Opinion: Fossil fuel companies remain attractive to investors
- Credit: Getty Images/Vetta
Considering his monumental business achievements, willingness to take commercial risks, colourful family history and role as a generous patron of the arts, it seems incredible that no door-stopping biography of William Knox D’Arcy exists. Almost 30 years ago, Margaret Carnegie wrote a condensed profile of less than 60 pages, though this hardly befits a man whose entrepreneurial spirit outshone even his modern-day peers.
Born in 1849, D’Arcy was the only son of an Irish solicitor whose legal practice went bust when young William was aged just 16. The bankruptcy forced the D’Arcy family to emigrate, to Australia, where they settled at Rockhampton, Queensland, about 370 miles north of Brisbane.
Here, Knox D’Arcy junior qualified as a solicitor and worked for his father before establishing his own legal practice, simultaneously dabbling in land and gold stocks.
In 1882, Fred, Edwin and Thomas Morgan applied for a gold prospecting licence to dig at Ironstone Mountain, 20 miles south of Rockhampton, but while a small quantity of gold was discovered, the brothers soon ran out of cash. Approaching D’Arcy for fresh funds, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands and quickly raised the capital the brothers required. By 1886, he had made his first million after gold was discovered in significant quantities, enabling him to sell his legal practice and return to England.
Seven years later, he encountered another reverse when the Queensland National Bank was declared bankrupt, resulting in enormous personal and business losses. The value of his Australian gold mining shares had also collapsed, forcing him to hunt around for other opportunities, a search that would take until the turn of the century.
In 1900, D’Arcy was approached by the former British ambassador to Tehran, who explained the details of an unfunded plan to explore for oil in Persia.
D’Arcy agreed to bankroll the project and dispatched an envoy to Tehran who obtained a 60-year concession to search for oil over an area of almost 500,000 square miles. In return, he agreed to pay the Iranian government £20,000 in cash, £20,000 in stocks, plus 16% of the annual profits.
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For almost five years, the oil drilling project haemorrhaged money and by 1905, overwhelmed by debt, D’Arcy began searching for a well-heeled partner. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that the British-owned Burmah Oil Company took an interest, making an offer backed by the British Government.
D’Arcy quickly agreed to the deal which reimbursed his expenses and gave him 170,000 Burmah Oil shares. He could also retain whatever oil he found in Iran and pay the government 16% of any profits he made.
Just six days after new contract was drawn up, oil was struck; remarkably, the strike opened the (then) largest oil field ever discovered and D’Arcy became sole owner of an ocean of crude that lay beneath Iran's soil.
A new company, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (AOPC), of which D’Arcy was part-owner and director, finally started producing black gold in 1913; for the next half century, AOPC’s oil refinery was the world’s largest.
Following a succession of name changes, nationalisation, mergers and takeovers, in 1954 D'Arcy's company, which started life as a small subsidiary of Burmah Oil, was renamed The British Petroleum Company; it became BP plc in 2001.
D’Arcy died in May 1917 aged 67. His immense contribution to Britain’s standard of living and way of life, as well as the impact he had on the Middle East, has never been properly acknowledged despite us enjoying more than a century of oil production.
And ‘enjoy’ is the word. In among the huge volume of hot air expounded about ‘energy transition’ is one significant and undeniable fact: namely that the transition is unlikely to take less than 40-50 years; and that assumes everything goes according to plan.
What do we do in the meantime?
For the time being, it appears there is only one alternative: we must continue to use fossil fuels because they’re dependable, comparatively inexpensive and capable of operating via well-established infrastructure. From an investors’ perspective, therefore, this would suggest that companies such as BP and Shell will remain attractive for the foreseeable future.
BP’s dividend (4.5%) is slightly more generous than Shell’s 3.6% and both have enjoyed significant increases in value over the past 12 months: BP has risen by 25%; Shell by 21%. It is unlikely that similar levels of growth will be maintained during 2022, but the pair’s dividends look safe and, ironically, as the UK’s ‘energy transition’ gets under way, demand for each company’s principle product should remain strong.