Oil

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

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

The news of another excellent year for investment in the North Sea will come as a surprise only to those who do not understand the dynamic relationship between economics and technology.

The original predictions were that North Sea oil and gas – certainly in the UK sector – would be exhausted by 1990. A strict depletion policy in Norway might keep production running for a few more years. That was the received wisdom of the 1970s.

Now, 56 years after the first gas was produced at the West Sole field, the prospect for the whole province is for at least two more decades of production. Total output is down but there is a long tail. Resources which were once thought inaccessible are now being brought onstream thanks to advances in drilling and reservoir management technology. Read more



The sanctions imposed on Iran are not working. The Iranian economy is in a mess with shortages and inflation. But, as a very interesting paper just published by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute shows, it is not collapsing. Non-essential imports have been cut back and a range of exports – including minerals, cement and agricultural products – are actually growing. Iran’s main trading partners are Iraq, China, the UAE and India. Unemployment is high and no one believes the official figures, but it is probably lower than that of Spain. And, most seriously, oil sanctions are breaking down.

 Read more

The Brent oil price fell by more than six dollars last week and at $ 104 is now 20 per cent below its recent peak in the spring of 2012. No particular events have triggered the fall. There has been no deal with Iran which would end sanctions. Economic activity levels are hardly exciting but they haven’t suddenly collapsed. Uncertainties around North Korea might normally have been expected to push prices up. Read more

Vladmir Putin (left) and Igor Sechin (right)“We are about to see a new wave of consolidation in the world’s oil and gas business.” The words are not mine – they were spoken earlier this month by the President of what is now the world’s largest energy business. Igor Sechin is the President of Rosneft, the Russian company which with the completion of the takeover of TNK now produces over 4 million barrels of oil per day – more even than Exxon.

Rosneft is 70 per cent owned by the Russian state. Mr Sechin, who is famous for a spell in Soviet intelligence, is one of the most powerful men in Russia. John D. Rockefeller used every device possible to limit competition as he built Standard Oil and was eventually defeated by a cultural and legal resistance to monopoly. Mr Sechin has no such problems. The consolidation of Russia’s oil assets over the last decade has had the full support of the Kremlin. Read more

Climate pessimists, shale gas deniers, Opec ministers and (most important of all) investors in the energy sector should read the new Energy Outlook to 2040 produced by Exxon Mobil. It is an excellent piece of work, even if there is one important omission. Read more

The rumours that Vladimir Putin is about to replace Aleksey Miller as the chief executive of Gazprom continue to swirl around the markets across Europe. As usual it is hard to know what is true and what is dreamt up by Mr Miller’s enemies. Removing Mr Miller would not, however, solve Gazprom’s problems. What the company really needs is a new strategy. What should it be. ? Read more

The death of Hugo Chávez and the prospect of a regime change in Venezuela will cause no more than a momentary blip in the oil market. This is a remarkable change from the situation a few years ago, when developments in Carcacas would have destabilised prices across the world.

In reality, Chávez diminished Venezuela’s potential role in the international oil business by undermining the status of the state company Petróleos de Venezuela SA and excluding major international investment. Production and exports from Venezuela are now well below their potential levels.

To restore PDVSA to its former glory will take time. Many of the people best able to build the company and the country now live comfortably in London or New York and will take some persuading to go back home. Oil industry investors will be circling the airport in their private jets, but there is no new consensus as yet as to the terms on which they might be allowed to return. That too will take time. Read more