HOUSTON — Royal Dutch Shell on Monday sold its oil and gas production in the Permian Basin, the biggest American oil field, to ConocoPhillips for $9.5 billion in cash.
The deal marks a turning point for Shell, which had put considerable effort into developing the 225,000-acre field since buying it from Chesapeake Energy nine years ago, expanding its production to about 200,000 barrels a day.
The sale is the latest sign that Shell, like other European oil companies, is under pressure to sell off oil and gas production and move toward producing cleaner energy in response to growing concerns about climate change among investors and the general public.
Shell is retreating from the Permian as American shale oil production is recovering. The field yielded 4.7 million barrels a day in August — more than 40% of total U.S. oil output and a nearly 400,000-barrel-a-day increase from January. Rising oil prices have enticed crews to return to the fields, where they use hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as fracking — to blast open shale rocks and force oil out of the ground.
A wave of acquisitions in the Permian began last year with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic as companies sought to cut costs. The scale of the Shell deal is similar to Conoco’s acquisition of Concho Resources for $9.7 billion in October, a deal that made Conoco a major player in the Permian, which straddles Texas and New Mexico. In April, Pioneer Natural Resources bought DoublePoint Energy for $6.4 billion.
With the acquisition of Shell’s acreage, Conoco consolidates its position as a top-tier Permian producer along with Pioneer, Occidental Petroleum, Exxon Mobil and Chevron.
Shell’s sale of its West Texas Permian holdings, which provided an estimated 6% of the company’s global oil and gas production last year, had been expected for months. Shell recently sold its stakes in offshore oil and gas fields in Malaysia and the Philippines.
Its American operations include offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico along with refineries.
Shell has been talking about cutting emissions since 2017, and it has accelerated its shift to cleaner fuels over the past two years, though not enough to satisfy many environmentalists. In addition to a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, it has set a target of reducing oil output up to 2% a year by 2030 through divestments and lower investments in exploration and production.
“We are very excited to enhance our position in one of the best basins in the world,” said Conoco CEO Ryan Lance. He hailed the deal as “a unique opportunity to add premium assets.”
Shell said it viewed the deal as “a compelling value proposition.”
“This decision once again reflects our focus on value over volumes,” Wael Sawan, Shell’s upstream director, said in announcing the deal. He said Shell had reviewed multiple strategies and options for the Permian acreage.
Shell said cash proceeds from the transaction would fund $7 billion in distributions to shareholders as well as efforts toward “the energy transition.”
Shell plans to increase its investments in renewable energy and low-carbon technologies to roughly 25% of its budget by 2025.
At least some of the money from asset sales goes into Shell’s power businesses, including electric vehicle plug-in points, battery businesses and utilities. This week, Shell announced plans to build a biofuels facility in the Netherlands to use waste from used cooking oil and animal fat to make cleaner diesel and aviation fuel.
At least some of the impetus for Shell’s shedding of hydrocarbon assets came from a decision by a Dutch court in May ordering the company to cut greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels, before the COVID-19 pandemic slashed oil and gas demand. Shell is appealing the ruling.
When Shell or other oil companies sell a field or petrochemical plant, the transaction does not automatically mean that global emissions will be reduced since other companies routinely pick up the production.
In a recent article on LinkedIn, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden wrote that if Shell stopped selling transportation fuels, “it would not help the world one bit” because “people would fill up their cars and delivery trucks at other service stations.”
Shell, like the entire oil and gas industry, has suffered through a rocky time of late. The pandemic forced the company to cut its dividend last year. But with oil and natural gas prices recovering, the company has returned to robust profitability, reporting earnings of $5.5 billion in the second quarter, up from $638 million a year earlier.