Oil supermajors must rethink their game plans

Where next for the supermajors? As one of the lieutenants of the former BP boss John Browne, Tony Hayward had a front-row seat at the creation of the oil supermajors.

As one of the lieutenants of the former BP boss John Browne, Tony Hayward had a front-row seat at the creation of the oil supermajors. He was to captain one of the premier-league behemoths created by the wave of mega-mergers in the late 1990s. But speaking in Abu Dhabi this month, he now seems to have cooled on the business model he helped to pioneer.

With oil prices touching record lows of about US$10 per barrel in 1998, the industry became convinced that bulk was a winning strategy. In response to the internet mania and "New Economy" companies such as the gas trader Enron, Big Oil needed a compelling story.

The majors argued that acquiring smaller competitors would allow them to cut costs, eliminate redundant staff and execute the large opportunities opening up in deep water and the former Soviet Union.

BP, under the flamboyant "Sun King" Browne, kicked off by taking over Amoco and Arco in 1998-2000. Exxon bought Mobil, Total acquired Fina and Elf, Conoco merged with Phillips and Chevron with Texaco. Although courted by Mobil, Shell, sunk in introspection, was the only major company to remain aloof.

Leaving BP in 2010 in the wake of the Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Mr Hayward now manages Genel Energy, a much smaller company exploring frontiers from Kurdistan to Somaliland. Reflecting on the supermajors' performance over the past decade or so, he observed that they "have met with mixed success. Growth has been elusive".

Gains in production have been anaemic at best, and have been led by gas - with more valuable oil output slipping. Consequently share price performance has been tepid, with the supermajors essentially going nowhere in the past five years.

Mr Hayward also noted that the supermajors were "slow to adapt their exploration business to high commodity prices". Immediately after their creation, they did well by opening up deep-water fields in Angola and Nigeria, and finding Kazakhstan's super-giant Kashagan field.

But most of the subsequent major new petroleum provinces - Kurdistan, the West African margin, East Africa both onshore and in deep water, the eastern Mediterranean - have been uncovered by the smaller independent companies.

Tullow, valued at just a tenth of BP's $140 billion (Dh514.22bn), has been the investors' exploration champion. Larger independents, BG and Hess, were prominent in Brazil's massive "pre-salt" finds.

And the greatest resource success - the breakthrough in shale oil and gas in North America - was led by entrepreneurs in Texas. ExxonMobil, late to the game, had to buy its way back in for $40bn. The supermajors have not topped the league in project management either, though it should have been their forte. Projects in Qatar, Russia, Kazakhstan and Australia have met with astonishing cost over-runs.

Why should the supermajors continue to exist? For Mr Hayward, they will "continue to develop outstanding technology capability, doing things others cannot or chose not to do". That includes big technology bets: on the Arctic, on Canada's sticky oil sands, on converting gas to oil products. It also includes technically straightforward but very large projects in Iraq.

Ironically, the first supermajor, BP, has divested so many assets post-Macondo that it could be considered relegated from the top division. The other supermajors will continue to shed the less profitable "downstream" assets - refineries and fuel retail - and to sell smaller, mature fields.

But is the next game plan to revisit the 1990s and swallow a wounded BP or a demerged ConocoPhillips? Or will they follow BP and "shrink to grow" - becoming smaller, faster and fitter? Whatever the strategy, the supermajors need a new pitch to excite their shrinking band of fans.

Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon