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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."

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Jan 7, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Known unknowns about Biden's natural gas diplomacy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Part of a new post by energy analyst Nikos Tsafos raises an important point: Joe Biden's approach to U.S. financing of natural gas projects abroad and LNG exports is something of a mystery, even as he plans new domestic regulations.

The big picture: Tsafos notes there's been significant support in recent years from a pair of U.S. agencies — the Export-Import Bank and the International Development Finance Corp.

Ina Fried, author of Login
27 mins ago - Technology

Scoop: Google is investigating the actions of another top AI ethicist

Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Photo by Mateusz Wlodarczyk/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Google is investigating recent actions by Margaret Mitchell, who helps lead the company's ethical AI team, Axios has confirmed.

Why it matters: The probe follows the forced exit of Timnit Gebru, a prominent researcher also on the AI ethics team at Google whose ouster ignited a firestorm among Google employees.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Joe Biden's COVID-19 bubble

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The incoming administration is planning extraordinary steps to protect its most prized commodity, Joe Biden, including requiring daily employee COVID tests and N95 masks at all times, according to new guidance sent to some incoming employees Tuesday.

Why it matters: The president-elect is 78 years old and therefore a high risk for the virus and its worst effects, despite having received the vaccine. While President Trump's team was nonchalant about COVID protocols — leading to several super-spreader episodes — the new rules will apply to all White House aides in "high proximity to principals."

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