The attack on two Saudi oil facilities this weekend injected a
new element into discussions on the future of energy.
Those watching the rise of renewable power and electric vehicles
often point to cost reductions from mass-manufacturing and a
growing will to act on climate change as key drivers of the shift
to lower-carbon energy. The physical vulnerability of global oil
supply lines has gotten less airplay in recent years.
“That’s been absolutely put back on the agenda,” said Ed
Crooks, longtime energy editor at the Financial Times and now Wood
Mackenzie’s vice-chairman of energy in the Americas, speaking at
the Energy Disruptors Unite conference in Calgary Tuesday.
The attack in Saudi Arabia took 5
percent of the world’s crude oil production out of commission,
and precipitated the biggest jump in oil prices since Saddam
Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
By Tuesday evening, the price of Brent crude had dropped to a
few dollars higher than it was prior to the attack, as Saudi Arabia
and the U.S. signaled they would not go to war in retaliation. But
the attack proved that surprise disruptions can happen, leaving
open the possibility it could happen again.
That’s just one of several stresses facing the biggest oil and
gas companies, said Crooks. Shareholder and market pressures are
pushing some companies to diversify from fossil fuels, in order to
stay dominant in a changing energy landscape.
Shareholder pressure building
Those oil majors that are not state-owned enterprises must
contend with shareholder sentiment, and shareholder action related
to climate change has increased in recent years.
In 2011, 2012 and 2013, climate-related shareholder proposals to
U.S. companies numbered in the 30s, Crooks said. That figure rose
through the decade, culminating in 90 proposals in 2018; 2019 saw
55 through July.
Not all of these pass, but many have succeeded, prompting
companies including BP, Equinor and Shell to disclose climate risks
facing their portfolios and report on how their investments track
with the Paris climate accord goals.
“There’s been a big difference in the way the companies
think about climate change and the way they talk about it, and
that’s really been in response to the shareholder pressure,”
Oil and gas companies have further reason for concern about
shareholder sentiment: Their stocks are not doing well.
Setting the start of 2014 as a baseline, Crooks noted, the
S&P 500 index has gained 81 percent. In that same interval, the
S&P 500 energy stocks have lost 22 percent.
“The oil and gas sector has been a really terrible
investment,” Crooks said.
Electric power offers growth opportunity
Oil and gas companies concerned about those stresses could do
worse than moving into the electric power sector.
For one thing, global demand for electricity will grow about 50
percent through 2040, according to WoodMac’s forecast, and that
outpaces all fossil fuel growth. Coal consumption will stay flat,
oil consumption will rise roughly 12 percent relative to 2018, and
gas will grow 35 percent.
“If you want to be where the growth is…electricity is really
where you want to be,” Crooks said.
At the same time, even market leaders in the power sector look
miniscule compared to the leading oil and gas players.
NextEra Energy, the largest U.S. power company by market
capitalization, is half the size of Shell or Chevron, and little
more than a third the size of ExxonMobil. One renewables company
explicitly targeted growth on the order of an oil and gas giant —
but that was SunEdison, and it collapsed after sinking money into a
string of acquisitions. The global electricity supermajor remains
Some energy incumbents have taken initial steps in that
direction. Shell acquired its way into a retail electricity
business, electric vehicle charging and energy storage. BP made a
major investment in Lightsource, the biggest solar developer in
Europe. Total bought battery manufacturer Saft and a majority stake
in solar manufacturer SunPower.
For most of these companies, clean energy investment amounts to
low-single-digit percentage points of its investment in new oil and
gas resources over the last three years, according to WoodMac
“A majority of their spending over that period is going to oil
and gas,” Crooks said. “Oil and gas is still where the profit
is made. And oil and gas is undoubtedly going to have a future for
decades to come.”
The oil and gas companies, some of which attended the Energy
Disruptors event in the heart of Canada’s fossil fuel industry,
could keep doing what they’re doing, and could stay profitable
for some time yet.
But in a world where a critical mass of governments has
committed to putting pressure on carbon emissions, sticking with
the old business model could lead these companies down a path they
“You have to be ready for a potential range of outcomes,”
Crooks said. “What companies are doing with these investments in
renewables is buying themselves options where they could be in a
world of much greater renewable energy, much tougher controls on
emissions, and they could remain successful.”
Today’s supermajors could become energy dinosaurs —
dominating the landscape only to fade with surprising speed. But,
Crooks pointed out, the extinction event that wiped out the
dinosaurs did not eliminate all of them. Their descendants survived
evolved into the birds we know today.
“It’s certainly possible that the energy dinosaurs could
survive in a new world, but they may just need to grow feathers and
learn how to fly,” he said.
Source: FS – Transport 2
How Oil and Gas Giants Are ‘Buying Options’ for an Uncertain Future