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.

 Read more

George Osborne in his Budget speech on Wednesday talked, correctly, about US industrial energy costs being half those of the UK. The situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past five years. His proposed response is worth quoting directly:

“We need to cut our energy costs. We’re going to do this by investing in new sources of energy: new nuclear power, renewables, and a shale gas revolution.”

This must be a speechwriter’s joke. A line written in where the content bears absolutely no relationship to reality. New nuclear at £92.50 a megawatt hour will double the current wholesale price of electricity. New offshore wind on the Department of Energy & Climate Change’s own figures, which many feel are too low, will cost more than £120/Mwhr. These are not secret figures. They are well known in the Treasury, as is the risk of generating capacity failing to meet demand. There was no mention of that little problem. Read more

This week’s meeting of the European Council in Brussels will be a significant test of the EU’s relevance and unity in dealing with the consequences of what is happening in Ukraine. Over the years as indigenous production, especially of gas, has declined Europe has allowed itself to become more and more dependent on Russian supplies. Last year Europe imported 160bn cubic metres of gas – a quarter of its total requirements. Even if Russia were a normal country that level of dependency would look high. Now, with Russia ignoring the strong messages from the German and American governments urging restraint in Ukraine, and massing troops on the border, reducing that degree of dependence is a matter of urgency. Read more

Applications closed last week for the chairmanship of the UK’s Environment Agency. Lord Smith of Finsbury, much criticised by some ministers during the recent floods, has not been sacked but has reached the end of his term. The appointment of a successor is important for the energy sector, and many others, but what happens next will also a test of whether public appointments in the UK have been politicised. Has meritocracy been abandoned? Read more

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

Putin at the launch of the Russian section of a Russia-China oil pipeline in 2010. (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty)

As well as demonstrating the courage of Ukraine’s people, the one thing that the country’s political crisis of the past few weeks has made clear is the weakness of Russia. President Vladimir Putin likes to present his country as a reviving world power but it is trapped by its own dependence on oil and gas.

The threats and sabre-rattling will no doubt continue. Russia may be able, and should perhaps be allowed, to keep control of the Crimea and its black sea naval base at Sevastapol – though history does suggests that current events are simply sowing the seeds of another long-running conflict there, not least with the Tatars.

Beyond that, however, Moscow is in no position to confront Europe or even the new government in Kiev. The Ukrainians must not allow themselves to be provoked by an Emperor who has no clothes. 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

Globalisation is incomplete. Markets are open, but in most sectors corporate ownership is still dominated by companies from one side of the Atlantic or the other. This is becoming anachronistic and is set to change.

Nowhere is this more true than in the oil and gas business, where the international market is dominated by what used to be called the Seven Sisters. The formation has changed. Mobil, Amoco and Gulf have gone but the group remains recognisably similar to what existed 80 years ago and still led by BP, Shell, Exxon, Total and Chevron. The only state company that has been truly successful and which can seriously be added to the list is Statoil. The rest of the state companies remain very much creatures of the nation state in which they were established. Read more

The package of announcements from Shell will send a shiver through the oil and gas industry. After years of resisting investor pressure for more immediate gratification, the company which more than any other regards itself as a social institution dedicated to the long term, has blinked. Capex is to be radically reduced. Costs are to be cut with a sharp knife. $15bn of assets are to be sold – enough in themselves to form a medium sized company. And the dividend is to be increased. There is a touch of theatricality in combining a profits warning with a dividend increase but the show satisfied the immediate audience. The shares rose. For the rest of the sector, Shell’s ability to deliver in this way poses a dangerous challenge.

Underperformance is endemic across the industry. Investment always needs to be increased, the rewards are always promised for tomorrow. Among investors are innumerable funds whose need for cash returns is urgent. Since the downturn of 2008 the market has clearly become more short term and less tolerant of those who live on promises of a golden future which is always just over the horizon. Under pressure Shell has been able to make the adjustment, demonstrating that it can quickly cut enough to deliver a material and sustainable dividend increase even when oil and gas prices are flat to falling. That is a real measure of strength, as is BP’s ability to absorb a loss of $50bn to pay the bill for Macondo. Very few companies in the world have that capacity. Read more

Later this week the management of Royal Dutch Shell will finally explain why it has issued a profits warning only 12 weeks after its last formal statement to the market. Investors are waiting for a full and detailed presentation on Thursday. Anything less will reinforce the impression that there is a governance problem which has left top management and directors out of touch with the operations of the business.

Profit warnings are serious things, which means this is quite different from the normal public relations tactic of shovelling all the problems on to the back of an outgoing chief executive, and giving his successor a low baseline from which performance can only improve. Surely a company as serious as Shell is not playing that game? Read more

The fact that the Arab spring did not produce a sudden transformation of the Middle East and north Africa into fully functioning pluralist secular democracies is hardly surprising. Expectations on that front were very naive. But the wave of change is beginning to transform something else – the border lines which were drawn a hundred years ago as the spoils of the Ottoman Empire were divided among the allies. The process will be long and painful but out of it will come new countries. Outsiders including investors may not be able to determine the outcome but they cannot ignore what is happening or simply cling to the past. New realities have to be recognised and Libya is as good a place to start as any. 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

Vladimir Putin has finished the year in style, consolidating Russian control in Ukraine and winning easy brownie points for the release of controversial prisoners including the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two female members of the punk band Pussy Riot. The Russian president has also, in a move easily missed in the middle of Christmas, extended Russia’s position in one of the world’s most interesting new oil and gas regions – the Levant basin in the eastern Mediterranean. 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