Investors reward French energy giant Total for making the best of a brutal 2020

February 9, 2021, 1:44 PM UTC

French energy giant Total gave investors something to cheer about on Tuesday. The company offered signs of relative health amid a bruising results season for the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

The company was the rare energy giant to beat analyst expectations in the fourth quarter and to keep its dividend level, while the pace of its shift into renewable energy and away from traditional oil assets has outpaced some of its competitors. On Tuesday after the results, Total shares shot up as much as 2%. The stock is up nearly 40% since late October.

Even as share prices recover across the sector, the biggest players have had to tabulate the losses from last year’s historic plunge in crude oil demand.

Last week, Shell announced its largest loss in 15 years, while Exxon Mobil ruminated on a year in which it fell off the Dow Jones Industrial Average index. The Financial Times reported that collective losses by BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon, and Chevron for the year amount to more than $50 billion.

Total didn’t escape 2020 unscathed. The company reported a full-year net loss of $7.2 billion, in part owing to large impairment charges on its assets in the Canadian oil sands. Its net income declined by 65% to $4 billion across the year, which the company said was the result of lower oil and gas prices and slimmer refining margins.

“Total faced two major crises in 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic that severely affected global energy demand, and the oil crisis that drove the Brent price below $20 per barrel in the second quarter,” CEO Patrick Pouyanné said in a release on the results.

Demand dropped by a historic 8.8 million barrels per day in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency.

That demand falloff had a dramatic impact on the oil price over the course of the year—including a brief period in which oil prices went into deep negative territory, sending the industry into disarray.

Oil prices are now recovering, helped largely by production cuts from Saudi Arabia rather than a robust increase in demand. On Monday, the Brent crude contract hit $60/barrel for the first time since the pandemic began. On Tuesday morning, Brent crude was up 0.23% to $60.70/barrel.

Net zero

But 2020 was also a year of shifting strategy, as legacy giants rushed to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050—Total included. BP, Shell, and Equinor also committed to the target last year.

Such a goal requires a vast shift in the portfolio of a traditional oil and gas company, and Total has focused on shifting in particular toward liquefied natural gas (LNG) and solar. In 2020, Total took a 20% stake in Adani Green Energy, an Indian solar development giant, and announced it would develop the largest green hydrogen site in France. Alongside writing down its Canadian assets, the company also sold off assets in the U.K. North Sea. For 2021, the company said it will allocate more than 20% of its $12 billion net investment spending to its renewables and electricity sector.

Total also said it would propose changing its name to “TotalEnergies” at its next annual general meeting, to better reflect a diversifying energy portfolio. It’s not an uncommon choice. Though Norway’s Equinor—formerly Statoil—is the arguably the best-known example, legacy oil and gas companies have been increasingly rebranding in recent years.

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