Monthly Archives: April 2013

Behind the continuing negotiations on new nuclear in the UK one big question remains unanswered. Who is going to pay? Senior officials are concerned that the pressure to close a deal is undermining a sensible negotiating strategy by separating the terms – including the strike price and the issues of risk allocation – from the question of funding.

To grasp what is happening you have to understand the degree of desperation which now exists in Government to deliver growth. Growth is the justification of the whole economic strategy and of course the solution to the challenge of rising borrowing. Growth is seen as the only platform from which either coalition party can go back to the electorate. But growth is elusive and time is running out. Read more

A report from the Grantham Institute and the Carbon Tracker initiative, titled “Unburnable Carbon”, has produced a studied silence from the energy industry. The study, published last week, is privately being dismissed as the predictable conclusions of people who don’t understand business. But investors should take it more seriously because it opens up some very interesting questions about what energy companies are doing with their money.

In summary, the report says the investment of more capital to find hydrocarbons is a waste of money. More than enough has been already identified to fulfill the world’s needs if we are to meet the carbon limits implied by international agreements on climate change. Under those agreements, carbon use will be reduced over the next four decades, leaving substantial supplies stranded. On this basis, some companies – and therefore the funds which hold them – are carrying dangerous levels of risk, based on the false assumption that the international agreement will never be implemented. The companies are overvalued because some of their assets will never be used.

I have two points of doubt about this thesis. Read more

A Chinese miner unloads coal from a train

Those who keep talking down shale gas should read the views of Elizabeth Muller. Ms Muller does not run a shale gas company. She is co founder and executive Director of Berkeley Earth, an impeccably green non profit research group in California.

In her opinion, environmentalists in the US and elsewhere should be encouraging China to develop its shale gas resources. Those resources are huge – perhaps 50 per cent greater than those of the US, and have yet to be explored in detail. That process is just beginning and includes a number of international companies including Shell.

Ms Muller’s argument, which is unanswerable, is that any development of shale gas will offset the use of some coal. Shale gas is not carbon free but it is cleaner than coal which is China’s basic fuel now. And unless things can be changed radically, will be the dominant source of energy for the next several decades. If shale gas could back out some amount of China’s coal consumption, emissions could be materially reduced. Read more

Those who think that the best responses to the risks of climate change are ever stronger regulation, complex international agreements and higher energy prices should take a look at what is happening in America.

In the US, carbon emissions have fallen by 13 per cent in the last five years and are at their lowest level since 1994. Energy demand is flat even though the economy is growing. The key statistics to watch are oil demand, which is at a 15 year low, and coal demand in the power sector, which is down by more than 20 per cent since 2008.

Furthermore, energy prices are also falling thanks to shale gas. They have yet to stabilise and there will have to be a shakeout within the gas sector. But prices will settle in the range of $4.50 to $5 – sustaining development but also providing a sharp reduction in input costs for consumers including manufacturing industry. Shale gas, however, is not the whole story. Next will come tight oil, which is oil from shale rocks. Then and potentially most important of all will come advances in energy storage. Bill Gates has just made his third major investment in an energy storage technology business. Read more

The Brent oil price has fallen by more than $10 – which means 10 per cent – in less than two weeks and now stands below $ 100. The precise number matters less than the trend. Now the question is how much further prices will fall.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with the ability to cut production and to keep prices up. Some feel the Saudis are using the fall to discourage investment in high-cost projects including tight oil and some deep water ventures. I am not convinced. The Saudi oil minister, Dr Al Naimi looks tired and unsuited to such a high-stakes game. I expect the Saudis to pursue the tactic of making small incremental cuts in output in the hope that the market will stabilise. I doubt if this will work. Only a cut of 1.5m to 2m b/d will suffice to maintain prices and that would squeeze Saudi revenues too much. With growing domestic demand Saudi Arabia has little room for manoeuvre. As noted last week, the Saudis seem to be in process of losing control of the oil price. Read more

Burbo Bank Wind Farm, River Mersey
Finally, the UK’s energy policy is taking shape after months of confusion. At its heart is a realisation that, while some decisions are urgent, others can wait. Time and timing matter. The approach is practical as well as political but it won’t suit everyone. And it leaves the biggest issue of all – climate change – unresolved. Read more

The news of another excellent year for investment in the North Sea will come as a surprise only to those who do not understand the dynamic relationship between economics and technology.

The original predictions were that North Sea oil and gas – certainly in the UK sector – would be exhausted by 1990. A strict depletion policy in Norway might keep production running for a few more years. That was the received wisdom of the 1970s.

Now, 56 years after the first gas was produced at the West Sole field, the prospect for the whole province is for at least two more decades of production. Total output is down but there is a long tail. Resources which were once thought inaccessible are now being brought onstream thanks to advances in drilling and reservoir management technology. Read more

The sanctions imposed on Iran are not working. The Iranian economy is in a mess with shortages and inflation. But, as a very interesting paper just published by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute shows, it is not collapsing. Non-essential imports have been cut back and a range of exports – including minerals, cement and agricultural products – are actually growing. Iran’s main trading partners are Iraq, China, the UAE and India. Unemployment is high and no one believes the official figures, but it is probably lower than that of Spain. And, most seriously, oil sanctions are breaking down.

 Read more

The Brent oil price fell by more than six dollars last week and at $ 104 is now 20 per cent below its recent peak in the spring of 2012. No particular events have triggered the fall. There has been no deal with Iran which would end sanctions. Economic activity levels are hardly exciting but they haven’t suddenly collapsed. Uncertainties around North Korea might normally have been expected to push prices up. Read more

Tamar, a natural gas platform off IsraelThe Eastern Mediterranean is never dull. The whole area – land and sea – has been contested for centuries. And now, it turns out to have natural resources. Over the last decade, the area known as the Levant Basin has been identified as one of the world’s more interesting areas for exploration.

The first gas finds off the Israeli coast have led to a reappraisal not just of other areas along the coast from Egypt in the South to Turkey in the North, but also of the coastlines around the whole of the Mediterranean – from Albania to Spain. And the entry of Exxon and Rosneft into Lebanon opens up the prospect of another new exploration area and may provide a key to the development of the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole. Read more

Is it possible that while one Whitehall Department is constructing a “secret” crisis centre to deal with cyber attacks, another located less than a quarter of a mile away is preparing to sell part of the UK’s national infrastructure to the very people behind those attacks?

The establishment of a cyber security centre was reported by the FT last week. Anyone who doubts that its primary focus is the Chinese should read the report produced a couple of months ago by the specialist US consultancy Mandiant.

The company identified attacks originating in a building occupied by the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army in Shanghai which had targeted 141 companies across 20 major industries. China has denied official involvement but has not yet agreed to stop the attacks.

Unfortunately no one seems to have mentioned these developments to Ed Davey, energy secretary, or EDF, the company which wants to develop new nuclear power stations in Britain. If the price and risk allocation for that deal is agreed, and Mr Davey has said that agreement is close, the next question is how the deal will be funded. EDF does not have the capacity to find the £14bn required and so has been looking to Chinese partners to provide much of the cash. Read more

Sizewell A (left) and Sizewell B (right), two generations of British nuclear power on the Suffolk coast

Sizewell A (left) and Sizewell B (right), two generations of British nuclear power generation on the Suffolk coast

Why is it proving so difficult to close the deal on new nuclear in Britain? In part, of course, there is the normal arm wrestling negotiation. This is focused on the so called “strike price” – an energy price below which the suppliers will get compensation from the state – and on the allocation of risk around a £14bn construction contract.

The UK government wants a strike price of around £65 to £70 per MWh which is high but probably politically defensible. They well remember that in 2008 EDF talked about a price of £45 per MWh. EDF now wants something between £95 and £100, but they can probably afford to accept the Government’s figure and still make a reasonable profit.

The allocation of the risks is even more important than the strike price. Unless the Government is careful it could end up pay enormous sums for capacity which is underused because cheaper supplies will be available to consumers. If the company gets it wrong, a bad deal would overhang its finances for decades. Read more