This is part of a series exploring climate change regulation and how it affects companies globally.
When BP adopted the slogan "Beyond Petroleum" at the beginning of the new century, it was greeted with disbelief, jokes and more than a few insults. It seemed to be at best premature and The Times newspaper, in a scoffing editorial, then reminded Britain's flagship energy company that its business was making petrol.
The critics' point was that aspirations don't make good business strategies and good public relations need to be backed up by hard facts. Sixteen years on, a great deal has changed in the energy market. Even if there is no sign that the world is ready or even willing to abandon petroleum, alternatives are actively promoted. And even if BP has long since dumped the much-derided tagline, the question whether a major oil company should seek to go beyond petroleum is now more relevant than ever before.
Last month, Total, the French oil multinational planted some more seed corn for a post-hydrocarbon harvest, paying almost €1-billion ($1.45-billion) for Saft, a French battery manufacturer. Saft makes lithium-ion batteries and Patrick Pouyanné, Total's chief executive officer, said Saft's power storage technology would help to accelerate the development of its interest in renewable energy. Total owns 66 per cent of SunPower, the American renewable energy company, which this month boasted that its latest solar panels had achieved world records of efficiency by converting 24 per cent of sunlight into electricity.
Total has picked up the green mantle largely discarded by BP. The British company was once a big investor in solar panels but its fingers were badly burned by rampant Chinese production of cheap panels and a price collapse. Pressed for cash after the Macondo oil well disaster, BP sold the PV panels business and shut down a biofuels research unit.
Royal Dutch Shell, too, has been dithering with renewable investments, first investing in wind power and then cutting back. Nevertheless, last month the company established a New Energies division, which Ben van Beurden, Shell's CEO, said would seek to achieve "material scale and profitability" in a new portfolio of businesses in low-carbon biofuels, hydrogen and smart customer solutions – as well as in solar and wind.
It's small potatoes for a company of the scale of Shell. With investment of perhaps a few hundred million a year, New Energies is dwarfed by Shell's preoccupation with its merger with the natural gas giant, BG Group. However, it suggests that Shell is too worried about the future not to make a hedging bet by maintaining a division with a real budget to invest in non-hydrocarbon businesses.
Meanwhile, America's oil giants are unimpressed. Despite its slogan "finding newer, cleaner ways to power the world" Chevron has been selling off bits of its renewables portfolio. Apart from an experimental unit developing high-tech biofuels from algae, Exxon Mobil is sticking to its knitting. The two U.S. companies didn't take part in a joint statement put out by BP, Shell, Total and Statoil, supporting the commitments made in the Paris UN climate agreement. This need not be seen as cynicism. There are sound business reasons not to invest in renewables that have nothing to do with skepticism about climate change science.
Diversification has never paid dividends for big oil companies. The Arab oil embargoes and nationalizations of the 1970s were a big, arguably even bigger, crisis for the industry than the recent oil price collapse. The majors rushed into new businesses as OPEC seized control. Shell pumped money into mining coal and industrial metals. It also invested $200-million in a joint venture in nuclear power. Other companies pushed the envelope away from energy altogether: BP invested in animal feed, Mobil bought the retailer Montgomery Ward, and Gulf invested in a trailer-holidays business that at one point made a bid for the Barnum & Bailey circus company.
The inglorious history of diversification raises the question: What, other than cash, can oil companies contribute to the development of new forms of energy? The technology is different, the infrastructure is different and the skills and know-how are different. With biofuels, there are some synergies with oil refining and the majors at least have distribution pipelines to deliver biofuels to consumers.
Power generation, however, is a different business altogether and oil majors have had mixed fortunes investing in natural gas co-generation projects. At least the latter provides a means of monetizing the output of a natural gas resource. In the case of solar, the new business has no connection at all with the core business.
Just because it's energy, does not mean it's us, seems to be the message from Exxon Mobil, It's not just the technology but the ethos of renewable energy that is the problem. The major part of an oil company's business is creating value from a captured resource, stored in ancient rock. In the case of solar or wind power, the resource is free and the challenge is to find ways of converting it efficiently into electricity and storing it. These objectives lend themselves not just to different science but a different mindset.
It's not clear at all that oil companies are best placed to meet these challenges and come up with solutions that create profitable businesses. Instead, their best role may be to generate power more efficiently from hydrocarbons and thereby generate more cash for shareholders. Far better for the market to then decide how the dividend cash flow from oil profits should be invested. New energy technologies are more likely to emerge from new businesses focused on that objective than a juggling multinational with another ball to keep in the air.
Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.