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Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

What Is Driving The Transformation Of Saudi Aramco?

What Is Driving The Transformation Of Saudi Aramco?

Saudi Aramco is following its regional rival ADNOC in looking for deals that will boost investor confidence while selling assets in a high oil price environment
Saudi Aramco is looking for deals that will boost investor confidence in the world’s largest oil company. These deals could include asset sales or supply agreements, according to a Reuters report that quoted Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser.

Life was easy for the Saudi giant until recently. It pumped oil, sold it on international markets, and used the revenues to fund much of the Saudi economy.

Now, things are quite different.

While Aramco’s top priority is still its biggest shareholder - the Saudi government - global trends are pushing it towards diversification.

The asset sale plan mirrors that of UAE neighbor Adnoc, which has been selling minority stakes in its energy assets to monetize them while it still can. Now that oil prices have recovered from the pandemic lows, it is the best time for this. Yet, Adnoc has been divesting assets for four years and has so far generated some $30 billion in proceeds in that period. The latest divestment plan is a listing of the Emirati company’s drilling business. The proceeds will reportedly be used for clean energy projects.

Aramco is in a very similar position to Adnoc, so it is no wonder that it has taken a page out of its new playbook. Both state-owned companies have found themselves in unchartered territory with the energy transition push, which has shaken the very foundations of their existence. Like all other oil producers, both must find a way to survive in a world where oil demand is expected to be much lower.

The obvious way is to expand into low-carbon energy projects, just like Big Oil is doing. And this seems to be the path Adnoc and Aramco have chosen. Earlier this week, after the release of Aramco’s second-quarter and first-half results, chief executive Amin Nasser said the company was looking into new deals to unlock capital.

While he didn’t detail these deals, Reuters recalls an earlier report based on unnamed source information that said Aramco planned to sell a stake in its gas pipeline business in a scheme identical to the one it used to divest a minority interest in its oil pipeline business. That deal, with a consortium led by EIG Global Energy Partners, was worth $12.4 billion.

Another possible field for dealmaking is hydrogen. At the financial results release call with analysts, Nasser said, “We are looking to capture a big percentage of that market, we have an advantage,” echoing remarks made by Aramco’s chief technology officer earlier this year.

“We see a real market forming,” Ahmad Al Khowaiter told CNBC in late June. “This is an opportunity for us to supply a new market, a growing market, and a sustainable market, because it is a decarbonized energy product.”

The executive also said that the hydrogen market was at an inflection point, with technologies for the use of the gas becoming mature and commercially available.

“We have the lowest-emission hydrocarbons,” Al Khowaiter also said at the time. “We have an ability to capture CO2 and therefore supply hydrogen reliably at reasonable cost, without the CO2.”

This month, Aramco said it had signed a preliminary agreement with the German government for joint work in the hydrogen area, which, based on comments made by Nasser, will take the form of Saudi hydrogen supply to Germany.

These plans sound like a no-brainer, but questions remain. For instance, would this shift to hydrogen and possibly other low-carbon products be able to generate the same level of revenues as Aramco’s core business? This question is vital because the Saudi major has been working hard to make ends meet - meaning distribute the dividends it has promised to distribute - amid the pandemic, the oil demand slump, and now the renewable push. It has even turned to borrowing to do this.

Of course, it will be quite a while yet before Aramco is forced to choose between oil and low-carbon energy if the choice is ever presented to it. What the company appears to be doing now is greening up its CV while monetizing its energy assets in a favorable price environment.

The whole Gulf is doing this precisely because the price environment is favorable. Big Oil is doing it, too, and for the same reasons. But it has already been called on what some may see as a greenwashing bluff.

None other than BlackRock’s Larry Fink last month noted that “divesting, whether done independently or mandated by a court, might move an individual company closer to net zero, but it does nothing to move the world closer to net zero.”

To be fair, however, it is neither Big Oil’s nor Aramco’s or Adnoc’s job to work to reduce global oil demand. This is the job of governments and maybe finance titans such as BlackRock. Oil companies have learned to go with the flow and adjust as it carries them into new territories, whether they are pubic supermajors or state-owned giants such as Aramco.
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