Can carbon-neutral fuels re-shape the oil industry?

Fuel retailers have a game-changing opportunity seeding new forests, ourlined in our 26-page note. They could offset c15bn tons of CO2 per annum, enough to accommodate 85Mbpd of oil and 400TCF of annual gas use in a fully decarbonized energy system. The cost is competitive, well below c$50/ton. It is natural to sell carbon credits alongside fuels and earn a margin on both. Hence, we calculate 15-25% uplifts in the value of fuel retail stations, allaying fears over CO2, and benefitting as road fuel demand surges after COVID.

The advatages of forestry projects are articulated on pages 2-7, explaining why fuel-retailers may be best placed to commercialise genuine carbon credits.

Current costs of carbon credits are assessed on pages 8-10, adjusting for the drawback that some of these carbon credits are not “real” CO2-offsets.

The economics of future forest projects to capture CO2 are laid out on 11-14, including opportunities to deflate costs using new business models and digital technologies. We find c10% unlevered IRRs well below $50/ton CO2 costs.

What model should fuel-retailers use, to collect CO2 credits at the point of fuel-sale? We lay out three options on pages 15-18. Two uplift NPVs 15-25%. One could double or treble valuations, but requires more risk, and trust.

The ultimate scalability of forest projects is assessed on pages 19-25, calculating the total acreage, total CO2 absorption and total fossil fuels that can thus be preserved in the mix. Next-generation bioscience technologies provide upside.

A summary of different companies forest/retail initiatives so far is outlined on page 26.

Biofuels: better to bury than burn?

The global bioethanol industry could be disrupted by a carbon price. Between $15-50/ton, it becomes more economical to bury the biofuel crop, rather than convert it into biofuels. This would remove 8x more CO2 per acre, at a lower total cost. More conventional oil could be decarbonized with offsets. Ethanol mills and blenders would be displaced. The numbers and implications are outlined in this 12-page report.

Nature-based solutions to climate change need to double annual CO2 uptake from plants in our models of decarbonization, using forests and fast-growing grasses (pages 2-3).

We profile the bioethanol industry, which is already using fast-growing grasses to offset 2Mbpd of liquid fuels. But our models suggest the economics, efficiency and CO2 intensities are weak (pages 4-6).

A first alternative is to reforest the land used to grow biofuels, which would carbon-offset 1.5x more oil-equivalents than producing biofuels (pages 7-8).

A more novel alternative is to bury the biomass, such as sugarcane or other fast-growing grasses, which could sequester 8x more CO2, with superior economics at $15-50/ton CO2 prices (pages 9-11).

Company implications are summarized, suggesting how the ethanol industry might be displaced, and quantifying the CO2 intensity of incumbents (page 12).

New Diverter Regimes for Dendritic Frac Geometries?

The key challenge for the US shale industry is to continue improving productivity per well, as illustrated repeatedly in our research. Hence, this short note reviews an advance in fracturing fluids, which has been patented by BP. Diverter compositions are optimised across successive pressurization cycles, to create dendritic fracture geometries, which will enhance stimulated rock volumes.

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Patent Leaders in Energy

Technology leadership is crucial in energy. It drives costs, returns and future resiliency. Hence, we have reviewed 3,000 recent patent filings, across the 25 largest energy companies, in order to quantify our “Top Ten” patent leaders in energy.

This 34-page note ranks the industry’s “Top 10 technology-leaders”: in upstream, offshore, deep-water, shale, LNG, gas-marketing, downstream, chemicals, digital and renewables.

For each topic, we profile the leading company, its edge and the proximity of the competition.

Companies covered by the analysis include Aramco, BP, Chevron, Conoco, Devon, Eni, EOG, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Occidental, Petrobras, Repsol, Shell, Suncor and TOTAL.

Upstream technology leaders have been discussed in greater depth in our April-2020 update, linked here.

More information? Please do not hesitate to contact us, if you would like more information about accessing this document, or taking out a TSE subscription.

Does Technology Drive Returns?

Technology drives 30-60% of energy companies’ return on capital. This is our conclusion after correlating 10 energy companies’ ROACEs against 3,000 patent filings. Above average technologies are necessary to generate above-average returns.

For the first time, we have been able to test the relationship between oil companies’ technical abilities and their Returns on Average Capital Employed (ROACE).

In the past, technical capabilities have been difficult to quantify, hence this crucial dimension has been overlooked by economic analysis in the energy sector.

Our new methodology stems from our database of 3,043 patents, filed by the Top 25 leading energy companies in 2018. The data cover upstream, downstream, chemicals and new energy technologies (chart below) . All the patents are further summarised, “scored” and classed across 40 sub-categories.

The methodology is to correlate our patent-scores for each company with the ROACE generated by the company in 2018. We ran these correlations at both the corporate level and the segment level…

Results: patent filings predict returns

Patent filings predict corporate returns. In 2018, the average of the Top 10 Integrated Oil Majors generated a Return on Average Capital Employed (ROACE) of 11%, based on our adjusted, apples-to-apples calculation methodology. These returns are 54% correlated with the number of patents filed by each Major (chart below).

Technology leaders are implied to earn c5% higher corporate returns than those deploying industry-average technologies, which is a factor of 2x.

Upstream patent filings also predict upstream returns, with an 85% correlation coefficient. The data are skewed by one Middle East NOC, which earns exceptionally high returns on capital, but even excluding this datapoint, the correlation coefficient is 65% (chart below).

The curve is relatively flat, with the exception of two outliers, implying that it is hardest to improve general upstream returns using technology. This may be because upstream portfolios are vast, spanning many different asset-types and geographies.

Downstream patent filings predict downstream returns, with an 80% correlation coefficient (chart below). However, our sample size is smaller, as we were unable to dis-aggregate downstream ROACE for all the Majors.

The curve is very steep, indicating that downstream technology leaders can surpass c20% returns on capital, versus c10% using industry-standard technologies.

Chemical patent filings predict chemical returns, with a 57% correlation coefficient (chart below). Again, our sample size is smaller, as we could only estimate chemicals ROACEs for some of the Majors.

The curve is also steep, with technology leaders earning c10-20% returns, versus low single digit returns for less differentiated players.

Overall, the results should matter for investors in the energy sector, for capital allocation within corporates, and for weighing up the benefits of in-house R&D. We would be delighted to discuss the underlying data with you in more detail.

Lost in the Forest?

In 2019, Shell pledged $300M of new investment into forestry. TOTAL, BP and Eni are also pursuing similar schemes. But can they move the needle for CO2? In order to answer this question, we have tabulated our ‘top five’ facts about forestry. We think Oil Majors may drive the energy transition most effectively via developing better energy technologies in their portfolios.

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Oil Companies Drive the Energy Transition?

There is only one way to decarbonise the energy system: leading companies must find economic opportunities in better technologies. No other route can source sufficient capital to re-shape such a vast industry that spends c$2trn per annum. We outline seven game-changing opportunities. Leading energy Majors are already pursuing them in their portfolios, patents and venturing. Others must follow suit.

Pages 2-3 show that today’s technologies are not sufficient to decarbonise the global energy system, which will surpass 100,000TWH pa by 2050. Better technologies are needed.

Pages 4-6 show how Oil Majors are starting to accelerate the transition, by developing these game-changing technologies. The work draws on analysis of 3,000 patents, 200 venture investments and other portfolio tilts.

Pages 7-13 profile seven game-changing themes, which can deliver both the energy transition and vast economic opportunities in the evolving energy system. These prospects cover electric mobility, gas, digital, plastics, wind, solar and CCS. In each case, we find leading Oil companies among the front-runners.

IMO 2020. Fast Resolution or Slow Resolution?

The downstream industry is currently debating whether IMO 2020 sulphur regulations will be resolved quickly or slowly. We think the market-distortions may be prolonged by under-appreciated technology challenges.

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Opportunities amidst the Challenge?

So if the market-distortions of IMO 2020 have longevity, who will stand to benefit? We are maintaining a data-file of the ‘Top Technologies for IMO 2020’ around the industry, which give specific companies an edge. The data file now contains over 25 technologies across 7 Majors.


Al-Shahrani, F., Koseoglu, O. R. & Bourane, A. (2018). Integrated System and Process for In-Situ Organic Peroxide Production and Oxidative HeteroAtom Conversion. Saudi Aramco Patent.

Koseoglu, O. R., (2018). Integrated Isomerisation and Hydrotreating Process. Saudi Aramco Patent CN107529542

Hanks, P. (2018). Trim Alkali Metal Desulfurisation of Refinery Fractiions. ExxonMobil Patent US2018171238 

Turn the Plastic Back into Oil

Due to the limitations of mechanical recycling, 85% of the world’s plastic is incinerated, dumped into landfill, or worst of all, ends up in the oceans. An alternative, plastic pyrolysis, is on the cusp of commercialisation. We have assessed twenty technology solutions. Excitingly, this nascent opportunity can turn plastic back into oil, generate >30% IRRs on investment, and could displace 15Mbpd of future oil demand.

These are the conclusions of our new, 16-page report…

We have diligenced 20 companies (above), operating 100 pyrolysis facilities globally. Our work included two site-visits and multiple patent reviews. Three early-stage companies hold particular promise. You can download our technology-screen here.

Larger companies (BASF, OMV, BP, TOTAL and Exxon) are also waiting in the wings, to scale up in this space. Their own patents and progress are reviewed in the note.

Economics will be strong, and should surpass 30% in our base case, modelled here. With another c25% deflation, it could become economical to deploy the technology in removing plastic from the ocean.

9Mbpd of oil and condensate are currently consumed for chemicals, as broken down here. Even as plastic demand trebles by 2050, plastic-recycling could eliminate any net demand growth for oil; or even halve it, as modelled here.