By Will Englund
So many sets of parentheses show up on the latest oil company earnings reports denoting losses that long columns of figures seem to be doing a shimmy right on the page.
An already weakening market was shredded last year by the pandemic, as prices and volumes fell worldwide. Oil majors that were once the most powerful corporations in the world lost much of their footing in 2020, along with many billions of dollars.
A bad global economy, a promise by the Biden administration to get serious about climate change and growing confidence in a future of all-electric vehicles have started to raise questions about just how viable these companies will be.
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Conoco Phillips announced this week that it lost $2.7 billion in 2020. BP and Chevron each lost just over $5.5 billion. ExxonMobil posted a loss of $20 billion.
Royal Dutch Shell announced Thursday that it made a $4.85 billion profit, down 71 percent from the year before and less than had been expected.
Still, the company said it would raise its dividend in the first quarter of 2021 by 4 percent from the previous quarter.
The S&P Global Ratings agency said last week it was placing ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and the French company Total on a “credit watch” — which means they’re in danger of a downgrade because of the “significant challenges and uncertainties” they face.
ExxonMobil, a descendant of the mighty Standard Oil Company, was removed from the Dow Jones industrial average basket of companies in August, a once unthinkable blow to its prestige.
The companies are not, of course, planning on withering away any time soon. The price of oil has been rising this past week as U.S. stocks have been drawn down, Saudi Arabia cut its production, and optimism that the end of the pandemic is in sight has been growing.
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Over the longer term, the European majors have proclaimed their ambitions to go totally green by mid-century, though several clean-energy executives resigned from Shell in December amid an internal debate about the pace of change.
Even ExxonMobil, which has been more inert on that score, announced this week that it will launch a $3 billion carbon-capture-and-sequestration affiliate that will be called ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions.
That, however, is a small part of the oil giant’s battered portfolio. ExxonMobil, based in Irving, Tex., has probably generated more schadenfreude among outsiders than any of its rivals. It was the biggest, the stodgiest, the most arrogant.
By some measures, it has now declined the furthest.
“The past year presented the most challenging market conditions ExxonMobil has ever experienced,” Darren W. Woods, chairman and CEO, said in a prepared statement.
“While the effects of the pandemic significantly impacted our 2020 results, our previously executed strategic initiatives and reorganizations enabled us to respond decisively to permanently improve our cost structure, drive greater efficiencies across our businesses, and emerge a stronger company.”
The company saw significant drops in both its revenue and expenses, and it cut spending on exploration by $10 billion. In a filing with the SEC it attributed most of the huge loss to write-downs of the value of gas fields under ExxonMobil’s control.
Other oil majors also pointed to write-downs as the reason for all the red ink and parentheses.
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But revenue at ExxonMobil was down more than 40 percent, with most of the pain coming from sales of gasoline and jet fuel.
Critics have argued that a corporation that still relies heavily on the sale of petroleum-based products to run vehicles is heading for trouble at a time when electric cars and trucks are beginning to look like the wave of the very near future.
Tesla currently has a market cap more than twice that of ExxonMobil and Chevron combined.
Last month General Motors announced that it plans to stop making gas-powered cars and other vehicles by 2035.
Critics say ExxonMobil has been too slow to adapt, unable to envision a different future for itself, and dangerously focused on maintaining its stock dividends.
With all the bad news it dealt with last year, ExxonMobil “still paid $15.2 billion to its shareholders, borrowing money and selling off assets to help fund its generous dividend and modest share buybacks,” Clark Williams-Derry, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in Lakewood, Ohio, wrote in a note.
The dividend notwithstanding, frustrated shareholders, marshalled by an investment firm named Engine No. 1, are pressuring the company to shake up its board and “re-energize” itself.
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“For years ExxonMobil has pursued spending and strategic plans that position it to succeed only in the absence of a material long-term energy demand shift, and it remains positioned for continued value destruction for decades to come under alternate scenarios,” the investment firm said in a statement issued after the earnings report was released.
“It is equally poor long-term planning,” the firm said, to count on carbon capture as a big enough enterprise to allow continued growth in oil and gas production even under the Paris climate accord.
President Biden announced the day he was inaugurated that the United States is rejoining the Paris agreement.
The criticisms of the company draw a stark contrast with the ethos of its original patriarch, John D. Rockefeller, as described by the journalist Ida Tarbell in her 1904 “History of the Standard Oil Company.”
His was a corporation that in its ruthless ability to crush rivals was cunning but patient, always willing to undercut profits today in the service of riches tomorrow. But while it waited, it never failed to prepare for what was to come.
“His instinct for the money opportunity in things was amazing, his perception of the value of seizing this or that particular invention, plant, market, was unerring,” Tarbell wrote.
Last year Woods and the chief executive of Chevron, Mike Wirth, had informal talks about a merger, the Wall Street Journal reported. If it came about, it would reunite four of the companies spun off when the federal government broke up Standard Oil in 1911, largely because of the outrage stirred by Tarbell.
ExxonMobil descends from the Standard Oil companies of New Jersey and New York; Chevron’s ancestor was their California counterpart, which picked up Standard Oil of Kentucky in 1961.
ExxonMobil’s bad financial news generated, almost inevitably, a rise in its share price this week. Last month Goldman Sachs had listed its stock as a good buy, in the expectation that the company will rebound this year and catch up with the other oil majors that had been faring better on the market.
But Raymond James and Co. was more pessimistic. “While Exxon retains many traditionally attractive defensive characteristics, the stock still faced meaningful pressure in 2020, similar to much of the energy sector,” the company said in a note.
“While much less of a worry in recent weeks with the rally in oil prices, investors still express concern around the long term viability of the current dividend level.”
Biden’s executive order pausing drilling leases on federal land has not caused investors to flee from petroleum.
Partly that is because the leases cover a 10-year span, said Matthew Sallee, energy portfolio manager at an energy and environmental analytics firm called TortoiseEcofin.
“The producers have years’ worth of leases and drilling permits in hand,” he said, but the pause on new leases “should support better environmental practices and more capital discipline on the industry which is what the market has been clamoring for.”