It cannot be said that the conversation around sustainability and carbon intensity in the energy industry happened overnight, since the topic has been a subject for over five decades. But what has changed is that there has been a major acceleration in the discussion in the last year, and even the last month. The European majors and supermajors have all adopted ambitious carbon-neutral goals – even though some jurisdictions are saying that those aren’t even enough. Over the pond, even shareholders are pushing the traditionally more reticent American giants to adopting stronger climate change goals. Nothing is more emblematic of this change that the shareholder revolt at ExxonMobil’s recent AGM, where upstart activist investor Engine No. 1 managed to oust a quarter of ExxonMobil’s board; the initial tally saw two of its candidates elected, but the final numbers showed that three of Engine No. 1’s nominees now sit on the Board of Directors with a remit to initiate climate change manoeuvres from the inside.
That sort of conversation will be jittery for a particular section of the industry: Canadian oil sands – the heavy, sandy deposits of bitumen in Alberta that provide Canada with the third-largest proven oil reserves in the world. Extracting this heavy stuff is expensive, requiring large-scale excavation and massive capital spending that only really made economic sense with the oil price boom in the late 2000s. Shipping this tarry substance is also a challenge, necessitating dilution with lighter crudes to be shipped via pipeline – which is the only major viable route to market for landlocked Alberta, sending the tarry substance all the way south to the US Gulf Coast for processing. The problem is that extracting oil sands is extremely energy-intensive – with the main culprit being steam injection to liquify the underground bitumen – that has resulted in some of the highest carbon emissions per barrel in the world. In a world racing towards net zero carbon emissions, that is quickly proving to be unacceptable.
So while the climate change debate rages on in the boardrooms of the largest energy firms, the exit has already begun from Alberta, operationally and financially. The latest moves come from Chevron, which saw its shareholders overturn the company’s recommendation to instil stricter emissions targets for its crude, and the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the third-largest in the USA. Chevron’s CEO Mike Wirth recently signaled that he was open to offloading its 20% stake in the Athabasca oil sands project, stating that even though it generates ‘pretty good cash flow without needing much capital’ it was not a ‘strategic position’. Wirth insisted that Chevron wasn’t operating on a ‘fire-sale mentality’ but would consider selling if it got ‘fair value’ – with in business-speak is basically as invitation for offers. But would those offers be forthcoming? Investors all around the world have pulled back from financing Canadian oil sands, limiting the pool of potential buyers. In April, the New York state pension fund restricted investment in six oil sands companies – Imperial Oil, Canadian Natural Resources, MEG Energy Corp, Athabasca Oil Corp, Japan Petroleum Exploration and Cenovus Energy – claiming that they ‘do not have viable plans to adapt to the low-carbon future, posing significant risks for investors’. The amount of funds (US$7 million) is a drop in the ocean for the US$248 billion pension fund, but the message it sends is loud and clear.
Taken as it is, this could be an exit. But taken as a collective movement considering divestments over the past 3 years, this is an exodus. In May 2020, Norges Bank Investment Management – the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund with over US$1 trillion in assets gleaned from Norway’s oil industry – pulled back entirely from Canadian oil sands, selling nearly US$1 billion in four major firms citing concerns over carbon emissions. While no other major pension fund has followed suit, private investors have, including titan BlackRock that has begun to exclude oil sands from its major funds Financing is also proving tricky, with a string of major banks – including HSBC, ING and BNP Paribas – either paring back or stopping lending entirely to the industry; the insurance industry is also pulling back, with The Hartford stopping investing or insuring of the Alberta crude oil industry.
These high-profile investment and financing moves have dimmed the shimmer of an industry that was never that clean to begin with. But what will hurt is the pullback of upstream players, which hollows out the pool of companies left to exploit what is an increasingly unattractive asset. Before Chevron even contemplate its sale, Shell already sold its assets in 2017 for US$8.5 billion and ConocoPhillips offloaded to Cenovus Energy as part of a broader sale including gas assets for US$13.3 billion, also in 2017. Norway’s Equinor, too, has liquidated its position. Then in February 2021, ExxonMobil dropped a bombshell – effectively eliminating every drop of oil sands crude from its worldwide reserves, a tacit admission that oil sands would not form part of its upstream focus (at least at current prices) for the foreseeable future, especially with more attractive propositions in Guyana and the Permian. Given its recent shareholder revolt, it is unlikely that oil sands will be back on the menu ever.
The players in Alberta are trying to fight back. Having been consolidated in less than a dozen major players – from oil sands specialists to more integrated players such as Suncor – the industry is trying to rally institutional support, stating that traditional industry is still necessary to build the clean energy industries of the future. Suncor’s CEO Mark Little puts it this way: ‘this is way more complicated (than its seems)… the wind farm can’t be the solution to every problem. It’s not. So we need to find innovative solutions.” The oil sands patch’s biggest players are also banding together to form an alliance to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – similar to the goals of most energy majors – as it tries to convince not just the world, but also Canada’s own government that Alberta has a continued role in the country’s energy transition. Efforts include linking facilities in Ford McMurray and Cold Lake to a carbon sequestration hub, expanding carbon capture and storage technology, accelerating clean hydrogen and other clean technologies such as direct air capture and fuel switching. The timeframe and viability of this is critical, given that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already announced plans to raise Canada’s carbon price steeply to accelerate its energy transition.
Those are bold plans and bold ambitions. But will it be enough? Can the exodus be stemmed? Or will the industry be whittled down to a handful of local players isolated from the wider energy world, removed from climate change engagement completely? It is difficult to tell at this point, but at the very least, things are starting to move in the right direction. Even if the pace is as slow as the crude sludge mined in Alberta.
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- Crude price trading range: Brent – US$71-73/b, WTI – US$69-71/b
- Confidence in the crude markets has vaulted global price benchmarks to their highest level in two years, with both Brent and WTI exceeding the US$70/b psychological level
- Underpinning this rally are signs that vaccinations are boosting economic activity, with the likelihood of some travel and hospitality sectors reopening fully across the northern hemisphere’s summer, while crude marker indication show tightness in the market
- That will reinforce OPEC+’s position to ease its supply quotas from July onwards, with club’s goal likely to be keeping prices around US$70/b – a level that should stabilise internal finances and budgets for most member countries.
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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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