OPINION: Oil majors used to embrace the word “continuity” to reflect their unmovable status in the world of commerce.
From ExxonMobil down to the smaller players, a reliable stream of dividends was the financial manifestation of their business-as-usual mantra.
That continuity is under seige today, as oil companies struggle to adapt their role and image to a world keen to see the back of fossil fuels.
Royal Dutch Shell just gave us a glimpse of how these sands are shifting by announcing a name change and a physical divorce from the Netherlands.
This is a company that was born in 1907 through the merger of Shell Transport & Trading Company with Royal Dutch.
The concentration of its share listings in Britain and a decision to become just plain “Shell” has been triggered ostensibly by a row over a 15% withholding tax on dividends in the Netherlands.
But it comes amid ferocious pressure on Shell and other oil majors, and not just from climate campaigners. Scientists, governments and shareholders are urging Shell and its rivals to play a convincing role in decarbonisation and the energy transition.
Growing army of critics
Shell’s move to concentrate on London will allow for a streamlined corporate structure, reduced taxes for investors and distance from its growing army of Dutch critics.
Last month, the pension fund for government employees in the Netherlands sold off all shares in Shell.
In May, a Dutch court ruled the company was not doing enough to cut carbon emissions and must move faster.
Shell also has faced intense criticism over damage to homes from earthquakes around its onshore Groningen gas field in the Netherlands.
However, these pressures go far beyond the European nation. New York-based activist investor Third Point has campaigned for Shell to split itself into two, with one half holding legacy oil and chemical assets while the other would hold gas and renewables.
Ben van Beurden — in his ninth year as chief executive at Shell and a target for discontent — has rejected a break-up, saying it would undermine an “incredibly coherent strategy” for dealing with the energy transition.
The move has certainly infuriated the Dutch government, while delighting a UK government desperate to find good news amid its post-Brexit troubles.
Europe’s biggest oil and gas company concentrating on London may be good for local stock exchange morale.
But it perhaps sits uncomfortably with the UK’s recent promise to champion green finance and the country's claims at the recent COP26 climate talks that it is at the forefront of climate action.
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said last week that the Cambo oil field offshore Shetland (where Shell holds a stake) should not "get the green light” amid calls for North Sea drilling to be wound down.
The UK's ruling Conservative government disagrees, and Shell’s decision to consolidate its base in London may give it extra political firepower in the growing debate over local oil.
If the UK's own decarbonisation ambitions are to be taken seriously, it could give Shell a platform to demonstrate the capacity of Big Oil to move beyond fossil fuels too.
Not all change is good for Shell then, but reinvention is certainly the name of the game.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)