareholders, and the companies themselves, the expectation is what the future will hold once the worse is over. That Q2 2020 financials dismal performance was never in doubt. What is more revealing is where the supermajors will go from here. Will BP’s attempt to end the supermajor era pay off? Or will American optimism return us back to business as usual? It’s two different visions of the future that will either way spell a sea change for the industry.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$43-45/b, WTI – US$40-42/b
  • Global crude oil price benchmarks moved higher after a devastating blast in Lebanon that levelled a significant amount of Beirut’s port facilities
  • However, the market is also cautious as OPEC+ begins to wind its supply cuts down to a new level of 7.7 mmb/d with concerns that demand recovery is slower-than expected
  • OPEC’s Gulf nations – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE – also ended voluntary cuts made in June, but are looking to force Iraq to 100% compliance in August and September as the latest data continues to show it lagging behind commitments

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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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