Big Oil Is Selling Dirty Assets, But They Aren’t Going Away

Dirty Assets

By Kelly Gilblom – Bloomberg – When BP Plc announced its historic exit from Alaska, Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley pointed to an extra perk from the $5.6 billion sale: a significantly lower carbon footprint.

Cutting emissions is important for Dudley, partly because influential shareholders are forcing BP to align its spending with climate goals. But there’s a catch.

Hilcorp Energy Co., the buyer of the Alaska assets, plans to pour more money to boost production there than BP would have, according to Dudley. That could end up making the carbon problem worse than it was.

The BP boss and his counterparts at the world’s biggest oil companies are caught in a dilemma. Investors are demanding they adhere to the goals of the Paris climate accord, while continuing to generate the mounds of cash that make them among the biggest and most consistent dividend payers.

To strike a balance, one of the strategies for the executives is to sell high-cost and high-carbon projects. But that may only offload the emissions problem on to another company.

“If one asset just passes to another and still operates at its maximum capacity, OK that may have helped the profile of that individual company, but does that actually do anything on a net effect of reduced emissions?” said Adam Matthews, the director of ethics and engagement at the Church of England Pensions Board. “That’s a legitimate question.”

Oil Sands, Coal

Risky Investing

BP is not the only one passing on the responsibility. Royal Dutch Shell Plc divested its carbon-intensive Canadian oil-sands business in 2017 that is now operating under a new owner. Total SA sold its interest in a similar project, which was dormant, to a buyer looking to revive it. Miner Rio Tinto Plc exited coal by selling some of its assets to Glencore Plc, which plans to keep running them for years.

The companies’ actions will be discussed when hundreds of executives gather this week at the Oil & Money conference. The event, which saw noisy protests from pressure group Extinction Rebellion outside its London venue on Tuesday, will change its name to Energy Intelligence Forum next year in a nod to climate change and the energy transition.

While the asset sales help reduce costs, Dudley, Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden and Total’s Patrick Pouyanne will also need to show they’re committed to the environment and not just offloading their responsibility.

Still, for some investors selling the high-carbon projects makes the companies more resilient to future climate legislation, and that’s a step in the right direction.

If companies can use the funds from the sale of carbon intensive projects to develop lower-intensity production, that’s a “decision that we are generally supportive of,” said Nick Stansbury, head of commodity research at Legal & General Investment Management, one of the largest shareholders of major oil companies.

Big Challenge

Oil executives say their big challenge is to cut emissions while continuing to supply energy to a growing global economy. Shutting down production can create shortages that could boost prices, reduce affordability and even encourage the start up of new projects.

To tackle the “radical changes” required to keep global warming at a safe level, demand for low-carbon energy would have to rise dramatically, said Tal Lomnitzer, a senior investment manager at Janus Henderson Investors. It would have to be aided by government policy changes and involve social pressure, he said.

“A much faster transition is technically possible but actors need guidance,” Lomnitzer said. “It’s likely to arrive from the populace and then be expressed via bans, taxes and incentives.”

The oil companies support a tax on carbon as a way to discourage emissions, and are promoting natural gas as a cleaner fuel. France’s Total applies a carbon price internally in its assessment of projects, a spokeswoman said, as do others like BP. Qatar, the world’s biggest liquefied natural gas exporter, started a carbon capture and storage project as part of an effort to address concerns about climate change, Energy Minister Saad Sherida Al-Kaabi said Tuesday.

Investor pressure is also forcing the oil majors to increase spending on green energy. They’re building wind and solar projects, boosting electric-vehicle infrastructure and reducing the amount of gas they release into the atmosphere. But these investments are still a fraction of overall expenditure.

“The transition from Big Oil to Big Energy will certainly take time,” said Rob Barnett, an energy policy analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “But we do see things headed in that direction.”

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