Houston can help unlock the key to a viable energy transition
The future of energy holds monumental and diverse expectations. Houston’s long history as the hub for oil and gas development – combined with its growing and important role in development of renewables, carbon capture, and other energy innovation – makes it a critical meeting point for discussions on strategy, investment, and stakeholder engagement in the energy transition.
In our research last fall, we detailed how the oil and gas industry was embracing capital discipline and prioritizing shareholder returns. The industry generated record cash flows and offered a combined dividend and share buyback yield of 8 percent in 2022—the highest among all industries. The industry’s commitment to maintaining capital discipline and investing in viable low-carbon projects has only strengthened in 2023.
In fact, according to our most recent research, the global upstream oil and gas industry is estimated to generate between $2.5 trillion to $4.6 trillion in free cash flow between 2023 and 2030. With capital availability not posing a significant constraint, boardrooms of oil and gas companies are engaged in discussions regarding capital allocation between hydrocarbons and low-carbon solutions, while striving to achieve desired rates of return and meet stakeholder expectations for dividend payouts.
What are the different expectations surrounding the energy transition that could potentially influence the capital allocation strategy or deployment of this free cash flow? Deloitte recently surveyed 150 industry executives and 75 institutional investors globally to find out how respondents expect capital to be deployed either back into the core business, back to shareholders, or into new low-carbon fuels and technologies.
Interestingly, while oil and gas investors and executives tend to agree on many issues, our research also indicated several key areas where expectations of the energy transition diverge.
Energy transition investment potential
Industry executives generally continue to apply discipline in evaluating bankable low-carbon projects, giving investors a chance to direct the dividends they receive into promising energy transition technology. However, sixty percent of executives we surveyed stated that they would invest in low-carbon projects only if the internal rate of return (IRR) from these projects exceeds 12 percent to 15 percent. These returns are a minimum for the industry to fund its base hydrocarbon capital expenditures and meet dividend commitments. For context, in 2022, the average IRR for most renewable power projects was less than 8 percent. Because overall, oil and gas companies are focused on returning value to shareholders, the comparatively lower IRR on some low-carbon projects can make the choice regarding these investments more difficult.
Changes in dividend payout contingent on minimum yield
Many oil and gas executives surveyed also placed higher priority on continuing to provide high dividend yield than some of the investors surveyed. Almost 50 percent of executives indicated that, in their view, dividend cuts could drive away investors. However, about 80 percent of the investors queried said they would likely continue to hold oil and gas stocks – even if companies slightly reduced dividends – to accelerate investments in lower-carbon technologies. However, three-fourths of investors said they required at least a 3 percent dividend yield.
The right technology
About 75 percent of low-carbon technology is still experimental or in early stages of development. Executives seem to remain focused on fuels and technologies — natural gas, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage — that are adjacent to their core businesses. Investors surveyed, on the other hand, tend to favor transformative technologies, such as battery storage and electric vehicles. About 43 percent of investors emphasized battery storage as a promising area.
Our research underscores the importance of immediate action to close the innovation gap. As the Energy Capital of the World, home to 4,700 energy-related organizations, Houston is positioned to lead the way. Houston’s broad energy sector can attract engineering expertise and clean tech talent, serving as a locus for knowledge-sharing on the financial and operational challenges ahead in the energy transition.
Amy Chronis is vice chair of US Energy and Chemicals Leader and Houston managing partner at Deloitte LLP.Kate Hardin is executive director at Deloitte Research Center for Energy and Industrials.