BP, which in 2020 set out its ambition to become a net zero company “by 2050 or sooner,” has drawn sharp criticism for scaling back its emission reduction targets in the wake of record profits.
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LONDON — Oil major BP on Tuesday reported stronger-than-expected first-quarter profits, rising from the previous three months but down from the exceptional levels it recorded through a blockbuster 2022 when fossil fuel prices surged following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The British energy giant posted underlying replacement cost profit, used as a proxy for net profit, of $4.96 billion for the first quarter as lower oil and gas prices took a toll.

That compared with a profit of $4.8 billion in the fourth quarter and $6.2 billion for the first quarter of 2022. Analysts had expected BP to report first-quarter profit of $4.3 billion, according to Refinitiv.

BP announced a further share buyback of $1.75 billion, which it expects to complete prior to announcing its second-quarter 2023 results in early August. The group said it completed its previously announced $2.75 billion share buyback on April 28.

“This has been a quarter of strong performance and strategic delivery as we continue to focus on safe and reliable operations,” BP CEO Bernard Looney said in a statement.

“And importantly we continue to deliver for shareholders, through disciplined investment, lowering net debt and growing distributions,” he added.

BP said it expects to be able to deliver share buybacks of around $4 billion per year — which is at the lower end of its $14 billion to $18 billion capital expenditure range — and has the capacity for an annual increase in the dividend per ordinary share of roughly 4%.

BP’s dividend remained unchanged from the previous quarter at 6.61 cents per ordinary share, following a 10% increase in February.

The company reported first-quarter net debt of $21.2 billion, down from $27.5 billion when compared to the same period a year earlier.

Shares of the London-listed stock are up 12.5% year-to-date.

The first-quarter results come after a year of whopping profits for Big Oil. Energy majors smashed previous annual records in 2022 during a period of volatile oil and gas prices.

For its part, BP posted annual profits of $27.7 billion last year — more than doubling profits recorded in 2021. The oil major’s previous annual profit record was $26.3 billion in 2008.

Shareholder revolt

Big Oil executives have since sought to defend their bumper profits amid a barrage of criticism, typically highlighting the importance of energy security in the transition away from fossil fuels and suggesting higher taxes could deter investment.

BP, which was one of the first energy giants to announce an ambition to reach net-zero emissions “by 2050 or sooner,” said in the wake of its annual record profits that it now plans to scale back its emission reduction targets.

The move set the scene for a contentious annual shareholder meeting last week, with analysts commenting that there was “clearly very deep frustration” among some of the U.K.’s biggest pension funds.

Indeed, a shareholder group of 17% — up from 15% last year, but down from as high as 21% in 2021 — voted in favor of a resolution put forward by Dutch group Follow This. The resolution called for the company to align its 2030 emissions reduction targets with the landmark Paris Agreement.

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, is the chief driver of the climate emergency.

Last week, French oil major TotalEnergies kicked off Big Oil’s earnings season with first-quarter results in line with analyst expectations. The company reported a 27% drop in net income to $6.5 billion through the first three months of 2023, partly due to lower fossil fuel prices.

Britain’s Shell and Norway’s Equinor are both scheduled to report their quarterly earnings on Thursday.