For most of the past century, Big Oil executives found it pretty easy to explain to investors how their businesses worked. Just locate more of the commodities that everyone needed, extract and process them as cheaply as possible, and watch the profits flow. That’s all over now. The change has been so profound that the chief executive officer of BP Plc recently found himself hyping the profit potential of another commodity. “People may not know—BP sells coffee. We sold 150 million cups of coffee last year,” Bernard Looney said in an interview in August, referring to beverage kiosks attached to the company’s fuel stations. “This is a very strong business. It’s a growth business.”
“This is a time of energy transition,” says Daniel Yergin, the oil historian and vice chairman at consultant IHS Markit Ltd. “The supermajors were born of the trauma of the late 1990s,” he notes, and now “this global trauma of the pandemic will also be a decisive period.”
Legacy energy companies are for the first time sketching out new strategies that in the near future—as soon as 2030, in some cases—would eliminate hydrocarbons. The industry would like everyone to believe it’s turning its back on fossil fuels for the good of the planet. After decades of denying its role in global warming, however, the reality is that Big Oil has been forced to change by green campaigners, local politicians, and pension funds.
The green transition is more evident in Europe, but the same forces are hammering the industry in the U.S. In another unmistakable sign of the times, last month Exxon Mobil Corp. was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the first time since 1928. In the S&P 500, the energy sector is now the smallest component. (The mostly state-owned oil giants of the Middle East, India, and China are, for now at least, largely carrying on as before.)
What is the future of Big Oil without oil? At the extreme of this approach are the pathways sketched out by BP and Italian oil group Eni SpA. These companies claim that in the next decade they will come to resemble a cross between a slimmer version of a traditional oil company and what’s today more like a utility (with, yes, a coffee-selling convenience store chain for drivers of electric vehicles). As the legacy business fades, the theory goes, investments in renewable electricity, biofuels, and EV charging points will pay off.
Industry executives insist their legacy business is resilient even as they shift away from oil and natural gas, but their actions suggest otherwise. BP and Royal Dutch Shell Plc have already slashed their dividends—for Shell it was the first time in nearly 80 years. Returning profits to shareholders has long been a pillar of oil’s strength on financial markets. And those like Exxon who are keeping their shareholder payments untouched are taking on far more debt to do so.