The oil and gas sector, once worth a combined $3 trillion, is now worth less than Apple’s $1.5 trillion market capitalization. If it wanted, the Cupertino, California technology company could purchase the world’s most expensive private oil and gas firm, ExxonMobil, for $198 billion with cash to spare.
That’s quite a reversal of fortunes. For years, the oil and gas industry delivered consistent returns to Wall Street. Its lucrative dividends, around 6% at leading firms, gave investors a reason stick with the stocks despite a darkening outlook and the looming threat of climate policies. With oil hovering around $60 per barrel, nothing seemed to phase investors.
But in 2016, fracking opened up the taps on cheap US shale oil. Then the coronavirus pandemic crushed demand just as a price war between Russia and Saudia Arabia flooded the world with cheap oil. That drove the price of benchmark crude, briefly, into negative territory, and it now hovers at about $40 per barrel, where it seems destined to stick.
With oil prices now far below what many non-state-owned oil firms need to make a profit, massive job losses have struck the US industry as production is curtailed. Royal Dutch Shell slashed its dividend by two-thirds, the first time in 80 years.
The oil and gas sector has now underperformed the S&P 500 market index for years. It lags behind performance of renewables, too. While the decline began in 2015, the last year has seen oil and gas stocks drop by 35% just as shares in major renewable firms have risen by the same percentage.