OPINION: For all the talk of energy transition, it’s largely business as usual for the oil majors — and a very lucrative business, too.
ExxonMobil showed the way with second quarter net profits of $17.9 billion — its highest-ever result and better than Wall Street estimates.
The stellar results almost justified the jibe from US President Joe Biden that the Texas-based business was “making more money than God”.
Europe’s largest oil and gas company, Shell, meanwhile recorded adjusted earnings of $11.5 billion in the second quarter.
Almost every dollar in both cases came from fossil fuels, and it meant the London-headquartered operator had beaten its profit record for the second three-month period in a row.
And the oil services sector is beginning to join in the fun with Italy-based Saipem turning a first half loss in 2021 into a handsome profit of $326 million this year, a result which the company said put it back on “a path of sustainable development”.
The profits from the large oil and gas companies came from all sides of their business, with strong upstream results but also powerful refining margins.
Producers are benefiting from soaring commodity prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global economic bounce back from Covid-19.
Awash with cash, they have used the opportunity to unleash a wave of share buybacks and increased dividend payments to reward investors who have stuck by them following the hard times of peak pandemic.
But the huge windfall has also led to an inevitable torrent of criticism from consumer groups and environmentalists who claim oil majors are cashing in at the expense of car drivers, homeowners and the planet.
Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden tried to head off calls for more windfall taxes by saying the higher cash stream was allowing companies like his to strengthen energy security.
He said the company had a hardship fund for consumers but should not be expected to “perform miracles” and he criticised policymakers calling for cuts in oil and gas production while doing little themselves to reduce demand.
Shell has continued to slowly move into the low carbon space but has pushed aside claims it is likely to use some of its cash to make a major purchase of a green-orientated utility. It has recently announced plans to go ahead with the Jackdaw gas field in the North Sea, which it says will provide more fuel to the UK.
The demand riposte to government ministers is a fair one. It has more traction since the invasion of Ukraine and as Russia threatens to cut off gas supplies to Europe in retaliation for sanctions against Russia.
But the oil majors are on dangerous ground. Lavishing cash on shareholders while making slow progress on the switch to low carbon may be justified in the boardroom, but less so in the court of public opinion — and both matter.
Add in rising fuel poverty and you have a volatile cocktail that could yet combust.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)