Exploration

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 package of announcements from Shell will send a shiver through the oil and gas industry. After years of resisting investor pressure for more immediate gratification, the company which more than any other regards itself as a social institution dedicated to the long term, has blinked. Capex is to be radically reduced. Costs are to be cut with a sharp knife. $15bn of assets are to be sold – enough in themselves to form a medium sized company. And the dividend is to be increased. There is a touch of theatricality in combining a profits warning with a dividend increase but the show satisfied the immediate audience. The shares rose. For the rest of the sector, Shell’s ability to deliver in this way poses a dangerous challenge.

Underperformance is endemic across the industry. Investment always needs to be increased, the rewards are always promised for tomorrow. Among investors are innumerable funds whose need for cash returns is urgent. Since the downturn of 2008 the market has clearly become more short term and less tolerant of those who live on promises of a golden future which is always just over the horizon. Under pressure Shell has been able to make the adjustment, demonstrating that it can quickly cut enough to deliver a material and sustainable dividend increase even when oil and gas prices are flat to falling. That is a real measure of strength, as is BP’s ability to absorb a loss of $50bn to pay the bill for Macondo. Very few companies in the world have that capacity. Read more

Vladimir Putin has finished the year in style, consolidating Russian control in Ukraine and winning easy brownie points for the release of controversial prisoners including the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two female members of the punk band Pussy Riot. The Russian president has also, in a move easily missed in the middle of Christmas, extended Russia’s position in one of the world’s most interesting new oil and gas regions – the Levant basin in the eastern Mediterranean. Read more

It seems bizarre to say that a company which will generate cash this year of between $40bn and $45bn has a fundamental structural problem. But the latest results from Royal Dutch Shell show just how weak the correlation between size and performance has proved to be. Capital expenditure is so high that even cash at that level may be insufficient to cover spending and dividends. The company looks lost – a lumbering dinosaur in a world where the prizes go to the quick and nimble. 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