• European oil majors’ push into electricity a hedging of bets

    Date posted:

    • Post Author

      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

Following the recent announcement by Shell that it plans to become the largest electricity company in the world by the 2030s, Reuters has published an article looking at the moves of many of Europe’s big oil companies in similar directions. With predictions abounding that electrification of transport and other industries will curb the growth of oil demand such that a peak occurs sometime between 2020 and 2040, the prospect of strong growth in electricity demand is a natural temptation for such companies, especially as they face pressure to decarbonise their businesses. Big oil has a patchy record of moving into other sectors, however, and the article provides a slightly amusing list of past ventures – “coal, household cleaning, pet food, nutrition, shrimp trading, nappies, hotels and steel”. Perhaps most relevant is BP’s early foray into renewables around 20 years ago, which lost the company billions, but the company is right to claim (as they do in the article) that circumstances have changed and they have surely learned from their past experience. The investments in electricity by the major European oil companies are, however, only fractions of their current budgets, ranging from ~4% to ~12%. At the same time, investment returns on renewables of 5-10% are only around half of what many oil and gas projects return, making them less attractive investments. Together, this information gives the sense that the companies are hedging their bets – investing enough that they could be in the game if the future for oil is worse than expected, but not so much that they could not divest from electricity if it proved to be difficult to transition. This makes business sense. As former BP CEO John Browne told Reuters, the question “is whether you have the skills, the people and the determination to make this work and are you happy that in reality the returns you make are better than the returns you make in your other business.”