Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: June 2, 2021
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Business Trends
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The battle for the future of humanity is moving from the oceans and the rainforests of the world into the board rooms of the world’s largest energy companies. On a single day in late May, shareholders and courts delivered a decisive twist in the drive for the oil and gas industry to ‘go green’. Shell was ordered to cut its emissions by far more than it already plans to. Chevron’s stock holders defied the company’s recommendation by directing it to slash emissions. And ExxonMobil’s CEO went head-to-head with a small activist investor, which resulted in an embarrassing show for Darren Woods as he lost two seats on the Board of Directors. Serious and stoic newspapers called it ‘Black Wednesday for Big Oil’, representing a shift in the way the industry engages climate change: doing something just isn’t enough, and activists are ready to use the world’s courts and the companies’ own AGMs to force a change if none is coming.

In the Netherlands, a court ruled that Shell must slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 (compared to 2019 levels) to bring it in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The case, by Friends of the Earth Netherlands, argues that Shell violates fundamental human rights by not accelerating its plans to slash emissions, jeopardising the Agreement’s target of limiting the average increase in global temperatures to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Not that Shell was a laggard in that arena. Like its other European energy peers, Shell has embarked on a strategy to reduce net emissions by 25% through 2030, and then to net-zero by 2050. That, the court said, is not enough. Shell needs to slash its emissions harder and faster than planned. And not just in the Netherlands, since the ruling applies to the entire Royal Dutch Shell Group, from Mexico to Malaysia. Shell will be appealing the ruling, potentially dragging the case through years of continued litigation, but the landmark decision will embolden more environmental groups to push for judicial action. There are currently some 1800 lawsuits related to climate court pending globally; prior to the Shell ruling, many were ruled in favour of energy companies, but this case could have a powerful ripple effect. At risk will be oil and gas companies in North America and Europe, but even national oil firms or players in developing countries are not safe, with cases also being filed in India, South Africa and Argentina.

However, the judicial process is a long and complicated one. Sometimes, it is faster than change things from the inside. And that is exactly what Chevron’s shareholders did at its recent AGM. Going against recommendations by Chevron’s own board, some 61% of investors voted for a proposal to reduce its Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions – which is pollution caused by third-party use of its products. A sober CEO Mike Wirth went on Bloomberg to state that ‘interests in these (climate change) issues has never been higher and I think the votes reflects that.’ He shouldn’t have been surprised; a week earlier, 58% of ConocoPhillips shareholders also rejected company recommendations to vote for a similar full-scope emissions reduction target.

But even this pales in comparison to the drama that took place in the (virtual) boardroom of the world’s largest supermajor. It was a drama that began back in December 2020, when a small activist investor with only a 0.02% stake in ExxonMobil began lobbying the firm to take the fight against global warming more seriously. Initially dismissed, Engine No. 1 eventually proposed four of its own candidates to sit on ExxonMobil’s 12-strong Board of Directors, which includes CEO Darren Woods. ExxonMobil reportedly refused to meet with any of the 4 nominees, calling them ‘unqualified’ and that the activist’s goals would ‘derail our progress and jeopardise your dividend.’ That imperious approach rankled. Two prominent shareholder-advisory firms – Institutional Shareholder Services Inc and Glass Lewis & Co – then provided the activist partial support. ExxonMobil retaliated by stating that it would name two new directors, one with energy industry and one with climate experience, to quell dissent.

It was not enough. With ExxonMobil’s top three investors (Vanguard Group, BlackRock Inc and State Street Corp, collectively holding more than 21% of shares) wavering, the company made an unprecedented last-ditch attempt to prevent a defeat. Individual calls were made in a targeted manner to persuade a changing of votes, up until the virtual meeting started. After the AGM began, there even was a 60-minute pause citing volumes of votes incoming, during which some shareholders were contacted again to change their votes. In the words of one major executive, the move was ‘unprecedented’. Engine No. 1 publicly complained of the ‘banana republic tactic’ on television. But, in the end, two of its nominees – former CEO of refiner Andeavor Gregory Goff and environmental scientist Kaisa Hietala – were nominated to the Board. Two seats remain undecided, potentially granting Engine No. 1 a third director.

This rebuff was particularly painful for ExxonMobil and Chevron, who (along with other American majors) have been dragging their feet on climate change. Their gamble to focus on shorter-term profits generated by higher crude prices and prodigious production, while only evolving their sustainability position gradually, had long been thought to please shareholders. Apparently not. Climate change affects all, including some of the world’s largest investors like BlackRock Inc, which has been very vocal about its climate position. So if ExxonMobil’s executives won’t take climate change seriously, then change must be forced at the Board level. This may put Darren Woods in a wobbly position; but so far Engine No. 1 has not shown signs of wanting to oust Woods, they just want climate change to be a stronger item on his agenda.

But even if climate change is already a major item, that might not be enough, as seen in the ruling against Shell. Even the most ambitious of the supermajors like BP and Total (which was just rebranded to TotalEnergies) might not be safe from litigation, even though their decarbonisation plans were rated as the best by financial thinktank Carbon Tracker. Which could be the reasoning behind some recent moves by the supermajors to start shedding traditional assets and acquiring renewable ones: ExxonMobil has decided to pull out of a deepwater oil prospect in Ghana, Shell has decided to sell its Mobile Chemical LP refinery in Alabama to Vertex Energy Operating and its Deer Park Refining stake to Pemex, while BP has just acquired 9GW of renewable energy capacity in the USA from 7X Energy as its chases a global 50GW goal by 2030. Taken together, these moves are creating a narrative. Boardrooms and AGMs are generally safe places for energy executives, but not anymore. The new era is upon the energy industry. And the definition of ‘good enough’ has just changed.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$69-71/b, WTI – US$66-68/b
  • Brent crude prices topped the US$70/b mark, signalling strength in oil with consumption in the US, Europe and China rebounding strongly and OPEC+ signalling that the supply side was beginning to tighten
  • That declaration by OPEC+ will undoubtedly lead to a further easing of the club’s supply quotas from July onwards, as it aims to balance stable oil prices with steady supply that will not overwhelm the market, even with Iran’s possible return
  • The timeline and momentum for Iran to restore production – potentially to 4-5 mmb/d from a current 2.5 mmb/d – will depend on ongoing talks to revive the 2015 nuclear accord, but Iran has already started laying the groundwork for an inevitable return 

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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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