Policy

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

On Wednesday the cabinets of the France and Germany will hold a joint meeting in Paris. The occasion is highly symbolic – both in the way in which normal state-to-state relationships have replaced war in Europe, and in the continued commitment of the neighbours to maintain their alliance whatever their short-term political and personal differences. But the discussion this week could also produce substantive results.

President François Hollande, to the surprise of French business as well as his German visitors, has proposed that the two countries should work to achieve deep co-operation on energy policy. He compares this to the Airbus project which in his words “saved us from becoming a branch plant of the US economy”. The initial reaction to the idea in Berlin has been lukewarm. There is a general fear that Mr Hollande will do everything possible to get Germany to fund French debts. One German told me last week that Mr Hollande should “get on his scooter and stick to what he does best”.

That is a very shortsighted view. Energy policy is going wrong because we are accustomed to thinking within narrow national lines. Each individual country has to achieve whatever is the target of the moment – a 30 per cent cut in emissions; a 20 per cent share for renewables and so on. This is a suboptimal approach. Individual countries can achieve their targets but the costs of working in an atomistic way can be enormous. One of the greatest advances of a complex society is that different people do different things. We do not all grow or kill our own food every day. The case is best spelt out in Robert Wright’s brilliant book NonzeroRead more

Forget the evidence, feel the populism. That seems to be the motto of the UK secretary of state for energy, who has written to regulators suggesting that British Gas and perhaps other gas suppliers should be broken up because their profits are too high. There is nothing like picking on an enemy no one loves. With their refusal to be completely transparent on costs and pricing, the utilities have made themselves sitting ducks.

Never mind that there has been no competition inquiry (rejected by the Government despite support from EDF, who rightly argued that one was needed to clear the air). Never mind that the figures quoted by Mr Davey have been in the public domain for months, without triggering action by Ofgem. Never mind that Ofgem is a highly professional public body that knows what it is doing. And most of all, never mind the consequences. Read more

I am glad I don’t live in eastern Europe and I can quite understand why against a good deal of economic logic Algirdas Butkevičius, the Lithuanian prime minister, is pushing very hard to force his country into the eurozone. The reason is the reassertion of Russian power across the region. The advance is not military but economic with energy issues to the fore. Comecon is being recreated. Read more

In a provocative paper published by the Institute of Economic Affairs just before Christmas Professor Colin Robinson, one of Britain’s most senior energy economists, says that the energy sector in the UK has been “effectively renationalised”. The language is strong and the case overstated. The claim is not true in any literal sense. Companies are not being taken over or expropriated by any Government agency. There has been no transfer of ownership. But behind the rhetoric is a real trend. There has been a transfer of effective control, the consequences of which are pushing large parts of the sector back under Government authority.

Professor Robinson’s paper focuses on the UK. But the trend is not restricted to Britain. In different ways a similar shift is taking place in Germany, Japan, and even to a limited extent in the US.

In what has always been a hybrid sector built on a mixture of public policy and private capital the balance of power is shifting year by year. In each of these countries and many others Government is now determining outcomes to a degree unseen since the wave of privatisation in the 1980s. Read more

Is energy policy made in Brussels ? The obvious answer would be no. The EU may have an energy commissioner but he has little real authority. Energy policy is still under the control of individual national governments and as a result there are 28 very different approaches and outcomes. France is supplied by nuclear power. Germany by contrast is phasing out nuclear in favour of renewables. Much of Eastern Europe still depends on coal. There is cross border trade, of course, but most countries have their own distinct energy market.

A series of announcements over the last few weeks, however, suggests that the European Commission which is in its last year in office wants to assert its authority over energy issues by indirect means, using environmental and competition policy to create a de facto Common Energy Policy. A Commission policy statement on energy will be published before the end of January. The issue promises to become more visible and part of the continuing debate about the balance of power between Brussels and the member states. Read more

You don’t have to believe that freezing consumer energy prices is good public policy to see that just three sentences in Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference in September transformed the energy scene in the UK. The opposition leader’s comments sent a chill through the market, reducing the value of utility stocks and has left the coalition government struggling to respond to a completely unexpected outbreak of populism. The consequences of the speech, intended and unintended, run on and could yet force a change in energy policy across the EU. Read more

We all spend so much time looking at the dramatic changes on the supply side of the energy business that we risk overlooking the more gradual but equally important shifts on the demand side. To correct that its worth looking at some new work from the Transportation Research Institute picked up in the excellent Energy Collective blog.

The research shows that in the US – by far the world’s largest consumer of oil – transport sector demand is falling. This is not a temporary phenomenon driven by the economic downturn. This is a structural shift reflecting changes in life style and work patterns as well as gains in fuel efficiency. Read more

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

Few readers, even of the Financial Times, will feel much sympathy for executives in the international energy business who complain about their lot. Paid in the hundreds of thousands (at least), travelling around in executive jets and chauffeured cars, pampered by executive assistants and personal assistants – life surely can’t get much better.

But there is a real and serious problem that merits some attention. Many senior executives are exhausted and burnt out. Across the business world, there have recently been a number of high-profile cases of executives who have given up their jobs because of the stresses involved. António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, and Hector Sants, former head of compliance at Barclays, are the most prominent names. In the energy sector, companies and individuals shun publicity. But, in the past few weeks, I have heard of four cases of individuals who have in one way or another collapsed under the pressure of their jobs. One leading company is undertaking a thorough analysis of the psychological health of its top 50 people, and I would be surprised if others don’t follow. Read more

UK-based energy companies who have held investor relations meetings in the US in recent weeks have encountered a bleak response. The UK energy sector, they were told, is “uninvestable”. This is the market’s response to two months in which the certainties of the UK energy market have been undermined by politics. Given the scale of new investment required as old capacity is retired, this stark conclusion is very damaging and must be addressed by the Chancellor in his autumn statement on December 5. Read more

Energy policy is a serious problem which won’t be solved by gimmicks or slogans. Most of the debate in the UK over the last few weeks has focused on the prices being paid by domestic consumers. Now, though, the focus is set to shift to the competitive burden on businesses and jobs not just in the UK but across Europe. With yet more price increases to come, the need for a new and serious policy covering both supply and demand is becoming urgent. Read more

Sir John Major has hit some raw nerves in the UK government with his comments on “lace curtain poverty” and the harsh impact of rising energy bills. But to pin the blame on the energy companies is wrong and runs the risk of making a bad situation worse.

The former British prime minister alleges that the companies – unnamed but presumably the utilities and the suppliers of raw materials to those utilities – are profiteering. I hope he will show us all the detailed evidence. If that evidence exists, and if there is a cartel of any sort, it is a matter for Her Majesty’s constabulary. Read more