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BP's low-carbon transformation may be slow to take off

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BP's low-carbon transformation may be slow to take off

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Scaling up, not down will improve efficiency

Refinery portfolio to face renewed scrutiny

Fears over industry's rush to declare carbon targets

London — The oil and gas majors are under huge pressure to show they are contributing to reducing carbon emissions. New BP CEO Bernard Looney says he "gets it," and has set ambitious goals. But the actual pace of change may be far from dramatic.

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Doubts are being expressed about Looney's efforts to "reimagine energy," as he put it this week at his first press event since taking over from Bob Dudley, where he announced plans to achieve net-zero emissions both from the company's own operational activity and from the carbon in the oil and gas it produces, by 2050.

RBC Capital Markets said it was a "fine balance" for oil and gas companies generally and a "rapid ramp-up in renewables spend and shifting capital allocation away from the core business" could be "difficult" in the context of BP's $8.5 billion annual dividend obligations.

Looney has referred to reducing oil and gas production over time. But there is little doubt there will be a need for companies like BP to provide oil and gas far into the future. Consultancy EY commented this week that "new technologies are not mature or scalable enough to immediately displace the oil and gas volumes that are consumed today."

And International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol reiterated this month that even under the most optimistic global outlook, entailing minimal global warming, upstream oil and gas investment of $300 billion annually would still be needed -- not far short of current levels -- to offset decline at depleting oil and gas fields.

Some are wary of an arms race between companies competing to declare ever-more ambitious long-term emissions goals; Looney acknowledged BP's new plans are based as much on "belief" and the company having energy "in our blood" rather than a detailed plan.

"A lot of companies are starting to make announcements. We need to be careful that we don't put our credibility at risk," Total upstream director Arnaud Breuillac said at a conference in Italy this month.

"It's very important that in the current environment we, as an industry, only make commitments on things we know we can deliver, which is why with Total we focus on our own operations," Breuillac said.

THE QUALITY BARREL

There is no harm being ambitious, but initially, the changes BP makes may look rather familiar. Looney stressed not only the need to invest in new technologies and increase biofuels output, for example, but a quest for the "highest quality barrels," echoing his predecessor's mantra of "value over volume."

This is likely to mean a focus on having the largest possible oil and gas operations, upstream and downstream. In the upstream, the larger the oil and gas field, the greater the opportunity to reduce the ratio of emissions to production, meaning BP needs to focus on divesting marginal fields and maximizing the efficiency of big projects such as Rumaila in Iraq, the ACG complex in Azerbaijan, and Mad Dog and Thunder Horse in the Gulf of Mexico.

Closer to home in the UK, BP could earn kudos by backing plans for a "green energy hub" in the Shetland Islands, which as well as benefiting the community would provide renewable power to West of Shetland projects such as the Clair heavy oil field, where another 40 years of production is envisaged.

High-quality barrels may also mean catching up in places where BP has missed some prolific opportunities: Guyana's brand new oil patch, for example, or Brazil's subsalt fields, in which Looney took a strong interest in his previous role as head of upstream.

BP's refining operations are also likely to come under scrutiny following the departure of downstream chief Tufan Erginbilgic. Traditionally seen as a buffer in times of weakness in the upstream, this segment is to be subsumed with the upstream organization under a new "production and operations" unit led by Gordon Birrell, who, like Looney, has a background firmly in the upstream.

BP has set less stringent emissions goals for oil and gas it sells but does not produce itself, meaning Looney may be tempted by the "quick win" of selling more refineries, particularly those where there is no obvious way to mitigate emissions through carbon capture and storage technology. Germany, where BP operates two refineries and has a stake in a third, is seen as a no-go area for CCS projects because of longstanding public opposition on the grounds of cost and the risk to the environment.

The company's refining metrics have drastically improved in the last decade in terms of up-time "availability," but it has long been reducing its refining footprint, with capacity now a third lower than a decade ago. Again, the focus will be on maximizing the efficiency of remaining facilities, something that was a priority for Dudley, who focused on building up the Whiting, Indiana, refinery.

In the run-up to the announcement of a new strategy, BP had already dropped broad hints – Birrell talked earlier this month about the need to "see the energy transition as an opportunity, not as a threat" and the need to "embrace change."

Doubters may worry about BP getting ahead of itself or not having realistic plans. But facing up to the scale of public disquiet will also earn it credibility in the eyes of investors. Whether it placates environmental protesters is another matter.