October 1, 2020

Shell Bets Big on Natural Gas

More than any of its rivals, Royal Dutch Shell, which will report its quarterly results on Thursday, is betting its future on the business of bringing natural gas from remote locations like Qatar to energy-hungry destinations like China and Japan.

And while analysts expect the results to show a sharp decline from last year’s first quarter, in part because of disruptions in its Nigerian gas operations, many experts say Shell may eventually show big benefits from its natural gas emphasis.

Increasingly, to make gas a global commodity, companies supercool it into a liquid form for transport on specialized ships. Shell has already invested about $40 billion in liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G., production plants, storage terminals and related systems, and plans to continue pumping money into that business.

Shell now has about 7 percent of the world L.N.G. business, with ambitions to more than double that share through new projects and acquisitions. Last year, L.N.G. and related businesses earned Shell $9.4 billion of its $25.1 billion in profit.

“We are in the lead, and we want to stay in the lead,” Andrew Brown, Shell’s head of international exploration and production, said in a mid-April interview. Mr. Brown said Shell expected global demand for L.N.G. to grow rapidly in the coming years, doubling by 2025 to about 500 million tons a year, the equivalent of about 4.5 billion barrels of oil, making it by far the fastest-growing fuel.

The main reason for the anticipated growth is that natural gas is abundant. And because of the U.S shale gas boom, it has become relatively cheap — especially in North America, where prices lately have been in the range of $4 per million British thermal units, compared with highs of $13 as recently as 2005. The European spot price is around $10 per million B.T.U.’s, and the Asian price around $15; contract prices, often linked to oil, may be higher.

And because it burns much cleaner than either coal or oil, it will very likely stay in favor because its use can help lower the greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for causing global warming.

To Mr. Brown’s frustration, not everyone gets the message. That is one reason Shell’s big L.N.G. bet is no sure thing.

The United States has wholeheartedly embraced gas. But Europe, mired in economic doldrums, has turned to coal, which is less expensive. This has driven down demand for gas in the region, which in recent decades had been one of the world’s biggest markets for natural gas via pipelines and L.N.G.

Europe does not have “the right balance” in terms of promoting gas, Mr. Brown said. About 75 percent of Shell’s L.N.G. goes to Asia.

As much as anyone, Mr. Brown is responsible for making Shell a gas broker to the world. Before taking his current job, Mr. Brown presided over more than $20 billion in investments in gargantuan installations for turning the extensive gas deposits in Qatar’s North Field into exports in the form of L.N.G. and liquid fuels like diesel.

To build on its lead, Shell agreed in February to buy the L.N.G. business of the Spanish company Repsol for about $6.7 billion. Some industry analysts considered the price too high. But according to Repsol, Shell had to outbid more than dozen competing offers.

The impact of Shell’s L.N.G. investments on the company’s financial performance will, of course, fluctuate from quarter to quarter. The first-quarter results on Thursday are expected to be hurt by a shutdown at a Nigerian L.N.G. plant caused by sabotage. And yet, Shell’s quarter was probably helped by high L.N.G. prices in Japan, which continues to import large quantities of gas since the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011.

Analysts’ consensus forecast anticipates that Shell will report adjusted net profit of $6 billion for the quarter, an 8 percent gain over the preceding quarter, but an 18 percent decline from a year earlier, according to Peter Hutton of RBC Capital Markets in London.

On Tuesday, one of Shell’s main rivals, BP, reported a first-quarter profit of $4.2 billion after adjusting for inventory changes and one-time items, which handily beat analysts’ forecasts. BP, though, continues to emphasize its oil business.

Over the longer run, being a big player in L.N.G. is likely to help Shell outearn its peers, predicted Martijn Rats, an analyst at Morgan Stanley in London. The huge upfront investments of several billion dollars per gas liquefaction plant might seem prohibitive, Mr. Rats said, but those projects “generate large amounts of operating cash flow over two or three decades.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/business/energy-environment/02iht-shell02.html?partner=rss&emc=rss