Big Oil – A Year in Review & Tomorrow’s Corporate Strategy

The climate change crisis has increasingly found its way into the boardrooms of the world’s largest oil companies, perpetuated recently by the most turbulent year in decades for producers, highlighting the need for the creation of new operational strategies. After years of environmentalist action, blaming these corporations not only for alarming levels of global emissions but also for spreading misinformation regarding the climate and their effect on it, 2020 saw the decimation of demand for oil and subsequent creation of green energy demand through political discourse and financial commitments. Big oil’s approach to this unprecedented challenge is varied, and substantial bets on corporate vision and future development are being made on behalf of these companies as they suit-up to face the mounting pressures of the green energy revolution.


ExxonMobil has, over the last decade, had a chequered past when it comes to their oil-field investments. Despite avoiding such catastrophes as BP’s Deep-Water Horizon, ethically tricky and unprofitable investments have displaced Exxon from oil’s golden child in the 90s to steadily losing their position at the top of the S&P 500 index over the last ten years. Starting in 2011, Exxon made plans to drill for oil in disputed land between the region of Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. Now, after almost a decade, this investment has shown no results and the large project in Iraq is making a fraction of its predicted revenue while continuing to absorb cashflow. Regardless of Exxon’s revenue difficulties, its strategy has been to double down on its oil production, banking on a cash windfall and another surge in oil demand output over the coming years. By the end of 2020, Exxon was ramping up capital spending to circa 30 billion USD, developing new investments in offshore oil and chemicals, seeking to capitalise on its competitors’ unwillingness for expansion in these industries. Exxon provides an example of an oil giant staying firmly rooted in crude and petroleum, doing little to move laterally into alternative energy. ExxonMobil has placed almost all its trust in the future of oil. If their judgment is wrong however, they may soon face an existential crisis rather than the rejuvenation of oil’s largest player.


Shell has consistently been one of the world’s largest dividend payers, meaning that today the company faces the challenge of generating profits to continue its dividend-paying capacity to maintain investor confidence and company value, whilst also trying to navigate the future as the political tide turns increasingly against fossil fuels. As it stands, two-thirds of Shell’s free cash flow is tied to its oil business, making the firm particularly hard hit as oil hit rock bottom in March last year, and has struggled to rally as COVID-19 triggered lockdowns around the globe. CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden, has committed o redefining Shell’s business model, ultimately seeing the Dutch conglomerate split equally between fossil fuels and clean power by 2035. The company is also seeking to reduce its emissions in a variety of ways, such as pursuing less carbon-intensive barrels of oil and prioritising its gas business (which, as the lightest hydrocarbon, provides the cleanest way of generating energy through fossil fuels). However, until Shell can generate returns from cleaner businesses that match that of their oil and gas revenue, its staple hydrocarbon business is necessary just to keep the company afloat. To that end, seeking to diversify rapidly, Shell is actively investing in low carbon start-ups, has developed solar and wind projects and has started researching hydroelectric energy. Although EBITDA for the end of Q3 in 2020 was at 9.1 billion USD, 44% down from the previous year, Shell’s strong position in upstream investments (oil exploration and production) make the competition in that space much tougher for other firms. This is Shell’s niche, combined with their other oil activities, it provides two-thirds of the firm’s free cashflow and pulling out too soon may be foolish. Shell is spreading its risk, understanding that maintaining its uniquely strong position in global off-shore oil & gas might pay-off, but that greener energy might provide a strong long-term investment opportunity over the years to come.


Occidental Petroleum is one of the U.S.’s largest, domestically focused oil companies with a market capitalisation of just under 18 billion USD. The company is continuing to build momentum in its business in North America while remaining vulnerable to the volatilities in the global market instigated by COVID-19. In order to sustain long-term production of U.S. oil barrels, the company needs 2.9 billion USD in annual sustaining capital with futures at 40 USD West Texas Intermediate (WTI) price. Besides financing the aforementioned, Occidental Petroleum plans to build the world’s first large-scale direct air capture plant, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pumping it deep underground, where it may remain for millions of years. The purpose of this process is to reverse the damage of oil and gas companies, with an ambitious desire of producing a carbon-negative barrel of oil in the future. The facility is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, requiring support from outside investors and tax credits. Unlike Exxon and Shell, Occidental’s approach seems to try and find a transition out of the oil and gas industry and become a ‘carbon management company’.


With the industry in turmoil and chief executives having fractured beliefs in what next steps to take, the spectrum of change in strategy that we are seeing is certain to cause a reshuffle in the oil industry hierarchy. But with the recent flood of investment in the green energy space and the reversal of Trump-era policies by the new Biden administration, it would be unwise to neglect the certainty that the future of energy in the not-so-distant future does not lie in oil and gas.


By Will Kollard

Sector Head: Edouard Nelson