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A cool head in hard times
Against a backdrop of a difficult economy, Chief Executive Officer Peter Voser says he is satisfied with Shell’s progress in 2012. He also reflects on the benefits of a transparent approach to discussing his company’s activities in Alaska and Nigeria. Peter talks about Shell’s reputation and his desire for more collaboration between companies, governments and society to surmount tough global challenges.
In 2012 Shell faced two major reputational issues: its operations in the Arctic and Nigeria. How important is reputation for Shell?
Reputation is very important for any company. And this is reflected in our brand. Shell has a very strong brand: it stands for technology, innovation, people and for how we do business.
Personally I think we have made very good progress in the way we communicate and engage with communities and others. We have a much more transparent way of doing that today than in the past.
Our approach has led to clear discussion around themes like Alaska and Nigeria. The support we have received from people in Alaska, for instance, and the way in which US regulators and government have actually supported us going back to drill in Alaska is a good testimony to how Shell operates and the strength of our reputation.
However, we also face campaigning non-governmental organisation (NGOs) who are often not interested in discussions about how to drive toward common goals. But where we had the opportunity to engage with people, we found the right solutions.
For Shell – and for me personally – having an open dialogue is important. But as soon as the safety of our people and our assets are involved, Shell and the leaders of Shell will know how to defend them. We have taken legal action in the UK, the Netherlands and in France to safeguard people and our facilities in the event of protests.
Safety drills in Alaska in 2012
In the case of Alaska, as well as campaigning NGOs there also is a part of the general public that wants to preserve the natural environment there. What is your response?
The energy industry is already producing oil and gas in the Arctic. So this is not new. A number of companies operate in the Arctic, and not just in Alaska where for example there are already three majors producing offshore fields.
It’s also important to remember that from a global energy point of view, the Arctic simply will need to be developed to satisfy the growing energy demand of people in emerging countries, where both populations and living standards are rising fast. From that perspective, the base assumption is that these resources will be developed. Shell is a responsible operator, so we can play a role.
What’s your opinion on the protests against Shell activities in Nigeria?
We had significant public discussions around Nigeria, specifically in the Netherlands and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom. I think the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd (SPDC) has made great progress over the last two years in terms of actually dealing with operational issues, and in cleaning up previous years’ sabotage and operational spill sites.
At the same time, the overall security situation in 2012 has worsened. The stealing and sabotage of crude oil has intensified. It’s a multi-billion-dollar business. Shell alone cannot solve these issues. It needs to be a multi-stakeholder approach, as we have been saying for many, many years. SPDC is prepared to do their share, but it needs more than just Shell’s support in Nigeria: it needs concerted government action to reduce theft of crude.
Nigeria has, from an oil and gas perspective – a lot of opportunities and SPDC is part of that. Overall I am positive about the future.
However there is some uncertainty because of ongoing discussion about a new petroleum industry bill. That may change our views on investing in Nigeria, depending on how this is implemented. The current draft – which is still the subject of discussions and consultations – would make it highly unlikely that Shell – and the whole industry – could invest in offshore and domestic gas projects. This would be counterproductive to what Nigeria needs, which is gas for power generation and revenues to develop the nation.
Taking a more general look back at 2012, what were Shell’s main achievements? And where could it have done better?
In general, I look at 2012 as a year where we made great progress against our strategic targets. We brought additional projects on stream and started to ramp them up. Obviously our Pearl gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar where we turn natural gas into liquid fuel and other products was enormously important.
Another major milestone for us is what we have done in Alaska. We did not reach our ultimate goal, but being back in Alaska and having drilled was a major achievement for us.
And in general on the operational performance side, the way in which we recovered from problems we had in 2011 was positive. I think we made good progress on safety, although there is more to be done.
On the more challenging side, operational performance in production has still not achieved its full potential. So there is more to come on this one. We had an incident at the expansion of our Port Arthur refinery, which took it out for a while.
Peter Voser is passionate about photography
There are now some signs of improvement in the global economic outlook. What’s your sense of where things are headed?
If I take a global approach, I would say it’s going to be a mixed 2013. I still see Asia recovering faster than the rest of the world. And I see good potential in the USA for 2013. I’m more pessimistic on Europe. Europe will have a very slow growth year in 2013 and hopefully will recover at a later stage. So overall we are looking at one or two quarters with slower growth from a global perspective and hopefully then recovering in the second half of 2013.
For Shell, if you take a purely strategic view, short-term economic cycles do not have an impact in the sense that we do not change our investment policies. We will not change our strategic goals. We are a long-term industry and therefore we are investing throughout the business cycle.
From an operational point of view, a downturn in the economy always gives us even more incentive to drive continuous improvement. So taking costs out wherever you can, or bringing in more value from the assets and the processes that we have today. Continuous improvement needs to be driven even harder.
We have to be very aware of what is happening in the world around us. I am thinking of the credit risks and of how some of our key customers are going through these cycles. On the other hand, we can also gain advantages with our suppliers in the short- and medium-term. Either to get a better price or a longer-term contract that will give us long-term value.
Previously you said that Shell must have many potential business opportunities. What does this mean?
Having access to oil and gas resources and projects is vital, before you can use your technology and integrated skills to develop them.
We need to have more options than we can actually build because some may slow down, some may be lost, and some may not be possible. And it’s about investing in the right assets at the right time. Secondly, we want to make sure the projects we develop actually give the best returns. Internal competition for capital helps increase over time the return on what we develop and build.
We probably have the best pipeline of potential projects in the industry. That’s a good position to be in going into the next strategic cycle. But it will be very important for us to stop at the right time the things we don’t want to do, or cannot do because other projects are better or more important.
We may swap, or sell some projects. We may bring in other partners, because they are very important for us over the longer term. We clearly signalled to our organisation that we are investing in eight different strategic areas. That helps make clear that we aim to invest in those projects where we can really make a difference.
Seventy percent of Shell’s investments are in Australia and North America. Why is that?
Of course our investment goes where the resources are – and they were in Australia and North America. These are key areas where we have a technical or competitive advantage. One is deep water in the USA, the other one is natural gas trapped tightly in dense rock in Australia. These are three growth areas we have identified in our strategic thinking: unconventionals, deep water and integrated gas, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG).
It also gives us production and cash flow from an environment of fiscal and political stability. So this will allow us in the next phase of the strategic development to add more risk. So if you look at the next part of the project pipeline to come, they are in different areas than North America and Australia. We have added countries such as Ukraine, we are investing a lot in China, and now we’re going into Indonesia, South Africa and other locations.
As you say, in North America one of Shell’s advantages is its expertise in unlocking tight gas. Now other companies have jumped in. What’s the long-term outlook for natural gas and how will that affect Shell’s strategy?
First, from a global perspective demand for gas will grow. Maybe at different paces in different regions, but it will grow because it’s the fossil fuel with the lowest carbon footprint and the ideal partner for intermittent renewable energy like wind and solar. Therefore I think gas has long-term strategic value to Shell.
In North America, there is a gas revolution going on there, which is now being followed by a tight oil revolution. As an integrated company, abundant gas offers Shell good opportunities to add value to what is at the moment a cheap natural resource. So we are thinking about projects for turning the gas into chemicals; into liquid fuel and other products, as we do in Qatar; and also gas in transport or LNG exports. Being one of the very few players who can create value from gas in different ways should give us a lot of opportunities. It plays to our very long-term strategy, where it takes a 20- or 30-year investment horizon to optimise the value for Shell.
Worker adjusting a valve at the Pearl GTL plant in Qatar
Now that the Pearl gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant is up and running in Qatar, does Shell have the opportunity to use that technology elsewhere?
We have proven that the technology works, that we can handle such a complex project, that we can build it on time and on budget and that we can ramp it up. Having proven that, I think we can now look at further projects.
One of vital elements of a GTL plant is an abundant, affordable feedstock. That’s why North America comes to mind. We’re looking into that.
There may be other opportunities across the world, where gas is available at a good price, but the focus now is clearly on the USA.
North America’s increased use of cheap, natural gas means it is exporting its coal to Europe and elsewhere. What is the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) impact of burning this coal for power?
Firstly, this is one reason for a 4% lower gas demand in Europe in 2012. It’s clear it has an impact. And goes against the grain of climate policies in Europe, because it emits more carbon dioxide (CO2) than natural gas.
But I see this as a temporary phenomenon, because many of today’s power plants will have to be refurbished or closed in the coming years. In some European countries, the change in policy toward nuclear power will also start to have an influence. In order to achieve climate policy goals in Europe, power stations that will be closed will not be replaced by coal. Hence we see in the medium and long term that those plants are likely to be replaced by either renewables or gas. That’s good for Shell and good for the climate.
Shell has been supporting the capture of CO2 from industrial plants to store safely underground, an approach called carbon capture and storage (CCS). Have you overcome hurdles to the widespread deployment of this technology?
There is no doubt that CCS needs to be part of the future energy policy. At Shell we have taken the view that there is no time to waste and hence we have to drive CCS forward as a business model. For that we have to invest in projects so that we can develop the technology and scale up these projects so that they become commercially viable.
We therefore looked at countries where governments share our views and have started to invest. We now have a capture project in Australia, and we have decided to go ahead with Quest in Canada. We are participating in Norway at the Technology Centre Mongstad, the world’s largest facility for testing and improving CO2 capture technologies.
Shell’s main focus on renewables has been biofuels. How is Raízen, Shell’s joint venture with Cosan to produce Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol, performing?
We’re very pleased with the joint venture. It has exceeded our expectations in terms of profits and cash flow, but also on sustainability. We’re looking forward to growing the venture, driving up our crushing capacity of sugar cane so that we can expand our production of ethanol.
The demand for biofuel, or ethanol, as they call it in Brazil, is strong. Firm support from the government is driving this industry further. With our joint venture we are clearly in the right market. We are focusing on sugar cane only, so not in palm oil or corn and are looking to do this at a greater scale in Brazil.
We are also making progress on second generation biofuels, which we have brought into the joint venture as well.
Over time we can look at exports as well, but for now production is absorbed by Brazil.
*Peter Voser spoke to Rob van ‘t Wel and David Woodruff in mid-December 2012