Conspiracy theories abound around the oil price fall. A 25 per cent drop in less than three months is certainly exceptional and the assumption is that in a politically driven market a political decision by someone, somewhere must have forced prices down. The most popular conspiracy theory is that the US and the Saudis have combined to take money away from their major enemies – Russia and Iran. In both cases, [the argument goes], a shortage of revenue could help to bring President Vladimir Putin and the Supreme Leader, the ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the negotiating table to sort out a deal on Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a complicated world anything could be true. I don’t happen to believe the conspiracy theory but I accept that it is a possibility. To me the interesting thing is what happens next, and that is down to the Saudis. The risk for the whole industry, and for many countries dependent on oil revenues, is that Saudi Arabia’s games have led them to lose control of the market. Prices could go a good deal lower with wide and mostly negative consequences, starting with more regional instability and a cutback in investment which can only feed the next cycle. Read more

  © Christophe Lehenaff / Getty Images

How far will the French government go in selling off some of its extensive portfolio of assets? In its last budget, the government said it would sell up to €4bn in shareholdings to raise money to pay down debt, or to invest in other companies. This could foreseeably include selling off parts of the government’s stakes in energy companies such as GDF Suez and EDF. But more may be necessary.

The ongoing conflict with the European Union over France’s persistent deficit, which according to the finance minister Michel Sapin cannot now be closed before 2017, is damaging France’s reputation as well as the all important relationship with Berlin. Some action is needed to buy German acceptance of a new timetable. Selling assets in itself would not solve the problem but could reduce debt levels and produce much needed revenue. As a concept, however, privatisation is still considered toxic in France. The terms of any sale will have to reflect these political constraints.

Any Brit commenting on France has to be careful after the childish abuse from Andy Street, the managing director (for the moment) of retailer John Lewis. France has its problems, as any Frenchman will tell you, but it is not “finished” or a country where “nothing works and nobody cares”. Mr Street should visit the thriving areas of the South West. He should remember that France, supposedly so hostile to globalisation, has 31 companies in the latest Fortune 500 listing against 28 each from Germany and the ultra-global UK. I hope that the Franco British Council, the Colloque and the other institutions that have laboured for years to build good relations with France are evidence that Mr Street speaks for no-one but himself. Read more

The sun sets behind Hinkley Point B, and (R) Hinkley Point A nuclear power stations besides the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater on November 12, 2013 in Somerset, England (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  © Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The EU approval of the nuclear development at Hinkley Point marks an important, if not decisive, chapter in the story of new nuclear in the UK. There are still legal challenges to be overcome and a financing package to be finalised within the constraints set by the EU ruling but this is a good moment to identify winners and losers.

The obvious losers are the UK’s consumers who are trapped into paying a price for electricity that is double the current wholesale price for 35 years after the plant starts up. The deal will go down in history, alongside the privatisation of the Royal Mail, as an example of the inability of the British government – ministers and civil servants alike – to negotiate complex commercial deals. The phrase “rolled over” will enter the French language and be accompanied always with a Gallic smile. Still, one should recognise talent and so chapeau to the French negotiators. Read more

8th June 1939:  Babies in a row of cots brought out for some sun by their nurses at the Duchess of York's Hospital for Babies at Burnage, Manchester.  (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

  © Fox Photos/Getty Images

A new academic study, the results of which were published last month in the magazine Science, suggests that previous population projections have been understated. Rather than plateauing at 9bn the global population could rise during the current century to 11bn or more. How can the world manage such numbers?

The focus of attention – in politics, markets and companies – is so concentrated on the short term that long-term challenges are easily lost from sight. Tomorrow’s problems are left to tomorrow’s leaders. However understandable when individuals are working under the pressure of 24/7 news cycles and quarterly reporting standards, the result is that some of the most profound challenges are being neglected. Population growth is perhaps the most fundamental challenge of all because its consequences are so widespread.

The issue has been raised again by the publication of a new research paper from the University of Washington. Professor Adrian Rafferty and his colleagues argue that for a variety of reasons (including the success of the fight against Aids and the failure of attempts to spread knowledge on contraception), the global population could now be 2bn or more higher in 2100 than previously anticipated – that is within the lifetime of many of the children alive today. Read more

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a public meeting on April 27, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a public meeting on April 27, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine  © Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

It might seem strange, even wishful thinking, to question how long Vladimir Putin will remain in power. Mr Putin, who is 61, seems to be in good health and apparently in complete control of every element of the power structure in Moscow – including, through Gazprom and Rosneft, the key levers of the energy sector. He has defied US and European pressure and sanctions over Ukraine, and has begun to restore Russia’s status in the world as a great power which can’t be ignored.

That is the story — but behind the facade the cracks appear. The Emperor has fewer clothes than he pretends. And now from the past comes Nemesis, in the form of one of the few Russians who has dared to challenge Mr Putin openly — Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

In his first public statement about Russia’s domestic politics since leaving prison in December 2013, Mr Khodorkovsky told Le Monde last week that he was relaunching his Open Russia project — not so much a new political party as a horizontal network of social groups seeking change and modernisation across Russia. He said he would not be “interested in the idea of becoming president of Russia at a time when the country would be developing normally… But if it appeared necessary to overcome the crisis and to carry out constitutional reform, the essence of which would be to redistribute presidential powers in favour of the judiciary, parliament and civil society, then I would be ready to take on this part of the task.” Read more

A wind turbine complex on the Zhemo Mountain in the outskirts of Dali, in China's southwestern province of Yunnan (LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

A wind turbine complex on the Zhemo Mountain in the outskirts of Dali, in China's southwestern province of Yunnan © LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

The starting point for anyone wanting to understand how the world’s energy markets will develop over the next 20 years must be China. Companies, bankers, investors and those of us who try to follow the industry will have to shift our attention away from local circumstances in Europe or the US. What happens in both continents is interesting, but on the world scale it pales into insignificance. Even a very radical change in the European market — a real carbon price or a single common energy policy, or indeed the development of French and German shale gas — would be as nothing compared to the transformation that is coming, as China becomes the dominant force in every part of the energy business. Read more

The Brent oil price has now fallen by 15 per cent in less than three months and is now below the psychologically important figure of $100 a barrel. Last week I wrote about the reaction in the industry. But the fall is beginning to have political consequences as well.

Brent Crude Oil Future three month chart

Across the world oil producing and exporting countries have come to rely on high, and ideally rising prices. Some countries save the revenue for a rainy day, but most, especially those with rising populations, tend to spend. Circumstances vary, as do the realistic options for adjustment, but the current concern is real and will shape political actions well beyond the oil sector itself. Read more

The Saltire national flag (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

  © Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Devolution max — the home rule option endorsed by the three UK party leaders — could just encourage Scots to vote No next Thursday. For many in the business sector, however, including the energy companies, the idea looks half baked; a proposal adopted in panic because of a solitary poll showing the Yes campaign ahead. The consequence will be an extended period of uncertainty with a new question mark over every prospective investment in Scotland. Read more

Energy executives returning from their summer holidays face some hard choices. I know of at least three major oil and gas companies that have ordered full scale strategic reviews.

The problem, for the companies and for investors, is that prices are falling. The Brent oil price is down 15 per cent since June and by the time you read this could have slipped below $100 [Update: this morning, Brent fell 87 cents to $99.95 a barrel – a 14-month low.] Natural gas and coal prices are also down. Read more

A sign pointing to Whitehall (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

  © Getty

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

Flames from a gas well 40km north of the Qatari capital Doha (KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Flames from a gas well 40km north of the Qatari capital Doha (KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Global trade in liquefied natural gas has doubled over the last decade and looks set to overtake pipeline gas trade before 2020. LNG is the only viable way of supplying most of the growing requirements of China and India, and the most obvious way of diversifying European supplies away from dependence on Russia. The growth in trade, however, also puts the spotlight on the sources of supply. Central to everything is the tiny Middle Eastern emirate of QatarRead more

An Egyptian protester waves the national flag. MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

A protester waves the Egyptian flag (Getty)

After a decade of introspection, Europe is being forced to confront the instability on its borders, particularly to the east and the south.

At least five deeply troubled states – Mali, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine – pose a diverse series of threats ranging from a flood of refugees to the radicalisation of individuals and terrorism, to the disruption of energy supplies.

The problems in each of the five could spread to other states and regions – including Lebanon, Algeria and the Balkans. But further problems could be yet to come, if the list of unstable countries is extended to include Egypt. The risk is very serious.

A casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that Egypt has been stabilised by the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the removal from government of the Muslim Brotherhood. The outcome may not be exactly what was hoped for when the protesters gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo three and a half years ago, but there is order in the streets. Unfortunately that is not the full story. Egypt is financially broke and dangerously dependent on the insecure generosity of the Gulf states. The risk of violence has killed the tourist industry, which was a major source of revenue and employment. Living standards have fallen and Egypt now faces a profound crisis with a shortage of energy, water and food. 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

Flying east over the mountains into the new international airport of Erbil, the administrative capital of Kurdistan, you are conscious of entering history. Times past – how many wars just have been fought around the citadel in Erbil – one of the oldest known settlements in continuous occupation in the world – over its 5,000 year history? But also current history because what is happening in Erbil now could reshape not just Iraq but the rest of the Middle East. And, almost incidentally, the world oil market. Read more

Getty Images

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

The debate on European energy policy which will come to a head at the EU summit later this week is focused on building new infrastructure and diversifying sources of supply especially of gas. Both are sensible steps but there is a third strand of policy which could help achieve each of the three objectives which are shaping policy – the desire for energy security, the drive to reduce costs to protect competitiveness and the aim of reducing emissions in support of the campaign against global warming. We should just use less.

Efficiency is the neglected Cinderella of the policy world. It should be top of the agenda and backed by fiscal and regulatory measures to force the necessary changes in behaviour. Read more