Coal

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

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

 

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

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

Energy demand in China appears to have decoupled from GDP

Energy demand in China appears to have decoupled from GDP  © Getty Images

The changes taking place in the world energy market are not just a matter of oversupply or the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia to rein in production. Demand has stagnated and in some areas is falling. The fall is unexpected — all the standard projections still cheerfully predict ever rising demand driven by population growth and the spread of prosperity in emerging economies. That assumption, however, begins to look too simplistic. The reality is more complex and, for producers, much more challenging. Forget the old debate about peak oil. Now it seems we are approaching peak energy. Read more

A solar farm in France. A European common grid would help overcome the problem of intermittancy with renewables  © Getty Images

With a few honourable exceptions, the debate on British membership of the EU has so far consisted of a contest between the outs and the half outs – that is, those who want Britain to leave completely and those prepared to stay only if the country is protected from further incursion by immigrants or European policy makers. The other approach – active engagement to change and improve what happens – has barely been articulated. In several areas positive engagement is much needed and offers substantial benefits. Energy policy is a good place to start.

The EU has only limited competence when it comes to energy policy. The mix of fuels and the tax system under which they are traded remain matters of national choice. That isn’t likely to change. It would be a waste of time to try to force France to accept fracking or to tell the Germans that they are going to have to keep nuclear power. Any attempt to centralise such emotive decisions will fail. Read more

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

 

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

FRANCE-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT

Emmanuel Macron  © Getty Images

The most interesting comment at Davos this year came from the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron who said that he simply did not believe for a second the figures put out by the Chinese government claiming that their economy had grown by 6.9 per cent in 2015. To anyone familiar with Chinese statistics the comment is welcome because it brings into sharp focus the fact that no one can trust the data being produced by what is now one of the world’s largest economies. The doubts are not limited to macro economic numbers. Chinese data on the energy sector also deserve to be regarded with great scepticism.

There are three reasons why Chinese data might be inaccurate. The first is that it is simply extremely hard to gather reliable data across a country which is so vast. Good data is hard to come by. In Nigeria gross domestic product was revised upwards in 2013 by 89 per cent because the old basis of calculation was inaccurate. There are many issues even in much smaller and more developed countries. Read more

Hungarian engineer Miklos Sziva checks t

  © Getty Images

Markets are inherently prone to volatility. Prices and valuations do not proceed in an orderly and linear fashion. Most important of all, they do not proceed in one direction for very long. The aim of any serious investment strategy should be to call the turning points and buy or sell accordingly. The energy market is at such a turning point and it will be fascinating to see who has the nerve and confidence to invest.

To say that this is a time to buy may sound odd following the criticism of Shell’s purchase of BG Group, which was reluctantly nodded through by fund managers last week. The issue is that the BG deal was based on prices roughly two and a half times above the current level and depends on an incredible forecast of future price trends. The result: a pyrrhic victory for Shell. That mistake, however, does not mean that other potential buyers of energy assets should be put off. At current prices, the time to buy is now. That applies to oil and gas but in different ways the same conclusion can be drawn for almost every part of the energy sector. Read more

FRANCE-ECONOMY-ENERGY-GAS-OIL

A tunnel at the LNG terminal under construction at Dunkirk, France  © Getty Images

If you think the fall in the oil price is dramatic and disruptive, take a moment to consider the natural gas market. The world’s three main gas markets — in Europe, the US and Asia – may be distinct but the growth of trade in liquefied natural gas which can take it across the world has linked them. The impact of a swing in one market soon spreads across the globe.

According to the excellent analysis from Energy Aspects, prices for LNG in the key north-east Asian market – the supply into Japan and Korea – are down this year by more than 50 per cent to between $7 and 8 per million British thermal units (Btu), even allowing for a slight seasonal ramp up in the fourth quarter. That is almost 70 per cent down from the peak in 2013.

Unfortunately, at the time of that peak many companies got carried away and set in train dozens of new LNG projects worldwide. The complex technology of liquefaction means that each project is expensive – costing at least $5bn and often much more. Of the projects planned dozens have been cancelled, often forcing investors to write off substantial sums. But the bad news is that many are still under construction. Once work has begun, it is very hard for companies to go back on a major investment decision. Read more

National Tribute to The Victims of The Paris Terrorist Attacks At Les Invalides In Paris

Laurent Fabius  © Getty Images

The agreement on climate change in Paris will satisfy no one. The complaints are predictable and have already begun.

The commitments made are not legally binding and political decisions could be altered by future elections or regime changes. The funds available for adjustment are too limited and, of course, there is no carbon price.

All true, but politics is the art of the possible and what has been agreed is a triumph for French diplomacy and for the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius personally. Many deserve credit but success depends on leadership. He is the Energy Personality of the Year because he has played a crucial role in changing how the sector will evolve worldwide for decades to come. Read more

Optimism, however essential for human progress, can be very dangerous if misapplied or allowed to run to excess. There can be few better examples of this than the new review of India’s energy future published last week by the International Energy Agency. As you would expect, the paper is fascinating in its detailed description of India’s energy economy. But the forecasts are seriously over optimistic. They gloss over the challenges that even a radical modernising government in Delhi is not managing to overcome and they ignore the very real risks of a much less happy outcome. Read more

Protesters Take To Kayaks To Demonstrate Against Shell's Plans To Drill In Arctic

Protesters approach Shell's Polar Pioneer oil drilling rig in May  © Getty Images

Shell’s decision to abandon exploration in the Arctic is an acknowledgment of reality, although that makes it no more comfortable for those involved. Some $7bn (more, according to some estimates) has been lost in its Chukchi Sea campaign — the unsuccessful Burger J well must be the most expensive ever drilled, anywhere in the world. But, financially, Shell can afford it, and many in the oil company will be relieved that the issue is out of the way.

The exploration effort was a PR disaster for a company that prides itself on its environmental record. The prospect of success, followed by years of conflict over the next steps — the development of permanent facilities for actual production — worried some senior executives more than the prospect of failure. The possibility of facing up to a new US president in the person of Hillary Clinton who is on record as opposing Arctic drilling was hardly welcome for a company that believes itself distinct from companies such as ExxonMobil that take a more challenging line on climate change and other issues. These reputational issues were no doubt very important elements in the decision to pull out. Read more

Scottish Windfarm Starts Producing Electricity

The Braes of Doune windfarm, Scotland   © Getty Images

Organisations, especially those that are doing well, can easily get stuck on narrow views of the future and their own role within it. It can be useful and creative in those circumstances to give people the opportunity to think more widely. One method that I have seen used to great effect is to ask people to imagine the world in 10 years’ time and suggest what might have changed, particularly against the expectations of the conventional wisdom. The process can provide a useful counterweight to long-term forecasts, which tend to do no more than roll forward recent history.

In that spirit, and for the holidays, here are a few stories on the energy sector from the FT in 2025. These are not forecasts — just possibilities. Readers would be welcome to suggest additions to the list.

1. In Moscow, ShellGaz — the world’s largest energy company as measured by its listing on the FTNikkei 250 — announces that it is proceeding with Eaststream3, the latest in a series of export projects from eastern Siberia. Eaststream3 will take gas by pipeline to the rapidly growing cities of northern India. ShellGaz was formed in 2017 through the merger of Royal Dutch Shell and Gazprom and represented the first fruit of the reset of European-Russian relations after the agreed federalisation of Ukraine. Read more

CHINA-ECONOMY-GROWTH

Loading coal at a port in Yichang, in central China's Hubei province  © Getty Images

Casual readers of the media coverage of the energy business could be forgiven for getting the impression that the coal industry is on its last legs. “Coal is dying and it’s never coming back”; “King Coal’s stages of grief”; “The noose tightening on the coal industry”. Those are typical headlines from the past few weeks. The coal industry, it would seem, is being rapidly destroyed by the combination of public policies on climate change and carbon emissions and by the development of a range of alternative energy supplies – from shale gas to solar. This sense of an industry in decline is reinforced by the rhetoric of the campaigns advocating disinvestment from fossil fuels in general and coal in particular. If you have Oxford University, Michael Bloomberg and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund against you what hope can there be? The impression of an industry in terminal decline does not, however, quite reflect the reality. Reports of the death of coal owe more to wishful thinking than to any analysis of what is actually happening. Read more

CHINA-STOCKS

  © Getty Images

The Chinese economy is clearly going through its most serious downturn in more than 30 years. After three decades of continuous growth averaging more than 8 per cent per annum, the problems of industrial over capacity and excessive debt are starting to take their toll. The stock market volatility of the last few weeks is a symptom of the bubble that has been allowed to develope in recent years and of the doubts that are now setting in about the sustainability of high growth. The more serious problem, as the published data is now showing, lies in the real economy and in the accumulated and now unfundable debts that have financed booms in sectors such as housing construction and urban property development. Read more

Political Leaders Meet As Greece Crisis Intensifies

Sigmar Gabriel and Angela Merkel  © Getty Images

Last week’s decision on the future of the German energy policy by Sigmar Gabriel — the economics minister and Angela Merkel’s number two and would-be successor — was complicated and multifaceted. The net result, however, is simple. The German coal industry will survive and coal will remain a major, and probably the largest, fuel source for power generation for another decade and perhaps longer. Read more

VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCE

  © Getty Images

The shocking thing about the papal encyclical Laudate Si is not that it was leaked in advance nor even that it embraces the idea that most emissions of greenhouse gases are the result of human activity. The thing that should shock readers is its attack on science and technology — the very tools, indeed the only tools, which offer a solution to climate change.

I am not a student of theology and therefore do not claim to understand the subtleties of the Catholic Church’s teaching on science. But since the Pope has moved outside his own natural territory and into energy policy, some response seems appropriate.

From a distance, Pope Francis seems to embody decency. He is modest, frugal, concerned for the poor and hostile to the creepier side of the church hierarchy in Rome and beyond. That makes him stand out in a world of shallow and cynical “leaders”. He commands millions of followers and his words deserve to be taken seriously whether one is a Catholic or not. Read more