ExxonMobil’s CEO is banking on a return to normal—but most others in the energy business aren’t so sure

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On Friday, as ExxonMobil announced its first loss in more than three decades, CEO Darren Woods expressed a determined confidence that the global energy sector would soon see a return to the natural order of things.

“I know there are a lot of different views of what the future holds, but I want to be clear about how we see it,” he said. “The long-term fundamentals that drive our business have not changed.”

His certainly rests on an estimated boom in the global population over the next twenty years, and with it, the arrival of billions into the middle class, where a larger appetite for energy will reflect their changed lifestyles. Economies, Woods said, would once again grow.

“Of course, there are likely to be some bumps in the road in the short term,” he said.

For the world’s energy companies, those bumps already look like they will be historically large. They may also, according to Woods’ fellow energy company CEOs, not be particularly short.

For the first quarter of 2020 ExxonMobil—the U.S.’ largest publicly traded oil company, and the world’s third largest after Royal Dutch Shell and BP—marked its first quarterly earnings loss in 32 years, as profit dropped to $610 million, down from a $2.35 billion net-profit in the same quarter last year. 

That figure, which reflects only up to March 31, is likely to be just a flicker of what is to come in the second quarter. The first quarter contained the brief threat of an outright war between the U.S. and Iran, which pushed the Brent future price to a multi-month high of $68.90/barrel—and only the leading edge of a plunge that briefly pushed the WTI oil futures contract into deep negative territory in late April.  

Woods’ optimism was tempered by acknowledgements of dramatic production cuts and efforts to preserve cash across the business, which operates in 45 countries around the world. Analyst estimates predict oil demand will fall between 4 and 12 million barrels per day, Woods said—Exxon’s own forecast expects the fall to be on the “higher end” of the range.

The company’s own cuts to its production will take 400,000 b/d off the market, as the industry as a whole has grappled with not just low prices, but dwindling options for where to store excess oil; Woods also reiterated the company would cut spending by $10 billion this year, saying it would be a “challenging summer.”

He also defended the company’s decision to continue issuing its dividend. Facing a question about whether the decision by Shell earlier this week to eliminate its dividend for the first time since World War II—following the lead set by Norway’s Equinor—gave other companies “cover” to make the same cut, Woods balked.

“I don’t really look to what Shell is doing to decide our investment policy, frankly.”

The new normal

Friday marked an end to what has already been a bruising earnings season for the world’s largest oil companies. While Exxon’s outright loss stood out among the largest publicly traded oil companies, hits to profit at other major companies were also stark: Shell profits dropped 46%; BP’s about 66%. Only Chevron bucked the trend, with profits rising 38% year-on-year, on the back of sales of assets in the Philippines and Azerbaijan.

But cuts to production and spending were widespread across the industry, reflecting stark takeaways: global lockdowns mean demand for oil has largely evaporated, even as production has, until very recently, continued to grow. In the first quarter, Exxon’s production in the Permian Basin, the heart of the U.S. shale sector, rose by 56% year-on-year.

The long-term repercussions, multiple executives said, were still unclear. Cuts to production and exploration will likely have long term implications for output worldwide, as the last price rout in 2014 did. That is expected to hit smaller companies far harder than energy giants, which have deep pockets and supply chains that stretch up and down the length of the world’s energy markets. Indeed, the independent shale sector entered the crisis heavily leveraged and vulnerable: the first major bankruptcy announcement was on April 1.

But unlike 2014, there are also now questions of whether global oil production truly can—or even should—return to its pre-pandemic heights.

In Shell’s earnings call, CEO Ben van Beurden warned that “there will be changes,” after the pandemic, and that the company must be “ready”; he added that it was “hard to say” whether demand would ever go back to where it was, but conceded that the likelihood that oil would peak this decade had gone up.

On Tuesday, BP’s CEO Bernard Looney said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that “the pandemic only adds to the challenge of oil in the future,” and said that the extreme behavioral changes caused by the pandemic could persist after it ends.

“Therefore the question has to be, will consumers consume less and I think there’s a real possibility of that,” Looney said. 

A different future

There is another important, and growing divide, between the world’s largest public oil companies. BP and Shell are facing a different future than they were a few months ago, regardless of global lockdowns: this year, both committed to a target of “net zero” emissions by 2050, a goal that will require both to dramatically alter the very core of their businesses. Exxon has made no such commitment. 

But even beyond energy companies, there is the question of whether a return to normality is an option, or whether the pandemic will have permanently altered our lives and societies.

On Thursday, the CEO of Delta Air, Ed Bastian, told Fortune that the aviation industry may never be like it once was, noting that “I’m not sure you are going to see travel at scale the way we have come to know in our industry.”

Woods, for his part, pointed to signs that demand from China is already starting to occur as the country opens up. The desire to become more prosperous is simply human nature, he pointed out—and with that desire, demand for energy will inevitably rise. 

“We are anticipating a recovery,” said Woods. “In fact, I know there will be one.”

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More must-read international coverage from Fortune:

—As lockdowns decimate energy demand, renewables come out ahead of coal
—Coronavirus brought China’s travel industry to a standstill. Now it’s showing signs of life
—Photo essay: How the world has overcome pandemics over the last century
—Five weeks off and nowhere to go: How coronavirus sabotaged the European vacation
—PODCAST: How 2 CEOs outside of health care decided to pivot to fight COVID-19
—WATCH: The global crisis in recycling

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