A gas storage facility outside Lviv, Ukraine

A gas storage facility outside Lviv, Ukraine  © Getty Images

Can anything reverse the decline of natural gas as a source of primary energy in Europe? Gas demand in 2015, despite a fractional uptick on the 2014 figure, was 20 per cent below the level reached a decade ago. Unless something changes radically, Europe has passed the point of peak gas consumption. The promise of “a golden age of gas” talked up by the industry and some commentators a few years ago looks very tarnished.

The reasons for this are obvious. In the absence of a carbon price, coal is cheap and in countries such as Germany it retains crucial political support because of the jobs it involves. Renewables are subsidised. So gas is squeezed, especially in the power sector because efficiency gains and slow economic growth have kept total electricity demand down. Read more

Construction of the EPR at Flamanville, northwest France

Construction of the EPR at Flamanville, northwest France   © Getty Images

The cloud of doubt around EDF’s long-planned new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset continues to grow.

The final investment decision has been delayed yet again. The start up date has been put back to 2026 – nine years behind the original schedule. A new contingency, amounting to £2.7bn, has been added to the cost of the project.

Now, in a remarkably frank interview the French energy minister, Segolene Royal has said that the company may have been “carried away” by its enthusiasm for the project and has joined the chorus of internal staff and engineers in warning of the risks to EDF’s finances from going ahead. But although Hinkley inevitably gets all the attention in the British press, EDF’s real problem is to be found in the half constructed plant at Flamanville on the Cotentin Peninsula on the other side of the English Channel. Read more

Traders follow the market at the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange

Traders follow the market at the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange  © Getty Images

Why did the oil price fall 70 per cent during the two years from the spring of 2014? And why, after falling from $115 a barrel to $30, has it now risen to something around $45 over the last two months? What has changed to explain these big shifts ? I was asked these questions by a friend last week and they are worth an answer.

One thing is clear. Oil demand did not fall by 60 or 70 per cent in that period and has not risen by 50 per cent in the last two months. Demand has continued to grow modestly by about 1m barrels a day each year. Oil supply has increased — by a little more than the growth in demand but certainly not 60 or 70 per cent. In the real energy economy things change much more slowly.

At one level, the imbalance between the growth of demand and the growth of demand explains the fall in prices. Led by extra supplies from Saudi Arabia and Russia and lower than expected demand from China, it explains the context of the fall, but not the scale or duration. Read more

Deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman answers questions in Riyadh on Vision 2030  © Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is in a mess. That conclusion seems to be common ground — the view of serious outside analysts and of the country’s own government. The only question is whether the problems can be corrected by shock treatment of the sort announced in Riyadh last week.

The immediate challenge is clear. Last year, revenue from oil exports fell by 23 per cent. That matters in a country that is 77 per cent dependent on oil income. Unemployment is officially 11.6 per cent, not counting the millions who hold non-jobs in and around the agencies of the state. In total, 70 per cent of Saudis work for the government. In the first half of last year, according to Mohammed al-Sheikh, the chief economic adviser to the all-powerful deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known universally as MbS), the kingdom’s financial reserves were being drawn down at a rate that would have exhausted them by the end of 2017 — far earlier than had previously been estimated by outside authorities such as the International Monetary Fund. Read more

  © Getty Images

After two years of unrelenting gloom it is good to see that at least one part of the global energy business is booming. The price of lithium carbonate in China has risen by 253 per cent in the past year and there is intense takeover activity among the limited number of companies that control lithium production. Goldman Sachs has called lithium “the new gasoline”. Is the hype justified?

Lithium is a soft white metal that provides a small but for the moment essential element in battery technology. Production comes from mineral rock or from salt water, with supplies concentrated in Argentina, Australia, China, Chile and the US state of Nevada. That production is controlled by a very small number of companies, led by Albemarle, FMC and Chile’s Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM) in Chile. Between them they produced 90 per cent of total supplies outside China last year. Read more

The saddest news of the last few days has been the death of David MacKay, an eminent Cambridge scientist who succeeded in communicating the complex issues of energy policy to a non-specialist audience with enormous clarity.

David embodied Cambridge at its very best, combining insatiable intellectual curiosity, intolerance of sloppy thinking and received wisdom, and a sharp desire to apply knowledge to improve the world as a whole. Read more

 

Could China become an energy exporter? The thought is certainly counter intuitive. Because China is one of the world’s largest single consumers of energy, second only for the moment to the US, the assumption has been that the country will be an ever more substantial importer. Until recently the trends have supported that belief. Oil imports have grown from almost nothing twenty five years ago to over 7 mbd last year. Coal imports rose rapidly in the years up to 2013 and the country began to import natural gas a decade ago. Read more

The prospect of a partial freeze on oil production at current levels. Some upbeat numbers from China. A couple of days of rising prices on the market.

These signals are enough, it seems, to make some traders excited and to produce headlines announcing the end of the downturn and a turning point in the global commodities cycle. The reality, however, is more complicated. Read more

It is easy to say ‘be a vegan’ while you yourself tuck into a bacon sandwich, says Nick Butler Read more

The newly opened section at the oil refinery of Zubair, southwest of Basra in southern Iraq, last month

The newly opened section at the oil refinery of Zubair, southwest of Basra in southern Iraq, last month  © Getty Images

Does it matter for the oil market that three of Opec’s 13 member states can now be classed as failed or failing? The general definition of a failed state refers to a nation in which the government has lost political authority and control. On this definition Libya already qualifies, with large areas of the country beyond government authority and under the control of competing local militia. Venezuela is clearly failing and close to defaulting on its debts. Algeria is struggling under the weight of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s weak administration and mounting economic problems.

Failure clearly matters for the 75m citizens within these countries. Venezuela has inflation of something like 700 per cent, if you believe the International Monetary Fund’s analysis — around a mere 170 per cent if you believe the government. Caracas is the murder capital of the world. Algeria has not yet seen open violence but the prospect of civil unrest is high and the fear that this could lead to another migrant crisis with boat people fleeing across the Mediterranean is already a source of concern in Paris. Read more

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014 © Getty Images

Is climate change the cause of extreme weather events? Until now the link has been suspected but never confirmed with scientific confidence. That position is now changing. A new study from the US confirms that for some extreme events there is a causal connection.

This link between climate science and immediate weather conditions can only strengthen the case of those arguing for policy change. The impact of a damaging heatwave in terms of deaths, sickness and other social and economic costs is much more likely to rouse public opinion than the distant prospect of what might to some sound like a modest increase in the global mean temperature. All politics are local, and they are also immediate. The discount rate applied to future possibilities is very high: what could happen to a future generation decades matters much less than what is happening to me here and now. It brings climate to the foreground and diminishes the argument of those who say that since we don’t know everything we should do nothing and wait until we see how things turn out. If the impact is immediate and people are dying as a result, the call for action will be loud.

One of the most dangerous illusions in the debate around the implications of climate change is the notion that the impact will only be material when the carbon concentration in the atmosphere exceeds some defined limit — usually quoted as 450ppm. At that point global mean temperatures will rise by an average of 2 degrees centigrade and the problems will begin. I do appreciate that the science is much more complicated but I think this is how the challenge is seen by many non-expert policy makers and politicians.

That view is mistaken. It implies an accuracy in the knowledge of the relationship between carbon concentration and the effect on temperatures that doesn’t yet exist — not least because, as Martin Rees, the former President of the Royal Society puts it, we are conducting an experiment with the earth’s atmosphere which has never been tried before. We don’t know with any degree of certainty that 450ppm will produce an average rise of 2 degrees and we don’t know what the variations around that average figure might be across the world. The case for action is driven by the precautionary principle. But there is another known unknown and that is the extent and nature of the impact in the shorter term — before we get to 450ppm.

 Read more

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014  © Getty Images

Is climate change the cause of extreme weather events? Until now the link has been suspected but never confirmed with scientific confidence. That position is now changing. A new study from the US confirms that for some extreme events there is a causal connection.

This link between climate science and immediate weather conditions can only strengthen the case of those arguing for policy change. The impact of a damaging heatwave in terms of deaths, sickness and other social and economic costs is much more likely to rouse public opinion than the distant prospect of what might to some sound like a modest increase in the global mean temperature. All politics are local, and they are also immediate. The discount rate applied to future possibilities is very high: what could happen to a future generation decades matters much less than what is happening to me here and now. It brings climate to the foreground and diminishes the argument of those who say that since we don’t know everything we should do nothing and wait until we see how things turn out. If the impact is immediate and people are dying as a result, the call for action will be loud. Read more

Russian Gas Supplies Through Ukraine Turned Off

Russia locks on gas supplies to Ukraine  © Getty Images

Is Europe trapped in a state of dependence on Russian gas? What would happen if by some accident, let alone a strategic decision taken in Moscow, the gas stopped coming. Would eastern Europe grind to a halt, and would the west, led by Germany, sue for peace on any terms ?

This was the core topic for debate last week at a seminar organised by the Geopolitics Forum at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge as part of their series on nightmare scenarios. With wide participation from within the university and beyond, we were able to go beyond the headlines to build an analysis based on facts. It is worth setting out a few of those facts. Read more

George Osborne Visits North Sea oil in Scotland

George Osborne on the Montrose Platform in the North Sea  © Getty Images

On Wednesday, George Osborne will present the UK budget to the House of Commons. At a moment of deep uncertainty for the country’s energy industry — which is discouraging investment and creating quite unnecessary risks for the future. From the North Sea to Hinkley Point and shale there is confusion and doubt. Mr Osborne should come forward with a package of messages to restore confidence. Here are four obvious steps the chancellor should take.

First, the North Sea is now on the verge of a serious cutback in activity that will reduce energy supply and lead to lost jobs as well as much lower tax revenues. The hopes expressed in Sir Ian Wood’s report two years ago for an renaissance in the North Sea and the development of the billions of barrels of remaining resources will be lost. Read more

Executive Vice President in charge of fi

Thomas Piquemal  © Getty Images

Thomas Piquemal, the finance director of EDF has performed a significant public service by resigning and focusing attention on the continuing problems around the UK’s Hinkley Point nuclear project in Somerset.

I cannot remember the last occasion when the CFO of a major company resigned over an issue of policy. The event is certainly rare and can only increase the pressure on the French company’s chairman, Jean-Bernard Lévy.

There are multiple questions behind the resignation. Read more

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The Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi   © Getty Images

The kingdom’s not for turning. There will be no production cuts. Oil will continue to be produced at unwanted levels until other suppliers are forced out of the market.

That was the unequivocal message delivered at the IHS Cera conference in Houston two weeks ago by the Saudi oil minister, the 81-year-old Ali al-Naimi. Mr al-Naimi tried to claim that the US shale industry was not his particular target but that did not seem to convince those involved in a sector which is beginning to feel the real pain of $30 oil.

For the Saudis such pain, along with the even greater suffering being felt by their former allies such as Algeria and Venezuela, may appear to be a necessary cost in securing the kingdom’s goal — a secure oil market share for itself whatever happens to anyone else. On this view, all the others just have to learn the harsh realities of life. Think of it as the application of sharia law to the oil industry. Read more

The engine room at the Flamanville nuclear reactor  © Getty Images

The news that there is to be a further delay to the long-promised Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset should come as no surprise to those who have followed the saga over the last eight years. As the FT report on Monday confirmed, the board of EDF wishes to delay the project for another year . That could easily turn into two years or three or more because it depends on the resolution of the deep problems at Flamanville in France, where a similar reactor is being built, and on the company’s financial health, which is fragile.

The EDF board is right to seek a delay. It is the only rational decision for EDF as a company and in reality for the UK. Whatever the embarrassment involved it is impossible to proceed with a project where the risks and ultimate costs are unknown. The resistance to the project from managers and staff within EDF is very telling. The UK government must accept that Hinkley will not be built for the foreseeable future.

But what comes next ? Read more

Boom Goes Bust: Texas Oil Industry Hurt By Plunging Oil Prices

A worker washes a truck used to carry sand for fracking in Odessa, Texas  © Getty Images

If you live in Europe you could be forgiven for thinking that the shale revolution is strictly an American phenomenon. Casual readers could also easily get the idea that low oil and gas prices are driving down US production of shale gas and tight oil and that even there the revolution is over. All these impressions are mistaken.

Shale development in Europe is virtually non-existent. Fracking is banned in France and discouraged in Germany. In Poland, early results have been disappointing while in the UK, thanks to mistakes by the government and the industry, no drilling has taken place for several years. Starting operations in Balcome — a wealthy and vocal community with no economic imperative to give up its peaceful lifestyle was a mistake. Creating great expectations without putting in place either proper incentives or a clear regulatory framework was a serious policy error. There is talk of a few wells being drilled this year but probably only if local objections can be overridden by edicts from Whitehall — a crass process somewhat at odds with the government’s rhetoric about devolving power to local communities. The approach is not likely to win over hearts and minds and may well prove unenforceable in a number of areas. Read more

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Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi holds a press conference in Doha after meeting energy ministers from Russia, Qatar and Venezuela  © Getty Images

The Saudis blinked. The latest deal — an agreement with Russia to freeze oil output at January levels if they are joined by other large producers — won’t rebalance the oil market immediately and the early surge in prices last week was rather premature. But they blinked and that is all important. The myth of Saudi power is broken.

The real steps necessary to rebalance the market have yet to come. Saudi production must come down. Others may join in the process but an overall cut of 3m barrels a day is now necessary and most of that will have to come from Saudi Arabia. Stocks must be run off. That will take time. Iran must be welcomed back into the market. That process will be slow and even estimates of another 400,000 barrels a day during 2016 now look high. But they will come back and have to be accommodated. The interests of other Opec member states — such as Venezuela and Algeria — must be taken into account. The Saudi’s lack of respect for their fellow producers over the last year has shaken many traditional alliances. The kingdom does not have that many allies. Read more

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Climate change demonstrators during the Paris conference  © Getty Images

Two papers published in the last few weeks provide a sobering reality check after the rhetorical success of the Paris climate change conference in December. Getting any agreement was a diplomatic triumph but producing real change on the scale necessary will be much more difficult. The two documents are very different but both excellent pieces of work. Their calculations and assumptions are detailed, transparent and, most important of all, evidence based. Both, however, reflect a degree of unjustified optimism. Read more