Oil

Conspiracy theories abound around the oil price fall. A 25 per cent drop in less than three months is certainly exceptional and the assumption is that in a politically driven market a political decision by someone, somewhere must have forced prices down. The most popular conspiracy theory is that the US and the Saudis have combined to take money away from their major enemies – Russia and Iran. In both cases, [the argument goes], a shortage of revenue could help to bring President Vladimir Putin and the Supreme Leader, the ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the negotiating table to sort out a deal on Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a complicated world anything could be true. I don’t happen to believe the conspiracy theory but I accept that it is a possibility. To me the interesting thing is what happens next, and that is down to the Saudis. The risk for the whole industry, and for many countries dependent on oil revenues, is that Saudi Arabia’s games have led them to lose control of the market. Prices could go a good deal lower with wide and mostly negative consequences, starting with more regional instability and a cutback in investment which can only feed the next cycle. 

A wind turbine complex on the Zhemo Mountain in the outskirts of Dali, in China's southwestern province of Yunnan (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

A wind turbine complex on the Zhemo Mountain in the outskirts of Dali, in China's southwestern province of Yunnan © LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

The starting point for anyone wanting to understand how the world’s energy markets will develop over the next 20 years must be China. Companies, bankers, investors and those of us who try to follow the industry will have to shift our attention away from local circumstances in Europe or the US. What happens in both continents is interesting, but on the world scale it pales into insignificance. Even a very radical change in the European market — a real carbon price or a single common energy policy, or indeed the development of French and German shale gas — would be as nothing compared to the transformation that is coming, as China becomes the dominant force in every part of the energy business. 

The Brent oil price has now fallen by 15 per cent in less than three months and is now below the psychologically important figure of $100 a barrel. Last week I wrote about the reaction in the industry. But the fall is beginning to have political consequences as well.

Brent Crude Oil Future three month chart

Across the world oil producing and exporting countries have come to rely on high, and ideally rising prices. Some countries save the revenue for a rainy day, but most, especially those with rising populations, tend to spend. Circumstances vary, as do the realistic options for adjustment, but the current concern is real and will shape political actions well beyond the oil sector itself. 

Energy executives returning from their summer holidays face some hard choices. I know of at least three major oil and gas companies that have ordered full scale strategic reviews.

The problem, for the companies and for investors, is that prices are falling. The Brent oil price is down 15 per cent since June and by the time you read this could have slipped below $100 [Update: this morning, Brent fell 87 cents to $99.95 a barrel – a 14-month low.] Natural gas and coal prices are also down. 

China's Jiang Jemin, the CEO of CNPC and Tony Hayward of BP smile after signing a major oil deal with Iraq in 2009 (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Happier days: China's Jiang Jemin, the chief executive of China National Petroleum Corporation, and BP's Tony Hayward, signing a major oil deal with Iraq in 2009 (AFP/Getty Images)

One of the ironies of the current chaotic situation in the Middle East is that a country that could arguably be at risk of losing the most is standing aside.

While the US and some European powers agonise over whether – and how – they should intervene to prevent the disintegration of Iraq, China is absent. But China needs Iraqi oil in growing volumes. The country’s import dependence for crude and products now stands at 8m barrels a day and is rising. According to the latest International Energy Agency estimates, Chinese imports could be well over 11mbd by 2030. That is on modest assumptions about economic growth and generous assumptions about gains in efficiency and substitution out of oil, in sectors where a switch is possible. The figure could be higher if China cannot increase its own production.

The only country in the world likely to be able to provide such an increase in production is Iraq, and it is no accident that China is heavily invested in the development of fields such as Rumaila and West Qurna outside Basra in the South. On the Iraqi government’s own figures, China is the largest foreign investor in the country’s oil sector. As US oil consumption and import requirements decline, energy security has become a Chinese issue.