Policy

A sign pointing to Whitehall (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

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Applications close this week for the newly created post of chief executive of the UK civil service. The general reaction to the advertisement of the vacancy has been muted, to put it mildly, with a much repeated view that the job is un-doable.

The role is certainly not an easy one – think of it as Yes Minister with knives – but the conventional wisdom is too negative.

Whitehall badly needs reform and this could be a good way to drive forward the changes which have been so elusive over the past few years. But if they really want change and a modern, professionalised civil service, ministers will have to adapt as well. Read more

William Hague (L) and Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen unveil the logo of the Nato Wales' summit (JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

The unveiling of the Nato Wales' summit logo (AFP/Getty)

In ten days time Nato’s leaders will gather in Wales for their bi-annual summit. There is certainly plenty to discuss at Celtic Manor – Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan and of course the continued inadequacy of defence spending which is leaving the military in many countries unable to fulfill all their stated commitments.

But tucked away in one bland paragraph of the draft communiqué now being circulated is a brief reference to energy security. Let’s hope there is substance behind the words.

Energy policy remains strictly a matter for national governments but the risks arise from the fact that many countries are dependent on imports for large proportions of their daily supplies. Forty years ago the risk came from the growth of oil imports and a reliance on Opec suppliers. Now the risk is an interruption of natural gas supplies. Gas has become progressively more important as a source for electricity production and for heating. The US and Canada are well supplied thanks to the development of shale gas, but Europe is not. Indigenous production in the UK and Dutch sectors of the North Sea has fallen sharply and Europe has slipped into a position where 70 per cent of its daily imports of gas come from RussiaRead more

China's Jiang Jemin, the CEO of CNPC and Tony Hayward of BP smile after signing a major oil deal with Iraq in 2009 (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Happier days: China's Jiang Jemin, the chief executive of China National Petroleum Corporation, and BP's Tony Hayward, signing a major oil deal with Iraq in 2009 (AFP/Getty Images)

One of the ironies of the current chaotic situation in the Middle East is that a country that could arguably be at risk of losing the most is standing aside.

While the US and some European powers agonise over whether – and how – they should intervene to prevent the disintegration of Iraq, China is absent. But China needs Iraqi oil in growing volumes. The country’s import dependence for crude and products now stands at 8m barrels a day and is rising. According to the latest International Energy Agency estimates, Chinese imports could be well over 11mbd by 2030. That is on modest assumptions about economic growth and generous assumptions about gains in efficiency and substitution out of oil, in sectors where a switch is possible. The figure could be higher if China cannot increase its own production.

The only country in the world likely to be able to provide such an increase in production is Iraq, and it is no accident that China is heavily invested in the development of fields such as Rumaila and West Qurna outside Basra in the South. On the Iraqi government’s own figures, China is the largest foreign investor in the country’s oil sector. As US oil consumption and import requirements decline, energy security has become a Chinese issue. Read more

Last week I wrote about the forthcoming independence referendum in Kurdistan. To move from events there to what is happening in Scotland is a surreal experience. In Erbil the vote will be a deadly serious matter which could create a new country for a nation which as they say has no friends but the mountains having been a victim of international betrayal and cynicism for centuries. There is no knowing whether the Kurdish referendum will end in triumph or tragedy. In Edinburgh what should be an equally serious debate about breaking the relationship with the rest of the UK is now close to a farce. Read more

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Why are renewables moving so slowly? Of course the output of renewable energy is growing in absolute terms and in terms of market share in most countries in the world. But the growth starts from a very low base. On the International Energy Agency’s latest numbers, renewables provide just 13 per cent of total global energy needs at the moment, and will provide only 18 per cent by 2035. If traditional biomass is excluded the figures are 7 per cent and 14 per cent.

The problem is cost. Electricity produced from offshore wind and solar costs somewhere between 50 and 100 per cent more per MW/hr than power from natural gas and, with some variations, will continue to do so for the next decade unless one makes the assumption that gas prices are going to increase. Onshore wind is cheaper and in the US in particular is the closest of all the renewables to being competitive without subsidies. Read more

Storms ahead? Photo by Getty

Spare a thought on this bright summer’s day for two men struggling to reconcile truth and political reality.

Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Office Minister in the UK government and Jo Johnson MP, head of the No 10 policy unit, have the task of writing the first draft of the Tory Party’s manifesto for the election next May. The manifesto will have to include something on energy policy.

Both Mr Johnson and Mr Letwin are decent men who can generally be relied upon to speak and act honestly and honourably. That is where their problems begin. On energy policy how can they tell the truth about a policy which by common consent – among business, academics and the serious NGOs – is a costly failure? Read more

France has a new energy policy. Although some saw the statement presented for debate in the National Assembly ten days ago as simply political rhetoric designed to draw green support behind the Government, beyond the fine words and long term aspirations some of the tough immediate steps being taken suggest that the shift could be more serious. If so the statement will mark the beginning of a gradual but inexorable run down of the French nuclear business. Read more

Premier Li Keqiang of China is due in the UK this week. Despite all the challenges and potential disagreements there is scope for much closer cooperation around joint work on big issues. Energy should be at the heart of the discussion. Read more

By common agreement the situation in Iraq is dangerous and deteriorating. By similar common agreement there is no appetite for international intervention to do anything about it. Neither the US or Europe or anyone else will be sending forces into the besieged cities Mosul or Kirkuk. After more than a decade of unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no public or political support for engagement anywhere – not in Syria, Libya or now in northern Iraq. Though totally understandable, I think this is profoundly wrong and very dangerous. Read more

A 220-page document entitled “Commission Staff Working Document: In-depth study of European Energy Security” is hardly designed to be a best-seller. Few outside Brussels will read the European Commission paper in full, which is a pity because it is an excellent piece of work. It also provides the basis for a series of proposals contained in an accompanying document, which if accepted and carried through could create a common energy policy for the EU comparable in scale, scope and cost to the Common Agricultural PolicyRead more

The decline of North Sea oil and gas production continues. The trend is now a problem not just for the Scottish Nationalists but also for the UK Treasury and the 450,000 people who work in North Sea related businesses. The deplorable thing is that the decline is unnecessary and could be halted. Read more

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Many revolutions fail. They run out of ammunition or leaders or popular support. We hear a lot about the revolutions which succeed. History is written by the winners. But we hear much less about the failures – the promises of change which don’t materialise. Read more

Week by week Scotland seems to slip away. The reaction to the fiasco at the CBI demonstrates just how sensitive business is to involvement in politics. But the future of the United Kingdom is a matter on which business should have a strong and clear voice. In its absence the momentum behind the cause of independence will grow. Read more

The subtle redesign of Germany energy policy agreed by the government in Berlin last week sends some important signals not for the German market but for the rest of Europe. Far from damaging the renewables business the move could be the salvation of the sector. Other countries, the UK included would do well to adopt similar measures. This would be the most effective way of responding to the urgency expressed in the latest IPCC report. Read more

The full-scale competition review of the UK’s energy market which will be announced later this week is a challenge the industry should welcome. The inquiry will absorb a huge amount of time and effort over the next year but it offers the chance both for the industry to clear its name by removing the cloud of public suspicion over pricing policies and simultaneously for individual companies to examine their own strategic positioning in a market which is changing rapidly.

Of course, the competition review will add to uncertainty and will reinforce the reluctance to invest in new generating capacity, which is already evident, but the sense of doubt will exist in any case, and the review may help to produce some longer-term clarity. In the short term the government will have to find a new mechanism to ensure that supply is adequate to meet demand – and doing so with an expensive plan for emergency electricity supplies. But that is a separate issue from this fundamental analysis Read more

Energy is a business where success and failure are determined by technical skills and deep commercial expertise. That is true – up to a point. But consider the range of issues facing the world’s largest energy companies in 2014:

  • how to handle the deterioration of relations between Russia and the west;
  • how to build businesses in the world’s growth markets such as China and India;
  • how to manage the complexities of working in areas such as north Africa where physical security is being compromised by the presence of terrorists groups and the absence of effective governments;
  • how to manage the very different attitudes to energy in different markets such as the German opposition to nuclear or the French opposition to oil and gas which happens to come from shale rocks.

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Older UK readers will remember the Green Goddesses – fire engines held in reserve for moments of national emergency. At the height of a crisis army drivers would maintain an essential service. Well, lo and behold, some new Green Goddesses are to be created as the government launches its “emergency electricity reserve”. Read more

What happens now for the numerous companies, led by the oil majors, who have chosen to invest in Russia? The surprising answer may be that the short-term risks are less serious than the longer term prospects of disengagement as energy consumers, especially in Europe, reduce their dependence on a supplier they do not trust. Read more

A cold wind of economic reality is blowing in from the North Sea. The days in which offshore oil and gas production could provide easy revenue to support public spending are over. Development of the area’s remaining reserves will only thrive if the tax regime is completely rewritten, with the tax take drastically reduced. Politicians in London and Edinburgh should accept this reality rather than pretending that we still living in the glory days of the 1980s. Read more

The energy business is unstable. Investors and consumers are unhappy. Returns are too low and slow to arrive. Prices seem too high, especially in Europe. Market structures are under political scrutiny. A sector which has been producer led for as long as anyone can remember is ripe for change. One element of that will be forced by the geography of energy demand – most of the growth is now in Asia. But there will be other significant changes – not least when someone harnesses new technology to produce a completely new offer for consumers. Read more