As the world's energy mix begins to decarbonise, traditional energy producers face a number of challenges, writes Alex Cobbold, thematic equity analyst at Sarasin & Partners.
But while it is the anticipated pace and scale of crude demand decline which garners the most headlines, in reality the disruption to how and where we buy our transport fuel (whatever that may be) is more imminent. Is there a long-term, thematic investment opportunity here?
Pre-empting, and even enabling, this evolution is critical for the world's major oil companies.
For many, this has been an area of significant capital investment; our readers may be surprised to learn that the operators of some of the world's largest retail networks are oil companies.
Shell, for example, has more than twice as many forecourts as Starbucks has coffee outlets.
How these forecourts evolve will have significant ramifications for a range of sectors, from food and beverages to retail and real estate.
For forecourt shoppers, convenience typically outweighs price, allowing retailers to generate double the margins of their high street counterparts.
Crucially, fuel (even the high-graded premium variety) remains one of the lowest margin sales items on the forecourt.
Will future petrol stations even sell petrol?
Mindful of the inherent opportunities, energy companies are adjusting their retail spaces to maximise revenue.
This means replacing car washes with parking spaces to welcome the growing proportion of forecourt customers (currently c.20%) who do not even buy fuel, as well as growing their food and beverage portfolios and expanding the use of loyalty card/mobile phone apps into pre-payments and discounts.
What is more, these energy companies are also exporting the concept to new markets, either teaming with existing retailers (such as BP's joint venture with Marks & Spencer's Simply Food) or organically growing their footprint like Total in central Africa.
Greater efficiency and automated vehicles are also likely to reduce fuel visits, placing greater emphasis on retail offerings and add-on services as a means of luring consumers out of their cars, highlighted by recent forecourt trials of Amazon lockers, dry cleaning and pharmacies.
How long before your local petrol station becomes akin to Shell's 'premium forecourts' in Thailand, selling just V-Power fuels dispensed by one attendant, while another delivers your app-ordered food and drinks to your car window?
Will a rapid robotic car wash soon provide a two-minute clean while you pay for your fuel and, naturally, pick up a coffee?