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Europe's Big Oil Operators Said Outperforming U.S. Peers in Shift to NatGas, Renewables

European oil majors, including many with extensive U.S. operations, outperform their domestic peers in preparing for a low-carbon future as they shift to more natural gas production and invest in alternative energies, a new analysis has found.

Norway's Statoil ASA, Italy's Eni SpA and France's Total SA are considered the "best performing" companies on carbon-related metrics relative to their peers, according to the report by CDP. The firm provides climate change analysis for institutional investors. U.S.-based ExxonMobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., along with Canada's Suncor Energy Inc., ranked lowest of the 11 companies assessed.

A "transatlantic divide" exists among producers to lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels, said the report's authors Tarek Soliman, Luke Fletcher and Charles Fruitierea.

The top five oil and gas producers on the CDP's League Table, compiled as the largest publicly listed by 2015 market capitalization and highest-impact are based in Europe: Statoil, Eni, Total, Royal Dutch Shell plc and BP plc. Nos. 6-11 are led by Houston-based Occidental Petroleum Corp., Brazil's Petroleo Brasileiro SA, Houston's ConocoPhillips, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Suncor. The 11 producers together are worth an estimated $1.2 trillion.

Current European majors' portfolios have a higher percentage of natural gas relative to their U.S. peers, and "some are showing signs of tilting operations further toward gas."

The divide also is highlighted in terms of climate governance and strategy, as U.S.-based Chevron and Occidental tend to shy away from joint public statements in support of climate policy and legislation. In addition, European companies are more "active" in the low-carbon space, investing more in alternative energy and low-carbon technology, including battery development and carbon capture use and storage.

Low-carbon spending also is dwarfed by upstream capital expenditures (capex). For the 11 companies in the table, total capex for 2016 is expected to be about $160 billion, with only an estimated 1.5% in low-carbon investment.

Current business models continue to rely on finding and proving oil and gas reserves, which may not be the best option, according to CDP's research.

"This resource-ownership focus is unsustainable and will need to adapt for a low-carbon transition. Traditional industry performance metrics (and their interpretations) such as reserve replacement ratio and reserve life are potentially outdated with peak oil demand expected to occur within the coming decade and investors might reconsider their importance."

The industry "needs better capital discipline to secure its place in a low-carbon future by lowering its cost base or returning capital to shareholders," researchers said. There's also an "absence of robust data" about companies' probable and possible reserves, which is considered a significant loss of valuable information for investors.

"On both sides of the Atlantic international oil and gas majors need to look at how they fit into an energy system" to achieve the climate goals laid out in the landmark United Nations-sponsored Paris agreement, said Soliman. "Our research shows that European companies have been more active in developing transition strategies for the coming decade, which is expected to feature peak oil demand, and are starting to implement these.

"But more needs to be done across the board by oil and gas companies in exploring their future options, and investors will want to monitor this through more thorough and consistent disclosure."

CDP's report is one of a series of investor-focused reviews that it has regarding high emitting sectors. Previously, it has published reports on auto manufacturers, cement companies and steel companies. Each report features a CDP League Table that ranks companies in an industry grouping on a number of emissions and water-related metrics relevant to that industry.

"When taken in aggregate, we believe these metrics could have a material impact on company earnings and therefore investment decisions, as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy," the authors said.

Research also found that operational efficiency "remains an issue in the industry, with the 11 companies in the study losing on average 6% of their natural gas production through flaring and methane venting and leakages."

Resource management also is expected to affect demand for the industry's products in their downstream use. For example, the lifecycle carbon emissions gains of natural gas over coal in electricity generation may be eroded because of methane leaks during extraction and transportation.

"The oil and gas sector and its products contribute to approximately half of the world's CO2 emissions," said CDP CEO Paul Simpson. "This is an industry for investors to watch carefully in terms of climate risk and technology change."

The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure, chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is expected to release its findings in December, Simpson said. The task force report "will likely catalyze increased investor calls for full disclosures from oil and gas companies. There are reasons to be optimistic [as] some oil and gas majors have the balance sheets to transition to much lower carbon business models and play a key role in implementing the goals of the Paris agreement."

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