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Last Updated: March 11, 2021
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Forecast Highlights

Global liquid fuels

  • The March Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) remains subject to heightened levels of uncertainty because responses to COVID-19 continue to evolve. Reduced economic activity related to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes in energy demand and supply during the past year and will continue to affect these patterns in the future. U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) declined by 3.5% in 2020 from 2019 levels. This STEO assumes U.S. GDP will grow by 5.5% in 2021 and by 4.2% in 2022, compared with an assumption of 3.8% in 2021 and 4.2% in 2022 in last month’s STEO. The U.S. macroeconomic assumptions in this outlook are based on forecasts by IHS Markit.
  • Brent crude oil spot prices averaged $62 per barrel (b) in February, up $8/b from January’s average and up $7/b from February 2020. Rising Brent prices in February continued to reflect expectations of rising oil demand as both COVID-19 vaccination rates and global economic activity have increased, combined with ongoing petroleum supply limitations by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+). In addition, disruptions to petroleum supply from extreme winter weather in the United States (notably in Texas) put upward pressure on crude oil prices during February.
  • The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects OPEC crude oil production will average 25.3 million barrels per day (b/d) in April, which is similar to expected production for March and down 1.6 million b/d from EIA’s forecast for April OPEC production in last month’s STEO. EIA expects OPEC crude oil production will rise to 26.6 million b/d in May. This increase reflects Saudi Arabia ending voluntary cuts of 1.0 million b/d, along with the relaxation of cuts that were extended through April at the March 4 OPEC+ meeting. This forecast assumes OPEC will produce 27.9 million b/d on average in the second half of 2021, as OPEC+ generally increases crude oil output to supply rising global oil consumption.
  • The OPEC+ extension of existing supply cuts through April added significantly to near-term upward oil price pressures. Following the meeting, the Brent crude oil spot price settled at $67/b on March 4, up 4% from the day before. EIA expects Brent prices will average between $65-$70/b during March and April, more than $10/b above EIA’s expectation last month. EIA continues to expect downward crude oil price pressures will emerge in the coming months as the oil market becomes more balanced. Brent crude oil prices in the forecast average $58/b in the second half of 2021.
  • EIA’s forecast of declining crude oil prices and a more balanced oil market reflect global oil supply surpassing oil demand during the second half of 2021. Although EIA expects inventories to fall by 1.2 million b/d in the first half of 2021, increases in global oil supply will contribute to inventories rising by almost 0.4 million b/d in the second half of 2021 and a mostly balanced market in 2022. However, the forecast depends heavily on future production decisions by OPEC+, the responsiveness of U.S. tight oil production to higher oil prices, and the pace of oil demand growth, among other factors. EIA expects Brent prices will average $59/b in 2022.
  • EIA estimates that the world consumed 95.9 million b/d of petroleum and liquid fuels in February, which is down 1.6 million b/d from February 2020. If confirmed by final consumption data, the 1.6 million b/d decline would represent the smallest year-over-year decline since the COVID-19 outbreak began affecting oil consumption in January 2020. EIA forecasts that global consumption of petroleum and liquid fuels will average 97.5 million b/d for all of 2021, which is up by 5.3 million b/d from 2020. EIA forecasts that consumption will increase by another 3.8 million b/d in 2022 to average 101.3 million b/d.
  • EIA estimates that U.S. crude oil production averaged 10.4 million b/d in February, which is down 0.5 million b/d from estimated January production. Most of the decline reflects the cold temperatures that affected much of the country, particularly Texas. Unlike the relatively winterized oil production infrastructure in northern areas of the country, infrastructure in Texas, such as wellheads, gathering lines, and processing facilities, are more susceptible to the effects of extremely cold weather. Following the freeze-offs, EIA forecasts crude oil production will rise to almost 11.0 million b/d in March. EIA expects U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d in 2021 and 12.0 million b/d in 2022. In 2020, production averaged 11.3 million b/d, down from 12.2 million b/d in 2019. EIA’s current forecast for U.S. crude oil production in 2022 is 0.5 million b/d higher than in last month’s STEO because of higher expected crude oil prices.

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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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