Exploration

As Martin Wolf has noted in the Financial Times, world oil prices have fallen 38 per cent since the end of June. A Martian listening to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement would have no idea of this. For consumers lower oil prices can have positive effects but for mature producing provinces they are very damaging and could be fatal.

Mr Osborne proposed a cut in the supplementary charge on oil company profits by 2 percentage points from 32 per cent to 30 per cent. There is to be a “cluster” area allowance to help the development of small fields which sit next to each other. The ringfence expenditure supplement is to extended from six years to 10. Wow! That will really keep the investment flowing. Read more

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

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

The Brent oil price has fallen by more than $10 – which means 10 per cent – in less than two weeks and now stands below $ 100. The precise number matters less than the trend. Now the question is how much further prices will fall.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with the ability to cut production and to keep prices up. Some feel the Saudis are using the fall to discourage investment in high-cost projects including tight oil and some deep water ventures. I am not convinced. The Saudi oil minister, Dr Al Naimi looks tired and unsuited to such a high-stakes game. I expect the Saudis to pursue the tactic of making small incremental cuts in output in the hope that the market will stabilise. I doubt if this will work. Only a cut of 1.5m to 2m b/d will suffice to maintain prices and that would squeeze Saudi revenues too much. With growing domestic demand Saudi Arabia has little room for manoeuvre. As noted last week, the Saudis seem to be in process of losing control of the oil price. Read more

Tamar, a natural gas platform off IsraelThe Eastern Mediterranean is never dull. The whole area – land and sea – has been contested for centuries. And now, it turns out to have natural resources. Over the last decade, the area known as the Levant Basin has been identified as one of the world’s more interesting areas for exploration.

The first gas finds off the Israeli coast have led to a reappraisal not just of other areas along the coast from Egypt in the South to Turkey in the North, but also of the coastlines around the whole of the Mediterranean – from Albania to Spain. And the entry of Exxon and Rosneft into Lebanon opens up the prospect of another new exploration area and may provide a key to the development of the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole. Read more

A week after the EU and the IMF announced their bail out plan for Cyprus, it is now clear how little consideration was given to the knock on implications of the proposals. Even if they are never implemented, the ideas put forward might change the behaviour of those with funds in banks across southern Europe. But the proposals will have still wider implications – not least for Europe’s energy security.

The Russian reaction to the proposed bank deposit levy had been predictably furious. Surely someone in Brussels or Berlin could have foreseen what would happen? Did no-one realise that a good proportion of the Russian money in Cyprus belonged to people rather close to the Kremlin? Read more

When I first wrote about shale gas in the FT, back in 2011, one very senior oil industry executive told me that I was badly wrong and that shale would never have an impact beyond perhaps a couple of small areas in the US. A year later he did have the good grace to apologise.

Now shale gas is everywhere – from Ukraine, to China to South Africa (those are just the places where major investments were announced last week). There are still those who deny the importance of shale development, but like those who deny climate change they are beginning to look increasingly out of touch. Read more

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

The abandonment by Shell of this years drilling plans in the Arctic is hardly a surprise. The project is complex and has run into one technical problem after another. Shell is rightly prudent when it comes to the risks involved in an area which is both environmentally sensitive and under the intense scrutiny of the world’s media not to mention a set of lobby groups energised by the prospect of taking on one of the world biggest companies.

There will now be another delay adding to the five years and several billions of dollars the company has already devoted to the project.

Shell has decided to take on the environmental lobby and to prove that the Arctic can be drilled and developed safely. That is a big bold move in itself, but the real problem for the Shell board and it’s shareholders – which include most pension funds in the UK and the US – is that the economics of development make sense only if one assumes ever higher oil prices.

Shell has never published a detailed analysis of the economics of Arctic development. The commonly quoted numbers for the resources which could be found – 26bn barrels of oil and 130tn cubic feet of gas – suggest a big prize. But what is the cost of development? And what oil or gas price in the US or the world market is necessary to make the project profitmaking?

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