Shell to sell major U.S. shale operation to ConocoPhillips, accelerating its departure from fracking

September 21, 2021, 10:28 AM UTC

Shell will sell its shale assets in Texas to ConocoPhillips in a $9.5 billion cash deal, the two companies announced Monday, in a sign that the Anglo-Dutch oil and gas giant is stripping assets as it comes under increasing pressure to cut its carbon emissions.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips will get Shell’s Delaware Basin assets in Texas’s Permian Basin, which amounts to roughly 225,000 net acres. The company says it will raise production to roughly 200,000 barrels per day, up from Shell’s current production levels of 175,000 per day.

The deal, which was expected for months, is another sign of consolidation in the U.S. shale patch, after last year’s historical oil and gas demand rout produced a spate of bankruptcies; it reverses Shell’s efforts, just a few years ago, to invest in the region. And it’s also yet another sign of the diverging expectations between European and U.S.-based oil and gas majors.

Shell, which has some of the world’s most ambitious climate targets for an oil and gas company, is under increasing pressure to cut its emissions after it lost a Dutch court ruling in May. That ruling ordered it to cut its emissions by 45% by 2030, and covers not just Shell’s own operations, but Scope 3 emissions, too—those created by burning Shell’s products to drive or fly, for example.

By contrast, ConocoPhillips said Monday that it was tightening its own emissions targets, aiming to reduce emissions intensity by 40% to 50% by 2050. These targets are therefore based around reducing emissions per barrel associated with ConocoPhillips’s own operations, and don’t cover Scope 3, which the company says it cannot control. Despite pressure from investors, Chevron last week also focused on intensity targets rather than Scope 3.

Still, Conoco framed the deal as assisting with the energy transition, arguing that it was just this sort of deal that will allow the business to continue to thrive.

“The assets we’re adding are consistent with our low cost of supply strategy, which is designed to position our portfolio as the most likely to be developed as the energy transition progresses and the need for oil and gas is reduced over time,” said chairman and chief executive officer Ryan Lance in a statement announcing the deal.

That’s increasingly a strategy taken by the U.S. majors, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron. While energy analysts generally agree that oil production will exist for decades to come (the question is how much), the expectation is that the barrels still pumped will have to be produced at an ever-lower cost, as renewable energy becomes more competitive. Advocates argue that going after the scale and cost savings of the shale patch offers a chance at that remaining supply—and a chance to compete against the likes of Saudi Aramco.

Critics, by contrast, have dubbed the strategy “last man pumping.”

The deal also highlights the conundrum of decarbonizing a company, versus decarbonizing the whole industry. Oil and gas executives have frequently highlighted that divestment doesn’t result in lower emissions for the whole sector, since it instead sells off those assets to another buyer who will be happy to supply fossil fuels.

And it also hints at the delicate balance majors must strike as they try to push their energy transition forward while pleasing traditional investors who worry about lower returns from renewable projects. While Shell, like its European competitors, has said that its current oil and gas profits must be maintained in order to fund the transition away from fossil fuels, much of the company’s recent cash flow has been focused on keeping investors happy.

Announcing Q2 earnings this summer that showed returns were recovering faster than expected after last year’s price shock, Shell, like many of its competitors, prioritized share buybacks and dividends. In a statement, Shell said $7 billion from the Conoco deal would go directly to additional shareholder distributions, while the rest would go into strengthening the balance sheet.

The deal is expected to close in the final quarter of 2021.

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