It has been a grim decade for investors in international oil firms — among them, many of the biggest pension funds. Even before oil prices started to fall in 2014, the supermajors threw money away on grandiose schemes: drilling in the Arctic and building giant gas terminals. Their returns have trailed those of other industry-leading firms by a huge margin since 2009.
In the past 18 months, things have gone from bad to worse. The Boston Consulting Group, a consultancy, calls it the industry’s “worst peacetime crisis.” That is evident in first-quarter results released in the past week by Exxon Mobil and Chevron of America, and European rivals Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Total, which bear the scars of a collapse in oil prices to below $30 a barrel in mid-February.
Since then the oil price has rebounded to $45 a barrel; as a result of aggressive cost-cutting efforts, earnings have mostly been better than expected. It is too soon to declare victory, though. Not only do the supermajors need to brace for the possibility of a renewed slide in oil prices; they must also prepare for a future in which oil demand is increasingly uncertain because of climate change, pollution and the emergence of alternative energy sources.
Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, argues that “peak demand” is not imminent. There may be at least another 15-year growth cycle by oil firms before investors throw in the towel. But in the meantime companies need to develop a new business model built around a quest for returns rather than reserves.
Some doubt that this zeal for capital discipline will last long if oil prices rise much higher. Two reports issued this week suggest that investors should strive to keep the spending straitjacket on oil companies even if prices improve further.
One, by Carbon Tracker, an NGO, argues that even if climate-change policies severely constrain demand for oil, companies will still need to produce more. But if oil prices are anywhere below $120 a barrel, they would produce higher returns if they carry out selective drilling of low-cost wells rather than “business as usual.” Another report, by Paul Stevens of think tank Chatham House, says the supermajors should consider selling assets and returning cash to shareholders because relentlessly pursuing reserves is a dead model.
Unsurprisingly, the oil companies reject the notion that they need to shrink. They say they are adapting their portfolios to changing demand for hydrocarbons. Shell and BP favor what they see as cleaner natural gas over oil. France’s Total is developing renewables as well as oil and gas. Their instinct is to assume that even as the world battles climate change, it will want more hydrocarbons — especially in fast-growing developing countries such as China and India. Investors may pressure them to think differently.