© Getty Images

Every strategy reaches the point where renewal is necessary. Time erodes what once seemed logical. Technology transforms the range of possibilities. Assumptions turn out to have been false flags. That is the situation now for the UK’s energy policy as spelt out in a report published last week by the economics committee of the UK House of Lords*.

The existing strategy flows from the 2008 Climate Change Act, which gave priority to the reduction of carbon emissions. A target of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 was entrenched in law and, although it has never been clear how it would be enforced, the existence of a legally binding target has shaped decision-making in Whitehall. The goal, to be reached in five-year steps, overrides every other consideration — including cost and security of supply. Read more

Saudi oil minister Khalid al Falih

Saudi oil minister Khalid al Falih  © Getty Images

The new Opec quota has been in force for six weeks, which is sufficient time to judge what is happening on the basis of facts rather than speculation. The key questions are, first, whether the restraints on production agreed last November are working or not and, second, whether the regime that came into force at the beginning of January can be sustained until June, as planned.

The oil price has been remarkably stable at around $54/$56 a barrel for Brent crude. That is about 15 per cent higher than before the November agreement but still barely half that seen three years ago. So will prices rise further or does the current level represent a ceiling? Let’s start with the facts. Read more

Toshiba's share price (top) is hit after the company's announcement on nuclear on Wednesday

Toshiba's share price (top) is hit after the company's announcement on nuclear on Wednesday   © Getty Images

Toshiba is just one company in the global nuclear industry, but its current problems are symptomatic of the difficulties facing all the private enterprises in the sector. Civil nuclear power involves huge up-front capital costs, very long pay-back periods and high risks that are compounded by a lack of experience, especially in managing nuclear construction projects after a long period with few new plants. For all those reasons, private investors avoid the sector and prefer to put their money where they see faster and safer returns.

If the UK, Japan and other governments want nuclear power, state money will have to be involved. So, from where we stand now, what can be done? Read more

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington against Donald Trump's executive orders

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington against Donald Trump's executive orders  © Getty Images

The US energy sector, or to be precise that part of the sector working on hydrocarbons, is celebrating the arrival of Donald Trump as president. Mr Trump and the Republican congress have started a bonfire of regulations and the president has promised to do what it takes to increase supply from a sector he says is worth $50tn.

The number may be a little flaky (after all, US gross domestic product last year was only $18tn) but the direction of travel is not. After eight years of tightening regulation and restrictions, those who want to develop new sources of coal, gas and oil now have Washington’s full support. The new commitment to fossil fuel development has been welcomed by the industry and by countries such as Saudi Arabia. The question is whether they will all be cheering so loudly when they start to see the full consequences of the new policy. Read more

Electricity pylons seen from Hinkley Point

Electricity pylons seen from Hinkley Point  © Getty Images

The prospect that Toshiba will withdraw from the nuclear power business after its embarrassing and expensive experience with the American company Westinghouse poses a serious problem for the UK’s plans to make new nuclear the core of future energy supply. If those plans are to be delayed, as looks almost certain now, the government will have to come up with an alternative.

Toshiba‘s planned new station at Moorside in Cumbria was to have been the second step in a strategy that, as the last government set out, would have produced some 16GW of nuclear-generated electricity by the mid 2030s. That would have more than replaced the old nuclear plants which are due to retire and would have made a material contribution to Britain’s decarbonisation targets. If Toshiba puts Westinghouse, the company holding the key nuclear expertise, up for sale the question arises as to whether President Donald Trump will support the transfer of US knowledge to a country as such as China. The process could take a long time and until there is a resolution, Moorside cannot move forward. Read more

Tijuana, on the Mexico-US border

Tijuana, on the Mexico-US border  © Getty Images

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto was due to travel to Washington last week for what promised to be a very difficult encounter with Donald Trump. Now President Trump has said there is no point in holding a meeting unless Mexico agrees to pay for a wall between the two countries. The episode is a stark reminder that we have to take Mr Trump seriously — and that starts with Mr Nieto.

The US is the destination for $236bn worth of Mexican exports — with a trade surplus in Mexico’s favour of almost $60bn — and has been a crucial source of investment in the country. Now this powerful neighbour is flexing its muscles. The question is whether Mexico’s energy riches offer an opportunity for a less one-sided deal. Read more

Long-term thinking is needed: the London Metropolitan Underground railway in 1863

Long-term thinking is needed: the London Metropolitan Underground railway in 1863  © Getty Images

This week, the UK government will launch an industrial strategy designed to help the economy as we leave the EU. To be effective, policy in this area needs to be sustained. Short-term incentives are not enough to create new industrial strengths. This raises the whole question of how policy-makers deal with long-term issues. How do governments, companies or investors assess the value of assets with a long or very long life?

Looking around the world, the infrastructure we use every day from the internet to the road network defies the presumptions of standard analysis by growing in value as time passes rather than declining.

But markets are increasingly focused on short-term returns — after all, many pension funds and similar investment vehicles need a steady inflow of money to meet their obligations. Hedge funds and venture capital investors expect new or turnaround businesses to produce a good return and an exit opportunity in five to seven years. Chief executives have to concentrate on quarterly results and annual dividends. What chance is there for investments with a life expectancy of 100 years or more, particularly if they have high up-front capital costs on which payback and profits will only be generated over decades? The whole methodology of discounting future cash flows favours short-term activity. Read more

China is restructuring its domestic coal industry

China is restructuring its domestic coal industry  © Getty Images

What are the implications of China’s announcement last week that it will be spending $360m over the next four years to build up its renewable energy sector? There are many reasons behind the move, from Beijing’s growing concern about the impact of climate change to the political imperative of reducing low level pollution in the smog-ridden cities. The scale of the investment, however, suggests that two closely related policy objectives are driving energy strategy: an effort to create a modernised economy that can provide employment for the Chinese workforce and a determination to limit dependence on imported supplies.

Two weeks ago, in looking ahead to the potential stories of 2017, I suggested that Beijing might set a target of energy independence by 2025. This provoked a range of responses. Some people told me that such a policy was unnecessary since the country can afford to pay whatever is necessary. Others did not believe anything close to self-sufficiency was attainable. Read more

The Mosul Dam on the Tigris

The Mosul Dam on the Tigris  © Getty Images

The understandable focus on Syria, in particular on the horrific situation that has unfolded in Aleppo over the last few weeks, has distracted attention from the potentially more dangerous developments in Iraq.

Ten years after the execution of Saddam Hussein and five years after the official exit of American troops that was supposed to mark the end of a conflict which began with the US invasion in 2003, Iraq remains a war zone. The unrelenting bomb attacks on both military and civilian targets demonstrate the defiance of Islamist militants. As the battle to retake the strategic northern Iraqi city of Mosul – held by Islamic State forces since 2014 – comes to a head the risks are very high, with implications that will shape not only the future of Iraq itself but also the international oil market. Read more

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  © Getty Images

The downbeat mood of the times was confirmed before Christmas by the publication of the Bloomberg Pessimist’s Guide to 2017. The guide lists some of the things that could go badly wrong across the world in 2017. Last year the Guide predicted both Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as US president. This year the possibilities range from the collapse of the Mexican economy after Mr Trump pulls the US out of Nafta to the election of Marine Le Pen as the next president of France. Some of the predictions, such as California’s decision to declare independence from the US (Calexit), to the forced departure of the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could be seen as ambivalent outcomes that many would welcome. Pessimism, however, has its limits and so here, are a few notes of hope for the New Year. As ever, I have focused on the core issues of energy but politics are never far away. Some of the possibilities listed seem to me highly likely to occur to one degree or another. Others are long shots – but then Donald Trump was a long shot a year ago. Read more

 

For most of those involved in the energy sector 2016 has been a year to forget. Oil prices have risen a little but despite the Opec deal are still almost 50 per cent down on where they were 2 years ago. Gas and coal prices are also down. Some US coal companies are in a desperate financial position – as are some of the smaller oil and gas businesses who do not have the deep pockets necessary to survive a downturn which is both cyclical and structural. Read more

The agreement by Royal Dutch Shell to explore for oil and gas in Iran marks another remarkable step in the transformation of the country over a period of less than 18 months from an international pariah state to a magnet for investment. There could be further steps to come, including Iran’s emergence as a source of stability rather than conflict in the region.

After another turbulent year across the Middle East, Iran is the only big country that ends 2016 stronger, both economically and politically. Read more

When will oil demand peak ? The very fact that the question focuses on demand rather than supply is in itself remarkable, given where conventional wisdom on the subject stood only a decade ago. Now there is a consensus that demand will peak first but there is no agreement on when that peak will come. Shell speculated a few weeks ago that it would be within five to 15 years. The Opec producers’ cartel suggested recently that the peak could come in about 2029. But the International Energy Agency in its latest World Energy Outlook predicts that oil demand will be rising up to 2040. Read more

Khalid A Al-Falih, Saudi energy minister

Khalid A Al-Falih, Saudi energy minister  © Getty Images

With less than 10 days to go until the next Opec meeting the gamesmanship goes on. Saudi Arabia has maintained its production at around 10.7m barrels a day while Iran has continued to increase output – opening three new fields which should together produce 220,000b/d. Iran’s public position is that it will continue to increase production from the 3.85mbd achieved in September to 4.2mbd, which it argues represents a fair share of the cartel’s total output.

Neither party seems ready to blink and there is little sign that the promised deal to make a co-ordinated cut in production, which was just about reached at the last Opec gathering in September, will be delivered when the cartel meets again on November 30. The optimism from then has evaporated. Perhaps an agreement will be reached in the next few days but there is little evidence that it would do more than dent the current surplus of supply over demand. Unsurprisingly, prices are falling – down from $52 a barrel in mid-October to below $45 last week. Read more

Anne Hidalgo (left), Mayor of Paris,  and French energy minister Segolene Royal celebrate the Paris COP21 climate accord.

Anne Hidalgo (left), Mayor of Paris, and French energy minister Segolene Royal celebrate the Paris COP21 climate accord.  © Getty Images

The Paris agreement on climate change has been ratified, earlier than most people expected. Some believes that means the issue is on its way to being resolved. That is absolutely not the case.

Donald Trump’s election as president is a major setback because it removes any sense of American leadership on the issue. But that is not the only cause for concern. The inconvenient truth is that the use of coal in growing emerging economies continues to outpace anything being achieved elsewhere. The global energy market is changing; oil demand is coming to a peak and renewables are getting cheaper. But that, however important, is as yet having no more than a minor effect on the climate issue. We have to be realistic and prepare accordingly. Read more

Simon Henry, Royal Dutch Shell CFO

Simon Henry, Royal Dutch Shell CFO  © Getty Images

On November 2 Simon Henry, the chief financial officer of Royal Dutch Shell and one of the most respected figures in the industry, told analysts on a conference call for the Shell results presentation that he believed “oil demand will peak before supply and that peak may be between five and 15 years hence”. I think he is right, and that the peak of demand will come within five years and possibly by 2020. The reasons for what sounds like a very radical challenge to the conventional wisdom are clear and the advance warning signs are already evident in the data.

Oil demand in the developed OECD world has already peaked and is 9 per cent below the level reached in 2005. In Europe, oil demand is down 17 per cent over the same period. Read more

Amber Rudd, home secretary, speaking at the Conservative party conference

Amber Rudd, home secretary, speaking at the Conservative party conference  © Getty Images

A few weeks ago I argued that Brexit would have very little impact on the energy sector in the UK or Europe. Energy prices are decided by the international market, the energy mix has always been dictated by national governments and there is no apparent appetite for Britain to diverge from the climate policies and emissions targets set by the EU with its full support. All that remains true, but circumstances have changed. A new factor has emerged in the Brexit debate that could do great damage to the country’s sector.

The issue was expressed in chilling terms in two speeches at the Tory party conference this month. Theresa May, prime minister, said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship’ means”.

 Read more

President Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin  © Getty Images

Twenty years ago, a small group of Russian businessmen saved the country from a return to communism. Boris Yeltsin, physically and politically weak, was close to being beaten in the presidential election by Gennady Zyuganov. In the first ballot, Yeltsin led by just 3 per cent. The money and organisation the oligarchs brought to the party put him more than 13 points ahead in the second and decisive vote. Now, in very different circumstances, the oligarchs may need to intervene again.

Russia is in a parlous state. Real incomes have fallen by 10 per cent in just a year. The rouble depreciated 37 per cent and in real terms gross domestic product fell 3.7 per cent, according to World Bank figures. Household incomes and investment fell sharply. The trends have persisted into 2016. Forget the bluster of President Vladimir Putin and the military activities in Ukraine and Syria. What was once a superpower is now a country in decline. Read more

The new, pragmatic Saudi oil minister, Khalid al-Falih

The new, pragmatic Saudi oil minister, Khalid al-Falih  © Getty Images

Two years ago, the Saudi government put in place a strategy intended to protect its position in the world oil market. The plan was to increase their production to the point where prices fell. The aim was to squeeze other producers, in particular the US shale industry, and force them to cut output. The belief then was that the US industry needed a price of around $90 a barrel to keep going. Once prices fell below that level, the Saudis thought they would have protected their market share, and in the process, sent a sharp warning to others, particularly the Iranians who want to restore their production following the nuclear deal with the US.

The strategy has not only failed but has caused serious damage to the Saudis themselves. Prices fell much further than anyone anticipated because other participants in the market did not respond as expected. The Saudi increase in production has not destroyed the US industry – American output has fallen only marginally despite a 70 per cent drop in prices. The kingdom simply underestimated the resilience of the US producers and their ability to cut costs. Read more

With the UK government's green light for the Hinkley Point nuclear power project came the announcement of a new national security test for would-be investors in infrastructure

With the UK government's green light for the Hinkley Point nuclear power project came the announcement of a new national security test for would-be investors in infrastructure  © Getty Images

For most of the last half century, energy security has been defined in terms of Opec boycotts, the risk of the Strait of Hormuz being closed to oil tankers and the dangers of Russia cutting off gas supplies through the European pipeline network. In the last few years, however, much has changed. Now, energy security concerns are focused internally and the risks are concentrated around the networks that sustain complex modern economies. The networks are physical but they are controlled by electronic systems. The greatest threat on this updated analysis is that hostile forces – whether terrorists or state-sponsored cyber specialists – could penetrate and disrupt or destroy those systems. These fears are beginning to reshape public policy and that will affect how the energy business develops across the world. Read more