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VENEZUELA-POLITICS-MADURO-MILITIA

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Can a country with an inflation rate of 70 per cent and a shortage of such basic goods as milk and toilet paper really be so dangerous to the US that President Barack Obama is required to declare a national emergency in response to the extraordinary threat to national security that it poses? Apparently so. That is what happened in March and although Mr Obama has now backtracked by saying that Venezuela isn’t really a threat, the executive order has not been rescinded.

More importantly, the damage has been done. The clumsy American approach has reinforced the crumbling authority of the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The US has been designated the national enemy once again and blamed for everything that is going wrong. The Venezuela government opened 200 signing booths and collected a supposed total of 10m signatures for a statement protesting against American imperialism. The result is that the prospect of serious reform in Venezuela has been put back. Reform is much needed, not least in the beleaguered corrupted corporate structure of PDVSA, the state oil company. Read more

BELGIUM-EU-ENERGY

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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

Downturn In Oil Prices Rattles Texas Oil Economy

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Almost all the major oil and gas companies I know are undertaking substantial reviews of their policies on climate change. That is true in Europe and in the US. Why now, and what will be the outcome ?

First, it is important to stress that the rethinking is not being driven by the recent attacks on the companies. Describing Shell and its chief executive Ben van Beurden as “narcissistic, paranoid and psychopathic” is just childish and reduces what should be a serious debate to playground abuse. The reviews began before the latest media campaigns and are driven by corporate strategic concerns. Read more

 

US-POLITICS-OBAMA

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The provisional agreement to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions led to another fall in oil prices on Friday as the market anticipated the lifting of sanctions and the resumption of full scale Iranian exports. The fall is now overdone and for a series of reasons we are likely to see prices rise — modestly — before the summer.

First, the Iranian agreement is provisional and depends on negotiation of crucial details before the next deadline in June. A number of concerned parties — from the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, who do not want to see the lucrative business interests they have built on the back of sanctions eliminated, to the Israeli government in Jerusalem, which does not believe that any promises from Iran can be trusted —have no interest in seeing the deal completed. Read more

CHINA-ENVIRONMENT-CLIMATE

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The signals are clear – but contradictary. China has embraced the concept of climate change and is allowing officials to discuss the risks openly. Two weeks ago Zheng Guogang, head of the Chinese metereological administration warned of droughts, rainstorms and the threat to major infrastructure projects. He could not have spoken without permission.

But at the same time economic growth remains the prime objective of Chinese policy and growth requires the consumption of ever greater volumes of primary energy, led by coal.

Demand may have slipped by a small amount last year but new coal plants are still being opened. Coal consumption in China has doubled in the last ten years. China is now the world’s largest economy and consumes more than half of all the coal used worldwide each year. Within two decades, even on quite modest assumptions about economic growth it will have an economy twice the size of the US with personal living standards equivalent to those of the US in 1980. But it will still be an economy powered by coal – with demand on current policies up by another 20 to 25 per cent according to the forecasts produced by the International Energy AgencyRead more

CHILE-ENERGY-RENEWABLES-SOLAR

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I have never given much credence to the idea that an international agreement on climate change capable of establishing a global carbon price was likely to be reached – either in Paris this December or anywhere else – anytime soon.

If Europe, which is way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to climate policy, can’t set its own carbon price, what hope is there that the US, India and all the others will?

As a result I’ve never taken seriously the view that a vast amount of energy investment by the oil and gas companies will be left stranded as carbon-generating fuels are priced out of the market. The argument has always felt like wishful thinking. If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments there would be no prisons and the police forces of the world would be redundant.

But, and it is a very important qualification, change doesn’t come just through legislation and international treaties. Technology is arguably much more important and there is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in the old energy systems. Read more

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One of the many lessons to be learnt from the dramatic developments in the world energy market over the past six months is that outcomes are driven primarily by economics – often at the micro level. Another is the extent to which the market, in its rough and ready way, is linked globally and across the range of fuels. In the oil market, for example, a mild downturn in China upset expectations and started to pull down oil prices across the world because China has been the main engine of demand growth. Once the fall began, it turned out that no one had the power to call a halt. The result has been a fall beyond all expectations, with consequences across the world – from Libya to Angola, from Russia to Mexico and Venezuela. In the coal market, prices fell globally because shale gas was pushing coal out of the US power sector and because of Chinese import tariffs. Politicians in one country or another can try to cut themselves off from the underlying economics, but they rarely succeed for long. The economic impacts are not limited to the oil and coal markets. A set of changes beginning in the US is set to transform the global petrochemical business. A surplus of ethane, driven by shale gas development, is undermining the status quo. Read more

One of the most exhilarating aspects of working in the energy business – at least for a humble economist such as me – is that companies think and act on a timescale measured in decades. Projects are built to last for 30-40 years, and often longer still. This is in sharp contrast to the government where timescales are measured in hours and where long-term means the not-too-distant horizon of the next election. It is also in contrast to sectors such as telecommuications where the pace of change is so fast that thinking more than five years ahead makes no sense. But, as the current slide in oil, gas and coal prices demonstrates, a long-term perspective does not make investment judgments easier.

Most oil and gas fields, coal mines, nuclear power plants, wind farms and other energy sources are designed to last for decades. The construction time can be long: a liquefied natural gas plant can take six or eight years; a new nuclear power station a decade or more especially if the technology is unproven or excruciatingly complex. Payback only comes when the plants have been on stream for several years. Beyond that, however, the operating costs are usually low and the cash flow is strong and secure. Or, at least it should be. Read more

The Brent oil price has fallen by more than $10 – which means 10 per cent – in less than two weeks and now stands below $ 100. The precise number matters less than the trend. Now the question is how much further prices will fall.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with the ability to cut production and to keep prices up. Some feel the Saudis are using the fall to discourage investment in high-cost projects including tight oil and some deep water ventures. I am not convinced. The Saudi oil minister, Dr Al Naimi looks tired and unsuited to such a high-stakes game. I expect the Saudis to pursue the tactic of making small incremental cuts in output in the hope that the market will stabilise. I doubt if this will work. Only a cut of 1.5m to 2m b/d will suffice to maintain prices and that would squeeze Saudi revenues too much. With growing domestic demand Saudi Arabia has little room for manoeuvre. As noted last week, the Saudis seem to be in process of losing control of the oil price. Read more

A week after the EU and the IMF announced their bail out plan for Cyprus, it is now clear how little consideration was given to the knock on implications of the proposals. Even if they are never implemented, the ideas put forward might change the behaviour of those with funds in banks across southern Europe. But the proposals will have still wider implications – not least for Europe’s energy security.

The Russian reaction to the proposed bank deposit levy had been predictably furious. Surely someone in Brussels or Berlin could have foreseen what would happen? Did no-one realise that a good proportion of the Russian money in Cyprus belonged to people rather close to the Kremlin? Read more

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There is much talk in Davos of black swans, grey swans and white swans. But what about a kosher swan?

For the uninitiated, black swans are unexpected events that have a dramatic impact and sweep away previous certainties and plans.

Tel Aviv is a long way from Davos and not many Israeli politicians find their way up the Magic Mountain, but Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, is a very rare exception. 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

The report in the Financial Times on Tuesday that the Chinese government is inviting international companies to directly involve themselves in its plans to develop shale gas could be of huge significance for the global energy market over the next decade and beyond.

China has huge shale deposits, perhaps double the US levels, and as yet zero production. Bold plans to produce 6.5bn cubic metres of shale gas by 2015 and 60bn by 2020 have generally been dismissed as fanciful given China’s limited technical base in shale and the challenges of infrastructure and water supply.

But never underestimate Beijing’s determination. The resistance to dependence on outside sources of supply is as strong as ever. Indigenous resources will be given priority and China is now rich enough to absorb the costs of bringing supplies from the north and west to the cities on the eastern seaboard. Read more