© Getty Images

The buzz word of the moment in the energy business is “transition”. It provided the theme for the ONS conference and exhibition in Stavanger in Norway two weeks ago as well as the title for several recent consultancy studies.

Unsurprisingly, transition is the main concept in many of the corporate strategy reviews now being undertaken by some of the leading energy producers and utilities. The meaning of the word, however, is loose and variable. It is not even clear whether some of the big operators in the market understand the breadth of the transition that is already taking place and the extent to which it could reshape the prospects for their businesses.

The transition is normally discussed in terms of the move from hydrocarbons to lower or zero-carbon sources of energy supply. Driven by the fear of climate change and by the adoption of various public policies, the shift has been under way for two decades and more. The Paris conference at the end of last year provided new impetus, even if the end product fell somewhat short of a global deal backed by law and a carbon price. Different countries are moving at different speeds, and the result is a gradual shift in the energy mix, which now promises to be accelerated by advances in technology. Low carbon sources of supply are falling in price and some are within reach of the point where they can be competitive without subsidy. 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

The Apple logo on display at the Worldwide Developer's Conference in San Francisco this month

The Apple logo on display at the Worldwide Developer's Conference in San Francisco this month  © Getty Images

Revolutions often begin with small prosaic steps. Three weeks ago, a company filed for permission from the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to sell electricity to individual consumers. Hardly an exceptional event – except that the company’s name is Apple and the move marks the beginning of a restructuring in the energy market that will reshape the sector across the world over the next decade.

Two years ago I wrote a column headlined Google Energy, Amazon Power about the possibility of new players disrupting the settled landscape of the energy business. The piece provoked some interest and much scepticism. Why would companies that knew nothing about energy want to venture into a specialist market where they would have to compete against powerful vested interests? 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


The battle for Kirkuk, Iraq's oil capital  © Getty Images

It has always been hard to accept the argument that the series of wars in the Middle East since 2001 have been about oil. Afghanistan is not an oil state and most of the oil which will be produced from Iraq will end up in China and the Far East rather than in the US or Europe. On the other hand what is happening now in Syria and Northern Iraq shows that oil and power are inseparably linked. 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


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“I am convinced that the nuclear industry has a future, that it is a strength of our country.” The fact that Manuel Valls, the prime minister, had to make such a statement in the National Assembly in Paris two weeks ago is a dramatic indication of the depths of the problems the nuclear sector in France is facing. Read more

Downturn In Oil Prices Rattles Texas Oil Economy

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Almost all the major oil and gas companies I know are undertaking substantial reviews of their policies on climate change. That is true in Europe and in the US. Why now, and what will be the outcome ?

First, it is important to stress that the rethinking is not being driven by the recent attacks on the companies. Describing Shell and its chief executive Ben van Beurden as “narcissistic, paranoid and psychopathic” is just childish and reduces what should be a serious debate to playground abuse. The reviews began before the latest media campaigns and are driven by corporate strategic concerns. Read more


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The signals are clear – but contradictary. China has embraced the concept of climate change and is allowing officials to discuss the risks openly. Two weeks ago Zheng Guogang, head of the Chinese metereological administration warned of droughts, rainstorms and the threat to major infrastructure projects. He could not have spoken without permission.

But at the same time economic growth remains the prime objective of Chinese policy and growth requires the consumption of ever greater volumes of primary energy, led by coal.

Demand may have slipped by a small amount last year but new coal plants are still being opened. Coal consumption in China has doubled in the last ten years. China is now the world’s largest economy and consumes more than half of all the coal used worldwide each year. Within two decades, even on quite modest assumptions about economic growth it will have an economy twice the size of the US with personal living standards equivalent to those of the US in 1980. But it will still be an economy powered by coal – with demand on current policies up by another 20 to 25 per cent according to the forecasts produced by the International Energy AgencyRead more


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I have never given much credence to the idea that an international agreement on climate change capable of establishing a global carbon price was likely to be reached – either in Paris this December or anywhere else – anytime soon.

If Europe, which is way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to climate policy, can’t set its own carbon price, what hope is there that the US, India and all the others will?

As a result I’ve never taken seriously the view that a vast amount of energy investment by the oil and gas companies will be left stranded as carbon-generating fuels are priced out of the market. The argument has always felt like wishful thinking. If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments there would be no prisons and the police forces of the world would be redundant.

But, and it is a very important qualification, change doesn’t come just through legislation and international treaties. Technology is arguably much more important and there is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in the old energy systems. 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

Do renewables represent the future of the energy business or a minor contributor in a sector which will continue to be dominated by hydrocarbons? That will the underlying question at the FT Renewables conference this week. The answer looks to be the latter but financial engineering or a major technical breakthrough could yet change things. Read more

Can anyone really predict what the world’s energy market will look like in 2040? Many certainly try – including companies and governments – but they don’t deserve to be taken too seriously and certainly shouldn’t be the basis for decision-making. Read more

Congratulations to Ben van Beurden, the new chief executive of Shell. We are moving into a period when gas is the dominant fuel and Mr van Beurden has great experience in that area, particularly in liquefied natural gas. He is also Dutch which is a good reminder that despite everything Shell has not lost its nationality, after all. The candidates who lost will all soon find alternative jobs. Shell is now the great training ground and there is a shortage of talent at the top level in the international energy business. Mr van Beurden meantime will have to focus on Shell’s big problems, of which I will focus on three. Read more

US oil rig. Getty Images

I have always been sceptical of the extensive theories of peak oil built around the study first published in 1956 by M King Hubbert. Those studies have always seemed to ignore the reality of technical progress that opens new frontiers and reduces costs. They have been much used to support the idea that oil prices should be ever increasing, on the basis that scarcity should be reflected in high prices.

The reality is that oil provinces (think of the North Sea) keep going well beyond their original schedule, and recovery rates from established fields keep rising. On average, even after some advances in reservoir management technology, only some 50 per cent of the oil in place is recovered from most fields, so there is a long way still to go. On top of that, we now have tight oil (the oil equivalent of shale gas), which BP in its latest Long Term Outlook now expects to provide some 9 per cent of global production in 2030. Read more

Fires rage in Australia following record high temperatures. Getty Images

A few days after Typhoon Bopha tore through the Philippines in December, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless, a representative from the battered country began to speak at the UN climate talks in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Naderev Saño, the Philippine climate change commissioner, broke down as he made a plea to his fellow delegates, in what turned into one of the conference’s most riveting moments. Read more

The growth of wind farms and other renewable energy projects is heading for a sharp slowdown after 2020 according to official forecasts, despite ministers’ claims they want the UK to become a global centre of green power.

Figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change predict a tenfold increase in the amount of new renewable power capacity added between 2012 and 2020.

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Drilling barge the Kulluck Getty Images

Shell's drilling barge the Kulluk. Getty Images

There are two important lessons from the mounting problems facing Shell as a result of the series of accidents that have afflicted its drilling programme in the Arctic.

The first is that major companies must have the capacity to call a halt and to break the inexorable internal momentum that so often makes it impossible to stop projects once they have started. The ability to reconsider is a great sign of strength not weakness.

The second is that a company such as Shell which prides itself (rightly) on its environmental performance is only as good as its weakest contractor. Read more

Scroby Sands offshore wind farm in Norfolk, just two miles off Britain's east coast. Image by Getty

A good rule in politics is never to take on those who care about a particular issue more than you do. I was in Norfolk at the weekend and came face to face with the new force in UK politics – a regiment of middle-aged ladies burning with indignation and determined to use their considerable powers of organisation to protect what they hold dear.

The issue at stake is not Europe, which is the obsession at Westminster, or the recession, or gay marriage. The issue is the growth of wind farms and the march across the beautiful Norfolk coast of developers planting the farms in order to milk the generous subsidies on offer. Norfolk, of course, is not an isolated case. Read more

Mitt Romney has given Barack Obama a free pass when it comes to energy and environmental policy.  Obama needs only to point to Romney’s energy plan - with its proposed demolition of federal controls on new energy developments and its omission of any mention whatsoever of climate change to claim the votes of the environmental lobby.

Even those most disappointed by the last 4 years can hardly fail to back Obama when the alternative is someone who used his acceptance speech last week to mock Obama’s commitment to the environment and to contrast Obama’s aim of helping to save the earth and the oceans with his own commitment to helping ordinary American families get jobs.  But what won’t be said this week at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte is that the American energy outlook for the next four years at least is already very largely set, and won’t be much altered by whoever is elected in November. Read more