An oil pump jack operates at the Inglewood Oil Field in Culver City, California, U.S., on Sunday, July 11, 2021.
Kyle Grillot | Bloomberg | Getty Images

LONDON — Oil and gas majors are likely to report bumper second-quarter earnings in the coming days, energy analysts have told CNBC, following a brutal 12 months by virtually every measure.

The expected upswing would build on a surprisingly strong showing in the first quarter and lend further support to the oil and gas industry’s efforts to pay down debt and reward investors.

“Big Oil” companies, referring to the world’s largest oil and gas majors, still face significant challenges and uncertainties, however.

These include the remarkable success of shareholder activism in recent months, a “tremendous degree” of ongoing investor skepticism and intensifying pressure to massively reduce fossil fuel use in order to meet the demands of the climate emergency.

“Europe’s integrated oil sector already enjoyed surprisingly strong earnings in 1Q, but 2Q is set to show further improvement as commodity prices took another step up,” analysts at Morgan Stanley said in a research note.

International benchmark Brent crude futures rose to an average of $69 a barrel in the second quarter, the Wall Street bank said, up from an average of $61 in the first three months of the year. The oil contract was last seen trading at around $73.57.

Oil companies that ignore climate in their earnings calls will be seen as laggards. Long-term investors will conclude they are financially risky.
Kathy Hipple
Finance professor at Bard College

Analysts at Morgan Stanley noted that energy major share prices continue to be anchored by their dividend distributions. Notwithstanding substantial increases to free cash flow forecasts, the bank said Big Oil dividend expectations remain “rather static.”

“The energy transition confronts investors with much uncertainty, and the sector’s capital allocation track record has been mixed at best over the last decade. Hence, investors are only valuing the cash flow paid to them, with little credit given for cash flow retained within companies,” they said.

“As the dividend outlook has not improved much, and dividend yields in aggregate are already low by historical standards, share prices have trailed the earnings outlook considerably.”

In Europe, Royal Dutch Shell and TotalEnergies will report second-quarter earnings on July 29, with BP scheduled to follow on Aug. 3. Stateside, ExxonMobil and Chevron are expected to publish their latest figures on July 30, while ConocoPhillips will report second-quarter earnings on Aug. 3.

Fuel prices on a sign at a BP gas station in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.
Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Rene Santos, manager for North America supply at S&P Global Platts Analytics, told CNBC via email that he expects second-quarter earnings from U.S.-based energy companies to be “significantly higher” when compared to the same period in 2020.

This is “mainly due to much higher oil prices,” he added. “In addition, the majors, large and mid-cap companies have kept capital discipline and have continued to focus on paying down debt and increasing free cash flow instead of increasing activity [drilling and completion] despite higher oil prices.”

Santos said S&P Global Platts Analytics also foresee an increase in the reporting of ESG activity, noting that it “looks like pressure from environmental groups and fear of more regulations from the current administration is persuading many companies to do more to decrease emissions.”

Growing climate risk

The oil and gas industry was sent into a tailspin last year as the coronavirus pandemic coincided with a historic fuel demand shock, plunging commodity prices, unprecedented write-downs and tens of thousands of job cuts. The torrent of bad news prompted the head of the International Energy Agency to suggest it may come to represent the worst year in the history of oil markets.

Oil prices have since rebounded to multi-year highs and all three of the world’s main forecasting agencies — OPEC, the IEA and the U.S. Energy Information Administration — now expect a demand-led recovery to pick up speed in the second half of 2021.

Clark Williams-Derry, energy finance analyst at IEEFA, a non-profit organization, said he expects oil and gas companies to try to claim a clean bill of health after a bumper second quarter. “That’s the mantra that we will hear,” he told CNBC via telephone.

However, while energy majors will likely have had the opportunity to pay down some debt after generating a significant chunk of cash from their operations, Williams-Derry said that this hides the fact that these companies have not invested much in future production.

Members of the environmental group MilieuDefensie celebrate the verdict of the Dutch environmental organisation’s case against Royal Dutch Shell Plc, outside the Palace of Justice courthouse in The Hague, Netherlands, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to slash its emissions harder and faster than planned, dealing a blow to the oil giant that could have far reaching consequences for the rest of the global fossil fuel industry.
Peter Boer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“What I think the market is starting to signal is that it kind of likes when the oil companies shrink and aren’t going all out into new production but they are using the cash that their operations are generating to pay down debt and reward investors.”

Longer term, Williams-Derry warned there’s a “tremendous degree” of investor skepticism about the business models of oil and gas firms, citing the deepening climate crisis and the urgent need to pivot away from fossil fuels.

“We saw earlier in the year signs of a sea change in investor thinking about, frankly, the legal status of some of the supermajors,” he said, referring to a series of landmark courtroom and boardroom defeats for the likes of Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron.

“So, even if you are riding high for a quarter or two when prices are high, the reality is still that stock prices are way below the market as a whole and there’s just not the investor enthusiasm for the old business model that I think these companies probably expected to see,” he said.

Energy transition

Kathy Hipple, finance professor at Bard College in New York, told CNBC via email that she believes two key themes are likely to emerge this earnings season: Addressing investor concerns around climate risk and the outlining of new business models to survive a pivot toward renewables.

“Investors are future-oriented and will look past a short-term pop in earnings compared to last year’s dismal second-quarter results,” Hipple said. “They want to see concrete business strategies that acknowledge the energy transition that is gathering speed.”

She argued it was important to note that these earnings will be announced “against a backdrop of climate disasters around the globe,” from extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest to flooding in Europe and China.

“Oil companies that ignore climate in their earnings calls will be seen as laggards. Long-term investors will conclude they are financially risky,” Hipple said.