Anyone seeking evidence of how Europe’s big utility companies are evolving should look at the announcement today from Centrica.
The owner of British Gas is pooling its European oil and gas exploration and production assets with those of Bayerngas Norge, the Norway-based producer owned by the German multi-utility Stadtwerke Munchen and Bayerngas, its production arm.
The joint venture will include Centrica’s exploration and production assets in Britain, Norway and the Netherlands along with Bayerngas Norge’s assets in Britain, Norway and Denmark.
It will be 69% owned by Centrica and will be Europe’s largest independent exploration and production company, with the vast majority of its assets in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea, two-thirds of which will be in natural gas.
It will have more than 650 employees in Aberdeen, Stavanger, Oslo and Hoofdorp in the Netherlands and will have access to 625 million barrels of proved and probable oil and gas reserves.
Although it will continue to be owned by both businesses, after two years, it is possible the joint venture will be floated as a separate company in its own right.
The move is important for a couple of reasons. The first is because it is a recognition by both parties of the rising cost of operating in the North Sea.
This is one of the world’s most mature oil and gas production assets – in other words, the most accessible oil and gas reserves there have already been extracted, meaning that what is left there will be harder and more expensive to take out.
Accordingly, with oil prices having fallen for the last three years, an increasing number of operators are seeking to join forces in order to bring down costs and achieve greater economies of scale by pooling rigs, technical expertise and other assets.
For example, just over a year ago, BP announced it was pooling its Norwegian assets with those of the local operator Det Norske. The business they formed, Aker BP, is presently the largest independent European exploration and production company.
The second reason this move is significant is because it shows how Europe’s utility companies are moving away from old production assets in order to concentrate on the more straightforward business of supplying energy to households and businesses.
The French utility Engie, whose origins lie in the old state-owned gas and electricity producer Gaz de France, recently sold its exploration and production assets to Neptune Energy, a private equity-backed business led by Sam Laidlaw, the former Centrica chief executive.
The German power giant E.ON has also reorganised itself to reduce its dependence on its old fossil fuel businesses.
In the case of Centrica, this move is another staging post in the journey on which the company has been since, as British Gas, it was privatised by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986.
British Gas subsequently split itself into two businesses – Centrica and BG Group. BG went on to demerge Lattice, the owner of the UK’s gas pipeline network, which was later taken over by National Grid.
BG Group itself was taken over last year by Royal Dutch Shell. Centrica, meanwhile, continued to own a number of exploration and production assets as well as expanding into nuclear energy production via the 2009 purchase of a 20% stake in the formerly state-owned British Energy.
That same year, it also bought Venture Production, a leading operator of mature North Sea gas assets. More recently, though, it has been selling exploration and production properties, including its gas assets in Trinidad and Tobago and its Canadian exploration and production assets.
It clearly sees its future in customer-facing operations and to that end, also recently offloaded its last two big UK power stations, while its 20% stake in the old British Energy – the rest is owned by EDF – is also thought to be up for sale.
In future, Centrica intends to make its money from customer service, achieving growth by selling services and products that enable customers to use energy more efficiently such as smart meters and thermostats.
It is all a lot less buccaneering than North Sea oil and gas production – but a recognition that the way in which energy is produced and consumed is changing rapidly.