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Big Oil Can Help Renewables by Spinning Them Off

Liam Denning
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Big Oil Can Help Renewables by Spinning Them Off

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Big Oil’s forays into renewable energy have drawn a lot of skepticism. Besides accusations of greenwashing, any oil CEO embracing energy transition must somehow convince investors to trust them putting cash into unfamiliar businesses that might need a lot of upfront spending before there’s much in the way of profits. 

It’s a race against time; a race to prove the CEO isn’t just splurging money on their version of the vision thing. One way to try getting there faster involves a lesson from a more familiar bit of the energy business: pipelines.

Hard as it is to imagine now, there was a time when pipelines were hot investments. Master limited partnerships, the tax-advantaged structures that usually housed them, were in huge demand in the years after the financial crisis due to their high payouts and shale-fueled growth. MLPs traded at almost double the earnings multiple of the wider energy sector.

Some of the easiest money ever made in the history of investment banking involved showing some variation of that chart to an oil producer and saying something like: “Hey, how about we double the value of those old pipelines you own by sticking them into a new thing called [Company Name] Partners LP and spinning it off? That’ll be $20 million please. I’ll get an analyst started on the lucite.”

Of 188 IPOs of MLPs since 1986, almost 40% happened in that five-year period between 2010 and 2014, according to data from Alerian. Roughly two-thirds of MLP-dedicated investment funds launched then. What a time it was. As is often the way with such things, it got a bit out of hand. It turns out steering yield-starved investors toward companies with all the governance of benevolent dictatorships, minus the benevolence, can lead to sub-optimal outcomes.

Even so, the original premise remains valid: taking assets that aren’t valued by one set of investors and offering them to another set that might. Nobody’s buying shares in the likes of Royal Dutch Shell Plc or BP Plc because of their solar farms or vehicle-charging ventures — or, given Covid-19’s ravaging of oil demand, buying their shares at all. If these companies are serious about maintaining transition strategies once this crisis passes, then spinning off the assets should be a high priority.

For one thing, transition-flavored companies have generally weathered the pandemic better.

Like those MLPs of yore, transition stocks garner higher valuations too. There are ludicrous extremes such as Tesla Inc., but more down-to-earth stocks such as Danish wind pioneers Ørsted A/S and Vestas Wind Systems A/S or Florida’s NextEra Energy Partners LP also command multiples oil majors should envy. And as for Tesla, while its four-figure earnings multiple makes no sense, what should unnerve the majors is the sheer zeal of its fans and power of its narrative despite all the red ink and red flags.

An analysis just published jointly by London’s Imperial College Business School and the International Energy Agency reinforces this in two ways. Examining portfolios of U.S. and European companies linked to fossil fuels and renewable energy, the authors find the new kids generated both higher and less volatile shareholder returns over five and 10-year windows.

Perhaps more important is the sheer paucity of renewable energy stocks available. The study’s U.S. fossil fuel basket, for example, has 163 constituents. The corresponding renewable power portfolio has only 18, a couple of which no longer exist and one of which is a regulated utility with an interesting backstory, PG&E Corp.

This gets at a big problem: It’s hard for the average investor to gain exposure to pure energy transition themes, as the assets often reside in private-equity-like portfolios or inside bigger companies that do everything from energy to autos to construction.

Even though it’s nascent relative to the incumbent energy business, the amounts invested are already large. Bloomberg NEF’s database of clean energy asset financing adds up to $3.3 trillion from 2004-19, with almost half of that in the past five years. Yet while investors can pick or choose from any number of frackers, miners or majors — and dedicated funds tracking them — participating in renewable energy or other transition themes is much harder.

That’s a big problem for the transition itself. Capital costs can make or break renewable energy projects; with little running cost, virtually all the outlay is upfront. The IEA, in its latest energy investment report, released in May, noted that getting lower-cost institutional money into a wind project can be the difference between single- and double-digit returns (and, therefore, whether the project goes ahead). Similarly, without ready access to cheap capital, there would have been no shale boom (or no Tesla, for that matter). 

This is where oil majors seeking a relevant role in energy transitions might be useful. Rolling up a set of ventures hidden inside an oil major trading on a low multiple is a good way to destroy value. It also lends credence to accusations of greenwashing: If you’re serious, then why obscure the scale and performance of these assets by lumping them in with natural gas or making them a quarterly line item?

Spinning them out into separate companies instead should provide higher valuations and, therefore, a means to raise cheaper capital for new projects, by expanding the pool of dedicated options for interested investors. Meanwhile, traditional oil investors needn’t be jealous of dollars heading into renewable energy projects. The majors could retain large stakes and even co-brand them; presumably, BP and Shell have retained names such as Lightsource and Greenlots for a reason. The only imperative is to avoid the conflicts and fetid governance that ultimately undid many MLPs.

A consistent refrain of Big Oil is that its sheer bigness provides an edge. That doesn’t fit neatly with the distributed and modular nature of renewable energy and other transition-related businesses. But heft could help where it really counts: raising money.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.

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