Policy

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Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi holds a press conference in Doha after meeting energy ministers from Russia, Qatar and Venezuela  © Getty Images

The Saudis blinked. The latest deal — an agreement with Russia to freeze oil output at January levels if they are joined by other large producers — won’t rebalance the oil market immediately and the early surge in prices last week was rather premature. But they blinked and that is all important. The myth of Saudi power is broken.

The real steps necessary to rebalance the market have yet to come. Saudi production must come down. Others may join in the process but an overall cut of 3m barrels a day is now necessary and most of that will have to come from Saudi Arabia. Stocks must be run off. That will take time. Iran must be welcomed back into the market. That process will be slow and even estimates of another 400,000 barrels a day during 2016 now look high. But they will come back and have to be accommodated. The interests of other Opec member states — such as Venezuela and Algeria — must be taken into account. The Saudi’s lack of respect for their fellow producers over the last year has shaken many traditional alliances. The kingdom does not have that many allies. Read more

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Climate change demonstrators during the Paris conference  © Getty Images

Two papers published in the last few weeks provide a sobering reality check after the rhetorical success of the Paris climate change conference in December. Getting any agreement was a diplomatic triumph but producing real change on the scale necessary will be much more difficult. The two documents are very different but both excellent pieces of work. Their calculations and assumptions are detailed, transparent and, most important of all, evidence based. Both, however, reflect a degree of unjustified optimism. Read more

Oil pumps in operation at an oilfield ne

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We are about to enter the period when companies announce their annual results, declare dividends and reveal strategy updates. Across the energy sector from the major oil companies to the utilities to the smallest renewables businesses a huge amount of high-paid time is being devoted to the preparation of slide packs and press briefing notes. After a year of spectacular underperformance, many chief executives will rightly be nervous about the questions they could be asked.

Every individual company has its own particular problems but here are some generic questions that should be addressed to all those leading the main energy businesses across the world. Investors should be very wary of putting their money into any company whose leaders cannot provide straightforward and convincing answers. Read more

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Oil is now $30 a barrel. For investors and those dependent on investment income the question is whether the pain being suffered by the oil and gas producers is about to spread to the wider economy. Over the next month most of the companies involved in the sector will produce their annual results and announce their dividends. Investors will be watching anxiously for cuts. But the stark and rather shocking truth is that most companies in the oil and gas business are being forced to borrow to meet their payout commitments and that is a dangerous thing to do.

After a fall in prices of 70 per cent over the last 18 months there is a strong prima facie case for dividends to be reduced. That would painful for investors — not least the institutions that are relying on big oil for more than 23 per cent of total market yield. (Another 8.9 per cent of yield should have come from the mining sector if Glencore and Anglo hadn’t already cut their dividends.) But will it actually happen? Read more

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A tunnel at the LNG terminal under construction at Dunkirk, France  © Getty Images

If you think the fall in the oil price is dramatic and disruptive, take a moment to consider the natural gas market. The world’s three main gas markets — in Europe, the US and Asia – may be distinct but the growth of trade in liquefied natural gas which can take it across the world has linked them. The impact of a swing in one market soon spreads across the globe.

According to the excellent analysis from Energy Aspects, prices for LNG in the key north-east Asian market – the supply into Japan and Korea – are down this year by more than 50 per cent to between $7 and 8 per million British thermal units (Btu), even allowing for a slight seasonal ramp up in the fourth quarter. That is almost 70 per cent down from the peak in 2013.

Unfortunately, at the time of that peak many companies got carried away and set in train dozens of new LNG projects worldwide. The complex technology of liquefaction means that each project is expensive – costing at least $5bn and often much more. Of the projects planned dozens have been cancelled, often forcing investors to write off substantial sums. But the bad news is that many are still under construction. Once work has begun, it is very hard for companies to go back on a major investment decision. Read more

National Tribute to The Victims of The Paris Terrorist Attacks At Les Invalides In Paris

Laurent Fabius  © Getty Images

The agreement on climate change in Paris will satisfy no one. The complaints are predictable and have already begun.

The commitments made are not legally binding and political decisions could be altered by future elections or regime changes. The funds available for adjustment are too limited and, of course, there is no carbon price.

All true, but politics is the art of the possible and what has been agreed is a triumph for French diplomacy and for the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius personally. Many deserve credit but success depends on leadership. He is the Energy Personality of the Year because he has played a crucial role in changing how the sector will evolve worldwide for decades to come. Read more

George Osborne’s concept of a “Northern Powerhouse” is a good and timely idea. The UK economy is disproportionately skewed to London and the South East. Other regions need development and jobs. The cities of the North – from Liverpool and Manchester to Leeds and Sheffield provide a strong base with great potential. What they can achieve could provide a model for other neglected areas. But good ideas need to be translated into tangible actions. So here is one possibility – Northern Power – a municipal energy business for the North of England. Read more

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Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin talk at the G20 summit in Antalya,Turkey, on November 16  © Getty Images

Russia is coming in from the cold. A full-scale reset of the relationship with the international community is well underway. A country that was a pariah state a few weeks ago, isolated by sanctions, is rapidly becoming an essential ally. What does this sudden turn of events mean for the energy business?

The reason for the reset is clear: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The common enemy is the Islamist militant group Isis. For the Germans and for Chancellor Angela Merkel the destabilisation of Syria has opened up a flood tide of refugees. The warm welcome offered initially in Germany, Sweden and a few other parts of Europe has chilled. Something must be done to stop the flow at source.

For the French and many others across Europe, terrified by last week’s awful events in Paris, the identity of the enemy in Syria and the Middle East has also come into sharp focus. The same is true in Moscow where the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai desert has made those in the Kremlin realise that they, too, face a ruthless enemy. When set against the challenge of Isis nothing else matters much. Ukraine and all the other disputes can be assigned to a distant back burner — not solved but not allowed to get worse. It is time to work together. Read more

Optimism, however essential for human progress, can be very dangerous if misapplied or allowed to run to excess. There can be few better examples of this than the new review of India’s energy future published last week by the International Energy Agency. As you would expect, the paper is fascinating in its detailed description of India’s energy economy. But the forecasts are seriously over optimistic. They gloss over the challenges that even a radical modernising government in Delhi is not managing to overcome and they ignore the very real risks of a much less happy outcome. Read more

British Government Signs A Deal For New Nuclear Power Plant

EDF's existing nuclear power plants at Hinkley Point  © Getty Images

The announcement that some form of funding structure for Britain’s nuclear new build at Hinkley Point in Somerset has been agreed must be read with care. UK consumers and taxpayers are not allowed to see the whole agreement — that privilege is restricted to the French and Chinese governments and their state-owned enterprises — but it is clear that this week’s statements do not amount to the final deal. Much remains to be negotiated, with the UK at a considerable disadvantage because of its all too evident desperation to complete a deal.

Much attention has focused on the relationship between the UK and China, on the cyber security risks of allowing the Chinese to own, construct and operate a plant of their own in the UK and on the political consequences of the deal for George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer who is now known to the black humorists of Whitehall as the Manchurian Candidate. The other, and potentially more serious, issue is what the announcement and the further delay it implies means for UK energy policy. Read more

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The conflict at the heart of Germany’s energy policy is finally coming to a head. Can Germany claim to be an environmental leader while continuing to burn more coal than any other developed country apart from the US?

The issue is easier to describe than to resolve. Germany has led the EU in adopting “green” policies, including the promotion and subsidy of renewables. Energy consumers, including industry, have tolerated ever-rising energy costs. Electricity in Germany costs over 90 per cent more than in the US. The country has begun the process of closing its nuclear power stations — the last will be closed in 2022, although a vexed question remains over how the decommissioning will be paid for. Energy policy enjoys support across the political spectrum. The Green party won just 7.3 per cent of the vote in the last federal election but green ideas permeate the thinking of all the other parties. The grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats is committed to reducing emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, 70 per cent by 2040 and 80 to 95 per cent by 2050. The whole plan is explained in a post by Mat Hope on the CarbonBrief website. The German approach is now being exported to Brussels with a determined effort under the new European Commission to shape an EU energy policy along the same lines. Read more

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Amber Rudd  © Getty Images

Last week’s decision by the UK’s new energy secretary, Amber Rudd, to approve Centrica’s plans for a dramatic increase in gas imports from Gazprom has cast a cloud of uncertainty over Britain’s policy on sanctions against Russia. In recent months the UK, along with the US, has been one of the strongest advocates of tough sanctions. In Europe, opinion has been more equivocal and divided. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, called the Russian occupation of Ukraine “a criminal act” when she was in Moscow last weekend. Many in Germany and France, however, see sanctions as pointless. To them, Russia is a neighbour, difficult at times certainly, but a presence to be lived with. Ukraine on this view is of no strategic importance and its multiple problems stem from its own corruption. Now it seems that the UK has switched sides in this debate.

The first thing to be made clear is that Centrica has done nothing wrong. The company’s intention of doing business with Russia was signalled at the AGM three weeks ago when its chairman said that Russia would be a major supplier of gas to Europe for a long time to come. I don’t doubt that Centrica has got a very good deal. Having won approval so easily I wouldn’t be surprised if they do more business with Gazprom. Read more

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An intriguing process has begun in the EU, almost unnoticed outside the small world of Brussels and the shrinking circle of those who believe in an ever-closer European Union. The EU is asserting its role in the energy market. The policy was nodded through at the March meeting of the European Council on the basis of a paper published at the end of February by the new European commissioner for the energy union — Maros Sefcovic, one of the vice-presidents of the EU and also one of the most effective players in a Commission that is already showing itself to be stronger and more determined than its last three predecessors.

The February document was a good piece of work. It is careful and meticulous in the best European tradition. There are no grand statements of ambition. No country is forced to give up the power to set its own energy mix. The French will not be told to start fracking for shale gas or the extensive volumes of tight oil that exist in the Paris basin. Germany will not be required to change its policy of phasing out nuclear power. There is no proposal to unify taxation on energy production or consumption. The idea floated by Commission president Donald Tusk to establish a common buyer for imported natural gas in order to strengthen the trading power of the EU was not endorsed.

What changes is simply but crucially that a new level of policy making is established above the nation states. 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

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman meets with US President Barack Obama

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman meets with US President Barack Obama  © SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Having talked vaguely for many years about the possibility of developing nuclear power as an alternative source of energy, it seems that Saudi Arabia under its new leadership may finally be taking steps towards what would be one of the world’s largest nuclear building programmes over the next decade. 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

View inside the Hunterston B nuclear power station

Inside the Hunterston B nuclear power station in Scotland  © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

2015 will be a crucial year for the nuclear industry across the world. Japan is expected to start bringing its nuclear reactors back on stream — four years after the Fukushima disaster. Elsewhere, a dozen different countries are considering whether or not to commit to new plants, with the decisions further complicated by the fall in the price of competing fuels such as coal and natural gas. Much depends on what happens in the UK, where the progress of proposed new developments will signal whether nuclear can be competitive as a long term source of energy. Read more

BP oil platform in the North Sea  © Reuters

After 40 years of production that far exceeded original expectations, the North Sea oil and gas industry is in serious jeopardy. At the beginning of the year, there was a degree of optimism following Sir Ian Wood’s report and the establishment of a new, more interventionist regulator considered capable of driving a further wave of activity. But with the fall in oil prices over the past four months, the mood has changed dramatically. Read more

A solar thermal research facility  © Michael Hall/ Getty Images

Given the seriousness of the messages contained in last week’s report from the International Panel on Climate Change, one might expect some sense of urgency around the search for solutions. Regrettably, that is not the case. Governments and campaigners especially in Europe seem rigidly focused on pursuing the holy grail of a global deal, under which the world’s major economies would move together in a synchronised process of decarbonisation. The futility of that approach is evidenced by the fact that Europe itself has been unable to set an effective carbon price and has done almost nothing to advance the technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is one of the few ways in which emissions could be managed. Read more

A postwar power cut; London 1947 (Photo by Reg Birkett/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A power cut in London in 1947 © Reg Birkett/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Developed industrial economies should not be at risk of power blackouts in any but the most extreme and exceptional circumstances. The ability to anticipate demand and to put in place spare capacity may not be available to the poorest economies of sub Saharan Africa but it is certainly available in the UK. The risks of a tightening balance of capacity and demand have been obvious and widely discussed for at least the past three years. To have reached the point where National Grid are having to issue warnings and to tell some consumers that they will have to agree contracts which allow the supplies they need to be interrupted because of potential shortages of supply is shameful. Read more