Iranians protest against Saudi Arabia after the hajj stampede  © Getty Images

Oil prices are now 50 per cent lower than they were a year ago, and less than 40 per cent of their peak in 2012. Worldwide, there is a continuing surplus of supply over demand of around 2.5m to 3m barrels a day. This is despite the loss of exports from Libya and two bloody wars – the first against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) in Syria and Iraq, the another against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Those two wars, which do not directly affect any significant oil producing areas, are proxy conflicts for the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now, however, there is a growing risk of open war between Riyadh and Tehran. Oil facilities and exports would inevitably be primary targets and in those circumstances a price spike would be unavoidable. The question is whether such an escalation can be prevented.

Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have never been close. The conflict is partly religious, partly economic and territorial. Both want to be the clear regional leader. In recent months relations have deteriorated. The latest trigger is the death of 767 Islamic pilgrims at the annual hajj in Mecca. The dead included an estimated 169 Iranians. Since the tragedy – caused by a stampede at a bottleneck as about 2m took part in the journey – Iran’s leaders have used the event as a stick to beat the Saudi authorities in general and the royal family in Riyadh in particular. The failure of the Saudis to return the dead Iranians to their own country has provoked an unspecific commitment of “retaliation” from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The heightened language indicates the tension that pervades the region. The situation is comparable to Europe in the months before the first world war, and equally dangerous. Read more


Oil sprays from a well at Tuba oil field in Iraq  © Getty Images

Oil is now clearly a cyclical commodity that is in a period of over-supply. According to recent commentaries from the International Energy Agency, the excess of production over consumption was as much as 3m barrels a day in the second quarter of this year, which is why prices have fallen. The question for producers, consumers and investors is: how long will it be before the cycle turns back up?

The initial caveat, of course, is that the “normal” oil market could be overturned by political decisions at any time. The Saudis, instead of greedily trying to maximise their market share and imposing huge losses on others, could decide that the stability of the region, and of their own kingdom, would be better served by cutting production and settling for a new equilibrium. There is a chance of that, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and the Saudis are under huge pressure from other Opec members but there is a mood of rigid arrogance in Riyadh which suggests that the necessary climb down will not come easily. What follows assumes that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and his son the deputy crown prince stick to their current policy.

What then drives the cycle ? Read more

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For investors who thought the situation in the oil sector could not get worse, the last few weeks have come as a bad surprise. In the US, West Texas Intermediate prices have slipped below $40 a barrel and on Monday Brent crude fell below $44. There is no obvious sign yet that the bottom of the cycle has been reached and the latest negative data from China adds further downward pressure. The next casualty of the falling price will be corporate dividends.

Much attention has been paid to the implications of lower oil prices on countries such as Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria which depend for the bulk of their national income on oil. For them, the economic and political implications are serious. As we saw at the end of the 1980s, not just in the former Soviet Union but also in Opec states such as Algeria, a heavy fall in prices undermines the social contract between governing elites and the wider population. Both those countries look vulnerable now, as do a range of others including Angola, Brazil and Nigeria. In all those cases the impact of a price fall compounds existing problems. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that one or more of these nations will see a regime change before the end of the year. 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

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Of Saudi Arabia Visits Jordan

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visiting Jordan this month  © Getty Images

With the latest analysis from the International Energy Agency showing that oil production capacity continues to rise despite the sharp fall in prices, is Saudi Arabia ready to admit that its strategy of over-production designed to force other producers out of the market has failed?

Over the last year, Saudi Arabia has been pursuing what Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, described last week as a policy of flexing its muscles – both in the region and in the oil market. The policy is obviously failing. The question now is whether the kingdom will keep going, doubling down on its current approach, or will step back and change course. The second option would involve a significant loss of face for the new king and his favourite son. The costs of simply ploughing on, however, could be much worse. The outcome will shape the future of the region and of the international oil market. Read more


President Vladimir Putin  © Getty Images

With oil prices back down to $50 a barrel for Brent crude, a falling gas price and its share of the European energy market declining, the Russian economy is in real trouble. The situation is dangerous because the problems cannot easily be corrected. The risk is that the economic problems could lead to political instability both within Russia and around its borders.

Anyone wanting to understand the historical context for what is happening in Russia should read Restless Empire a newly published book written around a series of maps which take go back to the emergence of the Slavs some 5000 years BC. The book, edited by the late Ian Barnes who sadly died before publication, is beautifully presented and free of the biased commentary so often associated with histories of Russia. The maps in particular are fine examples of immaculate design applied to the presentation of complex data. I only wish there were more maps, and in particular more on the production and trade in energy that dominates the modern Russian economy. Read more


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


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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

Shell's Polar Pioneer arrives in Seattle

Shell's Polar Pioneer arrives in Seattle

Great companies become and stay great by taking big bets. The art of betting is, of course, about understanding the odds and being prepared and able to lose if it comes to it. Every big company in the world has been through that process — the only difference in the oil and gas industry is that the numbers are bigger. The general rule of betting in the corporate world is not to put at risk more than 10 per cent of the total business. For the biggest, that leaves plenty of scope.

So there is nothing wrong in principle with taking big bets. What is, puzzling, though is when a company with a record of deep caution stretching back to the second world war makes a series of bets that all run contrary to the conventional wisdom. The company concerned is Shell, which in the past few months has placed three huge betsRead more

Power Station For Both Fishing And Solar Energy Built In Jiaxing

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According to the International Energy Agency in their most recent World Outlook the amount of money required to meet energy needs over the next twenty five years is $51tn. That is in real terms measured in 2013 dollars and amounts to approximately 14 times current German gross domestic product.

Energy investment as defined by the IEA includes the exploration, production, distribution, transportation and processing of all forms of energy. It includes new ventures and replacement of the existing capital stock. Some $30tn of the total is expected to be devoted to fossil fuel extraction, transportation and oil refining, while most of the remainder goes to the power sector including $7.4tn to renewables and $1.5tn to nuclear; $8.7tn goes to the development of transmission and distribution systems. This is, of course, an indicative forecast built around the IEA’s assumptions of some progress towards emissions reduction. The detail is less important than the total. Read more


An employee poses with a pipe used to ca

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Carbon capture and storage is one of the key elements in the various plans for keeping total emissions within safe limits. Different projections give slightly different numbers but the broad consensus is that the process of sequestration — taking the carbon out of hydrocarbons before they are burnt and then burying it — should account for between a sixth and a fifth of the net reduction needed by 2050 if we are to keep global warming to 2C or less. If CCS doesn’t happen on the scale required, either the level of emissions and the risks of climate change will be higher or some other solution must be found. Sir David King, the former UK government chief scientist, puts it more dramatically: “CCS is the only hope for mankind

Keeping global warming to 2C means that the amount of CO2 captured and stored must rise steadily to well over 7,000 Mt per annum by the year 2050. Is CCS on this scale likely to happen? As Simon Evans and Rosamund Pearce point out in an excellent article for Carbon Brief, the industrial scale of the operation required to capture and store that amount of CO2 is far greater than the scale of the current international oil industry. Looking objectively at the current state of play the answer must be that it is very, very unlikely. Why? And what can do done about it? Read more

Last week’s Opec meeting in Vienna confirmed that power has drifted away from the cartel that shaped the oil market for so long. The organisation was unable, as some wanted, to cut production which across Opec is running at about 1.4m barrels a day in excess of the official target. Equally, it was unable to increase production, as others favoured, in order to drive US producers of so-called “tight oil” – that is oil from shale rocks extracted through fracking – out of the market. The conclusion of the meeting was to do nothing. This means that prices will continue to be set by supply and demand. Over the last few weeks prices which had sunk in the spring appeared to be stabilising at around $ 65 a barrel for Brent with WTI five or 6 dollars lower. But such prices were not secure and now, short of a very dramatic development such as an attack by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Saudi Arabia, all the odds are that prices will now fall back again.

Brent Crude Oil Future twelve month chart Read more


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Can a country with an inflation rate of 70 per cent and a shortage of such basic goods as milk and toilet paper really be so dangerous to the US that President Barack Obama is required to declare a national emergency in response to the extraordinary threat to national security that it poses? Apparently so. That is what happened in March and although Mr Obama has now backtracked by saying that Venezuela isn’t really a threat, the executive order has not been rescinded.

More importantly, the damage has been done. The clumsy American approach has reinforced the crumbling authority of the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The US has been designated the national enemy once again and blamed for everything that is going wrong. The Venezuela government opened 200 signing booths and collected a supposed total of 10m signatures for a statement protesting against American imperialism. The result is that the prospect of serious reform in Venezuela has been put back. Reform is much needed, not least in the beleaguered corrupted corporate structure of PDVSA, the state oil company. Read more


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When I wrote a week ago that the next phase in the energy business would be about restructuring, I hadn’t expected the process to start quite so soon. The question now, after Royal Dutch Shell’s planned purchase of BG Group, is not whether or when that restructuring will take place but rather: who is next?

The bankers must be delighted. After years of touting deals around reluctant boardrooms, a marriage has been arranged and the fees will be enormous. The long dearth of big transactions is over and every company in the sector will now be nervously considering whether they should kill or risk being killed. The process is exciting but fraught with danger — for both hunter and prey. Most mergers are in fact takeovers and most takeovers fail to deliver the anticipated gains in value, often because of cultural differences. It will be fascinating to watch the integration of Shell’s ultra-cautious committee structure with BG’s highly personal buccaneering style.

Beyond that, who? 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 provisional agreement to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions led to another fall in oil prices on Friday as the market anticipated the lifting of sanctions and the resumption of full scale Iranian exports. The fall is now overdone and for a series of reasons we are likely to see prices rise — modestly — before the summer.

First, the Iranian agreement is provisional and depends on negotiation of crucial details before the next deadline in June. A number of concerned parties — from the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, who do not want to see the lucrative business interests they have built on the back of sanctions eliminated, to the Israeli government in Jerusalem, which does not believe that any promises from Iran can be trusted —have no interest in seeing the deal completed. Read more

BRAZIL-ROUSSEFF-CONSTRUCTION-SALONThe corruption investigation initiated by the Brazilian prosecutor, Rodrigo Janot, into 54 individuals including leading politicians is just beginning. The allegations behind the inquiry concern the diversion of huge amounts of money from Petrobras, the state oil company.

No one know how much money is involved, which means that no one knows what the company is now worth.

Petrobras’s share price has fallen by 44 per cent over the last year, with some some $90bn wiped off the value of the company in just six months.

Part of that is due to falling oil prices, but more is the direct result of the company’s internal problems. There are no signs yet of the ambulance-chasing investors who like to pick up undervalued assets for a song piling in. They must think, probably with good reason, that the worst is yet to come.

In the US a class action law suit has begun. The scandal could yet bring down the Brazilian government, not least because for most of the period when the corruption is said to have happened Dilma Rousseff just happened to chair Petrobras. It could also be a deep embarrassment for the audit firms who seemed to have missed what was happening.

The question for the moment is what happens now to Petrobras itself. Read more

The urgent attempts by Europe’s leaders to negotiate a solution to the crisis in Ukraine represent an open acknowledgement that the policy of sanctions has so far failed. Mr Putin continues to destabilise the Government in Kiev and to undermine its authority in the east of the country. They may also reflect a growing realisation that sanctions are in danger of backfiring. Greece faces a serious debt crisis but at least the debate on how to resolve that crisis is now being held in the open. we know the options and the risks. In Russia, however, there is another debt crisis which is going unmanaged and which could easily get out of hand. Read more

News has diminished value if it comes from far away. Just as terrorism gets more coverage if it occurs in Paris, much of the analysis of the consequences of falling oil prices has focused on the US shale industry and the North Sea. But spare a thought for some of the other losers, starting with Nigeria where the fall will not only further damage a fragile state but will pose risks which could affect all of us before too long.

It would be good to be able to be optimistic about Nigeria — a country which in the past has been listed as one of the possible economic powerhouses of the 21st century. Remember MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), the successor grouping to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)? Great acronyms invented by the always imaginative Jim O’Neill, but in both cases the groupings look a little shaky and performance is well short of promise. Nowhere more so than in Nigeria, which provides a sharp reminder that even if Opec is broken, oil is still vulnerable to political upheaval. Read more

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany.

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Forget Opec. If cartels can’t control output, they can’t control prices and in due course they fall apart, usually with a great deal of ill will in the process. The evidence of the last six months is that Opec can’t control the market — ask yourself how many Opec members want to see a price of $60 a barrel for their oil. Some in Saudi Arabia think a low price can squeeze out competing suppliers, but that feels like a justification after the fact of a fall which they can’t control. The question now is how the process of adjustment to the new price level will work. Read more