BP cuts dividend for first time in a decade as virus hastens shift to green energy

The company says it is targeting a radical 40% decline in hydrocarbon production and a 10-fold increase in low-carbon investment

FILE - In this file photo dated Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, a car fuel pump at a BP petrol station in London.  Oil producer BP released second-quarter 2020 earnings figures Tuesday Aug. 4, 2020, saying it plans to slash dividends as the global oil company prepares for declining sales of fossil fuels. (AP Photo/Caroline Spiezio, FILE)
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BP slashed its dividend for the first time in a decade and set out new targets to accelerate its shift to greener energy after the coronavirus pandemic upended the oil business.

The u-turn in its dividend policy was expected after European peer Royal Dutch Shell slashed its own payout in April. Big Oil’s generous dividends have long been its main attraction to shareholders, and the move –hastened by the virus but made inevitable by the transition to cleaner energy – redraws the company’s investment profile.

BP paired the payout news with more details for investors of its net-zero strategy – bringing forward announcements expected in September. It is targeting a radical 40 per cent decline in hydrocarbon production, a 10-fold increase in low-carbon investment and a leap in renewable-power capacity to around 50 gigawatts by 2030. It would not explore for oil in any new countries.

“Whatever the devils that will no doubt emerge in the detail, this is a pretty big change from BP,” Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist Doug Parr tweeted in an unusual show of support.

BP shares surged as much as 8.3 per cent on Tuesday, trading up 7.4 per cent at 10:14am London time (1:14 UAE time). That’s the biggest gain on the Stoxx Europe 600 Oil & Gas index, suggesting that the dividend cut was already priced in.

Chief executive Bernard Looney is taking the opportunity presented by the virus to speed up the changes he needs to make to fulfill his vision of a low-carbon future. But the company went into the crisis with high debt and hefty payouts – it even increased the dividend for the fourth quarter – meaning more pain now.

BP reported an adjusted net loss of $6.68 billion (Dh24.51bn) for the second quarter, following a $2.81bn profit a year earlier. It was a narrower loss than expected as BP said its trading division performed strongly. It cut its dividend to 5.25 cents per share and scrapped its progressive payout policy.

“It’s very simple,” Mr Looney said about the 50 per cent dividend cut. “The change is rooted in strategy, deeply rooted in strategy, and amplified by Covid-[19].”

Net debt fell 20 per cent from the previous quarter to $40.9bn, while gearing – the ratio of debt-to-equity – dropped to 33.1 per cent from 36.2 per cent. Despite the decline, the level remains well above BP’s comfort range of 20-30 per cent. The company aims to reduce debt to $35bn, at which point it plans to return at least 60 per cent of surplus cash flow to shareholders via buybacks.

“This strategic shift is encouraging – much more clarity, apparently not sacrificing returns,” Stuart Joyner, an analyst at Redburn, said in a note. BP is “making proper progress towards pleasing ESG investors” as the “journey unfolds towards a higher-rated, lower-geared company”.

Virtually every part of BP’s business, from its forecourts to its oil and gas production, was hit by the pandemic’s devastating impact on fuel consumption. But there was one bright spot last quarter: oil trading delivered an “exceptionally strong result”, BP said.

The oil major’s sprawling trading unit capitalised on the period’s volatility and in particular made money from so-called contango plays. That trade involves putting cheap oil into storage and simultaneously selling it at higher prices on the forward market. Total, Shell and Equinor all reaped the benefits of contango, with trading gains saving them from a quarterly loss.

American counterparts Exxon Mobil and Chevron, which have a more timid approach to trading, posted their worst set of quarterly results of the modern era.

BP on Tuesday also said it is targeting a 30-35 per cent decline in emissions from its operations and a 35-40 per cent cut in carbon output from oil and gas production by 2030.

Over the same time, BP saw its refining throughput falling to about 1.2 million barrels per day from 1.7 million bpd in 2019. It plans to increase investment in low-carbon energy to around $5bn a year from about $500m

The company's renewable power capacity will rise to around 50GW from 2.5GW last year, while electric vehicle charging points will jump to more than 70,000 from 7,500, it said in the statement.