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S&P sees tight access to capital for energy companies not addressing ESG

Access to capital may become increasingly more difficult for oil and gas companies failing to meet environmental goals, S&P Global Ratings said.

Even as the world moves toward cleaner energy options, the demand for fossil fuels will continue to grow. Still, investors are growing reluctant to fund companies that fail to address the environmental impacts of fossil fuel exploration and production, Ratings said during a Feb. 5 webinar.

S&P Global Ratings manager Luke Shane said this issue has already moved to the forefront and will continue to grow in importance. Some smaller banks, mostly in Europe, are dropping out of some of the revolver and credit syndications — loans offered by a group of lenders who work together to provide credit to a large borrower — looking to reduce exposure to companies that are heavy polluters, he said.

Further, hundreds of international investors have joined an initiative backed by the United Nations that aims to integrate environmental, social and governance standards into investment practice.

Principles for Responsible Investment asks signatories to publicly commit to consider ESG issues in investment analysis and decision-making processes, be active owners, and incorporate ESG issues into their ownership policies and practices. Signatories also agree to seek appropriate disclosure on ESG issues by the entities in which they invest, promote acceptance and implementation of the principles within the investment industry, work together to enhance effectiveness in implementing the principles and report on their activities and progress toward implementing the principles, according to the group's website.

Shane said the initiative requires that signatories have ESG criteria integrated for 50% of the assets under their management. "This is clearly going to have an impact on capital access going forward," he said. Noncompliance or failure to sign the agreement could result in the delisting of asset managers — "clearly something they don't want," Shane said.

As access to capital tightens, companies may need to explore mergers and acquisitions, shrinking the number of exploration and production companies working to meet the demand for oil and natural gas that is still expected to grow despite the push toward cleaner energy.

Most forecasts for oil demand project continued growth underpinned by energy demand, S&P Global Ratings senior director Simon Redmond said during the webinar. The world has a choice between using less energy or finding a better way of dealing with the pollution that arises from using fossil fuels, he said.

Fossil fuels, however, are used to meet 75% of global energy demand, and it will take a long time for non-fossil fuels to make up any significant proportion of that energy demand, Redmond said. If only for that reason, the demand for fossil fuels will grow for at least 10 years for oil and longer for natural gas.

"The story is we do see demand growing over the near run," Redmond said. Looking back, stress tests done in 2013 on some of the supermajors and other companies with higher costs found that in the short run, as there is lower demand for oil and lower prices, companies cut back on capital spending, he said. Depending on the price fall, companies can sweat their assets if they have not been investing in them.

Not investing in the future and just winding down reserves and assets is not a very strong business model for any company in any industry, Redmond said.

"That is not a scenario we see unfolding before our eyes and not something factoring into ratings certainly in the next five years," he said. "Albeit this is an industry that has a long-term existential problem."