The Future of Big Oil? At Shell, It’s Not Oil


At Australia’s Curtis Island, you can see Big Oil morphing into Big Gas. Just off the continent’s rugged northeastern coast lies a 667-acre liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal owned by Royal Dutch Shell, an engineering feat of staggering complexity. Gas from more than 2,500 wells travels hundreds of miles by pipeline to the island, where it’s chilled and pumped into 10-story-high tanks before being loaded onto massive ships. “We’re more a gas company than an oil company,” says Ben van Beurden, Shell’s chief executive officer. “If you have to place bets, which we have to, I’d rather place them there.”

Van Beurden is betting on gas projects such as Curtis Island to address the central challenge facing all oil giants: how to survive in a world moving ever faster toward new ways of producing and consuming energy. A crucial element of Shell’s pivot toward gas was its $54 billion takeover of BG Group. The deal, which closed in February, gave the company Curtis Island, other massive LNG plants, and gas fields from the U.S. to Kazakhstan. It now has a 20 percent share of the global LNG market, scores of giant gas tankers prowling the seas, and double the production capacity of its closest competitor, ExxonMobil.

For Shell, grappling with increasingly ambitious government commitments to slow climate change, gas has much to recommend it. It’s considered a crucial “bridge fuel” in the transition to a low-carbon future, because gas-fired power plants are far cleaner than those that burn coal. They’re also relatively cheap to build and easy to switch on and off, making them a natural complement to solar and wind generation. Shell is also working to create a market for gas-fueled vehicles, especially ships and heavy trucks that, unlike cars, won’t go electric soon. If Shell gets it right, gas is “not just going to be a bridge” but a lucrative part of the energy mix indefinitely, Van Beurden says. (by Mathew Campbell, Rakteem Katakey and James Paton, Bloomberg)