BP is laying out its vision for a low-carbon future. Investors are skeptical

September 28, 2020, 2:27 PM UTC

BP has begun sketching out the details of how it will transition from one of the world’s legacy oil and gas companies to a low-carbon giant. Now it needs to get investors to buy in.

Judging by the share price, it’s not going well.

In afternoon trading, the British energy major on Monday was up 1.16% in London. That’s just above a 25-year-low, and the stock is down more than 50% since the start of the year.

The company’s main competitors—European energy majors like Royal Dutch Shell, Norway’s Equinor, and France’s Total—are all facing hits to their stock this year, as the pandemic battered energy demand and sent oil prices, at times, into free fall. Those three are also in the midst of laying out their strategies for hitting net-zero emissions by 2050, a transformational reimagining of what a legacy oil and gas company can be. It’s one that so far has been largely limited to European companies. American giants like Exxon Mobil mostly are committing to doubling down on traditional oil and gas.

Speaking to Fortune in June, BP CEO Bernard Looney spoke to the scale of the shift, noting that “trillions of dollars will be spent rewiring and replumbing the world’s energy system,” he said.

“That presents an enormous opportunity for a company of our skills.”

It’s a huge challenge too.

In announcing the company’s 2050 target shortly after becoming CEO, Looney claimed that a company that has built its legacy on fossil fuels can fundamentally transform in a matter of years, rapidly divesting oil assets, while acquiring and developing infrastructure-heavy renewable projects—all while making investors money.

The company said that it expects to provide 8% to 10% returns for investors—lower than for big-ticket oil projects, but still a hefty promise. While the industry’s pledges have been cheered by many, the lack of specifics have also produced valid, wary skepticism.

Memories of “beyond petroleum”

When Looney announced his commitment to the net-zero target, many longtime energy investors could be forgiven for wincing. After all, the company has been here before. In the late 1990s, the company underwent a high-profile rebranding to “beyond petroleum” and committed to renewable projects. Whether ill-judged or simply ahead of its time, the transition was a resounding flop. Much of the investments acquired during the company’s renewable spending spree was quietly disposed of within years.

Then there are the current trials. In the summer, Looney pitched a “leaner” BP while announcing about $18 billion in write-downs, cutting 10,000 jobs, and halving the company’s dividend. While pitched as part of the transition, the great slim-down was viewed as much through the lens of crashing oil prices as it was a company in the midst of a major overhaul.

That all fed into the skepticism that greeted BP as it laid out the details of its transition in September, in a series of daylong presentations.

“We believe BP’s starting point for its ‘reinvention’ remains disadvantaged,” said Bank of America analysts in a note. They pointed to an “overstretched” balance sheet, with a debt load about 10% higher than its European peers, and a smaller existing low-carbon project base than those same companies, particularly Total, going into its transformation.

Though the target is for 2050, the company will also have to move very quickly. By 2030, BP plans to cut its oil and gas production by 40% and expand its renewables capacity to 50GW by 2030—up from just 2.5GW in 2019—much of that initially coming from a solar power development project.

There’s also the question of what will pay for the transition. There, analysts flagged concerns, pointing out that BP still remains dependent on short-term oil prices—not good with the Brent crude contract currently at around $42/barrel, down more than 35% from the start of the year—to fund its operations. That will also come up against what is a mounting cash crunch: Divesting fossil fuel assets is now occurring in a buyers’ market, BofA analysts pointed out.

Finally, BP now finds itself in a market that may be as competitive as any in the oil and gas world; renewable projects ready to come online in the short term are in high demand. In that race, even a minor head start could provide a serious financial advantage.

BP is up against not just its legacy competitors but also local utilities and first-movers like Spain’s Iberdrola and Denmark’s Ørsted—formerly the country’s national oil and gas company—which have been building up their renewable portfolios for years, particularly in offshore wind power.

BP may have a vision. But investors are now waiting to see whether, in the race to decarbonize, it can truly set itself apart.

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