OPINION: It is remarkable how quickly global events have appeared in the rear-view mirror and caught up with Big Oil — not least, it seems, at Shell.
In June 2019, the Anglo-Dutch supermajor outlined a 2025 strategy that promised $125 billion or more of cumulative distributions and investment of about $30 billion, of which about 12% was to be allocated to renewables and low-carbon energy.
Within less than a year, as analysts at Redburn pointed out, the weaker commodity price environment coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic had “undermined all the key pillars of this strategy”.
In April, Shell showed quick and decisive action, becoming the first of the large oil companies to cut its dividend, the first time the supermajor had done so in almost 80 years.
The 113-year-old oil and gas company in the following months unveiled plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 and in June said it was embarking on a programme to reshape its business.
UK peer BP was later than Shell in cutting its dividend, slashing it in half in August.
But since then, under new chief executive Bernard Looney — who is without doubt intent on putting his stamp on the company after the departure of long-time predecessor Bob Dudley — BP has appeared the more progressive of the two.
BP has already revealed specifics about its own strategy revamp, holding a three-day online event last month during which management fleshed out the details for becoming an integrated energy company capable of reaching its own goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Within 10 years, it aims to increase its annual low-carbon investment 10-fold to about $5 billion and increase renewable generating capacity 20-fold to reach 50 gigawatts.
A parallel commitment to reduce oil and gas production by 40% in the same period will be driven by criteria that prioritise cashflow and returns.
Full details of Shell's plans will not be available until its annual strategy day in February.
Some questions have appeared in the media on whether Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden is now scrambling to catch up.
By comparison, full details of Shell's plans will not be available until its annual strategy day in February.
However, it is perhaps unfair to draw comparisons, given the different capital cycles of the two companies.
Shell last week teased elements of Project Reshape, the new strategy it plans to adopt to thrive in the energy transition.
Plans call for job cuts of between 7000 and 9000 — about 8.5% to 11% of its global 83,000-strong workforce.
This “reduced organisational complexity” will help deliver annual cost savings of between $2 billion and $2.5 billion by 2022, Shell said.
In contrast with BP, Shell appears more wedded to maintaining upstream production, although both companies will use their oil and gas dollars to underpin the financial strength needed to invest in lower-carbon products.
Van Beurden said last week that if Shell wants to succeed “as an integral part of society heading towards a net-zero world”, then “now is the time to accelerate”.
He also noted, however, that “in a company as big as Shell, even a strong rate of growth can be hard to notice”.
“But we are accelerating,” he insisted.
Indeed, working out exactly how fast Shell is travelling towards the energy transition is perhaps difficult to perceive from the outside.
But any slip in momentum could mean the industry heavyweight gets left behind.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)