Royal Dutch Shell PLC on Thursday said it would freeze dividend payments, curb its planned spending over the next three years by some $15 billion, and scale back its investments in shale resources world-wide as it struggles to cope with weaker oil prices.
The news came as Shell became the first of the four giant, integrated oil companies known as “super majors” to report fourth-quarter earnings. While its profit rose from a poor year-ago quarter, they came in below analyst estimates, driving shares down by almost 5% in morning trading in London.
The giant Anglo-Dutch oil company’s quarterly profit on a current cost-of-supplies basis—a metric similar to the net profit reported by U.S. oil companies—was $4.2 billion, compared with $2.2 billion in the same period last year. For the full year, the current-cost-of-supplies profit was $22.6 billion, up from $19.5 billion in 2013.
Analysts and investors expect the weaker oil price to weigh heavily on the large oil companies’ fourth-quarter figures, compared with the year-ago quarter. Shell, though, had been forecast to suffer less of a year-over-year impact in the quarter than rivals because its 2013 fourth-quarter earnings were dragged down by issues including high spending and poor refining margins, which prompted the company to issue its first profit warning in a decade.
“Our strategy is delivering with good performance on our three themes of financial performance, capital efficiency and project delivery,” said Chief Executive Ben van Beurden.
“These will remain Shell’s priorities in 2015, as we continue to balance growth and returns,” he added.
Shell said capital expenditure in 2015 is expected to be lower than 2014 levels, with more than $15 billion of potential spending to be curtailed over the next three years.
However, one area where Shell will be active is Alaska, where the company plans to start drilling this year, Chief Financial Officer Simon Henry said at a news conference. The company’s arctic exploration has been bumpy in recent years, facing weather-related delays and mechanical problems including the grounding of an in-transit drill ship at the beginning of 2013.
The company said it would pay a fourth-quarter dividend of 47 cents a share, a 4% rise on the same quarter last year but flat from the third quarter. It said it expected to pay the same dividend in the first quarter.
Shell said earnings in its exploration-and-production division were $1.73 billion, down from $2.48 billion, with lower oil prices offsetting benefits such as increased high-margin liquids production.
Shell said its production for the quarter was 3.213 million barrels a day of oil and equivalent natural gas volumes a day, down 1% from a year prior.
Shell’s processing, or downstream, business reported a sharp rise in earnings to $1.55 billion from $558 million, “reflecting steps taken by the company to improve financial performance and the industry environment.”
Shell’s revenue in the quarter was $92.4 billion, down from $109.2 billion a year ago. Net income fell to $773 million from $1.78 billion.
Since he took over Shell early last year, Mr. van Beurden has been trying to cut costs across the sprawling firm, scaling back big spending, most recently when Shell backed away from a proposed petrochemicals plant in Qatar earlier this month.
But the oil-industry landscape has shifted since Mr. van Beurden began as CEO: A year ago, Shell was struggling to control high costs at a time of relatively high oil prices. Now, development expenses are dropping as the oil price remains depressed.
“We are taking a prudent approach here and we must be careful not to overreact to the recent fall in oil prices,” Mr. van Beurden said.
By Justin Scheck and Rory Gallivan