European oil giants BP (NYSE:BP) and Total (NYSE:TOT) have both taken stands on clean energy, with each pledging its support for alternatives to oil. However, there's a notable difference in the business trajectories these integrated energy giants are taking. Here's a look at what the companies are doing, and what it could mean for investors.

The quick change artist

In August, BP cut its dividend in half. For dividend investors that was terrible news, but it was, to some degree, a sign of the times. The economic closures used to slow the spread of COVID-19 earlier in 2020 led to a massive drop in demand for oil and natural gas. With excess supply piling up in storage, energy prices plunged, and BP's top and bottom lines went along for the ride. However, there was more to this cut than meets the eye.

Two hands holding blocks spelling out the words RISK and REWARD.

Image source: Getty Images.

Around the same time, BP announced it had a new business strategy. Basically, the global energy giant is shifting toward clean energy. That keeps it in line with current feelings toward carbon fuels as the world grapples with fears around climate change. However, it's a big change for an oil company to go green. For starters, BP intends to cut its oil and gas production by 40% by 2030, less than 10 years from now. Meanwhile, it wants to make a 10-fold increase in the number of electric vehicle charging points it owns, and a 20-fold increase in the amount of clean energy it produces. By 2030 40% of the company's capital spending is likely to be dedicated to low-carbon and clean-energy businesses. 

This is a "jump in with both feet" approach. If something goes wrong along the way, there's not much fallback room. The problem with this is that BP is one of the most heavily leveraged oil majors, with its roughly 1.1-times debt to equity ratio above those of all of its major peers. So it doesn't have much wiggle room. And it's counting on the oil business, which it will be shrinking, to fund its clean energy push. If oil's price recovery is slower than expected or there's lingering industry weakness, it could be hard for BP to generate the cash it needs to cover its debt load and its new business plan. 

Easy does it

Total is looking to make big changes as well, but it's taking a drastically different approach as it looks to shift toward cleaner energy alternatives. It is projecting that its oil production will decline from 55% of sales in 2019 to 35% in 2030. However, natural gas production will increase from 40% to 50%. Natural gas is cleaner than oil and is viewed as a key transition fuel as the world reduces its carbon footprint. That said, Total's overall sales are projected to be higher, so oil and gas sales will actually be up slightly over that time frame -- not lower, as BP is planning. The remaining 15% of sales in 2030 will come from clean energy and electricity, up from 5% in 2019.

That 5% figure is noteworthy, since Total has been more consistent in its investment in clean energy and electricity. For example, it has owned a stake in SunPower since 2011. BP, meanwhile, tried to rebrand as "Beyond Petroleum" at one point, signifying a shift toward clean energy. But it ended up dropping the idea and selling much of what it acquired in what proved to be an ill-conceived business plan. 

Total's capital spending plan is more nuanced as well. Between 2015 and 2019 Total spent about 10% of its capital budget on clean energy. It will up that to 15% between 2021 and 2025, and then 20% between 2025 and 2030. The goal is still to use the legacy oil business to fund a transition to clean energy, but to do it gradually and without materially shrinking what has historically been a very profitable segment. The big change in the oil business is that Total intends to refocus around its lowest-cost oil and gas operations so it can better compete in a world with low energy prices. 

BP Debt to Equity Ratio Chart

BP Debt to Equity Ratio data by YCharts

While Total also has a relatively heavy debt load, with debt to equity sitting at 0.77 times, the approach it is taking provides more wiggle room should things not pan out as expected. And it can always speed up its transition should it want or need to. It's a more balanced approach that conservative, long-term investors will likely find appealing. 

Which company is right?

Nobody on Wall Street has a crystal ball, so it's impossible to know if BP's plan to effectively go all in or Total's slower shift will work out better. However, there is a fairly obvious risk/reward trade-off in each approach. If everything works as planned, BP will end up a big winner, and Total will look like it's moving relatively slowly. But it's worth noting that Total will still be moving in the right direction. U.S. peers ExxonMobil and Chevron are sticking with oil for now, which some might see as short-sighted.

If the transition doesn't play out as BP is expecting, it could end up flat-footed and behind the pack because it is materially shrinking its oil and gas business. BP isn't exactly taking an all-or-nothing stance, but weak returns in the clean energy space could be a huge drag on the company's overall results. Total, on the other hand, will likely be able to take some setbacks in stride, since it is basically looking to maintain and upgrade its oil and gas business while still building a clean energy operation. For conservative investors, Total's approach looks more appealing.

And it's worth noting that Total believes it can continue to support its hefty 10% dividend yield and fund its business transition as long as oil prices stay around $40 a barrel (though they've recently sunk below that level, so there is still dividend risk here). Still, the line in the sand aside, Total should be appealing to dividend investors looking to invest in the out-of-favor energy sector, with a bit of a clean energy hedge thrown in as a bonus.