Monthly Archives: March 2014

Readers will be familiar with the issue of shale gas - its potential to change the world energy market and the controversies surrounding its development. But you might be less familiar with tight oil – oil from shale rock which can also be extracted by hydraulic fracturing. That is the next story and its development particularly in the UK will be every bit as controversial. Even the publication of the initial basic survey of the resources in place is being held up by political nervousness. Read more

The full-scale competition review of the UK’s energy market which will be announced later this week is a challenge the industry should welcome. The inquiry will absorb a huge amount of time and effort over the next year but it offers the chance both for the industry to clear its name by removing the cloud of public suspicion over pricing policies and simultaneously for individual companies to examine their own strategic positioning in a market which is changing rapidly.

Of course, the competition review will add to uncertainty and will reinforce the reluctance to invest in new generating capacity, which is already evident, but the sense of doubt will exist in any case, and the review may help to produce some longer-term clarity. In the short term the government will have to find a new mechanism to ensure that supply is adequate to meet demand – and doing so with an expensive plan for emergency electricity supplies. But that is a separate issue from this fundamental analysis Read more

Energy is a business where success and failure are determined by technical skills and deep commercial expertise. That is true – up to a point. But consider the range of issues facing the world’s largest energy companies in 2014:

  • how to handle the deterioration of relations between Russia and the west;
  • how to build businesses in the world’s growth markets such as China and India;
  • how to manage the complexities of working in areas such as north Africa where physical security is being compromised by the presence of terrorists groups and the absence of effective governments;
  • how to manage the very different attitudes to energy in different markets such as the German opposition to nuclear or the French opposition to oil and gas which happens to come from shale rocks.

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George Osborne in his Budget speech on Wednesday talked, correctly, about US industrial energy costs being half those of the UK. The situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past five years. His proposed response is worth quoting directly:

“We need to cut our energy costs. We’re going to do this by investing in new sources of energy: new nuclear power, renewables, and a shale gas revolution.”

This must be a speechwriter’s joke. A line written in where the content bears absolutely no relationship to reality. New nuclear at £92.50 a megawatt hour will double the current wholesale price of electricity. New offshore wind on the Department of Energy & Climate Change’s own figures, which many feel are too low, will cost more than £120/Mwhr. These are not secret figures. They are well known in the Treasury, as is the risk of generating capacity failing to meet demand. There was no mention of that little problem. Read more

This week’s meeting of the European Council in Brussels will be a significant test of the EU’s relevance and unity in dealing with the consequences of what is happening in Ukraine. Over the years as indigenous production, especially of gas, has declined Europe has allowed itself to become more and more dependent on Russian supplies. Last year Europe imported 160bn cubic metres of gas – a quarter of its total requirements. Even if Russia were a normal country that level of dependency would look high. Now, with Russia ignoring the strong messages from the German and American governments urging restraint in Ukraine, and massing troops on the border, reducing that degree of dependence is a matter of urgency. Read more

Applications closed last week for the chairmanship of the UK’s Environment Agency. Lord Smith of Finsbury, much criticised by some ministers during the recent floods, has not been sacked but has reached the end of his term. The appointment of a successor is important for the energy sector, and many others, but what happens next will also a test of whether public appointments in the UK have been politicised. Has meritocracy been abandoned? Read more

Older UK readers will remember the Green Goddesses – fire engines held in reserve for moments of national emergency. At the height of a crisis army drivers would maintain an essential service. Well, lo and behold, some new Green Goddesses are to be created as the government launches its “emergency electricity reserve”. Read more

What happens now for the numerous companies, led by the oil majors, who have chosen to invest in Russia? The surprising answer may be that the short-term risks are less serious than the longer term prospects of disengagement as energy consumers, especially in Europe, reduce their dependence on a supplier they do not trust. Read more

Putin at the launch of the Russian section of a Russia-China oil pipeline in 2010. (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty)

As well as demonstrating the courage of Ukraine’s people, the one thing that the country’s political crisis of the past few weeks has made clear is the weakness of Russia. President Vladimir Putin likes to present his country as a reviving world power but it is trapped by its own dependence on oil and gas.

The threats and sabre-rattling will no doubt continue. Russia may be able, and should perhaps be allowed, to keep control of the Crimea and its black sea naval base at Sevastapol – though history does suggests that current events are simply sowing the seeds of another long-running conflict there, not least with the Tatars.

Beyond that, however, Moscow is in no position to confront Europe or even the new government in Kiev. The Ukrainians must not allow themselves to be provoked by an Emperor who has no clothes. Read more