Investors get lost in Big Oil’s carbon accounting maze

Ferrybridge power station in the UK. Some companies’ profits may shrink faster than others as governments prioritize low-carbon energy. (Shutterstock)
Updated 10 October 2019

Investors get lost in Big Oil’s carbon accounting maze

  • Sustainable funds are under pressure to make standards robust, but good data can be hard to find

LONDON: Wide variations in the way oil companies report their efforts to reduce carbon emissions make it difficult to assess the risk of holding their shares as the world shifts away from fossil fuels, senior fund managers say.

Investors have poured money into so-called sustainable funds, which take into account companies’ environmental, social, legal and other standards, and funds are under pressure from their customers and authorities to make those standards robust.

Fund managers are also applying environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria more widely in traditional investments to help them judge how companies will fare over the long term.

There is a growing realization that some companies’ profits will shrink faster than others as governments prioritize low-carbon energy to meet the UN-backed Paris agreement’s goal of cutting emissions to “net zero” by the end of the century.

But oil and gas companies are among the biggest dividend payers, and major funds are reluctant to divest from them, arguing that by staying in they are in a better position to pressure companies to improve.

“Do investors have the data that we need? No, I don’t think we have the data that we need at all,” said Nick Stansbury, investment strategist at British insurer Legal & General’s investment management unit, Britain’s biggest asset manager with around $1.3 trillion under management.

“Disclosure is not necessarily so we can seek to change the numbers, but so we can start understanding and pricing the risks,” Stansbury said.

There are many voluntary initiatives and frameworks to unify carbon accounting and target setting; some overlap but none have been universally adopted. Further projects exist for other greenhouse gases such as methane.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol is one such set of standards, established by non-governmental organizations and industrial groups in the 1990s.

Companies can report their progress in line with these standards through non-profit CDP, formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, which then ranks them. Norway’s Equinor comes first in its list of 24 oil major companies, but not all of them report in every year.

There is also the Task Force on Climate related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), created by the G20’s Financial Stability Board, as well as industry bodies, in-house models at oil firms and banks and third-party verifiers and consultants.

“There are a thousand ways to Paris,” London-based BP’s Chief Executive Bob Dudley said at a Chatham House event earlier this year referring to the 2015 accord aiming to keep global warming well below 2 degrees.

BP Finance Chief Brian Gilvary told Reuters that BP would welcome more consistency within the sector to show what oil companies are doing about emissions and that an industry body, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), was discussing carbon accounting.

A plethora of third-party ESG verifier companies were emerging with varying ways of measuring ESG metrics, he said, adding that some such firms would say to an oil company, “We believe your score is this, and, by the way, if you spend $50,000 we’ll show you how you can improve that score.”

UBS, with $831 billion of invested assets, has $2 billion in its Climate Aware passive equity strategy, which is in part based on a company’s emissions reporting.

In that strategy “we tilt toward companies that are better performing on a range of climate metrics and away from companies that do not perform so well in this respect,” Francis Condon, executive director for sustainable investing, said.

“We don’t want to be accused of greenwashing or falling for it,” he said, adding that UBS regularly encouraged companies to prepare for the climate transition.

Using a broad measure, global sustainable investment reached $30.1 trillion across the world’s five major markets at the end of 2018, according to the Global Sustainable Investment Review. This equates to between a quarter and half of all assets under management, due to varying estimates of that figure.

Condon said that most investors were still more focused on returns than wider sustainability criteria but were becoming concerned that companies may expose them to possible future climate-related financial losses.

“There is a very limited appetite for giving up performance for higher ESG. The question is more: Is management taking on risks it can’t manage?“

To try to answer that question, the world’s biggest financial service providers are investing in companies that provide ESG-related data.

This year alone, Moody’s bought Vigeo Eiris and Four Twenty Seven, MSCI bought Carbon Delta and the London Stock Exchange bought Beyond Ratings. S&P acquired Trucost in 2016.

Independent climate risk advisers Engaged Tracking say they attracted two-thirds of their clients in the past year. All six companies provide data, assessments and consulting on the climate exposure of companies or bonds.

A central issue, discussed at European  oil majors’ shareholder meetings this year, is how they deal with the emissions caused by the products they sell, such as gasoline or kerosene, which are known as Scope 3 emissions.

Such emissions are typically around six times larger than the combined emissions from oil companies’ direct operations and power supply, also known as Scope 1 and 2 emissions, according to Reuters calculations.

Even if a company publishes Scope 3 data, there are 15 different categories based on the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. These include use of sold products such as fuel alongside secondary factors such as business travel or employee commuting.

Constantine Pretenteris at Engaged Tracking said some companies achieved a high score for comprehensiveness by disclosing data for most of the Scope 3 categories, but left out the key ones, such as emissions from use of their fuel. “We would love to see a general standard which makes comparisons easy,” Sven Reinke of Moody’s said. “It doesn’t fully exist these days.”

The majority of climate-related targets are based on intensity measures, which means absolute emissions can rise with growing production, even if the headline intensity metric falls.

Total recorded Scope 3 emissions from the world’s top public oil companies are still rising, largely due to increasing oil and gas output, according to Reuters calculations based on data carried on Refinitiv’s Eikon platform and company websites. They showed combined Scope 3 emissions recorded by BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Eni, Total, Equinor and Repsol rose about 1.6 percent over 2018, after a 1 percent similar rise the previous year.

Individual figures vary according to the metrics a company chooses to include. Conoco said that its Scope 3 emissions had fallen 5 percent, while the other companies’ individual recorded Scope 3 emissions either rose or stayed roughly the same.

BP and Chevron pointed to absolute targets related to their own operations. Total pointed to progress it had made toward lowering emissions intensity per unit produced. Shell and Repsol referred to their short-term intensity-based targets and Equinor said it could not take responsibility for emissions it does not control.

US firm Exxon did not reply to a request for comment. Eni had no immediate comment.

Top oil companies have boosted investment in renewable energy and low-carbon technology in recent years, particularly in Europe, but much bigger sums are still going into developing oil and gas.

“We cannot change the patterns of consumption around the world — we cannot make people fly less. We can reduce the carbon intensity of the products we sell,” Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said in June.

Mark Lewis from BNP Paribas and a member of TCFD, said that overall cuts were what would count in the end. Repsol is currently the only major oil company to have set absolute reduction targets for all its output.

“The Paris Agreement is all about a carbon budget and that’s an absolute number. It’s not an intensity number,” Lewis said. “The atmosphere works in terms of absolutes not intensity.”

In the meantime, some investors are avoiding oil companies which others say should be supported for going further than many of their peers.

London-based investment management firm Sarasin & Partners said in June it was selling down its stake in Shell because its spending plans were out of synch with international climate targets.

Asked for comment, Shell pointed to comments from representatives of the pension funds of the Church of England and Britain’s government Environment agency, which praised the company’s transparency and said others should follow its lead.


OPEC+ faces challenge from rivals’ rising output, says IEA

Updated 15 November 2019

OPEC+ faces challenge from rivals’ rising output, says IEA

  • Sluggish refinery activity in the first three quarters has caused crude oil demand to fall for first time in a decade

LONDON: OPEC and its allies face stiffening competition in 2020, the International Energy Agency said on Friday, adding urgency to the oil producer group’s policy meeting next month.

“The OPEC+ countries face a major challenge in 2020 as demand for their crude is expected to fall sharply,” the Paris-based agency said in a monthly report.

The IEA estimated non-OPEC supply growth would surge to
2.3 million barrels per day (bpd) next year compared with 1.8 million bpd in 2019, citing production from the US, Brazil, Norway and Guyana.

“The hefty supply cushion that is likely to build up during the first half of next year will offer cold comfort to OPEC+ ministers gathering in Vienna at the start of next month,” it added.

While US supply rose by 145,000 bpd in October, the IEA said, a slowdown in activity that started earlier this year looks set to continue as companies prioritize capital discipline.

Demand for crude oil from OPEC in 2020 will be 28.9 million bpd, the IEA forecast, 1 million bpd below the exporter club’s current production.

The recovery by Saudi Arabia from attacks on the country’s oil infrastructure contributed 1.4 million bpd to the global oil supply increase in October of 1.5 million bpd.

Saudi state oil company Aramco, the world’s most profitable firm, starts a share sale on Nov. 17 in an initial public offering that may raise between $20 billion and
$40 billion.

It was the IEA’s last monthly report before the Dec. 5-6 talks among OPEC states and partners led by Russia on whether to maintain supply curbs aimed at buoying prices and balancing the market.

The agency kept its assessments for growth in global oil demand in 2019 and 2020 at 1 million bpd and 1.2 million bpd respectively, but said its outlook might slightly underestimate the impact of tariffs from the US-China trade war.

The IEA said that if some or all tariffs were lifted in coming months, “world economic growth and oil demand growth would both rise significantly,” though the rebound may not be immediate.

Sluggish refinery activity in the first three quarters has caused crude oil demand to fall in 2019 for the first time since 2009, the IEA said, but refining is set to rebound sharply in the fourth quarter and in 2020.