Equinor promotes technology chief to CEO to lead clean-energy push

By Mikael Holter and Lars Erik Taraldsen on 8/10/2020

OSLO (Bloomberg) --Equinor ASA appointed its head of technology and projects, Anders Opedal, to lead the company as Eldar Saetre retires after running the Norwegian state-controlled oil major for six years.

Opedal, 52, will take over in November with a mandate to accelerate Equinor’s transformation into a broader energy company as pressure grows on the industry to act on climate change. Saetre already oversaw a step-change in focus on emissions and cleaner energy, and even changed its name from Statoil to articulate the promise of a more sustainable course.

“Equinor is entering a phase of significant change as the world needs to take more forceful action to combat climate change,” Chairman Jon Erik Reinhardsen said Monday in a statement. “Anders is the right person to further develop Equinor as a force in the green shift.”

Opedal joined Equinor as a petroleum engineer in 1997 and rose through the ranks to become a key member of Saetre’s leadership team. He was selected to oversee the company’s efficiency program in 2015 when it cut costs to weather a historic market slump, then as country manager for Brazil, where Equinor is planning to increase its oil production in coming years. He has also been chief procurement officer.

Opedal’s promotion comes at a challenging time for the industry, which is struggling with the immediate impact of the Covid-19 crisis and the longer-term uncertainty weighing on energy. He will also need to address criticism at home over investments in U.S. shale oil by Saetre’s predecessor Helge Lund, which have led to impairments of more than $10 billion.

Climate Plan

Equinor earlier this year boosted its climate ambitions, saying it will cut the net carbon intensity of the energy it produces by at least half by 2050, through a sharp increase in renewables output and changes in its oil and gas portfolio. Since then, rival BP Plc has upped the ante, indicating pressure on oil companies from investors and society isn’t about to abate.

“We have a great starting point for what will be a massive transition,” Opedal said. “Together, we will accelerate the development of Equinor as a broad energy company and our growth within renewables.”

Opedal is the first engineer to make it to the top of the company, and only its second internal pick for chief executive officer since Statoil was founded in 1972. Equinor had indicated earlier that Saetre, 64, would retire aged 67 or earlier, and neither his departure or Opedal’s appointment come as a surprise, said SpareBank 1 Markets analyst Teodor Sveen Nilsen.

The new CEO “has broad experience from the entire company,” he said by phone. “On climate change, there won’t be any directional changes for Equinor. He will continue the work Eldar Saetre started.”

Equinor’s shares rose 0.8% as of 10:48 a.m. in Oslo, in line with the Stoxx 600 Oil & Gas Index.

Saetre’s Tenure

Saetre’s tenure also began at a turbulent time. He was thrust into the role when Lund left for BG Group in 2014, just after the start of what would prove to be the worst oil slump in a generation. At first reluctant to take the job on a permanent basis, Saetre changed his mind and used tight relationships with unions built over almost four decades at the company to implement drastic cost cuts to weather the downturn.

The rout allowed Equinor and its partners to reduce the cost of the gigantic Johan Sverdrup field. Bringing that rare North Sea mega-project from the drawing board to production last year will remain a feat of Saetre’s tenure, supporting the company’s output for years to come. As head of projects, Opedal was the executive who oversaw the final stretch of that key venture.

Saetre also seized on the market slump to buy oil assets in Brazil for more than $5 billion, placing the Latin American country on course to become the biggest contributor to Equinor’s production after Norway. Although Saetre stayed committed to the U.S. assets Lund acquired, he got rid of polluting oil sands in Canada.

Opedal will take over the positions of president and CEO on Nov. 2. He will receive a base salary of 9.1 million kroner ($1 million) and participate in the variable pay plans established for the CEO role. Saetre, whose taxable income in 2019 was $1.7 million, will be available to advise the new chief until he retires on March 1 next year.

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