In March, French President Emmanuel Macron went on national television from the Élysée Palace and told his countrymen that in the fight against the coronavirus, “We are at war.” Three days later, Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive of French oil giant Total, delivered to his roughly 100,000 employees a video message about the energy rout that was no less blunt. The price of oil had collapsed, “halving our share price,” noted the visibly pale CEO, speaking from the Total Tower in Paris into a microphone he was clutching in his right hand, in the style of a talk-show life coach. To stanch the bleeding, Total for 2020 would slash its capital spending more than 20%, nearly triple its planned cuts in operating expenses, and suspend share buybacks.
But one thing Total would not do, Pouyanné told his workers, was cut spending on its “new energies” division, a unit that includes investments in solar, wind, and batteries. That unit, Pouyanné declared, “will be safeguarded, as we must prepare for the future.” The upshot: This year, the approximately $2 billion Total will spend on its renewable-energy and energy-storage forays will account for about 13% of the company’s capital spending—a share that once would have been all but inconceivable for a fossil-fuel producer.