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低油价时代,这家石油巨头如何自我重塑

JEFFREY BALL 2018年02月02日

壳牌坚信高油价时代已经结束,世界已经进入快速变化的新能源时代,它必须做出改变。

去年3月,皇家荷兰壳牌石油公司表示,公司将出售其在加拿大的大部分油砂权益。这个庞大的项目已经从地下开采了数百万桶粘稠的碳氢化合物,而且与钻井相比,整个生产过程更像是在采矿。这家油气巨头宣布,公司将以72.5亿美元的价格出售其油砂资产,并藉此将更多的精力放在其“具有全球化规模和竞争优势”的业务上。

声明中并没有谈及资产剥离的更深层次原因。在荷兰海牙壳牌总部进行了数月的关门磋商之后,这家全球最大的非国有石油公司的高管们认为,能源行业正在发生根本性的转变,受此影响,有利可图的油砂可能会变成公司的债务负累。

壳牌内部分析师团队(又称“scenarios”)所开展的内部调查认为,原油的全球需求可能会在短短10年内达到最高峰,这对于增量计划长达四分之一世纪的行业来说就基本上就是“明天”。同时,化石燃料替代能源,例如太阳能、风能和电动汽车,如今变得越来越有竞争力,而且其价格的下降速度也超过了壳牌高管的预期,这些都将加速这一峰值的到来。壳牌认为,当原油需求见顶时,原油价格可能会开始缓慢下滑。最终,过低的价格将难以支付油砂的生产成本。

上述价格下滑并非是另一个油价周期的到来。在这一众所周知的周期中,油价会像过山车一样,有落必有起。届时,原油世纪本身将进入长达数十年的下滑通道。在这个未知的世界中,用壳牌公司广为流传的一个词来说,原油价格可能会陷入“跌跌不休”的境地。

如果这一局面成为现实,然而公司还握着油砂不放,壳牌scenarios团队负责人杰瑞米·本特汉姆借用了他向其老板写的备忘录要点(写于公司决定出售油砂不久之前),用抑扬顿挫的英国口音对我说,“那么你就——天哪,原谅我——完蛋了。”

壳牌这台印钞机在2017年前9个月狂揽90亿美元的利润,在70多个国家聘用了9万名雇员。如果将这家公司看作是一个国家,那么它的碳印迹将在全球排名第七位,仅次于德国。壳牌在去年的《财富》全球500强企业排名中名列第七,销售额2400亿美元。如今,这家公司为了生存正在收缩自己的业务。它认为,原油需求有可能会在21世纪20年代末至40年代末期间见顶,因为能源行业正在发生颠覆性的转变:从原油向电力的转变。

在价格实惠的新型油气替代能源(也就是众所周知的太阳能、风能和电池)助推这一转变向前迈进的同时,政府愈发严格的温室气体限排政策更是加剧了这一转变的速度。虽然在特朗普总统主导下美国撤出了巴黎气候协定,但欧洲、中国以及很多发展中国家正采取举措减少碳排放量。

如果壳牌未能拿出举措来应对这一新能源格局,那么公司将背负巨额难以处置的地下油气资源。为了勘探这些资源,股东花费了数十亿美元,然而由于需求的疲软,公司会发现这些资源开采和销售并不赚钱。

壳牌首席执行官范伯登发誓不会让此类情况发生。“我们不会坐以待毙”,这位59岁的荷兰人在海牙的角落办公室接受采访时对我说。“我们会采取措施加以应对。”

问题在于,原油巨头们对于今后该何去何从感到越发迷茫。在过去,“公司不得不对一系列结果进行权衡,但我们依然可以采取保守的策略来应对”,范伯登说道。他还指出,“目前的挑战在于,我们无法看清未来会如何发展。”

为此,壳牌做出了一些战略豪赌。如果奏效的话,他将让壳牌获得新生,并适应原油不再是全球经济首要润滑剂的时代。他将把这家原油巨头转型为一家能源巨头。

他所要做的第一步就是削减运营成本,以便壳牌能够比竞争对手更好地利用原油世纪结束之前的这段时光来赚钱。壳牌预计全球天然气需求在未来几十年将继续攀升。但是范伯登一直在削减其石油项目资产组合,只保留那些能够在原油均价低于40美元/桶的市场中提供良好回报的精益资产。这一价格远低于过去10年的均价。

壳牌出售了价值数十亿美元的项目,包括它认为无法满足其新低成本要求的油砂。公司正在重新设计其深水原油平台和在岸页岩气项目,以便对其进行精简。这对于公司来说是一个重大的文化变化,因为公司长期以来一直以工程技术而不是经济纪律而著称。此外,在过去两年中,公司裁掉了12%的员工,也就是1.25万名雇员,其中很多在加入壳牌时都认为自己找到了一个铁饭碗,但裁员并没有结束。

范伯登的第二个策略更难实施。他希望壳牌在自己的推动下能够成为电力时代的主要力量,也就是这一领域首家真正的国际性大公司。壳牌此前曾在可再生能源发展初期进行过尝试,但并未获得成功。范伯登将推动壳牌向更深层次领域发展,并藉此推动公司向销售电力这个更宏大的目标迈进。壳牌正于北海修建一座在岸风力发电厂;其所参与的财团正在阿曼和加州修建太阳能发电厂;而且公司已经购买了欧洲最大的一家电动汽车充电公司以及一家主要的英国电力提供商。

Last March, Royal Dutch Shell said it was selling most of its stake in Canada’s oil sands, a vast project that has extracted millions of barrels of sticky, gooey hydrocarbons from the ground in a process that resembles mining more than drilling. The oil and gas giant announced that it was unloading its oil-sands assets, for $7.25 billion, so that it could double down on businesses “where we have global scale and a competitive advantage.”

Left unsaid was a deeper reason for the divestiture. Months of deliberations behind closed doors at Shell headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, had led the top brass at the world’s largest non-state-owned oil company by sales to conclude that the energy industry was changing fundamentally—in a way that could turn the profitable oil-sands operation into a liability.

Internal studies by a group of analysts within Shell known as the “scenarios” team had concluded that global demand for oil might peak in as little as a decade—essentially tomorrow in an industry that plans in quarter-century increments. Hastening the peak was an onslaught of increasingly competitive fossil-fuel alternatives, from solar and wind power to electric cars, whose prices were dropping far faster than Shell executives had expected. When the oil-demand peak came, Shell believed, petroleum prices might begin a slow slide, dipping too low to cover the costs of oil-sands production.

This wouldn’t be just another oil-price cycle, a familiar roller coaster in which every down is followed by an up. It would be the start of a decades-long decline of the Oil Age itself—an uncharted world in which, in a phrase gaining currency at Shell, oil prices might be “lower forever.”

If that scenario materialized, and you were stuck holding the oil sands, Jeremy Bentham, the head of Shell’s scenarios team, tells me, reprising in his British lilt the gist of a memo he wrote to his boss not long before the company decided on the sale, “you were—gosh, forgive me—fucked.”

Shell—a cash machine that racked up $9 billion in profit in the first nine months of 2017; a colossus that employs 90,000 people in more than 70 countries; a corporation that, were it a nation, would have the world’s seventh-largest carbon footprint, behind Germany; and the No. 7 company on Fortune’s Global 500 list last year, with $240 billion in sales—is in an existential squeeze. It has concluded that oil demand is likely to peak sometime between the late 2020s and the late 2040s because of an epic shift underway in the energy industry: a transition from petroleum to electricity.

Fueling this shift are newly affordable alternatives to oil and gas—notably solar power, wind power, and batteries. Adding to it are ever tougher government constraints on greenhouse-gas emissions: Europe, China, and much of the rest of the developing world are moving to curb carbon even as President Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

If Shell failed to prepare for this new energy landscape, it could wind up saddled with massive stranded assets: buried oil and gas that its shareholders paid billions to find, but that, because of softening demand, the company found itself unable to profitably drill and sell.

Ben van Beurden, Shell’s CEO, vows that won’t happen. “We won’t be sitting ducks,” the 59-year-old Dutchman tells me in an interview in his corner office at The Hague. “We are going to adapt.”

The problem is that the right path forward for the oil majors is less clear than ever before. In the past, “there was a funnel of outcomes that we had to navigate in, where a conservative approach could still work,” says van Beurden. “What is a challenge at the moment,” he says, “is that we don’t know anymore where the future will go.”

So the oilman is making some big strategic bets. If they work, he’ll remake Shell for an era in which petroleum no longer is the chief lubricant of the global economy. He’ll transform Big Oil into Big Energy.

His first move is to slash the costs of his operation in an attempt to position Shell better than its competitors to profitably ride Oil Age’s tail. Shell expects global demand for natural gas to keep rising for several decades. But van Beurden has been slimming down his portfolio of oil projects with the intent of keeping only those lean enough to make good returns in a world in which oil prices average no more than $40 a barrel, well below the average price over the past decade.

Shell has been selling off billions of dollars worth of projects, including the oil sands, that it believes can’t meet its new low-cost bar. It is redesigning its deepwater oil platforms and onshore shale-gas projects to simplify them, a major cultural change at a firm that has long prided itself more for engineering prowess than for economic discipline. And, over the past two years, the company has laid off about 12% of its workforce, or 12,500 employees, many of whom joined Shell figuring they’d have a job for life. That cutting isn’t over yet.

Van Beurden’s second gambit is harder. He is pushing to position Shell as a major force—the first truly global player, he hopes—in the Age of Power. He is moving Shell, which tried and failed in earlier renewable-energy forays, into a deeper round of them, part of a broader push into selling electricity. Shell is building an offshore wind farm in the North Sea; it’s part of consortia installing solar farms in Oman and California; and it has bought one of Europe’s biggest electric-car-charging firms and a major British electricity provider.

壳牌深水原油平台Appomattox船体于去年10月抵达德州英格尔赛德,进行最后的组装。该平台将在墨西哥湾服役,而且按照50美元/桶油价的盈利标准进行了精简。Courtesy of Shell 照片由壳牌提供 

到目前为止,上述这些举措对于壳牌这家原油巨头来说算不上是大动干戈。壳牌表示,公司计划在2020年前,将其在自己所谓的“新能源”领域的开支提升至10-20亿美元之间。如果兑现的话,这一数字将占到壳牌2017年公司250亿美元总资本支出估值的4%-8%。范伯登信誓旦旦地说,公司今后在可再生能源领域的投资将大幅提升,并朝着他所设定的终极目标迈进,即从全球网络大量吸收更多的可再生能源,壳牌将用其来生产、交易和销售能源。

壳牌在11月份称,公司希望在2035年之前将其能源作业以及在售能源产品的碳密度削减20%,在2050年前削减“一半”左右。对壳牌气候风险心存顾虑的投资者已在敦促壳牌采取更多的行动对风险敞口进行量化并对其进行规避。不过,壳牌表示其举措已经在酝酿之中。作为范伯登保护壳牌能力的举措之一,壳牌此举是为了让公司在原油世纪后期能够像过去一个世纪一样,塑造和利用能源市场,并在每一个阶段实现公司利润的最大化。不同之处在于,壳牌在未来需要更多地靠清洁的电子来搭建其业务网络,而不是靠脏乎乎的原油分子。

范伯登说:“问题在于,在电力即将成为主流能源的时代,我们如何打造一个全新的工业体系。我们不会做这一领域的试探者,而是有决心成为这一领域的胜者。”

壳牌的决心凸显了原油行业当前所面临的空前压力。Wood Mackenzie首席分析师西蒙·弗劳尔斯指出,“能源市场正在以超乎人们想象的速度迅速发生变化,其原因在于竞争能源的价格正在下降。” 西蒙·弗劳尔斯预测,天然气和柴油需求最早可能会在10年之后见顶,到2030年必然见顶。“如果公司最终不得不用新的产品来取代油气这一核心产品,这将是一个浩大的工程,而且需要很长的时间。因此,公司必须在有这个能力的时候便找准定位,开始做这件事情,而且不能在眼下损失过多的股东价值。”

其他石油巨头也在尝试进行这一转变,但进展的并不顺利。法国石油公司道达尔在2011年耗资13.7亿美元,购买了加州太阳能面板制造商SunPower 60%的股份,然后又在2016年斥资11亿美元,购买了法国电池制造商Saft。SunPower目前的股价较道达尔的收购价下降了一半还多,主要归咎于太阳能领域竞争的日趋激烈,而且日渐壮大的电池行业也变得更具威胁性。挪威国家石油公司正利用其在建造近海钻井平台的专长,投资建设离岸风力发电厂,同时投资开展二氧化碳捕捉和储存的研发。

替代能源的异军突起将颠覆现有全球经济体系中已然建立的诸多行业。随着一大批客户在屋顶安装太阳能面板,并减少对电网电力的采购,主要的发电商被迫进行重组,以减少亏损。同时,前不久还将电动车视为白日梦的诸多领先汽车制造商如今也都争先恐后地提升了电动车型的产量。

这些公司并没有看到这场即将到来的革命,至少察觉的还不够及时。Scenarios负责人本特汉姆的工作就是确保壳牌不会犯同样的错误。

这位59岁的牛津毕业高材生在壳牌被人们称为本特汉姆教授。这是一个很贴切的名字,因为本特汉姆看起来比高管们更绅士。当我在下午走进他的办公室时,他坐在椭圆桌旁边,穿着宽大的灰白色西服和跑鞋,正在用平板电脑做笔记。

在他铺着红地毯的办公室里,一面墙堆着数百本书,另一面则堆满了纸和工艺品。一块镶有边框的画板上画着一只渡渡鸟,这种鸟由荷兰水手于17世纪在毛里求斯发现。但随着渡渡鸟的生存环境遭到破坏,这种鸟最终灭绝了。画板上警告说,渡渡鸟“曾经是一种强大的鸟类”,因环境变化而遭受打击,而且“未能做出任何应对”。这块画板由壳牌每一任scenarios负责人传给下一任,至今已经传承了40年。“渡渡鸟如今已经灭亡了。”

本特汉姆对我说:“我的任务就是确保壳牌不会重蹈渡渡鸟的覆辙。”

本特汉姆表示,5年多以前,他和团队便开始提醒壳牌高管全球经济正在经历的一些变化,他们认为这些变化可能会对石油业务带来很大的冲击。例如:电动车的崛起。当原油售价在100美元/桶,天然气价格高居不下时,电动汽车的销量开始攀升。但当时正值原油行业的好日子,因此壳牌的一些高管认为这类顾虑属于杞人忧天。

然后在2012年10月,范伯登从壳牌化学品业务负责人升任下游业务总监,开始负责包括天然气销售在内的工作。本特汉姆回忆说,范伯登随后问了自己和团队一个问题:“从极端的情况来讲,电动汽车时代的到来还有多久?”

2014年1月1日,范伯登开始担任壳牌首席执行官。在他上任的前9个月,原油价格仍处于90-100美元这个十分惬意的位置。然后在当年秋天,原油价格开始下跌,直到2016年2月才见底,跌至29美元/桶。

但是,随着原油价格的下跌,奇怪的事情发生了:电动汽车销量仍在增长。国际能源机构(IEA)的数据显示,2014-2016年,其销量从32.3万台升至75.3万台,增幅超过了一倍多。同样,IEA的数据显示,2015-2016年期间,全球风能和太阳能的发电比例从4.5%升至5.2%,这在单一年份中是一个很大的涨幅。替代技术的价格也变得越来越平易近人。

美国国家可再生能源实验室的数据显示,2010-2016年期间,美国居民太阳能系统和风力发电厂的电力平均成本下降了60%。彭博新能源财经指出,在同一时期,电动汽车常用的锂电池的价格下降了73%。

2016年末,本特汉姆和团队察觉到了能源市场正在发生的结构性变化,这次变化绝不仅仅是另一场短暂的原油市场低迷那么简单。

本特汉姆认为,简洁有力的短语有着强大的力量,能够推动自身跨国公司思维的转变,他开始在壳牌公司内部用“巨大的不确定性”来描述全球原油行业即将面临的这个新世纪。当年早些时候,英格兰银行前行长莫维·金写的一本书中曾频频提到了这一理念。它还借鉴了20世纪知名经济学家凯恩斯的思想。

2016年-2017年初,本特汉姆的团队总结了四种局势,试图帮助壳牌从容应对这一巨大的不确定性。公司将它们称为“四个世界”。

如果用图表来表示,这些场景构成了一个象限图。横轴是全球各类能源需求。竖轴是减少化石燃料的技术渗透,包括太阳能、风能和电动汽车等。

如果全球经济出现了高能源需求和低科技象限的局面,壳牌的建模显示,全球原油需求恐怕要到21世纪40年代末才能见顶。在这一格局下,全球能源需求到2040年将大幅高于目前的水平;油、煤和天然气各自都将占总需求的四分之一,太阳能和风能的份额约为5%。壳牌称这一格局为“活在当下”。

然而,如果未来全球经济出现的是低能源需求和高科技的局面,那么全球原油需求可能最早将在21世纪20年代末见顶。到2040年,全球能源需求的增速将大幅下滑;油和气各自将占需求总量的四分之一,煤约占五分之一,而风能和太阳能约占15%。能源总需求量将有所减少,因为人类届时的能源利用率要比现在高得多。这一格局对壳牌业务的影响最大。壳牌将之称为“勇敢新世界”。

壳牌并不知道自己最终面临的将是哪一种世界。这才是公司感到为难的地方。

考虑到人们对“原油供应量将达到顶峰”的热议才刚刚过去10年,“全球原油需求在不到一代人的时间中将见顶”这一理念实在是难以接受。但事实在于,石油行业的精明人士不得不承认,让他们感到更加抓狂的是:他们并不知道“转折点到底是在10年后还是20年后到来,或者到底是什么能源会取代石油的位置”。

57岁澳大利亚人盖伊·欧腾是壳牌策略业务执行副总裁,他留着短发,有着严重的摩托车情结,其职责是帮助壳牌弄清未来的发展方向。他在分析中指出,能源格局已从“错综复杂转变为晦涩难懂”。

自1971年开始,虽然全球能源这块蛋糕的大小已经增长了一倍多,但化石燃料相应的份额却没有太大的变化,在80%-85之间。欧腾说,“错综复杂”的能源格局指的是,格局中的变量是明确的,而且“凭着良好的数学功底和精明的头脑”便可以得出答案。

但是“晦涩难懂”的能源格局则有所不同,而且更加阴暗。其中,未来能源格局最基本的轮廓是模糊的。欧腾说:“在这个大致的发展方向上存在多条途径,而且这个方向本身也并不是一成不变的。”

壳牌在选择自身前进道路的同时也试图围绕其数十亿美元的豪赌采取保值举措。或者,就像本特汉姆常说的那样,同时也是借用学术经济理论中的另一个短语,壳牌的挑战在于“最大化地减小其最大的遗憾。”

对于壳牌来说,首先要做的就是大刀阔斧地重塑油气业务,但这项业务实在是大的令人吃惊,而且改革的理由也难以令人信服,同时颇具风险。

这其中包括德州近海墨西哥湾和巴西近海大西洋的油井,壳牌在海床上钻探了两英里的深度,精度达到了英寸级别。这其中包括巨型液化天然气工厂,其中一个位于澳大利亚近海,壳牌上游业务(勘探生产活动)总监安迪·布朗曾对我说,“它是人类修建的最大的浮动建筑。”这其中还包括北海的一些年代久远的项目,以及从德州到宾夕法尼亚州像工厂一样的页岩资源开采区,对了,还有遍布地球的4.3万个加油站,比麦当劳或星巴克的零售网络有过之而无不及。

一些绿色乐观派将这一化石燃料基础设施本身看作是“化石”,而可再生能源的发展将让其变成无用的历史遗迹。范伯登将这一观点称之为“彻底的经济谬论”,而且大多数能源分析师也同意他的看法。国际能源机构曾指出,如果各国政府采取异常严苛的环保政策,全球原油需求可能会在2020年左右见顶。该机构还预测,即便这一天真的到来了,原油在2040年仍将占全球总能源需求的23%,其2016年的占比为32%。换句话来说,即便原油需求见顶,原油世纪的落幕可能要等到数十年之后。然而,如果企业希望从中获利,那么则需要从现在开始就采取果敢的行动。

壳牌首席执行官说:“目前的挑战在于,我们无法看清未来会如何发展。”

壳牌的大型能源项目所需的前期投资可能会高达100亿美元,我们还应注意到,即便项目的利润能够如预期那样兑现,但其兑现的时间跨度则需要数十年或者更长的时间。最近,壳牌采取了一个古怪而且会产生重大影响的举措,公司扩大了其使用的会计工具,并藉此决定应投资的具体原油项目。

从传统上来讲,壳牌已经对其“净当前价值”进行了权衡,也就是某个项目目前能够带来的收入。如果未来的格局和当今的格局类似,这倒不失为一个合理的指标。然而,由于壳牌已经意识到未来将发生翻天覆地的变化,而且公司必须按照原油价格“跌跌不休”的可能性对其业务进行调整,壳牌已经开始使用另一种会计方法,称之为“价值投资比率”。它会评估每个项目所需的最低原油价格,以便壳牌能够在长期内获得理想的回报。

“换句话来说,项目在低油价环境中的弹性如何?”壳牌上游总监布朗说道,“这是一种完全不同的理念。”

壳牌的高管位于海牙,但休斯敦是壳牌的核心地域,因为公司的工程业务在这里自由地发展。沿着休斯敦西部的12车道高速公路,众多的石油和天然气公司座落于黑色的沥青路两旁,当地人把这里称为“能源走廊”,这里也是壳牌深水业务庞大的厂区所在地。

在D号大楼中办公的大多是墨西哥湾的团队。大楼的内墙足以凸显公司对石油的痴迷程度:海上钻井的巨幅靓照,从地面一直到屋顶。文件柜上的柜台上摆满了钻井用具:各种各样的水下阀门和配件。

如今,壳牌正在用锋利的会计利刃裁剪这一文化。这个位于墨西哥湾名为Vito的潜在原油项目便是第一批接受手术的项目之一。

Vito于2014年初首次设计,当时原油的价格在100美元/桶上下。壳牌工程师给了它一个最大的壳体,结果公司没有足够的费用来确保这个平台能够快速稳定地从海底抽油。但是到2015年,由于原油价格的崩盘,这座集技术之大成的奇迹曾是过于自信的油气行业的宣传典范,如今却成为了昂贵的历史遗迹。

So far, these are tiny moves in the context of the Shell behemoth. The company says it plans by 2020 to raise annual spending on what it calls “new energies” to between $1 billion and $2 billion—a sum that, assuming it materialized, would account for between 4% and 8% of the $25 billion that Shell has estimated as its total capital spending in 2017. Van Beurden vows the renewable-energy investment will increase significantly over time as he moves toward his endgame: pumping vastly more renewables through the global network that Shell uses to produce, trade, and sell energy.

Shell said in late November that it aspires to cut the carbon intensity of its energy operations and of the energy products it sells by 20% by 2035 and “around half” by 2050. Investors concerned about corporate climate risk had urged Shell to take more action to quantify and mitigate its exposure, though the company says its move was already in the works. Shell’s move is part of van Beurden’s bid to preserve Shell’s ability to do in the post-oil era what it has done for the past century: mold and exploit energy markets to pick off maximum profit at every stage. The difference is that, in the future, Shell will need to run its network less on dirty molecules and more on clean electrons.

“This is a matter of, How do you actually build a whole new industrial complex where electricity is the main way of doing things?” says van Beurden. “We are not going to play in this space in an experimental way. We’re going to play in this space with conviction to win.”

Shell’s scramble underscores unprecedented pressures across the oil industry. “The energy market is changing more rapidly than we could have imagined, and it’s changing because the costs of competitive fuels are coming down,” says Simon Flowers, chief analyst at Wood Mackenzie, who predicts global demand for gasoline and diesel fuel will peak as early as a decade from now and “certainly” by 2030. “If you’re faced with eventually displacing your core product of oil and gas production with something new, it’s an enormous task, and it will take a long time. You’ve just got to put yourself in a position to do so when you can—and without blowing too much shareholder value now.”

Other major oil companies are attempting this shift and finding it tough. Total, the French oil firm, spent $1.37 billion to buy a 60% stake in SunPower, a major California-based solar-panel maker, in 2011, and another $1.1 billion to buy Saft, a French battery maker, in 2016. SunPower’s stock price has fallen by more than half from the deal price, largely because of intensifying competition in the solar sector, and the battery business too is growing more cutthroat. Norway’s Statoil is investing in offshore wind farms, leveraging its expertise building offshore oil rigs, and investing in research into capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

The surge in energy alternatives is upending established industries all across the global economy. Major electricity producers have been forced to restructure in a bid to stanch losses as material numbers of customers put solar panels on their roofs and thus buy less power from the grid. And leading automakers that not long ago laughed off electric cars as a pipe dream are now scrambling to boost production of them.

Those firms didn’t see the revolution coming, at least not soon enough. It’s the job of Bentham, the ¬scenarios chief, to make sure Shell doesn’t make the same mistake.

The 59-year-old Oxford graduate is known within Shell as Professor Bentham. The moniker suits, because Bentham looks more don than exec. On the afternoon I walk into his office, he is sitting alone at an oval table, dressed in a baggy gray suit and running shoes, jotting notes on an electronic tablet.

One wall of his red-carpeted office is lined with several hundred books. Another is covered with papers and artifacts. One framed plaque contains a drawing of a dodo. Dutch sailors discovered the bird on the island of Mauritius in the 17th century. But as the dodo’s habitat was destroyed, the bird died out. The dodo, “a once powerful bird,” was hit with a change in its environment and “was unable to respond,” warns the plaque, which has been handed down from one Shell scenarios head to another for the past four decades. “The dodo is now EXTINCT.”

“I am tasked,” Bentham tells me, “with making sure that Shell isn’t a dodo.”

More than five years ago, Bentham says, he and his team began to flag to Shell executives changes afoot in the economy that, they believed, might dramatically affect the oil business. Among them: the rise of electric cars. With oil selling for around $100 a barrel and gasoline prices high, sales of cars that plugged in rather than filled up were beginning to climb. But times were flush in the oil industry, and such concerns struck some at Shell as overblown.

Then, in October 2012, van Beurden was promoted from head of Shell’s chemicals business to downstream director, running the part of the business that, among other things, sells gasoline. Bentham recalls that van Beurden soon asked Bentham and his team a question: “Pushed to the extreme, how quickly could electric vehicles come?”

On Jan. 1, 2014, van Beurden became Shell’s CEO. For the first nine months of his tenure, oil prices hovered comfortably between $90 and $100. Then, in the fall, they began to dive. It wasn’t until February 2016 that they bottomed out, at $29 a barrel.

But something strange happened as oil prices fell: Electric-vehicle sales nevertheless kept climbing. Between 2014 and 2016, they more than doubled, from 323,000 to 753,000, according to the International Energy Agency. Similarly, IEA figures show, between 2015 and 2016, the percentage of global electricity produced by wind and solar rose from 4.5% to 5.2%—a major jump in a single year. Alternative technologies were getting more affordable.

Between 2010 and 2016, according to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the average costs of electricity from a residential solar system and from a wind farm fell about 60% in the U.S. During the same period, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the price of lithium-ion batteries, a type commonly used in electric cars, dropped 73%.

In late 2016, Bentham and his team sensed a structural change was afoot in the energy market—something more profound than just another ephemeral oil downturn.

Bentham, who appreciates the power of a pithy phrase to move his multinational’s mindset, began referring within Shell to a new era for the global oil industry, one of “radical uncertainty.” The phrase had been popularized earlier that year in a book by Mervyn King, a former governor of the Bank of England. It also borrowed from the thinking of famed 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes.

Between late 2016 and early 2017, Bentham’s team put together four scenarios to try to help make sense of how Shell might navigate the radical uncertainty. The company calls them the “Four Worlds.”

Diagrammed, the scenarios form a quadrant. One axis is global demand for energy of all sorts. The other axis is the penetration of technologies—solar, wind, electric vehicles, and others—that reduce demand for fossil fuels.

If the quadrant with high energy demand and low technology is the world that materializes, Shell’s modeling suggests, global oil demand won’t peak until perhaps the late 2040s. Under this scenario, by 2040 global energy demand will be significantly larger than it is now; oil, coal, and natural gas each will account for about one-quarter of total demand, and solar and wind together will account for roughly 5%. Shell calls this scenario “Live Now.”

But if the quadrant with low energy demand and high technology is the future that comes to pass, global oil demand might peak as early as the mid-2020s. By 2040, global energy demand will have grown far less; oil and gas each will account for about one-quarter of the total, coal for about a fifth, and wind and solar for roughly 15%. And the total energy pie will be smaller, because humanity will have become far more energy-efficient. It’s this scenario that could most rock Shell’s business. Shell’s name for it: “Brave New World.”

Shell doesn’t have a clue which of the Four Worlds will come true. And that is its dilemma.

The acceptance of the notion that global oil demand will peak within a generation is mind-blowing given that, just a decade ago, the chatter in the energy world was about a coming peak in oil supply. But the fact that the brightest minds in the oil business must concede they don’t know whether the inflection point will come in the 2020s or the 2040s—or exactly what might take oil’s place—is even more discombobulating for them.

In the analysis of Guy Outen, 57, an Australian with close-cropped hair and a serious motorcycle habit who, as Shell’s executive vice president for strategy, is paid to help Shell clarify this future, the energy landscape has shifted from “complicated to complex.”

Since 1971, though the size of the global energy pie has more than doubled, the relative size of the fossil-fuel slice has remained fairly constant, at between 80% and 85%. It has, Outen says, been a “complicated” world—one where the variables are clear and the answer “is something that with good maths and a good brain you can solve for.”

But a “complex” world is a different and darker place. In it, the most basic contours of tomorrow’s energy landscape are opaque. “There are multiple future paths to a general direction which itself isn’t even set in stone,” says Outen.

As Shell picks a path forward, it’s trying to hedge its billion-dollar bets. Or, as Bentham likes to say, borrowing another phrase from academic economic theory, Shell’s challenge is to “minimize the maximum regret.”

That starts with whipping into shape Shell’s oil and gas business, an empire that is mind-bogglingly big, hard to wrangle, and risky.

It features wells in the Gulf of Mexico off Texas and in the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil that Shell drills two miles beneath the sea floor with an accuracy of inches. It includes monster liquefied-natural-gas plants — among them one off the coast of Australia that Andy Brown, Shell’s director of “upstream,” or exploration-and-production, activities, describes to me as “the largest thing man has built that floats.” It encompasses aging projects in the North Sea, factory-like shale fields from Texas to Pennsylvania, and, oh, by the way, 43,000 gas stations ringing the planet—a larger retail network than that of either McDonald’s or Starbucksx.

Some green optimists portray this fossil-fuel infrastructure as itself a fossil—a relic that renewables are about to render unnecessary. Van Beurden calls that “fundamental economic nonsense,” and most energy analysts agree with him. The International Energy Agency, which says that global oil demand could peak around 2020 if governments adopted particularly green policies, predicts that even if it happened, oil still would account for 23% of total global energy in 2040, down from 32% in 2016. In other words, even after oil demand peaks, the Oil Age is likely to have a decades-long tail. But riding it profitably requires radical action today.

“What is a challenge at the moment,” says the Shell CEO, “is that we don’t know anymore where the future will go.”

A big Shell energy project can require investing $10 billion on the front end—with the understanding that profits, assuming they materialize as planned, probably won’t come for a decade or more. Recently, in a move that is wonky but has massive repercussions, Shell enlarged the accounting toolbox it uses to decide which oil projects to invest in.

Traditionally, Shell has weighed prospects on their “net present value,” essentially how much money a project will spit out now. That’s a sensible metric under a worldview in which tomorrow will look pretty much like today. But because Shell has come to believe that tomorrow will look fundamentally different—that it must adjust to the possibility that oil prices will be “lower forever”—it has begun using an additional accounting method. Called the “value-investment ratio,” it assesses the minimum oil price a project will need in order to throw off, far into the future, Shell’s desired level of return.

“In other words, how resilient is this project against a low-price world?” says Brown, Shell’s upstream director. “That’s a very different mindset.”

The Hague is where Shell’s top executives sit, but Houston is the soul of Shell, the place where the company’s engineering swagger runs free. Along a stretch of 12-lane highway on the west side of Houston, a strip of blacktop straddled by so many oil and gas firms that it’s known locally as the “energy corridor,” sits the sprawling campus that’s home to Shell’s deepwater operations.

Building D houses most of the Gulf of Mexico teams. The building’s inside walls are covered with what amounts to petroleum porn: floor-to-ceiling glamour shots of offshore rigs. A counter atop a file cabinet is strewn with drillers’ toys: an assortment of underwater valves and fittings.

Now Shell is cutting this culture with a sharp accounting knife. One of the first patients: a prospective Gulf of Mexico oil project called Vito.

Vito was first designed in early 2014, when oil was trading around $100 a barrel. Shell engineers gave it maximal bulk, sparing little expense to ensure it could pull oil out of the seabed fast and hard. But by 2015, with oil prices having cratered, the technological wonder that was Vito appeared a poster child for an overconfident industry—an expensive relic.

规格的降低:壳牌的Appomattox石油平台每日产油量高达17.5万桶,很快将于墨西哥湾服役。而Vito平台的精简方案意味着壳牌正在缩减其资本投资规模。

那年秋天,随着原油价格的继续下跌,成长于迪拜、毕业于哈佛商学院、曾在高盛从事投行业务的威尔·萨万被任命为深水业务执行副总裁。那时他才41岁。

在设计Vito时,壳牌预计原油的长期价格大约在80美元/桶左右。2016年初,这位新上任的年轻老板对团队说,Vito项目已经死了,除非他们能够精简这一项目,并在油价低于40美元/桶的环境下赚钱。萨万被认为是壳牌一名冉冉升起的新星,他曾说道,“鉴于当时的油价,我没法站在执行委员会面前”,要求壳牌高层继续在Vito里投钱。

在接下来的一年的时间里,Vito团队对Vito的设计方案进行了大刀阔斧的修改。他们将其“干舷部重量”(平台的壳体)从4万吨削减至8900吨。他们取消了原方案中铺设于海床上面的备用管。即便在主管道堵塞之后(壳牌强调,阻塞只会妨碍生产,对安全没有影响),备用管也能确保平台继续采油。壳牌团队希望,新Vito的规模能够适用于原油需求逐渐见顶的大环境。

尽管行业目前面临着各种各样的困境,但拯救Vito项目的举措证明了深水采油业务并未消亡。深水项目要求在初期进行大量的投资,但它也会在其整个周期中产生大量的现金。即便在这个原油需求增速放缓的时代,“我也不会介意持有这类原油资产”,范伯登说道。

壳牌的执行委员会将于今年年初决定,瘦身后的Vito项目是否能够上马。

在以求稳著称的壳牌公司内部,有一个短语可谓是臭名昭著:“炭中取栗”。前壳牌首席执行官曾用这一短语来描述公司在先前一轮可再生能源投资过程中所采取的实验性策略。壳牌在这些技术开始大热的时候一头扎了进去,结果却成了引火烧身。

壳牌投资制作太阳能面板,但后来却不得不放弃了这一投资,因为公司事后才发现太阳能面板存在着残酷竞争,而自己却难以获得像样的利润。壳牌曾投资建设风力发电厂,后来却撤出了这个行业,因为公司认为风电项目属于浪费,而且风力发电的平均利润率低于深水油井。公司还曾聚焦过氢能源,却在2005年左右叫停,因为监管方发现壳牌的石油储量出现了大幅超售的情况。这一丑闻也促使壳牌重新将精力放在自认为最为重要的业务之上。

范伯登告诉我,“我们此前曾尝试过这些领域,也因此为公司造成了不小的后遗症。到目前为止,没有一个项目真正为公司带来了效益,同时,我还抛弃了一些后来确实有着不俗效益的项目,因为我们当时曾认为这些项目不会有什么好结果。因此在这一方面,我们的可查记录并不怎么美好。”

范伯登从这个不怎么光彩的历史中学到了最基本的一个教训:壳牌此前之所以在新能源领域栽了跟头,是因为公司没有把它当作一种战略来抓。结果,公司在行动上缺乏自信,拖泥带水,而且在不该投的领域投入了过多的资金,但在该投的领域却存在着严重的投资不足。

范伯登指出,如今,壳牌不能再犯同样的错误,因为代价太高了。他说,“我们认为,如果展望一下本世纪的下半叶,你会发现可再生能源可能会占到能源系统的半壁江山。主要形式应该是太阳能,而风能在各地的细分市场中将占据非常重要的地位。因此,如果公司打算参与这个可能会成为能源系统中最大组成部分的非油气能源系统,那么该公司就必须拥有在这些价值链中一争高下的能力。”

因此,壳牌这一次将进军电力行业,包括可再生能源,并设立了将自身打造为全球清洁能源主导力量的宏伟目标。

在外界看来,这一策略仍像是一系列仓促、毫无关联的步伐。例如,壳牌参与了阿曼和加州大型太阳能发电厂的投资,其目的在于实现原油产能的最大化。其太阳能发电厂位于年事已高的老油田旁边,而这些油田的油基本上都已采尽,如今需要注入蒸汽才能吧剩余的油压出地表。在历史上,制作蒸汽需要燃烧天然气。如今,壳牌所在的这个财团使用太阳能来代替天然气。

壳牌更大胆的一个举措是在天然气发电厂附近建造太阳能发电厂。公司通过建造混合发电系统,来开启其新能源套利模式:即利用不同的能源,在不同的时间段通过不同的使用组合来实现利润的最大化。公司已开始在澳大利亚开展这一业务,并计划将这一模式推而广之。

与此同时,壳牌利用其在打造海洋巨型钻井的经验来开发海上风力发电厂,而海上风力发电被认为是风电行业的未来热门领域。壳牌在北海荷兰海域投资兴建了一个巨大的海上风电项目,名为Borssele。如今,壳牌正在出售其在这一项目中的权益,并计划投资其他处于最为盈利的初期阶段的海上风能项目,其关注的地域包括:荷兰其他地域的近海,欧洲各国的近海,台湾近海和美国东海岸近海等。在开发风力发电厂之余,壳牌还打算购买和出售他们所生产的电力。此举也将让其交易商获得更多的利润,并有助于减少壳牌的碳印迹。

壳牌也再次将目光投向了氢能源。公司已加入德国的试验计划,在德国境内建造约400个加氢站。在壳牌看来,这一由政府补助的项目将有助于公司从初期便介入这一最终可能发展成为一个巨大市场的新事物。氢气并不是能源,而是能量的携带者。其理念在于,在成本低廉的地区使用风力和太阳能发电,然后使用所得的电力将水分解为氢和氧,将氢气液化,然后就像当今液化天然气交易那样,将氢气运至能源短缺的市场。在那里,氢气将被名为燃料电池的设备转化为电力。壳牌认为,借助其交易商和液货船,公司所具有的不俗优势可以让其向全球需求量最大、出价最高的地区销售氢气。

壳牌还进入了电池、电动车行业。10月,公司购买了在欧洲运营着3万多个电动汽车充电桩的荷兰公司NewMotion。签约该公司服务的车主还可以使用其他5万个充电站。壳牌并未透露自己通过什么样的形式来投资NewMotion,但是按照壳牌的标准来衡量,这笔交易的额度很显然不值一提。2016年,相关报备文件显示,NewMotion营收1350万美元,亏损410万美元。

12月,壳牌就购买英国商用电力和天然气公用设施公司First Utility达成了一笔规模更大的交易。双方并未透露交易细节。

多家大型养老金和现金管理公司批评壳牌未能充分考虑以下可能发生的情况:当原油需求见顶、碳排放限制大行其道时,壳牌可能会因其难以处置的资产而苦恼不已,也就是公司的这些未利用黑色黄金难以卖出好的价钱。

当我询问范伯登对这一观点的看法时,他将之称为“与事实不相干的论断”,并表示壳牌将降低其资产组合的碳印迹,以避免出现资产难以处置的情况。同时,他还指出,他已委任其内部分析师计算他的这一策略在失败后公司可能面临的风险。他向分析师提出的问题是:“如果这个世界的变化超出了人们的认知,也就是以我们目前无法想象的方式发生了变化,而且我对此感到彻底麻木,也没有在制定决策时考虑到这一点,那么公司出现风险价值的概率有多大?”。壳牌称该研究将于4月出炉。

当天下午,就在我离开壳牌总部时,我经过了大厅里摆放的一个长方形的巨大石块,跟门的大小差不多,石块里镶嵌着数十个已经成为化石的双壳贝软体动物(扇贝的近亲)的脊状突起外壳。脊状突起外壳正是壳牌的标志。这是公司的创始人所钟爱的一件艺术品,其位于伦敦的家族曾在19世纪从事过装饰贝壳交易,那时,原油世纪还未到来。也正是因为原油世纪这一能源转型时代的出现,壳牌才迎来了真正的春天。

如果壳牌的高管们能够安然度过当今能源格局的变化,那么壳牌很可能有能力继续运营一个世纪之久,只不过其业务已从贝壳变为了石油,然后又变成了……谁知道呢,可能是太阳能、风能或者其他能源。

如果高管们以失败告终,那么壳牌这个名字可能会让人们想起一个不同的物种:渡渡鸟。(财富中文网)

本文的一个版本将发表于《财富》2018年2月1日刊,名为《面临 “跌跌不休”的原油价格,壳牌该如何应对》

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

That fall, with oil prices continuing to fall, Wael Sawan, who grew up in Dubai, graduated from Harvard Business School, and did a stint as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, was named Shell’s executive vice president for deepwater. He was all of 41.

Vito had been designed with a rough assumption of a long-term oil price around $80 a barrel. In early 2016, the new young boss told the team Vito was dead unless they could slim it down to be profitable at no more than $40. “I could not stand in front of an executive committee with oil prices where they were” and ask Shell’s leaders to invest in Vito as it was, says Sawan, considered a rising star at Shell.

Over the next year or so, the team radically overhauled the plan for Vito. They slashed its “topside weight”—the platform’s bulk—from 40,000 tons to 8,900 tons. They removed from the plans a backup tube along the sea floor that would ensure the platform could keep pumping oil even if the main tube got clogged. (A clog would hurt only production, not safety, Shell stresses.) The new Vito is right-sized, the Shell team hopes, for a world of peaking oil demand.

The effort to save Vito illustrates why, for all the industry’s difficulties, deepwater oil isn’t dead. A deepwater project requires massive investment at the front end, but it spins off massive cash over its lifetime. Even at a time of slowing oil-demand growth, “that’s an oil position I don’t mind having,” says van Beurden.

Shell’s executive committee is to decide early this year whether to move forward with Vito in its svelte incarnation. “Fingers crossed,” says Sawan.

In a company that loves bromides, there’s one that has become infamous at Shell: “pots on the fire.” The phrase was used by a former Shell CEO to describe the company’s experimental strategy in an earlier round of investments in renewable energy. Shell reached into these technologies when they got hot, and it got burned.

Shell invested in making solar panels, only to abandon that investment after concluding it couldn’t make decent margins in what Shell discovered too late was a cutthroat manufacturing game. It invested in developing wind farms, only to pull back from the sector after deciding wind was a waste because the average wind farm delivered lower margins than the average deepwater oil well. It zoomed into hydrogen, only to put on the brakes in the mid-2000s after regulators found that Shell vastly overbooked oil reserves, a scandal that prompted Shell to refocus on what it saw as the part of its business that really counted.

“We’ve tried these things before,” and “we have still very significant scars as a result of it,” van Beurden tells me. “Nothing so far has really worked, and the things that did work we abandoned because we thought they were not going to work. So we don’t have a fantastic track record.”

Van Beurden takes one basic lesson from this sordid history: Shell failed in renewable energy before because it didn’t regard it as strategic. As a result, it behaved timidly and sloppily. It invested too much in the wrong things. It invested too little in the right things.

Today, van Beurden says, the stakes are too high for Shell to make the same mistake again. “We believe, if you look into the second half of this century, maybe half of the energy system may be renewables,” he says. “The bulk of it is going to be solar, with wind being in very important niche markets here and there. So if you want to play in the non-oil-and-gas part of the energy system—which may be the biggest part of the energy system—you have to have competencies in these value chains.”

So, this time Shell is venturing into electricity, including renewables, with the grand goal of -building the dominant global clean-energy machine.

The strategy still looks from the outside like a series of disjointed, though quickening, steps. For example, Shell is part of consortia building large solar farms in Oman and California. Their purpose: to maximize oil production. The solar fields are being built beside aging oilfields—fields so depleted they now need steam injected into them to push their remaining oil to the surface. Historically, making that steam has required burning natural gas. Now the Shell consortium will produce it with solar power.

A bolder bet is Shell’s effort to build solar farms near gas-fired power plants, constructing hybrid generating systems that allow Shell to do what amounts to new-energy arbitrage: tap different energy sources at different times and in different amounts to maximize profits. It has started doing this in Australia, and it plans to expand the approach.

Meanwhile Shell is leveraging its experience building giant things in the ocean to develop offshore wind farms, widely seen as wind power’s next big thing. It invested in a massive offshore development in the Dutch North Sea called Borssele. Now Shell is selling its stake there and planning to invest in the early, most-profitable stages of other offshore-wind projects. Among the spots it’s eyeing: the waters off other parts of Holland, off other European countries, off Taiwan, and off the U.S. East Coast. Beyond developing the wind farms, Shell intends to buy and sell the power they produce. That will let its traders squeeze out more profit, and it will count toward curbing Shell’s carbon footprint.

Shell also is focusing again on hydrogen. It’s part of a German experiment to install some 400 hydrogen-fueling stations across the country, a government-subsidized effort Shell sees as helping seed what ultimately could be a huge market for a new kind of juice. Long-term, Shell sees a future for hydrogen as a backbone of a worldwide clean-energy network. Hydrogen isn’t an energy source; it’s an energy carrier. The idea is to produce wind and solar power where it’s cheap, use it to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, liquefy the hydrogen, and then—much as with today’s liquefied-natural-gas trade—ship the hydrogen to markets that are short of energy, where the hydrogen could be turned, by devices called fuel cells, into electricity. With its traders and tankers, Shell figures, it would be well positioned to sell that hydrogen wherever in the world the need was greatest—and the price was highest.

Shell also is entering the business of battery-powered electric cars. In October, it bought NewMotion, a Dutch company that operates more than 30,000 electric-car charging installations in Europe and that gives electric-car owners who sign up for its service access to about 50,000 other charging points. Shell won’t disclose what it paid for NewMotion, but the deal clearly was tiny by Shell standards. In 2016, according to filings, NewMotion lost $4.1 million on revenue of $13.5 million.

In December, Shell inked a bigger deal to buy First Utility, a U.K.-based merchant power and natural-gas utility. The companies didn’t disclose the details of the transaction.

Several large pension funds and money-management firms have criticized Shell for failing to take into sufficient account the potential that, when oil demand peaks and carbon constraints bite, Shell may find itself laden with stranded assets: untapped black gold it can’t profitably sell.

When I ask van Beurden about that argument, he calls it “a red herring,” saying Shell would decarbonize its portfolio to avoid any chance of stranded assets. But he also says he has ordered his internal analysts to compute the risk Shell would face if he failed. His question to them: “If I’m completely stupid in a world that is changing beyond recognition, in ways that we cannot imagine at this point in time, and we do not take account of it in our decision-making, what is the likelihood that I will end up with value at risk?” The study, Shell says, is due out in April.

That afternoon, as I leave Shell’s headquarters, I pass in the lobby a door-sized rectangular chunk of rock containing the fossilized remains of dozens of pecten, bivalve mollusks related to the scallop. The pecten shell is Shell’s logo. It was favored by one of the company’s forebears, whose family business in London had traded decorative seashells earlier in the 1800s. That was before the dawn of the Oil Age, the energy transition that would fuel the company’s real rise.

If its leaders can navigate today’s energy shift, Shell may well be operating a century hence, having moved from seashells to petroleum to … who knows? Solar? Wind? Something else?

If they don’t, the name Shell may come to evoke a different species: the dodo.

A version of this article appears in the Feb. 1, 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “Shell Faces ‘Lower Forever’.”

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