Oil

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

US oil rig. Getty Images

I have always been sceptical of the extensive theories of peak oil built around the study first published in 1956 by M King Hubbert. Those studies have always seemed to ignore the reality of technical progress that opens new frontiers and reduces costs. They have been much used to support the idea that oil prices should be ever increasing, on the basis that scarcity should be reflected in high prices.

The reality is that oil provinces (think of the North Sea) keep going well beyond their original schedule, and recovery rates from established fields keep rising. On average, even after some advances in reservoir management technology, only some 50 per cent of the oil in place is recovered from most fields, so there is a long way still to go. On top of that, we now have tight oil (the oil equivalent of shale gas), which BP in its latest Long Term Outlook now expects to provide some 9 per cent of global production in 2030. Read more

Oil refinery. Getty Images

The energy market is moving on two very different tracks. Oil prices are stubbornly high and gas prices are low, especially in the US, and look set to fall further across the world. The question is when, if ever, will these two tracks meet?

Let’s start with why the oil price at $114 a barrel for Brent remains so high. There is no physical shortage and demand growth worldwide is minimal. The answer lies in fear of what might happen next. The threat of an open conflict between Israel and Iran may have receded but there are enough uncertainties in the market to keep people nervous. Libya is out of control because of the limited international support for the new government following last year’s military intervention by France and Britain. There is continued nervousness about events in Algeria after the terrorist attack last month and concern about the negative effect on investment of the renewed outbreaks of violence in Iraq. Read more

Petrobras is in a mess. The Brazilian state company makes promises year after year, only to disappoint. Worse still, the Brazilian government heaps on the pressure by trying to push up production targets. But it refuses for national political reasons to give the company the means and freedom to deliver.

To start with the good news. Petrobras keeps discovering huge volumes of oil and gas. The Lula field for instance is estimated to hold 8bn bbls of oil, making it a world-class elephant. Offshore Brazil is clearly one of the most prolific new provinces in the world.

That’s the end of the good news. The bad news is that Petrobras seems unable to either set or deliver credible development plans for the resources it holds. Read more

Western oil workers at In Amenas, the gas plant in Algeria that militants stormed on January 16, knew how vulnerable they were.

An executive from Statoil, the Norwegian oil company, told a visitor to the facility in 2007 that he worried about the risks to expatriate staff travelling to and from the site. After flying from Algiers into the middle of the Sahara, they faced an hour-long bus trip to In Amenas. “We want to build an airstrip near the plant and avoid bus transportation from the airport,” he said. Read more

Tel Aviv, Israel's financial centre. Getty Images

There is much talk in Davos of black swans, grey swans and white swans. But what about a kosher swan?

For the uninitiated, black swans are unexpected events that have a dramatic impact and sweep away previous certainties and plans.

Tel Aviv is a long way from Davos and not many Israeli politicians find their way up the Magic Mountain, but Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, is a very rare exception. Read more

For the oil and gas companies involved in Algeria, the primary focus for the next few days will be the safety of their staff. Big companies such as BP and Statoil can from the outside seem inhuman. From within they work as families. Many people in London, Aberdeen, Stavanger and Oslo will know one or more of the men caught up in the desert attack. Read more

A large proportion of oil is now exported to China. Getty Images

The International Energy Agency is one of the more successful of all the international institutions. It has avoided the rocks of ideology – unlike the IMF – and the sands of overweening bureaucracy – unlike the World Bank.

The Agency produces some excellent studies and first class data. But it badly needs to keep up with the times. No international agency working on energy should be excluding China and India from full membership.

The IEA was established in 1974 as a grouping of energy – particularly oil – importing countries to combat the market dominance of Opec. The crucial agreement behind its establishment was acceptance of the need to share the burden of adjustment in the event of any major supply disruption. “Rationing” – though the word was never used – was clearly preferable to a free-for-all bidding war in which countries sought to secure supplies for themselves. Read more