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Can a country with an inflation rate of 70 per cent and a shortage of such basic goods as milk and toilet paper really be so dangerous to the US that President Barack Obama is required to declare a national emergency in response to the extraordinary threat to national security that it poses? Apparently so. That is what happened in March and although Mr Obama has now backtracked by saying that Venezuela isn’t really a threat, the executive order has not been rescinded.

More importantly, the damage has been done. The clumsy American approach has reinforced the crumbling authority of the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The US has been designated the national enemy once again and blamed for everything that is going wrong. The Venezuela government opened 200 signing booths and collected a supposed total of 10m signatures for a statement protesting against American imperialism. The result is that the prospect of serious reform in Venezuela has been put back. Reform is much needed, not least in the beleaguered corrupted corporate structure of PDVSA, the state oil company. Read more

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An intriguing process has begun in the EU, almost unnoticed outside the small world of Brussels and the shrinking circle of those who believe in an ever-closer European Union. The EU is asserting its role in the energy market. The policy was nodded through at the March meeting of the European Council on the basis of a paper published at the end of February by the new European commissioner for the energy union — Maros Sefcovic, one of the vice-presidents of the EU and also one of the most effective players in a Commission that is already showing itself to be stronger and more determined than its last three predecessors.

The February document was a good piece of work. It is careful and meticulous in the best European tradition. There are no grand statements of ambition. No country is forced to give up the power to set its own energy mix. The French will not be told to start fracking for shale gas or the extensive volumes of tight oil that exist in the Paris basin. Germany will not be required to change its policy of phasing out nuclear power. There is no proposal to unify taxation on energy production or consumption. The idea floated by Commission president Donald Tusk to establish a common buyer for imported natural gas in order to strengthen the trading power of the EU was not endorsed.

What changes is simply but crucially that a new level of policy making is established above the nation states. Read more

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When I wrote a week ago that the next phase in the energy business would be about restructuring, I hadn’t expected the process to start quite so soon. The question now, after Royal Dutch Shell’s planned purchase of BG Group, is not whether or when that restructuring will take place but rather: who is next?

The bankers must be delighted. After years of touting deals around reluctant boardrooms, a marriage has been arranged and the fees will be enormous. The long dearth of big transactions is over and every company in the sector will now be nervously considering whether they should kill or risk being killed. The process is exciting but fraught with danger — for both hunter and prey. Most mergers are in fact takeovers and most takeovers fail to deliver the anticipated gains in value, often because of cultural differences. It will be fascinating to watch the integration of Shell’s ultra-cautious committee structure with BG’s highly personal buccaneering style.

Beyond that, who? Read more

Downturn In Oil Prices Rattles Texas Oil Economy

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Almost all the major oil and gas companies I know are undertaking substantial reviews of their policies on climate change. That is true in Europe and in the US. Why now, and what will be the outcome ?

First, it is important to stress that the rethinking is not being driven by the recent attacks on the companies. Describing Shell and its chief executive Ben van Beurden as “narcissistic, paranoid and psychopathic” is just childish and reduces what should be a serious debate to playground abuse. The reviews began before the latest media campaigns and are driven by corporate strategic concerns. Read more

 

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The provisional agreement to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions led to another fall in oil prices on Friday as the market anticipated the lifting of sanctions and the resumption of full scale Iranian exports. The fall is now overdone and for a series of reasons we are likely to see prices rise — modestly — before the summer.

First, the Iranian agreement is provisional and depends on negotiation of crucial details before the next deadline in June. A number of concerned parties — from the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, who do not want to see the lucrative business interests they have built on the back of sanctions eliminated, to the Israeli government in Jerusalem, which does not believe that any promises from Iran can be trusted —have no interest in seeing the deal completed. Read more

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The signals are clear – but contradictary. China has embraced the concept of climate change and is allowing officials to discuss the risks openly. Two weeks ago Zheng Guogang, head of the Chinese metereological administration warned of droughts, rainstorms and the threat to major infrastructure projects. He could not have spoken without permission.

But at the same time economic growth remains the prime objective of Chinese policy and growth requires the consumption of ever greater volumes of primary energy, led by coal.

Demand may have slipped by a small amount last year but new coal plants are still being opened. Coal consumption in China has doubled in the last ten years. China is now the world’s largest economy and consumes more than half of all the coal used worldwide each year. Within two decades, even on quite modest assumptions about economic growth it will have an economy twice the size of the US with personal living standards equivalent to those of the US in 1980. But it will still be an economy powered by coal – with demand on current policies up by another 20 to 25 per cent according to the forecasts produced by the International Energy AgencyRead more

Whitehall Prepares For Major Cuts Under Coalition Government

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Imagine that you are a minister with an important decision to take. The decision is finely balanced and you have your doubts about costs and the commitments on deliverability. You are inclined to say no. But hold on – the firm involved employs your wife as a consultant which brings in a helpful £ 40,000 a year. If you take the wrong decision the consultancy is very likely to come to a rapid end.

Or consider that you are a moderately senior civil servant who can see your career coming to an end as one round of spending cuts follows another. There is a company, already successful, and if it expands further it will need experienced staff. You like them and they like you, as they have made clear over a couple of very pleasant lunches. The only slight problem is that in order to expand they need a decision taken on which your advice is likely to be decisive. Read more

BRAZIL-ROUSSEFF-CONSTRUCTION-SALONThe corruption investigation initiated by the Brazilian prosecutor, Rodrigo Janot, into 54 individuals including leading politicians is just beginning. The allegations behind the inquiry concern the diversion of huge amounts of money from Petrobras, the state oil company.

No one know how much money is involved, which means that no one knows what the company is now worth.

Petrobras’s share price has fallen by 44 per cent over the last year, with some some $90bn wiped off the value of the company in just six months.

Part of that is due to falling oil prices, but more is the direct result of the company’s internal problems. There are no signs yet of the ambulance-chasing investors who like to pick up undervalued assets for a song piling in. They must think, probably with good reason, that the worst is yet to come.

In the US a class action law suit has begun. The scandal could yet bring down the Brazilian government, not least because for most of the period when the corruption is said to have happened Dilma Rousseff just happened to chair Petrobras. It could also be a deep embarrassment for the audit firms who seemed to have missed what was happening.

The question for the moment is what happens now to Petrobras itself. Read more

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I have never given much credence to the idea that an international agreement on climate change capable of establishing a global carbon price was likely to be reached – either in Paris this December or anywhere else – anytime soon.

If Europe, which is way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to climate policy, can’t set its own carbon price, what hope is there that the US, India and all the others will?

As a result I’ve never taken seriously the view that a vast amount of energy investment by the oil and gas companies will be left stranded as carbon-generating fuels are priced out of the market. The argument has always felt like wishful thinking. If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments there would be no prisons and the police forces of the world would be redundant.

But, and it is a very important qualification, change doesn’t come just through legislation and international treaties. Technology is arguably much more important and there is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in the old energy systems. Read more

The borders drawn by Churchill and other politicians in the aftermath of the First World War have shaped the Middle East for almost 100 years. Now, however, sectarian upheaval combined with the US withdrawing from day-to-day engagement suggests that those boundaries could be redrawn as a result of the shifting balance of power on the ground. That process has started in northern Iraq and won’t stop there. The redrawing of the maps will have profound implications for the energy business. Read more

The next few months will be a critical period in the history of the North Sea. After 50 years which have seen 42 billion barrels of oil and gas produced, the province could now see a significant proportion of activity brought to a premature end. Fields which are uneconomic at current prices could be closed down and then decommissioned. Much of of the oil and gas which remains ( between 12 and 24 bn barrels ) could be left behind, undeveloped and valueless. For some fields, such as Brent, the exhaustion of reserves makes decommissioning inevitable. For others, however, we should be finding a way to maintain operations and to ensure that the resources in place can be developed when prices rise again. Read more

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman meets with US President Barack Obama

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman meets with US President Barack Obama  © SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Having talked vaguely for many years about the possibility of developing nuclear power as an alternative source of energy, it seems that Saudi Arabia under its new leadership may finally be taking steps towards what would be one of the world’s largest nuclear building programmes over the next decade. Read more

The urgent attempts by Europe’s leaders to negotiate a solution to the crisis in Ukraine represent an open acknowledgement that the policy of sanctions has so far failed. Mr Putin continues to destabilise the Government in Kiev and to undermine its authority in the east of the country. They may also reflect a growing realisation that sanctions are in danger of backfiring. Greece faces a serious debt crisis but at least the debate on how to resolve that crisis is now being held in the open. we know the options and the risks. In Russia, however, there is another debt crisis which is going unmanaged and which could easily get out of hand. Read more

News has diminished value if it comes from far away. Just as terrorism gets more coverage if it occurs in Paris, much of the analysis of the consequences of falling oil prices has focused on the US shale industry and the North Sea. But spare a thought for some of the other losers, starting with Nigeria where the fall will not only further damage a fragile state but will pose risks which could affect all of us before too long.

It would be good to be able to be optimistic about Nigeria — a country which in the past has been listed as one of the possible economic powerhouses of the 21st century. Remember MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), the successor grouping to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)? Great acronyms invented by the always imaginative Jim O’Neill, but in both cases the groupings look a little shaky and performance is well short of promise. Nowhere more so than in Nigeria, which provides a sharp reminder that even if Opec is broken, oil is still vulnerable to political upheaval. Read more

Meet EVA — the latest racing car. EVA has an elegant shape, with aerodynamics worthy of any of the cars which race in Formula One. The difference is that EVA is solar powered. Read more

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One of the many lessons to be learnt from the dramatic developments in the world energy market over the past six months is that outcomes are driven primarily by economics – often at the micro level. Another is the extent to which the market, in its rough and ready way, is linked globally and across the range of fuels. In the oil market, for example, a mild downturn in China upset expectations and started to pull down oil prices across the world because China has been the main engine of demand growth. Once the fall began, it turned out that no one had the power to call a halt. The result has been a fall beyond all expectations, with consequences across the world – from Libya to Angola, from Russia to Mexico and Venezuela. In the coal market, prices fell globally because shale gas was pushing coal out of the US power sector and because of Chinese import tariffs. Politicians in one country or another can try to cut themselves off from the underlying economics, but they rarely succeed for long. The economic impacts are not limited to the oil and coal markets. A set of changes beginning in the US is set to transform the global petrochemical business. A surplus of ethane, driven by shale gas development, is undermining the status quo. Read more

View inside the Hunterston B nuclear power station

Inside the Hunterston B nuclear power station in Scotland  © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

2015 will be a crucial year for the nuclear industry across the world. Japan is expected to start bringing its nuclear reactors back on stream — four years after the Fukushima disaster. Elsewhere, a dozen different countries are considering whether or not to commit to new plants, with the decisions further complicated by the fall in the price of competing fuels such as coal and natural gas. Much depends on what happens in the UK, where the progress of proposed new developments will signal whether nuclear can be competitive as a long term source of energy. Read more

The process of adjustment in the energy market is far from over. After the dramatic halving of the oil price since June there is now every chance that natural gas will follow suit. Indeed the fall has already begun. During December, US natural gas prices fell below $3 per million British thermal units for the first time since 2012. But that is just the beginning.

Two further factors suggest a continued, and worldwide decline in 2015. First, in Europe in particular, gas supply contracts — for instance from Gazprom into Germany — are tied to the oil price. The link is historic and is gradually giving way to direct gas-to-gas competition. But the older, longer term contracts remain in place for now and that means that a radical downward shift in prices will occur through the coming year.

Secondly, after years of uncertainty since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, there are signs that Japan is ready to accept the gradual reintroduction of nuclear power. The initial steps will be small — perhaps just one or two reactors at first. But even that will be sufficient to undermine gas prices in Asia which rose at times to almost $20/mmbtu as Japan was forced to substitute imported gas for nuclear. Each nuclear station brought back online will reduce demand for gas, and just as prices surged in 2011 now they will slip back. A Reuters survey of some serious analysts, including Wood Mackenzie, forecast a fall of up to 30 per cent in Asian natural gas prices in 2015. Read more

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany.

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Forget Opec. If cartels can’t control output, they can’t control prices and in due course they fall apart, usually with a great deal of ill will in the process. The evidence of the last six months is that Opec can’t control the market — ask yourself how many Opec members want to see a price of $60 a barrel for their oil. Some in Saudi Arabia think a low price can squeeze out competing suppliers, but that feels like a justification after the fact of a fall which they can’t control. The question now is how the process of adjustment to the new price level will work. Read more

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There were two contenders for this year’s award. The most obvious, and certainly the man who has won the most coverage in this (and every other) publication, is Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin has certainly been highly visible, but he has actually changed very little in the energy market. Russian gas still flows to Europe and to Ukraine, helped by western payments of outstanding debts. Europe may be rethinking its energy mix and opening new and more diverse sources of supply, but any change will be very gradual. Russia will trade more with China and India, but that was coming anyway and is a natural and logical balancing of supply and demand. Read more