Dec 1, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Big Oil's big reckoning

spiled oil
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There doesn't seem to be an oil major that's got it all figured out between the pandemic, cloudy demand and price outlooks, and the unknown path through a world getting a bit more serious about climate.

Driving the news: ExxonMobil yesterday afternoon showed the latest signs of its struggle to position itself as it announced large write-offs and a big rethink of long-term spending.

  • But European majors aren't well-positioned either, despite their strategy for diversifying more quickly than their U.S. counterparts into renewables and other investments outside their fossil products.

Details: Exxon is slashing planned capital and exploration spending to $20 billion-$25 billion annually through 2025, compared to $30 billion-$35 billion planned before COVID-19.

  • Exxon also said it's planning a write-down of $17 billion-$20 billion on natural gas assets in the U.S., Canada and Argentina.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Exxon has substantially lowered its oil price outlook over the next decade.

The big picture: Bloomberg's unsparing lede: "Exxon Mobil Corp. is about to incur the biggest writedown in its modern history as the giant U.S. oil and gas producer reels from this year’s collapse in energy prices."

  • While the pandemic has worsened Exxon's struggles, it didn't create them, as the company has been dealing for years with some big bets that haven't paid off — including its $31 billion 2010 deal for the big gas producer XTO Energy.

Yes, but: Exxon said yesterday that it hopes to double its earnings by 2027 and that in the nearer-term, the business environment in Q4 is showing signs of improvement.

  • The company said it's focusing on the development of priority assets in Guyana, Brazil, the Permian Basin and its chemicals division.
  • The moves will boost Exxon's "earnings power and cash generation" and ability to "manage future commodity price cycles," CEO Darren Woods said.

The intrigue: That brings us to Europe and a good Financial Times look at the strategies of the multinational oil-and-gas giants headquartered there like Shell and BP.

  • The story notes the lagging stock performance of those companies compared to large renewables companies like wind giant Orsted.
  • Even as Europe's oil giants pivot, their ability to execute in the renewables space is uncertain.

The bottom line: Overall, the Financial Times reports, there's a realization that "even if oil executives manage to transform their businesses, they cannot guarantee significant earnings and returns in the next decade."

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