Shell Sells Nearly All Its Oil Sands Assets in Another Sign of Sector’s Woes

The sale is one of the biggest in a series of moves by multinational companies to turn away from the tar sands, an expensive and carbon-intensive oil.

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Oil sands is loaded onto a truck at a Shell mine in Alberta. (Credit: Getty Images/MARK RALSTON)

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Royal Dutch Shell said on Thursday it will sell nearly all of its tar sands assets, the latest sign that operations in the Canadian resource continue to struggle as oil prices remain historically low and energy companies come under increasing pressure to reduce their impacts on climate change. The sale, to Canadian Natural Resources Limited, is one of the biggest in a series of steps by multinational companies to turn away from the tar sands, among the most expensive and carbon-intensive sources of oil.

“You’re seeing this real accelerating pull out by the industry from what was once the crown jewel of oil projects, so it’s a big deal,” said Andrew Logan, director of the oil and gas program at Ceres, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable investing. “I think it’s a tipping point for the oil sands as an investible resource.”

For Shell, it’s part of a shift toward operations with lower costs and a lower carbon footprint. The company also disclosed details of a new policy to tie 10 percent of annual bonuses to management of greenhouse gas emissions from its operations.

The $7.25 billion deal covers all of Shell’s 2 billion barrels of tar sands reserves, and will be used to help pay off debt acquired after the company bought a major player in liquefied natural gas last year. “This announcement is a significant step in reshaping Shell’s portfolio in line with our long-term strategy,” Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said in a statement. He said the company will focus on projects with higher returns and areas where Shell has a competitive advantage, including natural gas and deep-water drilling.

While the sale will move Shell out of the business of operating oil sands projects, the company will continue to hold a substantial stake in the resource. Part of the deal includes a transfer to Shell of $3.1 billion worth of shares in Canadian Natural Resources. Shell will also continue to operate a facility that upgrades tar sands into crude oil and a project that captures carbon emissions from some of its tar sands operations.

The announcement comes just weeks after Exxon disclosed that had reduced its oil sands reserves estimate by 3.5 billion barrels, an acknowledgement that its newest Kearl project is not currently economical. Unlike Shell, however, Exxon said it will continue to operate Kearl and all of its oil sands projects. ConocoPhillips also recently reduced its reserves, by more than 1 billion barrels.

“It continues a trend of consolidation of oil sands interests into the hands of the largest Canadian companies,” said Michael Dunn, an analyst with GMP FirstEnergy.

Logan said the exit of multinationals—with Exxon as a notable exception—will mean oil sands operations will have less access to capital from investors.

While the Shell deal represents a major hit for the oil sands, it hardly comes as a surprise, said Simon Dyer, Alberta director at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian research and advocacy group. “I think it does send a signal that you’ve been seeing in the oil sands for the past couple of years,” he said. The combination of high costs, low oil prices and a growing sense that governments will begin regulating carbon emissions has made many investors turn away from oil sands, Dyer said. “Those things together send a pretty strong signal.”

Kevin Birn, an analyst with IHS Energy, said the Shell deal is another sign that oil sands growth will continue to be sluggish. Multinationals are putting their money elsewhere, he said, leaving fewer companies willing to invest.

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