Climate and Environment
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Break-up calls and congressional hearings: Big Oil faces growing pressure to change

Ahead of the COP26 Summit, oil executives made a historic appearance on Capitol Hill and Shell faced a hedge funds’s call to split up its business.

Shares of Royal Dutch Shell fell 5.7 percent this week, closing Friday at $45.92, but are up nearly 80 percent year to date. It has a market cap of $182 billion. (Peter Boer/Bloomberg)

On the eve of a pivotal global climate summit, the world’s oil giants have been swamped by calls from activists, investors and lawmakers to move faster to transform their businesses, cut down greenhouse gas emissions and take responsibility for their role in the climate crisis.

This week, Third Point LLC took a $750 million stake in Royal Dutch Shell and called for a breakup that would separate its legacy extraction and refining operations from renewables and liquefied natural gas. The hedge fund’s leader said Shell’s “incoherent, conflicting set of strategies” made for unhappy shareholders and an unhappy public, and that it should stop trying to “be all things to all people.”

A day later, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP executives were being pressed on Capitol Hill about Big Oil’s alleged efforts to mislead the public about climate change — an industry grilling that drew comparisons to a 1994 hearing at which tobacco executives testified under oath that they believed nicotine was not addictive.

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Meanwhile, teenage demonstrators have been on hunger strike outside the Capitol and White House for days, some so weakened they required wheelchairs as they called on the Biden administration to deliver on its climate promises.

The developments reflect the challenge of squaring ballooning short-term demand for fossil fuels against the growing urgency for cleaner energy. World leaders will assemble Sunday for the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, where they will face pressure to make more ambitious commitments to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Existing pledges fall short of what’s needed to stop catastrophic warming, experts say, and most nations aren’t on track to meet them anyway, according to an analysis from Climate Action Tracker.

Progress has a liquid definition and depends on whom you ask, but there’s little doubt it will require decisive public-private sector action. The White House this week announced the biggest clean-energy investment in U.S. history: a $555 billion package of tax credits, grants and other policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gases.

But whatever strides the sector might be making are overshadowed by the focus on its profit center: oil and gas. Clean energy investments accounted for just 1 percent of total capital expenditure in the oil and gas industry in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency’s 2021 “World Energy Investment” report. The outlook for 2021 has improved slightly, with capital investment in clean energy on track to rise more than 4 percent, the report said.

The call to break up Shell is an example of how some investors might press for change. Splitting the oil and gas assets off has “long been seen as a logical next step for the business,” Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, wrote Thursday in comments emailed to The Post, but “no one has really called for the company to proceed until now.”

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“A lesson from our prior engagements is that it is often most impactful to invest in companies where the opportunity for positive change is the greatest,” wrote Dan Loeb, the billionaire investor leading Third Point, in a letter sent Wednesday to investors calling for the company to break its business into multiple stand-alone companies. “While daunting, there is perhaps no bigger ESG opportunity than in “Big Oil,” and specifically, at Royal Dutch Shell.”

The seven major global oil producers — BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Total Energies and ENI — are expected to collectively generate $1.1 trillion in sales and $133 billion in pretax profit this year, Mould said. But many investors consider it a “sunset industry” as the need for a faster transition to clean energy becomes more and more apparent. Others “don’t care what the company does so long as it makes money.”

Yet even the oil majors have been forced to acknowledge the worsening weather events have thwarted the power grid and throttled production. Shell told investors earlier this month that fallout from Hurricane Ida would wipe roughly $400 million off its adjusted earnings.

That contributed to the weaker-than-expected third-quarter earnings Shell reported on Thursday: $4.1 billion in profits, instead of the $6 billion analysts had expected. That’s still up substantially from same period last year, when oil demand had been flattened by the pandemic, but down from second quarter of 2021, when Shell posted profits of $5.2 billion.

Shell is underperforming its peers, Loeb wrote, pointing out that its shares trade at a 35 percent discount compared with ExxonMobil and Chevron, “despite Shell’s higher quality and more sustainable business mix.”

Shares fell 5.7 percent, this week, closing Friday at $45.92, but are up nearly 80 percent this year. It has a market cap of $182 billion.

Shell’s struggles, Loeb argues, are a result of “incoherent strategy” that pushes the company in conflicting directions, failing to please both those who want the Anglo-Dutch oil giant to transform its business for a low-carbon future and those who want it to reap the rewards from the waning days of legacy oil and gas.

National climate pledges are too weak to avoid catastrophic warming. Most countries are on track to miss them anyway.

“As the saying goes, you can’t be all things to all people,” the letter reads. “In trying to do so, Shell has ended up with unhappy shareholders who have been starved of returns and an unhappy society that wants to see Shell do more to decarbonize.”

Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst with Raymond James, told The Post he had a “very hard time imagining Shell management would agree” to split up its business. Ultimately, he said, it will down to “how much pressure Third Point can bring to bear,” primarily by enlisting the support of other shareholders.

Shell executives pushed back against Third Point’s argument at a press briefing on Thursday. Chief financial officer Jessica Uhl and chief executive officer Ben van Beurden told reporters that splitting the 188-year old company would undermine its strategy to fund its efforts in lower-carbon products with cash flow from legacy operations.

“We are able to do things with the collections of assets, business models [and] customer-facing businesses that we have that is very hard to replicate if you were just [to] split up in a number of other companies,” van Beurden told reporters, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The last two years have been “especially challenging” for Shell shareholders, Third Point’s Loeb said in the letter, citing a May order from a Dutch court to slash Shell’s greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent by 2030 compared with 2019 levels, and Shell’s first dividend cut since World War II, which came during the height of the pandemic’s first wave.

“We are early in our engagement with the company but are confident that Shell’s board and management can formulate a plan to accelerate decarbonization while simultaneously improving returns for its long-suffering shareholders,” Loeb said in the letter.

Shell is the latest oil major to face intensifying investor calls to transition its business away from legacy operations. Over the summer, a small hedge fund, Engine No. 1 persuaded institutional investors like BlackRock and Vanguard to side with it in placing three climate-focused, independent directors on ExxonMobil’s board with an aim to cut down the company’s carbon footprint. Since then, Exxon has scaled back its long term production targets, keeping oil output at its lowest level in decades through 2025.

The lack of urgency for a clean energy transition came up repeatedly Thursday as top executives from Shell, ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron appeared before Congress for the first time to testify about the industry’s role in misleading the public about climate change. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) turned to jars of M & Ms to illustrate the difference in Shell’s commitment to renewable energy and fossil fuels.

“Does this look like a huge undertaking to you?” Porter asked Shell Oil president Gretchen Watkins, pointing to a nearly empty jar of M & Ms that she said symbolized Shell’s plan to spend $2 billion to $3 billion on renewable energy this year.

Porter then gestured a full jar of M & Ms that she said represented Shell’s plan to spend $19 billion to $22 billion in the near term on new fossil fuel exploration, as detailed in its 2020 annual report.

Watkins responded that there needs to be “both a demand and supply” of clean energy, “which is why we’re working very closely with our customers so that demand increases over time.”