Much like the year itself, the final quarter of 2020 proved to be full of shocks and surprises… at least in terms of financial results from oil and gas giants. With crude oil prices recovering on the back of a concerted effort by OPEC+ to keep a lid on supply, even at the detriment of their market share, the fourth quarter of 2020 was supposed to be smooth sailing. The tailwind of stronger crude and commodity prices, alongside gradual demand recovery, was expected to have smoothen out the revenue and profit curves for the supermajors.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, losses were declared where they were not expected. And where profits were to be had, they were meagre in volume. And crucially, a deeper dive into the financial results revealed worrying trends in the cash flow of several supermajors, calling into question the ability of these giants to continue on their capital expenditure and dividend plans, and the risks of resorting to debt financing in order to appease investors and yet also continue expanding.
Let’s start with the least surprising result of all. For months, ExxonMobil had been signalling that it would be taking a massive writedown on its upstream assets in Q4 2020, which could lead to a net loss for the quarter and the year. Unlike its peers, ExxonMobil had resisted making writedowns on the value of its crude-producing assets earlier in 2020. At the time, it stated that it had already built caution in the value assessments of those assets, reflecting ‘fair value’; not so long after that bold statement, ExxonMobil has been forced to backtrack and make a US$20.2 billion downward adjustment. Unusually, that meant that non-cash impairments aside, ExxonMobil actually eked out a tiny profit of US$110 million for the quarter on the strength of margins in the chemicals segment, but a full year loss of US$22.4 billion: the first ever annual loss since Exxon and Mobil merged in 1998. This was better than expected by Wall Street analysts, who would also be cheering the formation of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, in which the group would pump some US$3 billion through 2025 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2016 levels. That acknowledgement of a carbon neutral future is still far less ambitious than its European counterparts, but is a clear sign that ExxonMobil is starting to take the climate change element of its business more seriously.
If ExxonMobil managed to surprise in a good way, then its closest American rival did the opposite. Chevron had been outperforming ExxonMobil in quarterly results for a while now, but in Q4 2020 retreated with a net loss of US$665 million. That was narrower than the US$6.6 billion loss declared in Q4 2019, but still a shock since analysts were expecting a narrow profit. Calling 2020 ‘a year like no other’, the headwinds facing Chevron in Q4 2020 were the same facing all majors and supermajors, despite gains in crude prices, refining margins and fuel sales were still soft. Chevron’s cash flow was also a concern – as was ExxonMobil’s – which prompted chatter that the two direct descendants of JD Rockefeller’s Standard Oil were considering a merger. If so, then there is at least alignment on the climate topic: Chevron is also following the trail blazed by European supermajors in embracing a carbon neutral future, with CEO Michael Wirth conceding that Chevron may ‘not be an oil-first company in 2040’.
On the European side of the pond, that same theme of lowered downstream performance dragging down overall performance continued. But unlike the US supermajors, the likes of Shell, BP and Total were somewhat insulated from the Covid-19 blows at the peak of the pandemic as their opportunistic trading divisions capitalised on the wild swings in crude and fuel prices. That factor is now absent, with crude prices taking on a steady upward curve. That’s good for the rest of their businesses, but bad for trading, which thrives on uncertainty and volatility. And so BP reported a Q4 net profit of US$115 million, Shell followed with a Q4 net profit of US$393 million and Total closed out the earning season with industry-beating Q4 net profit of US$1.3 billion, above market expectations.
The softness of the financials hasn’t stopped dividend payouts, but has also been used by Europe’s Big Oil to set the tone for the next few decades of their existence. Total and BP paid a hefty premium to secure rights to build the next generation of UK wind farms; Total joined the Maersk-McKinney Moller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping to develop carbon neutral shipping solutions and splashed out on acquiring 2.2 GW of solar power projects in Texas; BP signed a strategic collaboration agreement with Russia’s Rosneft to develop new low carbon solutions; and aircraft carrier KLM took off with the first flight powered by synthetic kerosene that was developed by Shell through carbon dioxide, water and renewables. That’s a lot of a groundwork laid for the future where these giants can be carbon neutral by 2050.
The message from Q4 seems clear. Big Oil has barely begun its recovery from the Covid-19 maelstrom, and the road to a new normal remains long and painful. But this is also an opportunity to pivot; to set a new destination that is no longer business-as-usual, but embraces zero carbon ambitions. Even the American supermajors are slowly coming around, while the European continues to lead. Will majors in Asia, Latin America and Africa/Middle East follow? Let’s see what that attitude will bring over this new decade.
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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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