Breakingviews - Exxon-Chevron deal could help kill fossil fuels

A Chevron gas station sign is seen in Cardiff, California, U.S. January 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - A mega-merger between Exxon Mobil and Chevron doesn’t have to be about creating a crushing oil company. In fact, it’s possible that a deal between the fossil fuel giants actually hastens the transition to cleaner power sources. Regulators have some levers to pull to make it happen.

Last year the two U.S.-based oil companies talked about a tie-up as Chevron’s market capitalization closed in on its bigger rival. While they are the two largest U.S. oil firms by equity value, their actual grip on the domestic and global markets is less than it might seem. Combined, the companies produce about 14% of U.S. petroleum and other similar liquids. Globally, they knock out a little more than 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, giving them a combined 4% of the market, between Saudi Aramco, Rosneft and other western oil majors.

Still given the infrastructure the companies own, the grip of “Chexxon” would be farther-reaching, especially in the United States. With refineries and pipelines, the two fossil fuel giants have a heavy hand in the supply chain for oil and gas, too. And the U.S. market is still highly competitive, so putting the two firms together would concentrate power in a way that could punish rivals. The next largest U.S.-based producer, ConocoPhillips, produces roughly a third of their combined output.

So regulators that crack down on mergers, including the U.S. Department of Justice, might raise a red flag at a deal. But Chexxon could argue that spiraling prices might have an oddly beneficial effect. An increase to the market price for oil – and consequently gasoline – could push consumers further away from gas guzzlers. Moves are already afoot to ditch cars with combustion engines. Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency said that demand for gasoline may have peaked as electric vehicle sales pick up pace.

Fossil fuel companies are big producers of natural gas, too, which is used to generate power that fuels EVs. But other sources like wind and solar power are coming on stronger. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said earlier this year that renewables account for most new U.S. electricity generating capacity in 2021.

Knowing all this, regulators could choose to okay a Chexxon merger but throw in some choice conditions to help fortify a cleaner fuel market for Americans. Watchdogs could even champion the new company’s efforts by requiring it to invest dollar-for-dollar in cleaner energy alongside fossil fuels. That would require Chexxon to agree to certain stipulations that may dictate how it spends its excess capital. But it could help the U.S. government save money. President Joe Biden is mulling a $3 trillion infrastructure and tax plan that includes clean energy.

The U.S. government already has a blueprint for thinking more broadly about deals. The Federal Communications Commission reviews transactions to ensure they are in the public interest. In its 2019 approval of Sprint’s merger with T-Mobile US, the companies committed to deploying 5G service within three years to cover almost all Americans, including 85% of residents who live in rural areas. They could be forced to pay more than $2 billion if they don’t meet their commitments.

And sometimes policymakers see banding together as a positive. In 2014, antitrust enforcers issued guidance telling companies that sharing information to defend against cyber hacks would likely not violate competition laws. More recently, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed antitrust exemptions for small media outlets to allow them to collectively bargain with technology giants like Facebook.

As the power structure shifts, a strong oil market is still needed to help in the transition. So an American, state-sponsored oil company is no longer unthinkable and progressives have argued for industrial policies akin to China. If Chevron’s Chief Executive Mike Wirth could himself to the idea of allowing the U.S. government to take a strong guiding hand, regulators to acquiesce to a deal between it and Exxon. The key is acknowledging that a deal between the two would, in fact, help fossil fuels wind down.


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