Saudi Arabia abruptly altered its oil production strategy in early March and began to flood the market with cheap oil. Financial markets worldwide haemorrhaged value at the prospect of a protracted and painful price war, and American oil firms immediately cut back spending and dividend payments as the price for their primary product halved. As of this morning, WTI Crude (a pricing benchmark tied to U.S. supply) was barely north of $20/bbl, prices not seen since 2002.
This sudden tumult represents an opportunity for the renewable energy sector. At first glance, this may sound counterintuitive. After all, oil prices seem largely unrelated to the prospects of wind, solar, and other renewables in the electricity generation sector, because in the United States the primary fossil source of electricity is natural gas. Natural gas prices have been largely uncorrelated with the price of oil since 2007, when large-scale domestic shale-gas production began to come online (see chart). In other parts of the world, coal drives electricity generation, which is similarly decoupled. Virtually nobody uses oil as a primary electricity source, except in certain very specific locations, such as Hawaii, where the demands of unique geography and supply logistics align to make oil the best bet for power production.
Oil’s link to renewables instead comes through competition in the financing marketplace. As new projects are developed and financing is sought, the infrastructure funds that provide capital to enable these developments naturally prefer projects that promise the most attractive financial returns. With relatively high prices over the last decade and unmatched value as a transportation fuel, oil exploration has beaten out renewable project development on the financial metrics time after time.Today In: Energy
The oil shocks over the last weeks could dramatically alter that calculus. Revenues for potential oil projects have suddenly dropped by over 50%, and futures contracts currently show only a modest improvement in prices by year’s end. The market is already pricing in the expectation that oil prices remain below $40/bbl for the foreseeable future, a dramatic change from the $55+/bbl that has been the norm for the last few years.
Even if prices do recover, the sudden volatility will still weigh on the minds of project investors. Oil markets haven’t resembled a purely competitive market since the mid-1960s, and since that time prices have been regularly impacted by sudden and unforeseen changes in supply by OPEC producers, primarily Saudi Arabia. The rise in shale-oil in the U.S. in the last decade has effectively put a cap on prices and provided a counterweight to OPEC’s pricing power. But the muscle being flexed now shows that the OPEC nations and Russia still maintain substantial influence over the fate of American oil producers. This ‘stroke of the pen’ risk, now that it has again bared its head, maybe unlikely to be forgotten in the near future.
Renewables, by contrast, have no supply risk whatsoever, and are primarily exposed to fluctuations in the price of electricity. Insomuch as this relates to the price of natural gas, investors in the U.S. will take comfort knowing gas is essentially a local market, with U.S. prices driven by supply and demand within North America; there is little ability to arbitrage against global markets due to limited export capacity. Therefore, as oil prices come down, project financiers should start to turn more of their attention to the new safe bets that offer more durable returns: wind, solar, and the like.
This isn’t to say that renewables don’t face headwinds in the current environment. Cheap oil also competes with renewables in the transportation sector. Electric Vehicles will be less competitive with their gasoline-powered cousins as the price for gasoline at the pump drops, lowering demand for new grid capacity and forcing renewables to wait for retirements of current assets. The price for natural gas in the U.S. is dropping as well, driven primarily by the sudden decrease in demand due to the shuttering of entire industries. These drops make fossil power from natural gas more competitive with their renewable counterparts.
Futures markets, however, are currently pricing in a full rebound of natural gas prices by year’s end, with the futures contract for Henry Hub for December 2020 currently priced above market levels at the end of 2019. This suggests that the drop in prices of natural gas will be temporary, and investors making long-term bets do not view the current situation as durable. Further, natural gas prices are just one component of the price paid by utilities to power producers, and so a drop in natural gas prices doesn’t necessarily imply a similar fall in the rates negotiated in new power purchase agreements. So the drop in natural gas prices evident in the market now looks to be temporary, and unlikely to dramatically alter the widespread conclusion that renewables are now the cheapest power source to build.
Altogether, the oil market has changed dramatically in the last three weeks, in ways unforeseen just a few short months ago. But despite the headlines and worrying drops across financial markets, opportunity lies in these disruptions. Renewables are well positioned to capitalize.
Brentan Alexander‘s words: I am the Chief Science Officer and Chief Commercial Officer at New Energy Risk, where I lead the detailed diligence of novel technologies and business models across the energy landscape. I have devoted my career to advancing solutions to the climate crisis and use my experience to help technology companies assemble everything they need to reach the market faster. I hold a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, where I studied gasification, thermochemistry, and electrochemistry, and Masters and Bachelors degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When I’m not in the office, you can find me hiking the hills outside Oakland, California, or turning wood in the shop. All of my articles reflect my personal views and not those of my employer nor the volunteer initiatives that I am involved in. You can find out more about me via my website (brentanalexander.com) or follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Nation will be able to finance current account deficit for 35 years even with prices this low
The UAE is best-positioned among GCC economies to weather the decline in oil prices as it can finance its current account deficit longer than any of its regional peers, says a new report.
According to Capital Economics, the UAE can finance its current account deficit for 35 years if oil prices stay at $25 a barrel. Kuwait comes second followed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman.
“In the four largest Gulf economies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar – current account deficits could be financed through a drawdown of large foreign exchange savings for a considerable amount of time. Saudi Arabia could do so for around a decade and the other three countries for even longer,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at
Capital Economics. The report said the UAE still runs a current account surplus at $30 a barrel.
Brent crude was trading down $3.37, or 12 per cent, at $25.35 a barrel by 1720GMT after dropping as low as $25.23, its weakest since 2003. US crude was down $5.19, or 19 per cent, at $21.76. The session low was the lowest since March 2002.
Data showed that UAE-based sovereign wealth funds held over $1.21 trillion worth of assets in August 2019 compared to $825.76 billion by Saudi Arabia, $592 billion by Kuwait, $320 billion by Qatar and $22.14 billion by Kuwait.
Oil prices have plummeted over the last few weeks, firstly due to coronavirus and then the collapse of Opec+ talks on production cuts. Brent has dropped 45 per cent in the past month from $57.60 a barrel on February 17 to $31.60 on March 17.
Tuvey noted that large foreign exchange savings provide substantial buffers and the likes of Bahrain and Oman, which are most vulnerable to a period of low oil prices, and can probably rely on financial support from their neighbours to avert devaluations.
He said dollar pegs in Bahrain and Oman are more vulnerable, with foreign exchange savings only able to cover current account shortfalls for a couple of years at most. Bahrain secured a $10 billion financing package from its neighbours in mid-2018.
In recent days, GCC governments have stepped up fiscal support in order to mitigate the economic hit from efforts to contain the virus. “If oil prices stay low even after the virus fears have subsided, austerity will come on to the agenda and this means that an eventual recovery in non-oil sectors will be slow-going,” he said.
Khatija Haque, head of Mena research at Emirates NBD, has said that the UAE posted a budget surplus of Dh37 billion ($10 billion) in 2019 and is well-positioned to withstand lower oil prices in 2020.
“If we strip out volatile oil revenues, we estimate the UAE’s non-oil budget deficit narrowed to just under 20 per cent of non-oil GDP, down from 27 per cent of non-oil GDP in 2015, and pointing to a tightening of fiscal policy in recent years,” Haque said.
Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, said the sharp fall in oil prices and the outlook for a price war adds significant downside risks to the economic outlooks of GCC countries.
“We estimate that all GCC countries will realise a significant fiscal deficit at the current oil price of $37 per barrel, with Oman and Saudi Arabia seeing particularly significant shortfalls relative to GDP. A weaker oil revenue backdrop will require a meaningful pull-back in government spending, as was the case in 2015 and 2016, to limit the size of the fiscal deficit,” Malik said.
She sees a forecasted increase in output from Saudi and Russia and the changing dynamics of oil market fundamentals will likely bolster global oil stocks significantly in 2020. A number of oil-importing countries are also likely to accumulate inventories at the current low price levels, which in turn would lower oil demand during second-half of 2020.
Furthermore, the outlook for inventories beyond 2020 will depend on global demand and coronavirus-related developments in the coming months, she added.
Edward Bell, commodity analyst at Emirates NBD Research, has said that dust has not entirely settled yet caused by travel restrictions and lockdowns due to coronavirus.
OPINION: The epic oil price slump, if prolonged, is bound to prove calamitous for the upstream sector of the financially strapped Middle Eastern and North African producers and those with high production costs.
The consequences will go beyond the energy sector for the more populous nations, where autocratic governments have long used oil windfalls to shield themselves from social unrest through generous handouts and subsidies.
World Bank warning
“As the world struggles with the fear of recession, the Middle East and North Africa could be the hardest hit by what is arguably a perfect storm: the coronavirus spreads to the region and oil prices collapse,” the World Bank says.
“If the decline in oil prices persists, it will erode the fragile macroeconomic and social stability of countries, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, that have been hit by the novel coronavirus.”
Only the wealthy Persian Gulf producers with small populations — such as Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — can be expected to weather a prolonged storm thanks to their enviable financial position.
Iran position precarious
The major losers will primarily be Iran as well as Iraq, Libya Algeria, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, whose economy is being seriously squeezed by unprecedented US sanctions against its vital oil sector, will find itself struggling to pay for basic imports as the price collapse will further reduce income from the crude sales achieved through circumventing the stifling sanctions.
Iran’s exports have fallen to a fraction of the 2.5 million barrels per day that the Islamic Republic used to export before May 2018, when US President Donald Trump tore up the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement and imposed draconian punitive measures against the country.
The Iranian Central Bank has just put out an international distress call amid rising cases of the coronavirus outbreak by asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in emergency funds to cope with containment.
Iran is fast becoming the global epicentre of the endemic, with more than 500 dead and 11,000 afflicted.
Severe economic problems have led to widespread unrest in the past two years, with the clerical leadership employing heavy-handed tactics to quell dissent.
Iraq set to suffer
Neighbouring Iraq is in the grip of growing political unrest with protesters demanding jobs and end to endemic corruption.
Iraq, Opec’s second-biggest producer, has been without a functioning government for months, disrupting planning and delaying major upstream projects.
Rising tensions between the US and Iran — both of which are fighting for influence in Iraq — have added to the security and political woes.
Algeria, often seen as a hostile destination for international oil companies, will find it difficult to attract fresh investment in the face of the price collapse and social unrest.
Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad said the North African country is faced with an unprecedented “multi-dimensional crisis”, while also urging the public to make fewer demands of the government and reduce their presence on the streets.
Libya’s civil war, which has crippled the oil industry, is showing no signs of ending.
Oman has so far been spared social unrest but the future remains bleak since the Persian Gulf sultanate has the highest production costs among regional producers because the bulk of its oil production is ultra-heavy heavy, which needs robust commodity prices in order to compete with other blends.
The oil price rout, arising from the collapse earlier this month of Opec+ talks to persuade Russia to agree to new production curbs, is also a real threat to Saudi maverick ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pinned his success as the future king on delivering on an ambitious economic diversification scheme funded by oil money.
Oil market rout as Saudi Arabia and Russia launch a price war and the coronavirus pandemic sparks an equities meltdown.
Oil prices were headed for their worst weekly loss in more than a decade Friday after Saudi Arabia and Russia launched a price war and the coronavirus pandemic sparked an equities meltdown.
US benchmark West Texas Intermediate reversed earlier losses in afternoon trade, rising about two percent to around $32 a barrel after the US military launched air strikes in major crude producer Iraq.
But prices are still down more than 20 percent this week and on course for their biggest weekly drop since the global financial crisis of 2008.
Brent crude, the global benchmark, also jumped about two percent to about $34, erasing earlier losses — but is still down 25 percent for the week, Bloomberg News reported.
Crude markets were plunged into turmoil at the start of the week after top exporter Saudi Arabia began a price war amid a row with Russia over whether to cut output to support the virus-battered energy sector.
That triggered the biggest one-day drop on Monday since the start of the Gulf War in the 1990s.
The virus outbreak then added to downward pressure, as growing concerns about a global recession and travel restrictions — including a temporary ban on travel from mainland Europe to the US — dimmed the outlook for demand.
“The scale of the oil price crash would have economists and analysts revaluating their forecast for growth, and even increase the urgency among central bankers to cut interest rates,” said Phillip Futures in a note.
Emergency measures by central banks Thursday failed to douse concerns about the economic toll from the outbreak, and markets suffered their worst day for decades.
The rout continued in Asia Friday with stocks and oil plummeting in morning trade, although they pared their losses in the afternoon.
Analysts said oil prices were boosted after US air strikes against a pro-Iranian group in Iraq, a member of the oil-exporting cartel OPEC.
The price war started after Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members pushed for an output cut to combat the impact of the virus outbreak.
But Moscow, the world’s second-biggest oil producer, refused — prompting Riyadh to drive through massive price cuts and pledge to boost production.
Today, 8 January 2020, it appears that the US is more relaxed about oil spike than Europe – which helps explain differences over Iran, according to Mueid Al Raee, of United Nations University.
Oil prices shot up following the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, rising more than US$5 per barrel to more than US$71 (£54) on January 6, its highest level since the Saudi oil refinery attack last September. Brent crude has since eased to around US$69 at the time of writing, though there is much discussion that it could climb a lot higher if the current crisis leads to an all-out war.
In keeping with many recent developments in US-Iranian relations, the Europeans have taken a dim view of America’s decision to take out the military commander. When trying to make sense of the very different approaches Iran on either side of the Atlantic, one factor that is often overlooked is that the US and Europe are affected in different ways by a rising oil price.
People tend to see more expensive oil as bad news for the global economy, but the reality is that it’s not necessarily bad for America. It may be that, in continuing to provoke Iran, driving up the oil price is almost seen by the Americans as an added incentive.
The complex oil effect
Oil pricing and its associated effects are often more complex than portrayed. As citizens, we are most often concerned with the price of fuel for our cars and the cost of heating our homes. This is the first way that oil prices affect the broader economy: if consumers have to spend more on fuel and associated taxes, they have less to spend elsewhere – and this can lead to a global slowdown.
Like all countries, the US is affected by this. Yet on previous occasions where US actions on the geopolitical stage drove up oil prices, there were also benefits to the country’s economy. Take the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which ushered in a period that would see the price of Brent nearly triple by the end of the decade. This led to a wave of investment into the US shale oil sector, which would eventually account for approaching two-thirds of the country’s total oil production.
Brent crude price, 1940s to present day
The trouble with shale oil is that it is expensive to produce, with average break-even of fields not far below US$50 per barrel. Shale oil wells also produce most of their oil in the first year of production, which means that producers have to continually drill new wells.
Due to the lower prices of the last few years, a large number of oil-related companies in the US have filed for bankruptcy, including both producers and services businesses. And while US production of shale oil managed to continue rising impressively throughout this period, mainly thanks to the bigger producers, it has been slowing down markedly in recent months.
If the oil price now trends higher, it could well mean that shale oil production in the US can resume its upward march. It also raises the prospect of US oil services companies earning more both locally but, most importantly, from foreign oil-production ventures, since there is a well-established correlation between their stock price and higher oil prices.
At the same time, six of the last eight recessions in the US were followed by high oil prices. One reason why this was not a hindrance for the economy is that, in the longer term, stable higher prices promoted the development of more energy-efficient technologies within the country.
The Americans can also argue that there are some longer-term economic benefits to higher oil prices that can help everyone. Oil-producing countries with surplus cash from oil profits invest in foreign technology and foreign assets. At the same time, oil-importing countries innovate to mitigate the profit-reducing effects of higher oil prices. These are both ultimately good for economic vibrancy and growth.
On the other hand, there are advantages to cheaper oil that are particularly important to countries in Europe – including the UK – because, unlike America, they are not oil self-reliant. Lower oil prices are shown to be beneficial for Europe’s highly energy-intensive economies and are expected to help with job creation. During the oil price drops of 1986 and the early 1990s, for instance, energy-intensive industries in Europe increased their earnings. Consumer product businesses and European airlines benefit from lower oil prices, too.
What happens next
Whether or not the Americans actually want higher oil prices, there are certainly good economic reasons why they probably won’t mind them. Deepening the chaos that started with the US withdrawing from the West’s nuclear deal with Iran is an “easy” way to achieve higher oil prices while meeting other strategic objectives.
Yet how the Europeans, China and Russia respond will also determine the global flow of oil from Iran and Iraq. Whatever the ultimate pros and cons of a higher oil price from an economic point of view, the Europeans clearly have more reasons to be unenthusiastic than the US. If the new exchange and payment instruments that have been developed by Europe to circumvent US sanctions are effective, and the US does not escalate the conflict, it may yet mean that oil prices remain stable at current levels.
Sukru Cildir of Lancaster University wonders how Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry has been shaped by American power. It has not historically been going for a long time and the recent decarbonisation wave sweeping the world does not seem to affect either party.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both oil-rich states in the Middle East, has oscillated from co-operation to conflict throughout history. Alongside a range of factors that shape their rivalry including sectarianism and nationalism has been the politics of oil.
Oil is a strategic international commodity, and its use as a political tool is widespread. Its role in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry can’t be understood without unpicking the international context, and the power structures that govern the way countries interact with each other. At the heart of this is the dominance of the US over this international system.
The dynamics between the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia over oil were laid bare in September 2019, after a series of drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The attacks caused the suspension of 5.7m barrels per day (mbpd) of crude oil production, nearly half the Saudi output.
The Houthis, a Yemeni faction, claimed responsibility. However, American and Saudi government officials accused Iran of committing these attacks. In return, the Iranians blamed foreign forces in the region for the insecurity and told the US to leave the area.
While the Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry is ostensibly the business of these two countries, it has always had an international dimension, overshadowed by the US.
The 1979 Iranian revolution marked a turning point for the place oil played within the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Before then, both countries were important allies of the US, a position which brought with it political and economic benefits, particularly to their oil industries. But the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran paved the way for a separation of paths.
As a result, ever since 1979, the Iranian oil industry has been subject to American pressure, through a range of economic sanctions and embargoes, which has crippled Iranian oil production. Iran has been unable to reach the level of oil production of over six mbpd that it had in the pre-revolution years. Meanwhile, Saudi oil production reached over 12 mbpd in 2018.
This led to the Iranian oil industry being deprived of necessary foreign investment and technology transfer, and it has fallen behind Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s state-owned oil company, and other regional competitors. Saudi Arabia has largely backed the US policy of isolating and sanctioning Iran, particularly the Iranian oil industry, which has, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contributed to the ongoing tensions in the Saudi-Iranian relationship.
As Saudi Aramco prepares for an IPO in December that could make it the world’s biggest publicly listed company, Iran is desperate to revitalise its own outmoded oil industry. As Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh admitted in early 2019, many of Iran’s ageing oil facilities are in fact “operating museums”.
The US continues to have such an influence on Middle Eastern oil politics because of the way it has successfully pushed its own international agenda since 1945. After World War II, the US cemented its dominance over an international system built on the basis of liberal and capitalist principles. While the US rewards its allies with economic and political benefits, it punishes its challengers through a range of political and economic measures, not least economic sanctions.
Oil became a strategic international commodity in the post-World War II period, and began to play a pivotal role in the way the US maintained its global dominance. To do this, the US aimed to open up and transnationalise oil-rich economies in the Global South such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to both promote its national interests and solidify its privileged position within the current system.
Accordingly, the supply of Middle Eastern oil into international markets without disruption – and at a reasonable price – became an essential instrument for maintaining American dominance, even though the US didn’t need to import oil from the Middle East.
A world of US dominance
The political economist Susan Strange provided a theoretical framework back in 1987 to explain the structure of US dominance over the international system through four main dimensions: production, finance, security and knowledge. This is also a useful way to understand how the US shapes the international oil market – and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
By 2018, in the wake of a shale boom, the US became the largest oil-producing country in the world by reaching production of 15 mbpd. Financially, oil has been priced and traded in US dollars, in particular since the early 1970s when a series of negotiations and agreements linking the sale of oil to the US dollar were made between Saudi Arabia and the US. This has increased global demand for US dollars, and helped the US deal with its trade deficit and keep its interest rates low. It has also helped the US to monitor the petroleum trade by controlling global bank transfers.
The US also stands as a main security provider to oil-rich Gulf monarchies, with publicly acknowledged military bases in over 12 countries in the Middle East. Additionally, it has a supremacy over global knowledge, most obviously through its continued domination and control of the sector’s technological needs. By leading global innovation and technological development in the shale revolution, for example, and having the highest budget for research and development, the US largely controls global technology transfer. This has also deprived Iran of necessary technology, capital and know-how to modernise its ageing oil industry, constraining production.
Therefore, despite the fact that the Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry seems like a regional issue, the role of American power in a globalised world has been key to shaping this regional political competition over oil.
OPEC earned about $711 billion in net oil export revenues (unadjusted for inflation) in 2018
Saudi Arabia accounted for the largest share of total OPEC earnings, $237 billion
India only imports between 4.5 and 5 million barrels per day of oil, but it is shaping up to be the biggest competitive space for producers
OPEC is still making money, despite challenges coming from every which way.
Be it falling prices, market volatility, regional insecurity, trade wars, armed conflict, talks of recession, US production, electric vehicles and renewable energy, or US Iranian sanctions, OPEC still finds a way to generate billions in revenues.
Now, mixed with current production leaders are a few new players making a splash.
The 2018 net oil export revenues increased by 32% from the $538 billion earned in 2017, mainly as a result of the increase in average annual crude oil prices during the year and a slight increase in OPEC net oil exports.
Saudi Arabia accounted for the largest share of total OPEC earnings, $237 billion in 2018, representing one-third of total OPEC oil revenues.
EIA expects that OPEC net oil export revenues will decline to about $604 billion (unadjusted for inflation) in 2019, based on forecasts of global oil prices and OPEC production levels in EIA’s August 2019 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), according to Hellenic Shipping News.
EIA’s forecasts that OPEC crude oil production will average 30.1 million barrels per day (BPD) in 2019, 1.8 million BPD lower than in 2018.
For 2020, OPEC revenues are expected to be $580 billion, largely as a result of lower OPEC production.
Important countries to watch for in the oil sector
5. India—Right now India only imports between 4.5 and 5 million barrels per day of oil, but it is shaping up to be the biggest competitive space for producers.
India is the third-largest oil consumer in the world. Previously, the biggest competition ground for oil producers was for sales to China, but with 1.37 billion people, India has the potential to impact the market much like China has.
4. Saudi Arabia—This Arab Gulf nation owns the world’s most profitable (oil) company, houses the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world, and has the most spare capacity of any country. Oil from Saudi Arabia fuels much of east Asia. Aramco is also expanding its exports to India to compensate for lost Iranian oil.
2. China—This country is the second-largest consumer of oil and is the largest oil importer in the world at around 10.64 million barrels per day. China is such an important oil consumer that any indication that economic growth in China is slowing sends oil prices tumbling.
1. United States –The U.S. is currently producing oil at record levels (12.3 million barrels per day according to the EIA). This is being driven by the shale oil industry. The U.S has shown its ability to impact other countries’ oil business, as it did with Iran’s exports in recent months. Presidential tweets also impact prices.
Author Hadi Khatib is a business editor with more than 15 years’ experience delivering news and copy of relevance to a wide range of audiences. If newsworthy and actionable, you will find this editor interested in hearing about your sector developments and writing about it.
The state energy giant’s vast oil reserves – it can sustain current production levels for the next 50 years – make it more exposed than any other company to a rising tide of environmental activism and shift away from fossil fuels.
In the three years since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman first proposed a stock market listing, climate change and new green technologies are putting some investors, particularly in Europe and the United States, off the oil and gas sector.
Sustainable investments account for more than a quarter of all assets under management globally, by some estimates.
Aramco, for its part, argues oil and gas will remain at the heart of the energy mix for decades, saying renewables and nuclear cannot meet rising global demand, and that its crude production has lower greenhouse gas emissions than its rivals.
But with the company talking again to banks about an initial public offering (IPO), some investors and lawyers say the window to execute a sale at a juicy price is shrinking and Aramco will need to explain to prospective shareholders how it plans to profit in a lower-carbon world.
“Saudi Aramco is a really interesting test as to whether the market is getting serious about pricing in energy transition risk,” said Natasha Landell-Mills, in charge of integrating environment, social and governance (ESG) considerations into investing at London-based asset manager Sarasin & Partners.
“The longer that (the IPO) gets delayed, the less willing the market will be to price it favourably because gradually investors are going to need to ask questions about how valuable those reserves are in a world that is trying to get down to net zero emissions by 2050.”
Reuters reported on Aug. 8 that Prince Mohammed was insisting on a $2 trillion valuation even though some bankers and company insiders say the kingdom should trim its target to around $1.5 trillion.
A valuation gap could hinder any share sale. The IPO was previously slated for 2017 or 2018 and, when that deadline slipped, to 2020-2021.
Aramco told Reuters it was ready for a listing and the timing would be decided by the government.
The company also said it was investing in research to make cars more efficient, and working on new technologies to use hydrogen in cars, convert more crude to chemicals and capture CO2 which can be injected in its reservoirs to improve extraction of oil.
SELLING THE STORY
Some would argue this is not enough.
A growing number of investors across the world are factoring ESG risk into their decision-making, although the degree to which that would stop them investing in Aramco varies wildly.
Some would exclude the company on principle because of its carbon output, while others would be prepared to buy if the price was cheap enough to outweigh the perceived ESG risk – especially given oil companies often pay healthy dividends.
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At a $1.5 trillion valuation, Aramco would be the world’s largest public company. If it were included in major equity indices it would automatically be bought by passive investment funds that track them, regardless of their ESG credentials.
And as the world’s most profitable company, Aramco shares would be snapped up by many active investors.
Talks about a share sale were revived this year after Aramco attracted huge investor demand for its first international bond issue. In its bond prospectus, it said climate change could potentially have a “material adverse effect” on its business.
When it comes to an IPO, equity investors require more information about potential risks and how companies plan to deal with them, as they are more exposed than bondholders if a business runs into trouble.
“Companies need to lead with the answers in the prospectus, rather than have two or three paragraphs describing potential risks from environmental issues,” said Nick O’Donnell, partner in the corporate department at law firm Baker McKenzie.
“An oil and gas company needs to be thinking about how to explain the story over the next 20 years and bring it out into a separate section rather than hiding it away in the prospectus, it needs to use it as a selling tool. And also, once the IPO is done, every annual report should have a standalone ESG section.”
Unlike other major oil companies, Aramco doesn’t have a separate report laying out how it addresses ESG issues such as labour practices and resource scarcity, while it does not publish the carbon emissions from products it sells. Until this year’s bond issue, it also kept its finances under wraps.
The company does however have an Environmental Protection Department, sponsors sustainability initiatives and is a founding member of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which is led by 13 top energy companies and aims to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
On Aug. 12 Aramco published information on the intensity of its hydrocarbon mix for the first time. It disclosed the amount of greenhouse gases from each barrel it produces.
Aramco’s senior vice president of finance Khalid al-Dabbagh said during an earnings call this month that its carbon emissions from “upstream” exploration and production were the lowest among its peers.
A study published by Science magazine last year found carbon emissions from Saudi Arabia’s crude production were the world’s second lowest after Denmark, as a result of having a small number of highly productive oilfields.
THE OIL PRICE
Aramco says that, with the global economy forecast to double in size by 2050, oil and gas will remain essential.
“Saudi Aramco is determined to not only meet the world’s growing demand for ample, reliable and affordable energy but to meet the world’s growing demand for much cleaner fuel,” it told Reuters.
“Alternatives are still facing significant technological, economic and infrastructure hurdles, and the history of past energy transitions shows that these developments take time.”
The company has also moved to diversify into gas and chemicals and is using renewable energy in its facilities.
But Aramco still, ultimately, represents a bet on the price of oil.
It generated net income of $111 billion in 2018, over a third more than the combined total of the five “super-majors” ExxonMobil (XOM.N), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.AS), BP (BP.L), Chevron (CVX.N) and Total (TOTF.PA).
In 2016, when the oil price hit 13-year lows, Aramco’s net income was only $13 billion, according to its bond prospectus where it unveiled its finances for the first time, based on current exchange rates. Its earnings fell 12% in the first half of 2019, mainly on lower oil prices.
Concerns about future demand for fossil fuels have weighed on the sector. Since 2016, when Prince Mohammed first flagged an IPO, the 12-months forward price to earnings ratio of five of the world’s top listed oil companies has fallen to 12 from 21 on average, according to Reuters calculations, lagging the FTSE 100 and the STOXX Europe 600 Oil & Gas index averages.
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AN INFLUX OF CAPITAL
Using a broad measure, there was global sustainable investment of $30.1 trillion across the world’s five major markets at the end of 2018, according to the Global Sustainable Investment Review here, more than a quarter of all assets under management globally. That compares with $22.8 trillion in 2016.
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“Given the influx of capital into the ESG space, Aramco’s IPO would have been better off going public 5-10 years ago,” said Joseph di Virgilio, global equities portfolio manager at New York-based Romulus Asset Management, which has $900 million in assets under management.
“An IPO today would still be the largest of its kind, but many asset managers focusing solely on ESG may not participate.”
The world’s top listed oil and gas companies have come under heavy pressure from investors and climate groups in recent years to outline strategies to reduce their carbon footprint.
Shell, BP and others have agreed, together with shareholders, on carbon reduction targets for some of operations and to increase spending on renewable energies. U.S. major ExxonMobil, the world’s top publicly traded oil and gas company, has resisted adopting targets.
Britain’s biggest asset manager LGIM removed Exxon from its 5 billion pounds ($6.3 billion) Future World funds for what it said was a failure to confront threats posed by climate change. LGIM did not respond to a request for comment on whether it would buy shares in Aramco’s potential IPO.
Sarasin & Partners said in July it had sold nearly 20% of its holdings in Shell, saying its spending plans were out of sync with international targets to battle climate change. The rest of the stake is under review.
The asset manager, which has nearly 14 billion pounds in assets under management, didn’t participate in Aramco’s bond offering and Landell-Mills said they would be unlikely to invest in any IPO.
Additional reporting by Ron Bousso in London and Victoria Klesty in Oslo; Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Pravin Char
Saudi Arabia clinched 37 deals worth $53 billion after announcing that
it intends to attract upwards of $426 billion in total over the next decade as
it seeks to advance Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MbS) ambitious Vision
2030 agenda of socio-economic reform. The young leader knows that his
majority-youthful country has no hope for the future if it doesn’t rapidly
transition to a post-oil economy before its world-famous reserves run dry,
which is why he’s doing everything in his power to court infrastructural,
industrial, defense, and technological investments in order to prudently give
his people a chance to survive when that happens.
This will naturally result in
far-reaching lifestyle changes whereby the relatively well-off native
population is compelled to leave their plush government jobs and segue into the
competitive private sector out of economic necessity. Relatedly, the Kingdom is
loosening its previously strict religious edicts that hitherto prohibited
Western-style social freedoms such as playing music in restaurants, going to
the cinema, and allowing women to drive. About the last-mentioned of these
three latest reforms, it’s inevitable that more women will move out of the home
and into the workforce as Vision 2030 progressively develops, though therein
lays the potential for serious social unrest.
The Saudi state is upheld by the dual
pillars of the monarchy and the Wahhabi clerics, the latter of which have been side
lined as a result of Vision 2030 and MbS’ previous crackdown on both radical
Islam and the corrupt elite. For all intents and purposes, the Crown Prince’s
rapid rise to power was a factionalist coup within the monarchy itself but also
a structural one of the monarchy imposing its envisioned will over the Wahhabi
clerics, both in the sense of curtailing any militant activities that some of
them might have been encouraging and/or funding and also when it comes to
counteracting their previously dominant influence over society.
As the country makes progress on
advancing Vision 2030 and its related economic reforms continue catalyzing
social ones as well, it’s very possible that the structural fault lines between
the monarchy & Wahhabis and the younger generation & the older one will
lead to political destabilization if they’re not pre-emptively and properly
dealt with. While it might sound overly dramatic, there’s a lot of objective
truth in the forecast that MbS might either end up as the first King of a New Saudi Arabia or the last Crown Prince of a country that might ultimately cease to exist if these naturally occurring Hybrid War variables
aren’t brought under control.
Energy Reporters posting an article on Libya’s oil chief being bullish amid his country’s chaos that does seem to be wanting to end.
aims to more than double its oil production to 2.1 million
barrels per day (bpd) by 2021 provided security and stability are boosted, said Mustafa Sanalla, the chairman of
the state oil company, the National Oil Corporation (NOC).
The war-torn state produces 953,000 bpd, compared
to its pre-war capacity of 1.6 million bpd, according to Sanalla.
The oil boss demanded increased security at El Sharara oil field to ensure the
315,000 bpd site – which on December 8 was overrun by tribal activists, protesters and
security guards demanding unpaid wages – could return to production.
El Sharara, around 750km southwest of the capital Tripoli, is the country’s
largest oil field. Until recently it was producing about 270,000 barrels of oil
per day, more than a quarter of Libya’s daily oil production.
The oil activists demanded the rebuilding of cities and towns affected by
post-2011 armed conflict and providing liquidity for banks in the south to
boost recovery efforts.
“What happened in El Sharara discourages foreign companies,” said Sanalla, who
announced a visit to China in early 2018 to discuss oil investment
“The legitimate and rightful concerns of the southern Libyan communities are
being hijacked and abused by armed gangs, who instead of protecting the field
to generate wealth for all Libyans, are actually enabling its exploitation and
looting,” said Sanalla.
He also confirmed the improved security conditions in the Sirte basin in
central Libya which would enable the launch of production at the Farigh gas
field to 24 million cubic feet per day in three months, with an eventual output
goal of 270 million cubic feet per day, Sanalla said.
Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj (pictured) recently agreed to set up funds in
excess of US$700 million for the development of southern Libya, which has
suffered from decades of neglect after talks with the El Sharara militants. The
talks followed a warning from Sanalla that the government should not encourage
the militant groups at El Sharara with concessions as this would set a
dangerous precedent for other direct action.
Despite security problems, the NOC said it expected full-year revenue to surge
by 76 per cent to US$24.2 billion for 2018.
Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. Libya’s oil
producers struggle with security challenges, making the war-torn state an
unreliable member of Opec. Picture credit: Wikimedia
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