energy

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For investors who thought the situation in the oil sector could not get worse, the last few weeks have come as a bad surprise. In the US, West Texas Intermediate prices have slipped below $40 a barrel and on Monday Brent crude fell below $44. There is no obvious sign yet that the bottom of the cycle has been reached and the latest negative data from China adds further downward pressure. The next casualty of the falling price will be corporate dividends.

Much attention has been paid to the implications of lower oil prices on countries such as Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria which depend for the bulk of their national income on oil. For them, the economic and political implications are serious. As we saw at the end of the 1980s, not just in the former Soviet Union but also in Opec states such as Algeria, a heavy fall in prices undermines the social contract between governing elites and the wider population. Both those countries look vulnerable now, as do a range of others including Angola, Brazil and Nigeria. In all those cases the impact of a price fall compounds existing problems. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that one or more of these nations will see a regime change before the end of the year. Read more

Scottish Windfarm Starts Producing Electricity

The Braes of Doune windfarm, Scotland   © Getty Images

Organisations, especially those that are doing well, can easily get stuck on narrow views of the future and their own role within it. It can be useful and creative in those circumstances to give people the opportunity to think more widely. One method that I have seen used to great effect is to ask people to imagine the world in 10 years’ time and suggest what might have changed, particularly against the expectations of the conventional wisdom. The process can provide a useful counterweight to long-term forecasts, which tend to do no more than roll forward recent history.

In that spirit, and for the holidays, here are a few stories on the energy sector from the FT in 2025. These are not forecasts — just possibilities. Readers would be welcome to suggest additions to the list.

1. In Moscow, ShellGaz — the world’s largest energy company as measured by its listing on the FTNikkei 250 — announces that it is proceeding with Eaststream3, the latest in a series of export projects from eastern Siberia. Eaststream3 will take gas by pipeline to the rapidly growing cities of northern India. ShellGaz was formed in 2017 through the merger of Royal Dutch Shell and Gazprom and represented the first fruit of the reset of European-Russian relations after the agreed federalisation of Ukraine. Read more

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The conflict at the heart of Germany’s energy policy is finally coming to a head. Can Germany claim to be an environmental leader while continuing to burn more coal than any other developed country apart from the US?

The issue is easier to describe than to resolve. Germany has led the EU in adopting “green” policies, including the promotion and subsidy of renewables. Energy consumers, including industry, have tolerated ever-rising energy costs. Electricity in Germany costs over 90 per cent more than in the US. The country has begun the process of closing its nuclear power stations — the last will be closed in 2022, although a vexed question remains over how the decommissioning will be paid for. Energy policy enjoys support across the political spectrum. The Green party won just 7.3 per cent of the vote in the last federal election but green ideas permeate the thinking of all the other parties. The grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats is committed to reducing emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, 70 per cent by 2040 and 80 to 95 per cent by 2050. The whole plan is explained in a post by Mat Hope on the CarbonBrief website. The German approach is now being exported to Brussels with a determined effort under the new European Commission to shape an EU energy policy along the same lines. Read more

View of the Grangemouth oil refinery nea

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Keeping the lights on is one of the core responsibilities of any government. If the lights go out, the government soon follows. Concern about energy security has grown in the UK over recent years with repeated suggestions that demand is pushing dangerously close to the capacity of the power grid. That is why the commitment from Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, to create an Energy Security Board is more interesting than most of the announcements made during the election campaign.

Energy policy has been largely absent from the election debate, which is probably a relief to the industry. The issues at stake are too complicated and detailed to lend themselves to sound bites and instant solutions. The complexity of the challenge is why a security board is potentially a good idea as part of a much needed renewal of energy policy. 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

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

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

CEO of energy company Total, Patrick Pouyanne, speaks during the Oil and Money conference in London on October 30

Patrick Pouyanne, the new chief executive of Total, speaks at a conference in London on October 30  © BEN STANSALL / AFP / Getty Images

The guard is changing in the international energy sector. Shell, Total, BG, EDF, Areva and a host of other companies have appointed — or are about to appoint — new leaders. There are more to come, including strong rumours of a change at Gazprom as it struggles to cope with the implications of sanctions, a shrinking market and sector-wide dividend cuts, and as other companies adjust to the sharp fall in prices and realise that there are no contingency plans to cope with sub-$80 oil. 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

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

Ukraine, to coin a phrase, is a far way country of which we know little. Its geographic misfortune is to be the buffer state between western Europe and Russia. With all eyes on Iran, too little attention is being paid to the fact that Ukraine is being forced back under the control of the Kremlin.

This week’s events send a very negative signal to western investors who had hoped to develop Ukraine’s extensive shale gas resources both for local use and for export to other parts of eastern and central Europe. The assertion of Russian power over President Viktor Yanukovich and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov will also send a shiver across the other former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe. Some, like Poland and Romania, are safely within the EU. Many others are not, to say nothing of the major energy producers around the Caspian Sea, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. 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