Royal Dutch Shell is preparing to retreat from high-cost oil operations in the North Sea after 45 years as it attunes its global operations to the new reality of low oil prices.
The company has already cut hundreds of jobs from its UK workforce. In the clearest sign yet that Britain’s biggest company will turn its back on the “super mature” North Sea, Shell told investors its planned $30bn sales drive to tackle its debt burden will focus on mature assets in established oil regions.
Shell’s chief executive, Ben Van Beurden, laid out the company’s strategic plan for the rest of the decade, telling shareholders the group plans to leave between five and 10 mature oil regions, which equity analysts have interpreted as a “heavy hint” that UK assets will be included.
At Macquarie, Iain Reed said: “They must be thinking very seriously about coming out of the North Sea.” Mr Reed said “various private equity funds” were already negotiating with Shell to buy up assets that are too small to be economic for the oil giant but could still offer value to smaller oil minnows.
Ashley Kelty, an oil analyst with Cenkos, said: “If they could get rid of all that they’d be quite happy to. The North Sea is in terminal decline.”
The “politically sensitive” decision to leave the North Sea is one that Shell is unlikely to admit to while negotiations are taking place with potential buyers, the analysts said.
The only position Shell is likely to keep is its stake in the relatively untapped BP-operated fields on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, which are due to begin production later this year.
Shell said the company plans to plough $4bn into the West of Shetland “cash engine” by 2018, but it refused to comment on any future investment plans in UK waters beyond this project.
International assets likely to be put on the block include Shell’s interests in its loss-making Canadian tar sands, and onshore oil assets in Nigeria.