Policy

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

Do renewables represent the future of the energy business or a minor contributor in a sector which will continue to be dominated by hydrocarbons? That will the underlying question at the FT Renewables conference this week. The answer looks to be the latter but financial engineering or a major technical breakthrough could yet change things. Read more

With the world’s population growing by almost 10,000 a day, and more and more people in Asia and Latin America enjoying access to effective spending power for the first time, the energy business should be a thriving and happy place.

It is not. Across the sector, the mood is downbeat. The talk is of building resilience against risks and threats. Read more

As the smoke of briefings from the government PR machine clears, the shape of the deal to secure the development of the new nuclear station at Hinkley Point in Somerset is becoming clearer. As mere consumers we are not allowed to know the full facts – that privilege is given, it seems, only to the companies involved and the French and Chinese governments. But we can piece the story together. Read more

At a painfully slow speed the consensus on climate change is building. There is a human impact on the climate as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Those who seriously question this view are now reduced by the sheer weight of the evidence in the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to the level of the eccentrics who maintained that the earth was flat long after the reality had been proved. Read more

Ed Miliband’s comments on energy in his Labour party conference speech on Tuesday have profound implications for policy. The immediate focus will be on the suggestion of a price freeze lasting until 2017. The industry will no doubt focus on the implications of cutting profits and the question of what happens if world prices rise. Some might also suggest that a hard freeze will not only deter new investment, but also lead to some companies exiting the business with the net effect of reducing competition. Mr Miliband clearly believes there is profiteering but he has not published the evidence. The Labour leader should and there needs to be a full competition inquiry. It may well be that if there is profiteering a price freeze is not the only nor the best solution. 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

The German election later this month might seem to be about to produce more of the same. On the eurozone currency crisis – as Quentin Peel wrote in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago – the expectation of a big reform plan once Angela Merkel wins re-election has given way to the realisation that nothing much will change unless the markets force a radical response. Austerity and crisis management are the watchwords, and only a major event such as a collapse in the credibility of Italian debt repayment will force Germany to address the need for a full-scale resolution of the problem. That could involve the creation of a tighter EU core, or a reluctant acceptance that the euro as designed cannot work without a backstop funding mechanism in the form of Eurobonds. Nothing in the election campaign has provided a clue as to which of these alternatives will prevail.

Similarly on energy policy the election is beginning to look like a breakpoint which could have wide implications across Europe. But the direction of change remains uncertain and dangerously dependent on the precise make up of the next coalition government. Read more

The report of the public administration selection committee of the UK House of Commons into the workings of Whitehall earlier this week sounds like a dull read. It is not. This is a serious document which deserves to be read by anyone who cares about how power is exercised in modern government. It also carries an undertone of barbed malice, some deserved, some not which fans of CP Snow will much enjoy. Read more