Oil

One of the more regrettable conclusions from 2013 is that the Arctic cannot and will not be preserved and kept pristine from the process of economic development. The resource base is too substantial, the opportunity too tempting. As in the Garden of Eden the apple cannot be left untouched. Development is starting and will continue. The next question is whether it can be managed properly. Read more

Let us start with two questions. Which of the following energy companies is planning to sell assets next year – Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Total, Statoil, ENI? Answer – all of them. Which of those companies is planning to cut capital expenditure in 2014? Answer – all of them, with the sole exception of Exxon which is planning a modest increase. If you extend the list of companies the answers are the same.

Taken together these answers reveal some interesting points about the oil and gas industry. Most companies now feel they have been over investing – either by doing too much or by allowing costs to rise out of control. Returns have not matched the growth in spending. Shareholders are restive. Asset sales are normal business – every big company builds up a tail of marginal, non-strategic assets. But the scale of current plans goes beyond that. The tail has gone and the assets for sale now are in most cases attractive commercial propositions. Read more

Ukraine, to coin a phrase, is a far way country of which we know little. Its geographic misfortune is to be the buffer state between western Europe and Russia. With all eyes on Iran, too little attention is being paid to the fact that Ukraine is being forced back under the control of the Kremlin.

This week’s events send a very negative signal to western investors who had hoped to develop Ukraine’s extensive shale gas resources both for local use and for export to other parts of eastern and central Europe. The assertion of Russian power over President Viktor Yanukovich and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov will also send a shiver across the other former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe. Some, like Poland and Romania, are safely within the EU. Many others are not, to say nothing of the major energy producers around the Caspian Sea, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Read more

The US energy sector must be bitterly annoyed with President Obama. The deal with Iran agreed in Geneva over the weekend does not lift sanctions but it sends an unmistakeable signal that the door to doing business is opening again. Many many companies around the world will be flying in, most with the full support of their Governments. The only ones who won’t and can’t are American companies forced to respect to the letter every sentence of the sanctions legislation until it is repealed. Read more

Two years and one month after the death Muammar Gaddafi, the continuing power struggle in Libya is beginning to affect the oil market. So far the impact is slight, indicating the extent of OPEC’s spare capacity. The bigger risk will come if the instability spreads from Libya across North Africa or to other parts of the region. For investors, events in Libya are a reminder that any investments in the Middle East carry a large political risk. Read more

Nowhere is the failure of the talks between the international community and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme more welcome than in Riyadh. A fudged deal would have given legitimacy to the government in Tehran and confirmed the weakness of the strategic alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US.

More important still, it would have raised the prospect of the Saudis having to make serious cuts in oil production and exports to support the price of the output from Opec, the oil producers’ cartel. These are cuts the kingdom can ill afford. But, sooner or later, Iran will be on its way back into the oil market. Read more

The fate of proposals to reform the Mexican oil and gas industry, now being considered by the country’s lawmakers, matters well beyond Mexico itself. The outcome could reshape the energy sector in a number of important countries. 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

Carl Icahn’s purchase of a 5 per cent stake in the Canadian company Talisman Energy marks the entry of activist shareholders into the energy business. Could it indicate the beginning of a revolution?

Activist shareholders have a bad reputation, particularly in Europe where they are seen as asset strippers who pull apart good businesses for a short-term gain. That can happen but they can also be very productive in forcing companies to examine very hard what they are doing with their shareholders’ money. Read more

For the first time in more than a century Turkey has the potential to play a crucial role in the world economy. Its geographic position offers the tantalising prospect of the country becoming one of the key transit routes for both oil and gas from four different regions – southern Russia, central Asia, the Middle East and now from the newly discovered gasfields of the eastern Mediterranean. The only question is whether politics and emotions will get in the way. Read more

The moment is coming for a Presidential decision on the Keystone XL project – the extension of a existing pipeline system designed to take over 800,000 barrels a day of crude from the oil sands of Alberta to the refineries on the Gulf coast. A few months ago the betting was that reluctant approval would be given. Now, however, the pipeline looks more likely to be the victim of Washington politics. Read more

The importance of China in the global energy economy can hardly be overstated. Chinese consumption drives the world market prices of oil, gas and coal. According to a new forecast from the US Energy Information Administration, China could well become the largest importer of oil in the world as soon as this autumn. But how secure is the Chinese economy and what would happen to the energy market if the glory days come to an end.?

To illustrate the current reality lets look at a few statistics. Read more

Oil prices are up to $115 a barrel for Brent crude on the basis of market fears that western governments will not be able to limit their involvement in Syria to a few missile strikes shot from warships located safely offshore and that the Sunni-Shia conflict will spread across the Middle East. The forward market is suggesting that spot prices will go even higher.

Maybe. The western involvement certainly looks ill-prepared and lacking in strategic purpose. The response to what is happening in Syria from the US, in particular, reminds me of the impotent response of the dying Ottoman regime to the gradual collapse of its empire across the Middle East in the years before the first world war. Read more

Robert Mugabe has “won” another election in Zimbabwe. In plain English for “won” read “stolen”. The people of Zimbabwe are condemned it seems to suffer under dictatorial rule for even longer. The conventional wisdom is twofold. First, that there is nothing to be done, short of a full scale invasion – something no one has the stomach for. And secondly that things will get better when Mr Mugabe, now 89, finally passes on. I would challenge both statements.

The chances that Mr Mugabe’s death or incapacity will be followed by a transition to a normal pluralist democracy are slim. The current regime is not totally dependent on him. The ruling party and the cadre around them are well entrenched and clearly doing very well out of the country’s natural resource and mineral wealth, even if very little of the money stays in Zimbabwe. Mr Mugabe’s successor could easily be a military or security chief who is part of this ruling clique. Those in power may have too much to lose to give up easily. 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

One part of the financial market which is thriving is the so called activist investment community. Could the international oil and gas sector be their next target?

US majors' performance vs S&P500 Read more

Success always brings its own burdens. The Chinese economy has grown in real terms by around 8 or 9 per cent a year since 1980. Some 800 million people have been lifted out of subsistence. Dozens of new cities have been built. The country is now one of the world’s great economic powers even if it is still not allowed to join the G8. And growth continues. China is the world’s biggest building site.

One of the burdens which has come with economic success is the need to import oil. China has found very little oil, despite extensive exploration efforts – especially in the South China sea. Net imports have therefore risen steadily from zero twenty years ago to 5.6m barrels a day last month. Read more

The departure of Peter Voser from Shell may be entirely voluntary and personal but the consequential change of leadership raises some very big issues for Shell’s board and the company’s investors.

Those who don’t know the big energy companies from the inside can all too easily imagine that life at the top is soft and easy. Corporate jets, lavish offices, great salaries and even greater bonuses. All true. But corporate life at that level is still a 24:7 existence made up of endless travel, hard negotiations with unpleasant people and unrelenting pressure from investors who are never satisfied. Within the company there are barons to be managed.

Externally there are always, even in the best of companies, running sores, often dating back decades and inherently insoluble. In Shell’s case the running sore is Nigeria. Then there are the mistakes, also inevitable in any company which takes risks. Shell’s mistake in recent years has been its ill fated adventure in Canada and the Arctic. Some put the total cost at $10bn and the ability to write off that amount without blinking is further evidence of just how strong the majors still are. The reality was that Shell was not Arctic-ready. Local managers were allowed too much freedom. The mistakes will make it difficult for the Shell board to appoint Marvin Odum – the man directly responsible for the US operations – as the next chief executive.

None of these problems was caused by Peter Voser. But as CEO you are responsible for everything. I can understand why even at the early age of 54 he is ready for a change of lifestyle, and I wish him well. The issue for Shell is whether it should now change its strategy as well as its leader. There is a very good case for doing so. Read more

A report from the Grantham Institute and the Carbon Tracker initiative, titled “Unburnable Carbon”, has produced a studied silence from the energy industry. The study, published last week, is privately being dismissed as the predictable conclusions of people who don’t understand business. But investors should take it more seriously because it opens up some very interesting questions about what energy companies are doing with their money.

In summary, the report says the investment of more capital to find hydrocarbons is a waste of money. More than enough has been already identified to fulfill the world’s needs if we are to meet the carbon limits implied by international agreements on climate change. Under those agreements, carbon use will be reduced over the next four decades, leaving substantial supplies stranded. On this basis, some companies – and therefore the funds which hold them – are carrying dangerous levels of risk, based on the false assumption that the international agreement will never be implemented. The companies are overvalued because some of their assets will never be used.

I have two points of doubt about this thesis. Read more