Policy

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

Sizewell A (left) and Sizewell B (right), two generations of British nuclear power on the Suffolk coast

Sizewell A (left) and Sizewell B (right), two generations of British nuclear power generation on the Suffolk coast

Why is it proving so difficult to close the deal on new nuclear in Britain? In part, of course, there is the normal arm wrestling negotiation. This is focused on the so called “strike price” – an energy price below which the suppliers will get compensation from the state – and on the allocation of risk around a £14bn construction contract.

The UK government wants a strike price of around £65 to £70 per MWh which is high but probably politically defensible. They well remember that in 2008 EDF talked about a price of £45 per MWh. EDF now wants something between £95 and £100, but they can probably afford to accept the Government’s figure and still make a reasonable profit.

The allocation of the risks is even more important than the strike price. Unless the Government is careful it could end up pay enormous sums for capacity which is underused because cheaper supplies will be available to consumers. If the company gets it wrong, a bad deal would overhang its finances for decades. Read more

Ed Davey, secretary of state for DECC

Ed Davey, secretary of state at DECC, outside his ministry

The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change is about to publish forecasts suggesting that gas prices could rise by up to 70 per cent over the next five years. This is scaremongering nonsense, and shows just how out of touch the Department is with the realities of the international energy market. Officials appear not to have consulted the industry or the traders. In reality the odds are that prices are just as likely to fall as to rise for three distinct reasons. Read more

How do short term warnings of gas supply shortages, and a 50 per cent spike in same day delivery costs, sit with the general acceptance across the energy sector and government that gas will – and should be – the next big source of supply for power generation ? 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

A number of well-sourced reports over the past two days suggest that, as predicted, we are on the edge of a deal for the construction of new nuclear power stations in the UK.

The champagne corks however are not quite popping either in Whitehall or in Paris. 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

Having been pretty critical of the Department Of Energy and Climate Change in the past it is time to come to its defence.

It seems that Mr Francis Maude the Cabinet Office Minister and effectively head of Britain’s civil service has told his cabinet colleagues in the last few days that a further £8bn of “efficiency savings” can be found from Whitehall and local government. 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

There is absolutely no need for an energy shortage in the UK, but the indecision of policy makers is making serious problems over the next few years ever more likely. There is no shortage of supply – but the raw materials of the energy business – such as gas and coal, or for that matter wind – have to be converted into power to produce the electricity which is essential for a complex modern economy. If the power stations are not in place electricity can’t be produced. Read more

Getty Images

The negotiations between the UK government and EDF over the contract terms for new nuclear development continue. As well as a sizeable gap on the strike price there is also disagreement on the distribution of risks. In some ways this is just a normal negotiating process but behind the meetings and the attempts at news management are two questions.

The first is whether the UK really needs new nuclear. Read more

Ofgem warns bills could rise as UK may need to import more gas. Getty Images

Alistair Buchanan’s warning about the vulnerabilities of the UK energy supply system is serious and timely. The absence of a clear overall policy for energy supply and consumption means that in his words consumption levels are likely to be dangerously close to maximum capacity at times over the next few years and that UK consumers face the risk both of steadily rising prices and interruptions of supply.

It is impossible to disagree with these conclusions from Ofgem’s report. They are based on facts and hard analysis. Read more

How will Barack Obama tackle climate change? Getty Images

The comments in President Obama’s second inaugural speech on climate change have encouraged campaigners to think that something substantive is about to happen. It is always good to be optimistic, but the hard question is what exactly is he going to do and what will it achieve. Read more

The World Economic forum is getting underway in Davos, Switzerland. Getty Images

Fashions come and go and the agenda for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos is usually a pretty good guide as to whether skirts are long or short this year. This year’s title for the meeting is “Resilient Dynamism”, which is very cool. But the issues that have slipped down the agenda are energy security and climate change.

There are a few odd sessions, but the focus has shifted and apart from one brief reference to natural resources, neither energy nor climate are mentioned on the web page setting out this year’s themes. This is a very big change from only four or five years ago, when both were prominent topics at every meeting. Read more

The UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change has a new permanent secretary, as predicted before Christmas. The elegantly orchestrated process, along with a comparable process at the Home Office has reasserted the independence of the civil service appointments process. Sir David Normington, the first civil service commissioner is providing to be more than a match for Francis Maude, Theresa May and the others who want to make senior civil servants political appointees.

Stephen Lovegrove, the new man at the DECC, has a number of challenges to overcome. 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

Shale gas drilling rig near Blackpool, in north-west England . Getty Images

I spent the holidays in Wales, dodging the odd shower, and contemplating the potential if someone could invent a technology that, short of massive hydro-power schemes, could convert rainfall into power. Wales would undoubtedly be the Saudi Arabia of rain power.

But Wales may not have to wait for new technology to become an energy producer again. The country looks set to be one of the main centres in the UK for the rapidly expanding shale gas business.

One of the most significant events of 2013 for the energy sector in the UK will be the publication of the next report on shale gas prospects across the country from the British Geological Survey. Well timed leaks of part of the report, which appeared just before the chancellor’s statement in December, have already suggested a significant increase in the resource base available near Blackpool. Read more

What does 2013 hold for the UK’s Climate Change Committee? This worthy body was established in 2009 and is responsible for advising the government on emissions targets and reporting to parliament on the progress being made on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The remit sounds reasonable but the reality is that the committee has been written off in Whitehall. The committee’s advice is blatantly ignored and its chief executive, despite his obvious knowledge and capability, has been dismissed by no less than the prime minister as too inexperienced and unqualified to be appointed as permanent secretary of the energy department. For a serious public servant that is pretty damning. Read more

First Minister Alex Salmond, left, favours growth of wind power. Getty Images

The Treasury does not agree with the level of subsidies being offered but has been forced partially to back down because of the political imperative of keeping the coalition together. The secretary of state Ed Davey, a Liberal Democrat, believes in setting medium-term targets on emissions but has been forced to back down and to accept a time-limited policy, which will be reviewed again after the next election. The result is that no one believes the policy being published this week is the right answer, or that it will endure beyond 2015. Read more

Is David Cameron playing politics with energy bill? Image by Getty

When in doubt, kick the can down the road. That is what has happened with the UK energy bill after weeks of bitter negotiations between the Treasury and the department now known across Whitehall as DoSAC – after the disfunctional organisation in the television comedy series The Thick of It.

A couple of weeks ago, I said the bill would seriously disappoint some participants in the debate. The conclusion as announced – and we will only see the detail next week – seems likely to disappoint everyone.

The core decision is that long-term policy is postponed until 2016, after the next election. But the energy business does not work to election timetables or four-year horizons. Most investments are designed for decades, and in some cases, such as nuclear and power generation, the payback for investors won’t come until 10, 15 or even 20 years into the project. The investors, it is always worth remembering, are not men in black hats but ordinary people trying to decide what to do with our collective savings – in particular our pension funds. Read more