Media reports that Shell is taking an axe to jobs in its low-carbon solutions and hydrocarbon units -- Reuters reporting in October that around 15% of the Anglo-Dutch supermajor’s workforce would be cut -- have reinforced concerns that the industry’s commitment to net zero may be eroding in a high commodity price climate.
According to the reports, 200 jobs will go in 2024, with another 130 will be placed under review by the company.
The news represents a potential challenge for a company whose low-carbon division was intended to spearhead a transition to clean energy.
But it is not alone. BP – the first oil major to set a course to net zero back in 2020 – has also faced criticism from environmental activists over a scaling back of ambitious emission reduction targets. Climate-focused investors reacted negatively to BP’s February 2023 announcement that it would aim for a 20-30% cut to emission by 2030, compared to 35% previously.
Further ammunition to those sceptics has come with data from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which evaluates the Paris Agreement alignment of capital expenditure plans of 30 focus companies with upstream oil and gas operations.
Its findings for 2023 are that the capex plans of those firms are not aligned with the Paris Agreement goals, and that capital is not aligned with the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 pathway (1.5 degrees centigrade). In addition, its assessments show that the majority of potential new investments in this sector are also incompatible with the IEA’s Announced Pledges Scenario.
The oil and gas sector, in particular, is currently lagging on Scope 3 target setting, with only 11 out of 34 assessed companies in this sector setting targets including the emissions associated with combustion of their products.
With majors like ExxonMobil and Chevron in the process of buying large hydrocarbons-focused companies, this indicates a migration back to hydrocarbons and at least a dilution of the pace to net zero.
The logic behind big oil’s apparent re-embrace of fossil fuels is clear enough. Oil and gas prices have risen, thanks to the post-Covid revival and the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on oil and gas markets. Take Brent crude, the benchmark for most of the world’s traded oil. It has gained about 22% in the third quarter of this year as Opec+ supply cuts tighten crude supplies.
That has helped feed huge increases in profits, encouraging investors, many of whom appear happy that oil companies are doubling down on what many view as their ‘core competence’.
CEOs have grown less shy this year about trumpeting their ambitions in upstream oil and gas. In June of this year, TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne told CNBC that his company will continue to pour the majority of its investments into fossil fuels.
“Today, our society requires oil and gas,” he said. “There is no way to think that overnight we can just eliminate all that.”
This isn’t just a Big Oil phenomenon either. Analysis from the Financial Times has shown that small oil and gas companies in the US have managed to win back the trust of investors in equity and bond markets. That reflects in part the impact of higher oil and gas prices, and a renewed focus on capital discipline.
The FT finds that fundraising activity across equity and bond markets has jumped this year, particularly among independent E&P players and oilfield services companies.
But it is the majors that are under most scrutiny, and they are the ones having to articulate this shift. BP’s interim CEO Murray Auchincloss, has described this is as the company ‘hydrocarbons and transition’ strategy’, aligning the company, its shareholders, and the countries in which it operates.
That “and” strategy underscores oil companies’ belief that low carbon and hydrocarbons are not mutually exclusive. And to back this up, they can point to research that shows that low carbon investments are increasing just as much as fossil fuel.
In 2022, member companies from the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) stepped up low-carbon investment to $24.3 billion – a 66% increase compared with the previous year, taking the total since 2017 to $65 billion.
According to the group’s annual progress report, published on 19 October, OGCI’s 12 member companies have collectively halved absolute upstream methane emissions and cut carbon intensity by over a fifth compared with the 2017 baseline. In 2022, OGCI members’ investment in low-carbon solutions was up almost 70% compared with the previous year, totalling $65 billion since 2017.
This year, OGCI’s Scope 1 operated greenhouse emissions were 17% lower than in 2017. The reduction, the group said, is equivalent to removing the emissions from 27 million cars driven for one year.
Ahead of the COP28 summit in the UAE, its president – and CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Corporation -- Sultan al-Jaber said that more than 20 oil and gas companies were rallying around his calls to curb carbon emissions. Jaber said that more than 20 oil and gas companies had positively answered calls to align around net zero by 2050, and to zero out methane emissions and eliminate routine flaring by 2030.
BP’s Senior VP of wells, Ann Davies, told a conference that the company is investing up to $8 billion more by 2030 into what it calls its transition growth engines – covering bioenergy, EV charging, convenience, hydrogen, renewables and power. In a reiteriation of its ‘and’ strategy, it said it is matching that by investing up to $8 billion more this decade in the energy system of today – a code word for conventional oil and gas. The capital invested in those traditional growth engines have grown from 3% to 30%.
The next year will see more of the ‘and’ strategy across the oil and gas patch. Investors like the prospect of increased oil and gas production in a robust price climate; but they will also be happy to see this matched with investment in growth-oriented low carbon energies, whose payoff is likely to be realized further down the road.