Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: July 30, 2021
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Business Trends
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Two very different economic blocs. Two pathways to a carbon-free future, one younger and one more mature. And one more with plenty of ambition but hamstrung by inaction. Between China, the EU and the US, three of the most powerful economies in the world all agree that pursuing a carbon neutral future is necessary if the planet is to limit global warming levels to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, as committed under the Paris Climate Agreement. But the question of how to get there is the tricky one. In the past two weeks, both China and the EU have unveiled their own sweeping plans meant to limit greenhouse gas emissions, both incredibly ambitious in their own right but both also facing headwinds.

Let’s start with China. In Shanghai, the Shanghai Environment and Energy Exchange launched the country’s national emissions trading system on July 16. Currently focused on its own companies, the Chinese emissions trading system is already the world’s largest carbon market from the first day of operations. Covering an initial 2225 power plants that are estimated to emit more than 4 billion tonnes per annum of carbon dioxide, that amount already exceeds the European Union’s scheme, which covers about 2 billion tpa of emissions according to the International Emissions Trading Association. And there is still plenty of room to grow.

China decided to kick off its carbon trading platform with a focus only on power companies, given that they are among the most polluting of industries contributing to roughly 40% of China’s annual carbon emissions and roughly 14% of global carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion according to the IEA. This initial phase allows the domestic participating companies to cover their own emissions by purchasing surplus allowance from those that have been able to cut their emissions through the exchange. Within the first week, Chinese energy giant Sinopec already closed a huge bulk deal by buying a 100,000 tonnes of carbon emission quota through its subsidiary Unipec. In the first day alone, a total of 4.1 million tonnes were traded, with the price rising from the opening CNY48 (US$7.41) to CNY51.23 (US$7.89), reflecting strong demand as the Chinese state aims to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. While the current price is still well under the €50 ($58.87) per tonnes under the EU emissions trading scheme, it is a bold step forward that can only grow.

In time, China intends to add other sectors such as iron and steel, cement, aluminium, paper, domestic aviation, building materials, and petrochemicals to future phases of the trading scheme. In addition, the first phase of the Chinese ETS is only limited to spot transactions by domestic players, but over-the-counter transactions and foreign/individual investors are expected to be added eventually one the exchange matures. Stricter carbon caps by industry may also be added, although the timing and scope have yet to be determined; China’s scheme is based on carbon intensity, rather than the EU’s absolute cap on emissions, which means that total emissions can still rise as power generation grows. For now, the price paid per on will be passed on to consumers, which promotes efficiency and incentivises emissions-cutting by giving a cost advantage to companies that are able to slash their carbon faster than required.

It’s a good start, even though it is unlikely to result in an acceleration of emissions reduction soon, given that there is not enough surplus renewables capacity to match the emissions of carbon-intensive industries. Which means that China will need to continue on its mammoth rollout of solar, wind and nuclear energy over the next decade to truly make a difference.

If China is just starting out with a framework that will service it for the next half century, then the EU is racing ahead to beat its own previous targets. The EU Commission has unveiled a new – dubbed the European Green Deal – that intends to achieve and exceed its commitments under the Paris Agreement, which bound the bloc to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% in 2030 from 1990 levels and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The adoption of this target has already had ramifications across the continent, with almost all major energy companies adopting carbon neutral targets along the same timeline. And in some cases, even further, with the recent court judgement in the Netherlands that Royal Dutch Shell must accelerate its emissions-slashing plans globally from its already ambitious plan.

The new EU proposal aims to cut reliance on fossil even further and promote renewables. Central to this is a requirement that the share of renewable energy sources as part of Europe’s mix must rise to 40% from 20%, while limiting pollution from fossils fuels from key sectors like power, transportation, shipping, agriculture and housing – resulting in a 61% fall from 2005 levels by 2030, compared to the current target of 43%. Controversially, the EU proposal also deals with the idea of ‘imported pollution’ – carbon leakage that is caused by shifting production to countries with loose or no emissions rules by imposing a carbon import tax that will begin in 2023 for full implementation in 2026. This would ensure domestic competitiveness within the EU while incentivising trading partners that do adopt carbon plans by allowing the carbon price (as determined through China’s emissions trading system, for example) to be deducted from the carbon cost bill when entering the EU. It is a plan that has already sent shudders through global supply chains, triggering accusations of bias by developing countries. But there is also dissent for the plan in Europe itself. Emmanuel Macron’s government in France, one of the main pillars of the EU, is reportedly already lobbying to watering down the proposal to create a new carbon market for domestic heating and road transport, and phasing out all combustion engine cars by 2035. Other countries, including the Netherlands and Hungary, are also worried about the social impact, since the plan would drive up costs for average citizens. The EU Commission claims the increase in costs will not be too much, on the assumption that revenues generated from the new carbon market will be channelled to subsidise fuel bills of low- and middle-income households. 

Between China and the EU, bold moves have been made to progress on a carbon neutral future. But there is one major player that has plenty of ambition as well, but is unable to proceed with similar bold steps due to politics. Since taken over the White House in January, US President Joe Biden has made renewables a focus of his administration – announcing initiatives to scale back on fossil fuels and move to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. But his ability to push further – by, say, creating a national renewable standard or fund renewable infrastructure is hampered by Republican obstruction and state pushback. The likelihood that the Republicans may increase their power in the next mid-term elections also pours water on the idea that Biden’s big ideas can take shape eventually. But where the American government can’t step up, private investors can step in: witness the recent shareholder revolts at Chevron and ExxonMobil. The march towards carbon neutrality will be tortuous and long, but at least there is some progress happening now to ease the difficult path the world must take in the future.

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  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$74-76/b, WTI – US$73-75/b
  • Despite continued worries over the Covid-19 delta variant, global crude prices continued to push higher after faltering mid-month; increases in consumption in the US and China is underpinning this, but that demand recovery is uneven globally
  • Active rigs in the US continue to gain at 491, just shy of the 500 site mark; while this illustrates the recovery in the US shale patch, this is still a major reduction from the active site count the last time WTI prices were this high, illustrating the new restrained and disciplined approach taken by the onshore industry there

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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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