Wintershall DEA became the largest independent oil and gas group in Europe following a merger last month. It bridged the international exploration and production of oil and gas company, DEA, with the energy unit of the German chemical group BASF, which now has operations in Europe, Russia, Latin America, and the MENA region.
On this episode of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Jason Bordoff talks to Maria Moræus Hanssen, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy CEO of Wintershall DEA. From 2018, she was Chairwoman of the Management Board and CEO of DEA Deutsche Erdoel AG. Maria Moræus joined DEA after serving as CEO of ENGIE E&P and has held numerous management roles at Aker, Statoil, and Hydro.
In an interview conducted prior to the Wintershall DEA merger, Jason sat down with Maria Moræus at CERAWeek in Houston, Texas. They discussed the potential merger, the future of off-shore oil drilling and exploration in Europe, the push for corporate responsibility on sustainability across the oil and gas sector, addressing the challenge of climate change and more.
Jason Bordoff: Hello and welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange. A weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Jason Bordoff. On this episode of the podcast, I’m at CERAWeek in Houston talking with Maria Moræus Hanssen, the CEO of DEA. DEA is an international EMP oil and gas company headquartered in Germany with projects in Norway, Mexico, Egypt, Denmark among others. DEA recently announced plans to merge with Wintershall to create one of the largest independent European oil and gas companies. Maria joined DEA after serving as CEO of ENGIE E&P. She’s held numerous management roles in the sector. I caught up with her in Houston to talk about the future of offshore oil drilling and exploration in Europe, upstream investment, the push for corporate responsibility and the role of oil and gas industry in addressing the challenge of climate change. The role of women in the energy sector and much more. Maria Moræus Hanssen, thanks for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: Thank you.
Jason Bordoff: So, first just start by, I don’t know, if everyone listening is aware of DEA. 120 years old. One of the oldest E&P companies in Europe and world. Soon to be the largest in Europe. We’ll talk about that. So, tell us a little bit about the company first and then we’ll get into some of what you’re doing today.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: Yes, I think that the particularity of DEA or DEA is that we are German but we actually have also a German business. It started out as German oil and gas/mining company and then for most of us, not being German, not having worked in the German oil and gas industry, I think we were may have been at a surprise to see that, you know, Germany has such a long history of domestic oil and gas production. So, that’s part of what we are. And then DEA, during the years expanded went internationally North Africa, Norway, lots of different regions. Changed names. It used to belong to Texaco. So, they were Texaco’s European arm. They used to have down streams, so that downstream, they were the oil and gas arm of IWE for many years. And then in 2013, they were sold, divested from IWE and bought by _____ [00:02:33] is private equity type of group. Russian _____ [00:02:39] and the energy part shared by Lord Brown. And today, we are in Norway, Germany, North Africa, Mexico. We have an office in _____ [00:02:55].
Jason Bordoff: And so, as you said, _____ [00:02:57] took control in 2015. Now merging with Wintershall.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: Yes.
Jason Bordoff: To create the largest EU oil and gas producer. Just, how is the merger going and what’s the timing for that to be finalized and what would that mean for the company?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, the merger is progressing, on as according to plan. So this is an actually a merger agreed between the two shareholders. Wintershall is then another German originated and based oil and gas company. Currently owned 100% by BASF, the big German chemical group. So, the two shareholders came together and decided to merge their oil and gas companies and we will then create Wintershall DEA. The merger agreement was signed approximately 1st October, last year and we expect to be able to close in the next couple of months. We have now, we are basically waiting authority’s approvals, antitrust national authorities. We have received approval from the European commission. We have approvals from Russia and so we await a couple or more approvals among those Mexico. It doesn’t seem to be any problem, so it’s just a question of time. So, within a couple of months, we should be ready. Then we will close. The management, nominated management has been announced. The two top levels. And then of course, once we actually merge, we will start implementing the reorganizations. We have also been out communicating around synergy numbers and job reductions. And so, that was maybe the sort of last couple of weeks tough communication elements, you know. There will be job reductions.
Jason Bordoff: And the leadership of the company be you and Mario Mehren who is now the CEO of Wintershall.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So the CEO of Wintershall, Mario Mehren will be the CEO of new company. I will be the deputy CEO and the COO. I will be looking after the European, North African and the Middle East part of the portfolio. And then there are three other members of the management board. This is will be a German management governance structure. So, we will have a management board consisting of five members. And all of 7 be nominated and announced.
Jason Bordoff: And you mentioned briefly when you mentioned that one, the Russian capital behind it, _____ [00:05:47] fortune and Wintershall is quite involved in Russia, in the _____ [00:05:51] pipeline project. So, the tensions between U.S. and Russia, between Europe and Russia are at an elevated point right now. How does that impact the business?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: It probably doesn’t really impact the business. But it is true that when you look at that combined company, all aspects from ownerships to our actual portfolio to the things that influences going forward. There is a significant Russian element to the whole company. And as you mentioned, I mean, Wintershall has significant big assets in Russia and there is a lot of Russian gas coming into Europe through Wintershall and now Wintershall there and then we have Russian owners on our side. And Wintershall is one of the financing partners in the North stream too. So, all of these has been on the radar. But also interestingly enough, it doesn’t really seem to represent any problems it’s just like, it’s there. We’ll look at it but the clock is ticking and things are moving ahead. Obviously, just this morning, I read a long article, I think in Wall Street Journal about Nord Stream 2. And Nord Stream 2 I think is one of those issues that look very differently from a German perspective and from a U.S. perspective.
Jason Bordoff: I think, we heard that at the Munich security conference at _____ [00:07:21] which I would summarize as speech as saying, thank you America for your concern but we are perfectly fine. _____ [00:07:28].
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, since I’m not German, you know, I am Norwich and I think it’s more like, you come to Germany and they look at this as business. Here in the U.S., it’s all about politics, you know. And the[00:07:40] somewhere in between. But in Germany, this is probably business, you know.
Jason Bordoff: And do you see, I mean, we have obviously sanctions in place against Russia. There is a new bill that’s been proposed in congress that would dramatically increase the level of sanctions against Russia. Does that, how difficult are the sanctions to navigate in terms of the combined business and talk a little bit about the use of sanctions as a foreign policy tool and what we have seen over the last couple of years, Iran and Venezuela and what impact that’s had on the oil and gas sector.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: Well, this is a big topic and I’m not the expert on international politics. So, I should be cautious. I think that what we have seen now lately in terms of sanctions is that maybe it almost becomes a bit too much, you know, so the effect of them individually declines with how many is out there. We seem to be able to run business almost as business as usual regardless of these sanctions. But of course, there is an element of risk, there is an element of worry about it. And should Nord Stream as a project be sanctioned, I guess, there will be delays. But I still believe it will go ahead. But I think only a couple of weeks ago, I was in a discussion and obviously, part of the oil and gas business and part of the fascination around the oil and gas business is that we are so influenced by not only international politics but also of international conflicts and you know, and real conflicts and in wars and it would be interesting to know what oil price would have been in completely functional, stable global situation.
Jason Bordoff: Yeah, I guess the U.S. has helped contribute to OPEC production cuts with Iran and Venezuela policy.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: But also Venezuela, you know, North Africa, all these areas that have a strong influence on how the market look at pricing of oil and gas. So, maybe there, it’s that sort of, even more than influencing the actual business, I think it influenced significantly the price of oil. And then, you know, it’s, we want to run for word being efficient industry cost focus and all of that. But truth is that we basically earn money based on conflicts.
Jason Bordoff: Now, the Trump administration, obviously has expressed opposition to Nord Stream 2 and has also said it would prefer that Europe buy U.S. LNG instead. Do you see much demand in Europe or in Germany in particular for U.S. LNG?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, I think there is going to be LNG terminals being built in Germany. Obviously, opening the German market directly for LNG. Even today, it would be LNG coming into Europe and probably into Germany but not directly through German based LNG terminals. So, these terminals, I believe are going to be built and then it will be very interesting to see how much volumes will actually pass through them. But when you look at infrastructure project like that, you can, you know the examples being some of the interconnectors being built in Europe. You actually see them influencing the price differences quite significantly often. You know, even without volumes passing through, there is a leveraging out on price differences. Not so much this winter but if you look back at last year’s or last winter, I mean, the difference between the U.S. North American gas prices and the European gas prices were enormous. So, if capacity had been there, if the infrastructure had been there, it would have been very strange to not see U.S. or North American LNG reaching Europe. This winter, I, you know, if I understand it correctly, the price differences are not significantly enough maybe. It’s actually coming there. But it remains to be seen. And then…
Jason Bordoff: Then the question is when it might be there or it might not and it’s gonna sort of swing, where it’s supplied. How do you finance these multi-billion dollar projects in the gulf if you’re not assured of what the demands are?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: That’s clearly. So, you need to have the investors and there is probably needs to be some state guarantees out there and you know, to help the whole thing happening. But it could have yes a very positive influence on the price differences. And in, one of my other roles, I’m also on the supervisory board of _____ [00:12:54] international, nitrogen based fertilizer company. And you know, with most of its upstream production facilities sitting in Europe, it has a tremendous disadvantage to its competitors in the U.S. where you can even see negative prices on gas certain, you know. So we are not there with the global gas market, I think. And that’s a big difference between gas and oil sale.
Jason Bordoff: And so, we have in terms of the outlook for gas, you know, rapidly falling renewable cost, renewables are more competitive and in Europe in particular, gas is in some circles seen as security concern because of the dependence on Russia pipelines. For other parts of the European community, opposition because of environmental concerns with gas. So, in a period of increased concern about climate change. What do you see as the role for gas in terms of where Europe is headed where policy makers are headed?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, I think most policy makers in Europe see gas as at least as you would call the sort of bridging. Now, that’s so, most European countries, will try to agree on shutting down coal. So, then there is the question of gas. And I have the impression that most European policy makers will say, okay, you know, we need to replace coal with gas but where they may disagree is what type of time horizon, they see for this phase. How quickly, do they want to see the new solutions? And the big buzzword in Europe these days is hydrogen. Are we going to actually built sort of a hydrogen value chain that can, you know, take all of the instability questions around, you know, the pure renewable energy forms altercation where energy can be stored efficiently. Yeah. Alternative there. And then so my experience is that when you talk to the European policy makers around gas, they say, yes, nice but how do you solve about hydrogen, where are you? Are you going to invest there? Are you going to research this? Are you forward leaning and so forth? And the whole European gas infrastructure, yes, maybe, it’s an opportunity there for hydrogen.
Jason Bordoff: And it’s noticed when we talk about the energy transition, we are sitting here at CERAWeek in Houston. It’s notable to me the extent to which the global oil and gas majors are increasingly vocal, UFD or especially this year about issues of transition to a low carbon economy and how they think about it and the role they want to play. But how does it look from the standpoint of an independent? You’ve said recently, I think that DEA would not be going into renewables. When you see, how do you view the role of in oil and gas company like DEA or Wintershall DEA in an energy transition?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, if I can spend some time on this because I think it’s a good example. DEA as such not there, you know, yeah, we are not independent but we were not a sizable company, 125,000 barrels per day. And but we were private monies sort of investment vehicle in oil and gas. If our owners wanted to invest in renewable, would they use that as their vehicle? Not probably not. That’s my thinking around it. So, then their strategy was to be a pure play upstream oil and gas company specialized in oil and gas. However, also with a very clear strategy and targets around trying to, you know, run as sustainable, as clean, as environmentally friendly as possible. And we have some very, very good examples, some very good assets in the portfolio which comes with very low CO2 footprint, probably not because we wanted it to be that way because the political pressure and the acceptance and the demands on us were so strict. So, for example, we have this field called the middle plateau in the[00:17:32] outside Germany. Outside the coast of Germany. And that you know, there we have implemented all measures to be as environmentally sort of sustainable as possible. So, we would have been a pure play oil and gas company. When we merged with Wintershall, we have been talking about the production target, not the target, but the achievable production level of 800,000 barrels per day. And then we become a much larger company and I think it is clearly within the strategy, the future strategy of Wintershall there to look into some sort of renewable or some technology being part of the energy transition.
Jason Bordoff: Because you feel pressure from investors to do that because see returns to be…
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, I think one of the things that Wintershall there would have a lot of midstream assets, a lot of gas infrastructure. So, it’s also in the interest of looking after the value, the long term value of your gas infrastructure. It is to, I think very importantly allow for the employees to see a longer horizon in all that the next level, the next steps, the way forward. I think, you will see, we are seeing that, you know, increasingly, you will see the pressure from investor groups. Most companies would want especially for the employees to be thinking about renewables and the energy transition and the way forward and the long term horizon. Because you want to be sure that there is a future out there and people are passionate about this. That’s my experience, at least, you know people want to see a real sort of meaning around what they are doing. The feedback from the investors, I think is still a bit confusing because on one hand, there is a big public demand out there for big oil and gas to do something. But once they start doing something, whether this is appreciated by the industries or not, I think is a big question mark. So…
Jason Bordoff: I think, that’s a very important point and I’ve seen that in many companies that they feel pressure from investors to show that they’re diversifying and investing in low carbon forms of energy. If they go do far in that direction, they feel they are penalized in the market. And where this is gonna transition point and that’s why, it’s called the transition where I think people are trying to navigate their way through that.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: It’s a very interesting sort of and there is a lot of investors there that are cautious about oil and gas, maybe cautious about the sort of really long term horizon. But they are still interested and maybe because the oil and gas industry is so big. I mean, where do you want to take your money. So, the whole time horizon, I think around the energy transition is the big question mark. I think, everyone understand, things are going to change. There is a revolution in many ways going forward, you know, we will see a different energy demands going down the road. But the time lag to get there and where we are actually heading, I think is a big question.
Jason Bordoff: So, one source of investor pressure is the government of your country, Norway and if I understood, the announcement correctly, Norway just said they would not invest in a company like _____ [00:21:03]. So what did you think of the announcement made by…
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, this would be the ministry of finance actually. So, yes, so, the story is really fascinating. So, approximately, 18 months ago or 12 months ago, there was a recommendation to the board of the sovereign fund, which is managed by the Norwich National Bank and about the fund divesting from or withdrawing from investments in oil and gas. And they basically said that this is only because of portfolio risk. Norway, as a country is so exposed to oil and gas through Equinor, through its ownership in Equinor, through its direct ownership in the Norwegian Continental Shelf and through taxes chose your income. So, from the portfolio risk perspective.
Jason Bordoff: The idea, my reading of it was the recommendation from Norway bank which wrote that letter a year and half ago was you’re over exposed to oil and gas market risk because of the revenue from the sector as well as investment in shares in the sector and so…
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, you take that out.
Jason Bordoff: To achieve a more market weighted risk exposure.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: Yeah, so you can take of that of you know, your investment portfolio. And then of course, there was that partly political, partly financial discussion around this and there was another expert group coming to a different recommendation and then last Friday, it was announced that the final recommendation was to withdraw from investment in pure upstream oil and gas companies and if I remember the number correctly, there is a list of companies 139 in numbers, I think like that which should not be then among the _____ [00:23:03] funds investment.
Jason Bordoff: Which is about 20% of their current holdings in oil and gas companies.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: Yes. And interestingly, also the integrated oil and gas companies was not on the list. So, Exxon Mobil, Shell were not on the list. And then there were political part is going on and claiming this to be a climate victory from them because this was a clear signal to the market, the sovereign fund of Norway will not invest in upstream oil and gas. So, look where we are heading and then of course, others go out and say this is a pure sort of financial portfolio risk adjustment and the…
Jason Bordoff: Which was it?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: I don’t know. There is probably somewhere in between. But I also think it’s systematic because and in Norway, struggle a bit to understand where we are in the oil and gas, I mean, we are obviously an oil and gas company. We produce oil and gas which we export. We have one of the cleanest, greenest, energy mix in the world. We are extremely rich and we are extremely energy rich. So, we have a lot of options out there, you know, we feel rich. We can make political choices about what we want to do with our future. However, I think there is a high social acceptance in Norway and a lot of support for oil and gas and I think that the main driver really and I’m thinking a lot about it is that we have so many jobs related to the oil and gas sector. So, you may not like the industry as such and, you know, the effect of the industry but you still like the industry and you accept the industry because your uncle work there and your friends work there and there is like this big thing around Norway and working in the oil and gas business. And so, therefore, the social acceptance of the oil and gas industry is very high in Norway and the political support is very high. And which is good. I mean, I like that. However, I think sometimes we maybe a bit disrespectful when we think that other countries can just close down their coal industry whereas they have the same issue around coal. I mean, if Germany is going to close down the coal industry, we are talking about 60,000 jobs…
Jason Bordoff: Or India or…
Maria Moræus Hanssen: Yeah. In prior east Germany, you know, these are then going to have an enormous influence around the regions communities, that will have to basically relocate and do things differently which I guess is part of that debate around _____ [00:25:57] and the coal industry in the U.S. as well which is strange from a Norwegian perspective but we don’t really see the aspects around it.
Jason Bordoff: I just wanted to quickly before we wrap up ask you about one or two places where DEA is active. So, you’re in the Norwegian continental shelf obviously and when we talk about the shift from scarcity to abundance and all the the supply that’s coming. There is a lot of focus on shale and how dramatically shale producers have lowered the cost of production. Not always as much attention on how dramatically offshore costs have come down and how much more competitive a lot of offshore production looks. Tell us what you see in the Continental Shelf?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, I think Norway is a great example. I mean, so the most fascinating part is probably how much value we destroyed when oil prices were high. You know, when you look at what you have been able to do in terms of efficiency improvements, cost reductions, streamlining, standardizations, that has been going on in Norway during the, you know, six last years, then. Which is a fascinating story. And what I really like about the Norwegian continental shelf now is I think it’s becoming a very efficient shelf. It’s a completely regulated, very commercial, well functioning MNA market. Costs are low. A lot of investments going into efficiency, programs, digitalization, remote operations and so, I’m pretty proud of the Norwegian continental shelf obviously in addition to that, I’m Norwegian, so I should be, I guess.
Jason Bordoff: And you are also in Mexico and acquired Sierra oil and gas and there is a lot of interest in what Lopez Obrador will mean for the Mexican energy reforms. What do you think the outlook is, how much, how different will the trajectory be for opening up and privatizing Mexico and what impact will that have on energy sector?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, since Lopez Obrador came to power, there has been a big shift obviously in the pace and in the talk around the energy reform in Mexico. So, not a lot is going to happen in terms of new concessions, new bid rounds and _____ [00:28:24] from Penex in the next couple of years. I think that’s, that is a fair assessment. However, there first with our own concessions and we also operate one of the onshore fields that we fund into from Panex and when the acquisition of _____ [00:28:44]. We actually have more than enough to do in Mexico. So, we are not very worried about this sort of lag in progress about opening new _____ [00:28:53] so forth. Because we have more than enough on our plates. And just before coming in here, I had the discussion with a colleague in Mexico and it’s clear that there is a lot of rhetorics around, you know, what is going to happen in the oil and gas industry in Mexico. But I also said to my colleague, I mean, we acquired _____ [00:29:19] at the time were had the _____ [00:29:23] and the organization in Mexico and then you know, we felt good about Mexico and we were happy to do more investments even though we saw a political change. Probably, if I had been sitting on the outside, when Lopez Obrador you know, came close to election victory and during his first months, I may not have now entered Mexico. So, I think, he has scared away some investments but we feel confident and I mean, the oil and gas industry is a concession industry, completely dependent on politics and governments coming and going and the fact that they are allowed to adjust politics from time to time, I think it’s part of the game. So, that now, the pressure is on the oil and gas industries, new companies to demonstrate to the government that yes, we do actually create value. We do invest and there will be new production coming out of everything that we have managed to acquire. And once we do that and build a success story, we feel confident that you know, in some shape or other, there will be a continuous opening of Mexico and new business opportunities coming up.
Jason Bordoff: It’s always a pleasure to spend time and talk with you and one of the reasons, so great to have you on this podcast is, I don’t get the chance to talk to that many women CEOs of oil and gas companies on this podcast because there aren’t that many. Do you see that changing and what do you think needs to be done to change that?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: I don’t know if it’s changing very rapidly, but I guess there is a certain sort of movement. I am sure, I sit here because I am Norwegian, I mean, I come from Norway and the Norway is you know, the best countries to live in, in terms of gender equality. So, I feel, I was given all opportunities, you know, everything was expected from me and I have of course met some challenges but all in all, you know, it’s, I have also been given great opportunities throughout my life. I do see that this is not the case everywhere and that we are still strongly under-represented in the industry which is a problem for the industry. Because we should be able to recruit, you know, all the best talents and a lot of them must be women. So, I do spend a bit of time, you know, trying to be a role model, you know, trying to demonstrate that the oil and gas industry is a great place to be for female professionals and that there are great opportunities here. And then I talk about it, you know, I press the issue a bit. I try to promote different schemes that can change the industry gradually. And that is obviously something that is not easier to do once you actually become the CEO. You know, you may want to, you may feel more uncomfortable about doing that, you know, when you’re just a professional but once you’re the CEO, you can use, you get some powers, so you have to use sometimes.
Jason Bordoff: Those opportunities, you mentioned in Norway just sort of a cultural reflection of something about Norway or of a policy driven requirements for a certain number of board seats being held by women. I mean, how much do you think that those kinds of efforts are necessary, how necessary are they?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: So, I think that you have, you should have some policies. I think you should be out there. Setting some targets from time to time, you know. Pressing the issue a bit. Norway has had this policy about 40% gender diversity or at least 40%, you know representation on boards for listed companies for more than 10 years. So, but this is on the supervisory boards. So, this is actually request that you put on the shareholders. So, you basically said, if you want to be listed on the stock exchange, fine. But then you need to make sure that on the supervisory board, there is at least 40% representation of, you know, gender balance. To do that within an organization where the talent pool is what the talent pool is, I would be more cautious about it. So, there, I don’t think, I don’t think quotas is the answer to the challenge. But then I think, I strongly believe in continuous measuring, continuous pointing out that this cannot reflect the talent pool and what a lot of oil and gas companies see is that, you know, you actually manage to get women into the company and then there is this mid-career gap that suddenly appears. Where a lot of women falls behind or even chooses to leave the company and you have to work on that. Some of it has to do with family life, you know, equal opportunities, child care. So, I keep saying, I think, I am fortunate to come from Norway where there is a high level of gender equality. There is a willingness in companies to try to do something about it it. But there is also policymaking and there is, you know, social structures in place that makes it possible for women to have a career and still take, you know, care of their children and still have a family and that I think is important.
Jason Bordoff: Is there something about the nature of the industry that makes those elements of family and sort of still traditional roles that, you know, are more common for different genders to play in family upbringing just the reality whether people think of it given the nature of the industry and career progress through it that you may, it’s almost like the military. You’re few years in Algeria, a few years in Mexico, a few years here. You’re offshore for a few weeks at a time and then back. For certain jobs, not all jobs but is there something about this industry that makes it harder or not?
Maria Moræus Hanssen: It’s not, you know, when you point out these elements, you know, that whole sort of international mobility element and all of that. That can be a challenge. But actually if it is true that Norway is a bit represented, I also wonder if it’s because coming back to my previous point that in Norway, the oil and gas industry has a good sort of acceptance and standing. So, because you can go to other countries and oil and gas industry is a bit dirty. You know, it’s not always the nicest industry. It’s not the most juicy industry. But the industry in Norway actually has a good standing also among the students and a good reputation. It’s a place to go and work. And I think that’s makes a difference for young girls, you know, wanting to go out in the industry.
Jason Bordoff: Maria Moræus Hanssen, I wish we had more time. Fascinating conversation. As I said always a pleasure to have the chance to spend time with you. Thanks for making the time to be with us.
Maria Moræus Hanssen: Thanks for allowing me.
Jason Bordoff: And thanks to all of you for listening. For more information about the Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us on online at Energypolicy.columbia.edu or follow us on social media at Columbiauenergy. I’m Jason Bordoff. We’ll see you next week.