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Stick or Twist: oil services have a crucial choice to make on their future path as energy transition accelerates

Posted: 19th February 2021
  • Oil services companies are at a strategic crossroads as energy transition gathers momentum underpinned by increasing pressure from customers and stakeholders.
  • Firms need to act decisively, choosing to either focus solely on hydrocarbons or pivot towards low carbon – but regardless, companies must reduce their carbon footprint.

  • For those companies transitioning to low carbon, skills transferability will be critical.

  • The sector has a key role to play in enabling energy transition, as well as supporting the broader provision  of energy and must better articulate its contribution to society

Oil services companies can no longer delay making a choice on their future direction according to the latest report from PwC Strategy& called Time to Choose. Their options are to stick with their hydrocarbon heritage; becoming ultra-efficient and digitally enabled or pivot towards low carbon growth opportunities such as offshore wind or carbon capture, using hydrocarbons as the cash generating engine to fund this transition.

Time to Choose states that a perfect storm of COVID-19, increasing public scrutiny and the growing momentum of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors influencing investor and buying decisions, has accelerated the pace and impact of energy transition in many regions.

According to the report’s respondents, many oil services companies already recognise the need to transform in order to better align with their customers, with some helping to set the pace of decarbonisation alongside major players. Noticeably, since the end of 2019, a number of oil and gas operators have announced their net zero ambitions with this momentum expected to grow throughout 2021.

Low carbon credentials could also become an area of significant competitive advantage. The report highlights how oil services companies can increasingly showcase their decarbonisation credentials as a means of securing tenders. Some respondents also mentioned increasing pressure being brought to bear by some majors who are keen for supply chain decarbonisation credentials to help support their own strategic direction and licence to operate.

Where firms operate can also influence the pace of transformation. As governments around the world respond to the pandemic, fiscal stimulus packages have been developed with many countries looking to use this pivotal moment in time to stimulate a green recovery to ‘build back better’.  For those companies with a major footprint or head office in Europe, energy transition and ESG themes are likely to be much higher up the corporate agenda than other regions, such as the Middle East, which will see hydrocarbons retain their importance as a focal point.

Drew Stevenson, PwC’s Energy, Utilities and Resources leader, commented: “With a low carbon future rapidly taking shape, an increasing number of oil services companies are looking towards new energy and assessing whether there is an opportunity to diversify, if they have a right to win in that space or whether they need to double down on oil and gas and become ever more efficient.

“Oil services companies will need to reduce their carbon footprint, irrespective of the strategic pathway they choose – and this decision can no longer be kicked further and further down the road.

“We believe the oil services sector has a significant contribution to make in the UK’s energy transition journey.

“From engineering expertise and innovation to project management and global operational scale, these businesses have a golden opportunity to not only channel this capability into market leading credentials that will be in-demand globally, but to play a role in shifting the conversation about how this industry fuels and sustains energy and employment into the future.”

Decarbonisation driven by digital technology, deals and diversifying skills

In many ways COVID-19 has accelerated the need to adopt and deploy digital solutions. Given the physical impact of coronavirus on the workforce, companies in the oil and gas sector have been forced to increase automation. During lockdowns, with workforce restrictions in place, operators have employed digital  technologies such as remote controlled vessels and robots, for example, to inspect underwater pipe networks and conduct maintenance scans of industrial complexes.

Operators and oil services will need digital solutions to enhance productivity in a world of more volatile oil prices. Needless to say, while digital offers great potential for efficiency gains in the oil services segment, in the short term at least, it will be balanced against tight cost control. As a strategic imperative, investment in digital solutions cannot be cut off.

M&A is another means by which energy transition could be accelerated, with complimentary skills, technologies and credentials likely to be highly sought after as entry points into new markets.  Premium valuations are already evident for renewable-facing businesses. The availability of finance will probably also be a driver of this transition.

As for the transferability of skills between oil and gas and low carbon, this is not always easy or evident. All oil services companies have core capabilities in particular areas – some may have skills that are transferable while others may struggle.

Time to choose highlights a sector that is rapidly evolving in response to broader trends around the energy transition and segment specific themes around cost pressures. Oil services companies need to select a strategic pathway that will allow them to flourish in an increasingly volatile trading environment.

Business Comment

Business Comment is the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce’s bi-monthly magazine. It provides insight on Edinburgh’s vibrant business community, with features on the city’s key sectors, interviews with leading figures and news on new business developments in the capital.
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