According to some commentators, the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing social distancing measures will fundamentally change the energy industry – a sector of the global economy which has historically served as the foundation of social relationships.
For instance, Goldman Sachs said that carbon-based industries such as oil are sitting “in the cross-hairs”: in contrast to other commodities, oil must be contained within its production infrastructure, including pipelines, ships and terminals, all of which have small and limited spare capacity.
We decided to use the Commetric COVID-19 Business Impact Tracker to help us understand which business events within the energy industry gained the most traction in the media during the COVID-19 crisis. Our free tool uses rule-based natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning to track more than 450 types of news-reported business events that affect companies and industries during the pandemic.
We analysed media data from thousands of outlets for the period 1 Jan – 06 April 2020, covering most publicly-traded companies in the US, and looked into the media resonance of the various activities within the energy sector that took place in the context of COVID-19, i.e. the amount of media coverage that referenced energy companies in relation to the pandemic.
We found that the most impactful business driver was corporate social responsibility (CSR) – a public relations practice which has had a growing importance in the media’s eye in the last couple of years, as high-profile media outlets got into the habit of scrutinising companies for their approaches towards the social issues of the day.
In the energy sector’s CSR efforts, particularly prominent was Chesapeake Utilities‘ $200,000 donation to support organisations assisting communities affected by the pandemic. In addition, the company announced a special grant for customers economically impacted by the virus.
Another prominent company here was Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which last year filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in response to the financial challenges associated with wildfires in its service area. The firm drew media attention for its donation of 950,000 N95 and surgical masks.
Meanwhile, Edison International pledged $1 million to Californian nonprofits whose focus is on providing critical services, food and necessities to vulnerable communities.
Unsurprisingly, the financial performance driver included reports about stock falls, dividend cuts and slashed financial forecasts. The oil price crash caused by the pandemic prompted oil players like ExxonMobil, Total, Shell, ConocoPhillips, BP to announce major cuts and austerity measures.
The operations driver featured articles about closures of units, construction delays and facilities revamps. A prominent company here was Cameco, which suspended production at its Cigar Lake uranium mine, while its partner Orano Canada closed its McClean Lake uranium mill. Shell also suspended construction activities on an ethane cracker along the Ohio River in Pennsylvania.
However, PG&E was the most often mentioned energy company, as we discovered thanks to the Commetric COVID-19 Business Impact Tracker:
Apart from CSR, the main business driver around PG&E was disruption. The stock market turmoil caused by the pandemic has complicated the company’s exit from bankruptcy, as its $13.5 billion settlement with the wildfires victims may be worth far less.
On the other hand, Chevron, the second-largest US oil firm, was prominent because of the operations driver: the company will slash capital spending by $4 billion this year and suspend share buybacks amid the unprecedented slide in oil prices.
Likewise, the crash in oil prices made Equinor suspend its ongoing share buyback program. But the Norwegian company featured in the media conversation also because of the CSR driver, as it continued to follow its sustainability agenda.
CSR was also a prominent driver for Exelon, which announced a $2 million donation to the Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund.