Beyond petroleum lies hydrogen (and maybe a merger)

HYDROGEN power is the stuff of dreams, which is one reason why Slugcatcher finds the proposed construction of a coal and hydrogen-powered electricity project in Western Australia so interesting.

But there is another reason why the study, which is being undertaken as a joint project of the oil titan, BP, and the mining giant, Rio Tinto, is so fascinating.

That reason is the rise of speculation that a big corporate deal, perhaps one of the world’s biggest resource company mergers, is being cooked up in London.

Smart money, as at last week, was on a merger of BP and Shell, a possibility that has been lurking in the background for at least a decade.

Integrating two of Europe’s oil giants makes a lot of sense because they operate in the same upstream and downstream environments around the world.

On Friday, BP and Shell were two of the top performers on the London Stock Exchange as rumours of a big deal swirled around.

Slugcatcher, an avid watcher of corporate events, initially thought that bringing BP and Shell together would either be seen as a marriage made in heaven, or a merger of the walking wounded.

Now we have another possibility, though it is one which will have older heads shaking in disbelief. Perhaps it’s BP and Rio talking about a little bit of share swapping to go with their technology swaps?

The Slug, who has been around long enough to remember the last period of ill-fated oil company and mining company mergers, including BP’s acquisition of Selection Trust, initially considered a corporate deal between Rio and BP a remote possibility.

But necessity is the mother of invention – and the father of survival.

In the weeks leading up to the BP/Rio hydrogen announcement, there was red-hot speculation that BHP Billiton was planning a takeover bid for Rio. Talk about that possible deal has not died away completely.

Last week, the resource merger talk shifted to BP and Shell.

Of those two, it is more likely for Shell to be the aggressor, as it is further down the road in cleaning up its internal problems caused by questionable oil reserve booking.

BP has just started its clean-up after the departure of its boss, Lord Browne. The new boy, Tony Hayward, has been in the chair for less than three weeks.

What a surprise when one of the hunted, Rio, bobs up in an ambitious joint venture with another of the hunted, BP.

Apart from the obvious difference of one being in oil and the other in minerals, there are common links between the two.

A home base in London is one obvious connection. The pursuit of new energy forms another.

BP, for example, is marketing itself as a company which is “Beyond Petroleum”.

Wind, solar and hydrogen are certainly beyond petroleum – but so are the coal and uranium, which Rio has in abundance.

Rio, on the other hands, needs a big brother.

It has been sadly absent from the rash of takeovers which have seen wholesale consolidation at the top end of the resources world – which is why it now stands out as a takeover plum.

It is possible that the hydrogen deal is the first step in what might become a beautiful relationship.

It is equally possible that the urge to merge will result in the same set of disasters that followed BP’s last foray into the hard rock world.

Having weighed the options, The Slug reluctantly leans towards a time of much closer ties between BP and Rio. Hydrogen power is the first step.

Apart from representing a perfectly natural development of technology, it also represents perfectly natural excuse for closer corporate ties should a raider appear on the BP (or Rio) horizon.

Shell and BHP, take note!

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