Fossils Keep Paying Shareholders Despite Epic Financial Losses, Declining Business Prospects
Opinion & Analysis
Some of the world’s most colossal fossils posted epic financial losses between April and June this year, all in the interest of preserving their dividends to shareholders, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis concluded in a research brief late last month.
“It was a dismal quarter capping a disappointing decade for the global oil supermajors,” said lead author and IEEFA financial analyst Kathy Hipple.
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“Overall, the five global oil and gas supermajors posted disappointing results after the worldwide coronavirus crisis crimped energy demand and sent prices plummeting,” IEEFA writes, with ExxonMobil standing out as a particularly poor performer.
But the quarterly crash appears not to have deterred the companies from protecting the dividends that keep investors onside. “The five supermajors—ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell (Shell), BP, Chevron, and Total—collectively paid US$16.9 billion more to shareholders than they generated from their core business operations, plugging the gap with borrowing and asset sales,” IEEFA concludes.
“The red ink flowed even as the five companies slashed capital expenditures from $21.6 billion in the second quarter of 2019 to $15.4 billion last quarter, a 29% decrease,” IEEFA writes. “More alarmingly, four of the five companies kept shareholder dividends steady despite their disappointing performance. To help plug their cash deficits, the five companies borrowed heavily, increasing their cumulative debt to $290 billion, a $50 billion increase over the previous quarter.”
The financial reversals were not without consequences for the companies. In late August, Storebrand ASA, a Norwegian life insurance company with assets of about $91 billion, announced it had sold off its shares in Exxon and Chevron, as well as mining company Rio Tinto and chemicals producer BASF, in response to the companies’ lobbying against the Paris Agreement and climate regulation, Bloomberg Green reported. Storebrand also dumped tar sands/oil sands producers ConocoPhillips and Husky Energy.
“We need to accelerate away from oil and gas without deflecting attention onto carbon offsetting and carbon capture and storage,” said CEO Jan Erik Saugestad. “Renewable energy sources like solar and wind power are readily available alternatives,” and “the Exxons and Chevrons of the world are holding us back.”
Fossil researchers at Rystad Energy saw no likely respite for oil markets, with senior oil markets analyst Paola Rodriguez-Masiu labelling September a month of “delayed summer blues” for fossils.
“We don’t see oil prices bouncing back anywhere near to the $50 per barrel level anytime soon unless OPEC+ decides to deepen the current cuts,” she told fossil industry newsletter Rigzone earlier this week. “Although ideal, we find this scenario unlikely.”
Exxon was also dumped from the prestigious Dow Jones Industrial Average, in what Bloomberg called a “stunning fall from grace for Exxon, the world’s biggest company as recently as 2011.” Exxon, which has faced mounting skepticism from financial analysts, was the only fossil out of three companies dropped from the Dow. “Those changes are a sign of the times—out with energy and in with cloud [computing],” said Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer at the Independent Advisor Alliance.
But “while any change to the Dow is notable, the ejection of ExxonMobil, the longest-serving member, marks a particularly rapid shift in fortunes,” Bloomberg noted. “Worth $525 billion in 2007 and more than $450 billion as recently 2014, the stock had fallen in four of six years before 2020 and is down another 40% since January. It’s now worth about $180 billion.”
Those attention-grabbing numbers were just one small part of the dire news flowing through the fossil sector in late August and early September, with some producers beginning to question whether it’s worth their while exploring for new sources of oil and gas, according to one Bloomberg analysis.
“As the coronavirus ravages economies and cripples demand, European oil majors have made some uncomfortable admissions in recent months: oil and gas worth billions of dollars might never be pumped out of the ground,” the news agency wrote. “With the crisis also hastening a global shift to cleaner energy, fossil fuels will likely be cheaper than expected in the coming decades, while emitting the carbon they contain will get more expensive. These two simple assumptions mean that tapping some fields no longer makes economic sense.”
“There will be stranded assets,” Muqsit Ashraf, Accenture’s senior managing director responsible for the global energy industry, told Bloomberg reporter Laura Hurst. “Companies are going to have to accept the fact.”
“Many assets are already stranded from an oil price cycle perspective,” added Christyan Malek, JPMorgan Chase’s head of oil and gas research for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. “But when you then add the carbon curve, that takes a bigger chunk out.”
Hurst’s analysis reviews the shakier prospects for existing or potential oil and gas developments in the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, Brazil, Angola, and the Gulf of Mexico, while a separate Bloomberg story a week later had China pulling back on its annual seasonal purchases of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Visual Capitalist published a tracker for what it called a “growing wave” of fossil bankruptcies, about a month before oilfield services giant Schlumberger announced it was pulling out of the North American fracking industry.
“For Schlumberger, the world’s top oilfield services company, the deal is a massive reversal from its North American buying binge over the past few years,” Bloomberg wrote, although Schlumberger’s buyer, Denver-based Liberty Oilfield Services Inc., was rather more upbeat about the industry’s post-pandemic prospects.
With U.S. oilfield service job losses hitting 99,253 since the dawn of the pandemic, Norwegian fossil Equinor announcing job cuts in Canada, the U.S., and the UK, an Ernst & Young Canada report predicting that half of fossil “job competencies” could be automated by 2040, and the Canadian fossil industry cutting its capital spending by more than half, three veteran Alberta energy analysts said Ottawa shouldn’t spend money trying to “revive a dying dream”.
Given her former, unofficial cabinet role as minister responsible for defusing Western alienation, a “major public investment in decarbonizing oil production” might be an obvious, major component of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s plan to “build back better” after the pandemic, wrote Harvard University professor David Keith, Colorado School of Mines researcher Sara Hastings-Simon, and Alberta clean energy analyst Ed Whittingham in the Globe and Mail.
“There is widespread support for this approach,” they said. “After all, many of Alberta’s oil producers are in the high-cost, high-carbon quadrant, and for them to follow the world in moving to low-carbon energy, the public needs to help with the Herculean adjustment effort. Many see this as critical to the economic future of Alberta.”
But “this would be a case of building backward, not back better,” they added. “One need not be an economic Einstein to see that the combination of flattening demand and increased supply means downward pressure on prices. While geopolitical shocks and business cycles will occasionally spike prices, the oilpatch fantasy of a return to long-run triple-digit [oil] prices has melted away faster than our glaciers, a fact increasingly acknowledged by the oil majors themselves.” And “while the growth of global climate policy is unsteady, humanity can’t dodge climate reality, and policies will have to grow stronger.”
The combination of pressures shows that “not even the most heroic engineering achievements can change oil market fundamentals,” Keith, Hastings-Simon, and Whittingham write. “It’s clear that emissions reduction moonshots won’t save the industry. Continuing to invest significant funds into maintaining sales in a shrinking market is a bad business proposition and a bad use of public funds.” The three authors have their own suggestions for truly diversifying Alberta’s economy and creating a job transition that won’t be scary for today’s fossil work force.