oil

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The buzz word of the moment in the energy business is “transition”. It provided the theme for the ONS conference and exhibition in Stavanger in Norway two weeks ago as well as the title for several recent consultancy studies.

Unsurprisingly, transition is the main concept in many of the corporate strategy reviews now being undertaken by some of the leading energy producers and utilities. The meaning of the word, however, is loose and variable. It is not even clear whether some of the big operators in the market understand the breadth of the transition that is already taking place and the extent to which it could reshape the prospects for their businesses.

The transition is normally discussed in terms of the move from hydrocarbons to lower or zero-carbon sources of energy supply. Driven by the fear of climate change and by the adoption of various public policies, the shift has been under way for two decades and more. The Paris conference at the end of last year provided new impetus, even if the end product fell somewhat short of a global deal backed by law and a carbon price. Different countries are moving at different speeds, and the result is a gradual shift in the energy mix, which now promises to be accelerated by advances in technology. Low carbon sources of supply are falling in price and some are within reach of the point where they can be competitive without subsidy. Read more

Opposition protestors in Caracas last month amid demands for a refrendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro from power

Opposition protestors in Caracas last month amid demands for a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro from power  © Getty Images

After years of decline, the situation in Venezuela is becoming desperate. Could the latest fall in the oil prices provide the tipping point that finally brings to an end the unhappy period of Marxist rule begun by Hugo Chavez in 1999?

In the last two months the oil price has fallen by 20 per cent, ending the hopes of producers around the world that the downward slide of the last two years is over and that prices will soon return to a level that they used to regard as “normal”. For many, the latest fall will be the last straw. Numerous companies have maintained their dividend payments through borrowing. With prices falling again that looks unsustainable. Many, including the state companies, also face hard investment decisions on projects that need higher prices to be viable. With capex requirements outstripping revenue and little prospect of raising more money through rights issues more projects will be postponed or abandonedRead more

Energy demand in China appears to have decoupled from GDP

Energy demand in China appears to have decoupled from GDP  © Getty Images

The changes taking place in the world energy market are not just a matter of oversupply or the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia to rein in production. Demand has stagnated and in some areas is falling. The fall is unexpected — all the standard projections still cheerfully predict ever rising demand driven by population growth and the spread of prosperity in emerging economies. That assumption, however, begins to look too simplistic. The reality is more complex and, for producers, much more challenging. Forget the old debate about peak oil. Now it seems we are approaching peak energy. Read more

George Osborne visiting the Montrose Platform in the North Sea

George Osborne visiting the Montrose Platform in the North Sea  © Getty Images

At one level, the UK’s exit from the EU should have very little impact on the energy business. The price of oil, gas and coal is set by international markets not by the institutions in Brussels. The EU has never had the authority to determine the energy mix of individual member states and even under the latest plans for an “energy union” different countries would retain in full the ability to choose whether they want to develop shale gas or to eliminate nuclear power. Read more

Celebrations in Tahrir Square after the ousting of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011

Celebrations in Tahrir Square after the ousting of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011  © Getty Images

Remember the Arab Spring and the heady promise of freedom and peace in the Middle East? Many normally sensible observers were carried away by the excitement of the internet-led revolution in Tahrir Square and across the region. Now, a similarly happy transformation is promised in the energy market as the world moves away from oil, gas and coal. The transition is certainly coming but its implications will be as disruptive and dangerous as those of the Arab Spring. We should be prepared for the consequences rather than misled by wishful thinking.

The shift to a low-carbon energy system will be smooth, orderly and beneficial for most of the global economy: that is the view of a new set of papers from the Global Agenda on the Future of Oil and Gas – a group set up by the World Economic Forum, the organisers of Davos. Unfortunately, all the evidence so far points in the opposite direction. The shift may be beneficial in terms of the world’s environment, but economically and politically the result could be dramatically destructive. Read more

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After two years of unrelenting gloom it is good to see that at least one part of the global energy business is booming. The price of lithium carbonate in China has risen by 253 per cent in the past year and there is intense takeover activity among the limited number of companies that control lithium production. Goldman Sachs has called lithium “the new gasoline”. Is the hype justified?

Lithium is a soft white metal that provides a small but for the moment essential element in battery technology. Production comes from mineral rock or from salt water, with supplies concentrated in Argentina, Australia, China, Chile and the US state of Nevada. That production is controlled by a very small number of companies, led by Albemarle, FMC and Chile’s Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM) in Chile. Between them they produced 90 per cent of total supplies outside China last year. Read more

 

Could China become an energy exporter? The thought is certainly counter intuitive. Because China is one of the world’s largest single consumers of energy, second only for the moment to the US, the assumption has been that the country will be an ever more substantial importer. Until recently the trends have supported that belief. Oil imports have grown from almost nothing twenty five years ago to over 7 mbd last year. Coal imports rose rapidly in the years up to 2013 and the country began to import natural gas a decade ago. Read more

The prospect of a partial freeze on oil production at current levels. Some upbeat numbers from China. A couple of days of rising prices on the market.

These signals are enough, it seems, to make some traders excited and to produce headlines announcing the end of the downturn and a turning point in the global commodities cycle. The reality, however, is more complicated. Read more

The newly opened section at the oil refinery of Zubair, southwest of Basra in southern Iraq, last month

The newly opened section at the oil refinery of Zubair, southwest of Basra in southern Iraq, last month  © Getty Images

Does it matter for the oil market that three of Opec’s 13 member states can now be classed as failed or failing? The general definition of a failed state refers to a nation in which the government has lost political authority and control. On this definition Libya already qualifies, with large areas of the country beyond government authority and under the control of competing local militia. Venezuela is clearly failing and close to defaulting on its debts. Algeria is struggling under the weight of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s weak administration and mounting economic problems.

Failure clearly matters for the 75m citizens within these countries. Venezuela has inflation of something like 700 per cent, if you believe the International Monetary Fund’s analysis — around a mere 170 per cent if you believe the government. Caracas is the murder capital of the world. Algeria has not yet seen open violence but the prospect of civil unrest is high and the fear that this could lead to another migrant crisis with boat people fleeing across the Mediterranean is already a source of concern in Paris. Read more

George Osborne Visits North Sea oil in Scotland

George Osborne on the Montrose Platform in the North Sea  © Getty Images

On Wednesday, George Osborne will present the UK budget to the House of Commons. At a moment of deep uncertainty for the country’s energy industry — which is discouraging investment and creating quite unnecessary risks for the future. From the North Sea to Hinkley Point and shale there is confusion and doubt. Mr Osborne should come forward with a package of messages to restore confidence. Here are four obvious steps the chancellor should take.

First, the North Sea is now on the verge of a serious cutback in activity that will reduce energy supply and lead to lost jobs as well as much lower tax revenues. The hopes expressed in Sir Ian Wood’s report two years ago for an renaissance in the North Sea and the development of the billions of barrels of remaining resources will be lost. Read more

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Climate change demonstrators during the Paris conference  © Getty Images

Two papers published in the last few weeks provide a sobering reality check after the rhetorical success of the Paris climate change conference in December. Getting any agreement was a diplomatic triumph but producing real change on the scale necessary will be much more difficult. The two documents are very different but both excellent pieces of work. Their calculations and assumptions are detailed, transparent and, most important of all, evidence based. Both, however, reflect a degree of unjustified optimism. Read more

FRANCE-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT

Emmanuel Macron  © Getty Images

The most interesting comment at Davos this year came from the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron who said that he simply did not believe for a second the figures put out by the Chinese government claiming that their economy had grown by 6.9 per cent in 2015. To anyone familiar with Chinese statistics the comment is welcome because it brings into sharp focus the fact that no one can trust the data being produced by what is now one of the world’s largest economies. The doubts are not limited to macro economic numbers. Chinese data on the energy sector also deserve to be regarded with great scepticism.

There are three reasons why Chinese data might be inaccurate. The first is that it is simply extremely hard to gather reliable data across a country which is so vast. Good data is hard to come by. In Nigeria gross domestic product was revised upwards in 2013 by 89 per cent because the old basis of calculation was inaccurate. There are many issues even in much smaller and more developed countries. Read more

Oil pumps in operation at an oilfield ne

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We are about to enter the period when companies announce their annual results, declare dividends and reveal strategy updates. Across the energy sector from the major oil companies to the utilities to the smallest renewables businesses a huge amount of high-paid time is being devoted to the preparation of slide packs and press briefing notes. After a year of spectacular underperformance, many chief executives will rightly be nervous about the questions they could be asked.

Every individual company has its own particular problems but here are some generic questions that should be addressed to all those leading the main energy businesses across the world. Investors should be very wary of putting their money into any company whose leaders cannot provide straightforward and convincing answers. Read more

RUSSIA-INDIA-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY

President Vladimir Putin  © Getty Images

Of all those damaged by the oil price collapse, few are in a more difficult position than Russia. High prices have sustained the Russian economy since Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999. Hydrocarbons provide the overwhelming proportion of export revenue. Now something radical may be needed to avert economic collapse and political dissent.

Privatisation is back on the agenda of the international oil industry. Although the prospect of the Saudis selling a share in Aramco has been tantalisingly floated by the Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in his interview with the Economist two weeks ago, there are other potential sales that are likely to be completed sooner. The most intriguing is the possibility that the Russian government will sell off another slice of its 69.5 per cent holding in Rosneft. Read more

IRAQ-CONFLICT

The battle for Kirkuk, Iraq's oil capital  © Getty Images

It has always been hard to accept the argument that the series of wars in the Middle East since 2001 have been about oil. Afghanistan is not an oil state and most of the oil which will be produced from Iraq will end up in China and the Far East rather than in the US or Europe. On the other hand what is happening now in Syria and Northern Iraq shows that oil and power are inseparably linked. Read more

There are two divergent views of what is happening to the oil price within the industry and among serious investors. 2016 may help us to see which is correct.

The first view is that the price is inherently cyclical. What has come down must go back up again and the deeper the trough the higher the next mountain.

The alternative analysis is that the shift we have seen over the past three years is the beginning of a long-term structural shift which will see energy prices materially lower in real terms in the next half century than in the last. Those who take this view believe, to put it very simply, that the likely growth in supply is stronger than the growth in demand.

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Optimism, however essential for human progress, can be very dangerous if misapplied or allowed to run to excess. There can be few better examples of this than the new review of India’s energy future published last week by the International Energy Agency. As you would expect, the paper is fascinating in its detailed description of India’s energy economy. But the forecasts are seriously over optimistic. They gloss over the challenges that even a radical modernising government in Delhi is not managing to overcome and they ignore the very real risks of a much less happy outcome. Read more

IRAN-VENEZUELA-DIPLOMACY

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani   © Getty Images

Step by step, month by month, the agreement between Iran and the international powers to control nuclear development in the country is moving forward. Beyond the rhetoric about whether the deal will be effective or not — a debate that will surely continue — the prospect of an end to some of the sanctions on Iran comes closer. What could that mean for the oil market?

The question has to be answered in two parts. First, the short term up to the end of 2016. Second, the longer term stretching to 2020 and beyond. On the first there is a clear consensus across the industry. Iran can produce and export perhaps another 400,000 barrels a day by the end of next year. The limit is set by the condition of existing fields and infrastructure. In the latest of a series of excellent and detailed papers, the US Energy Information Administration suggests the number could be a little higher but also cautions that the amount of condensate available may not be exportable because the market is saturated. That number of barrels a day would add a further dampener to the world price and might force producers in the US to shut in some more tight oil. It is not enough to change the game. Read more

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An anti-shale protest in the Algerian Sahara  © Getty Images

The 50 per cent fall in oil prices over the last year is beginning to have a serious impact across the world. Rig rates are down in the US and production of tight oil produced through fracking is beginning to fall. Corporate profits and share prices are down. The private sector generally, however, is remarkably resilient. Costs can be cut, new projects postponed and if things get worse dividends can be reduced. By contrast many of the countries that have come to depend on high prices have little room for adjustment. A few, like Saudi Arabia, still hold vast cash reserves and can tolerate the loss of revenue for several years. Others are trapped and particularly vulnerable because the lack of income compounds all the other problems they face. One of the most vulnerable is Algeria. Read more

GERMANY-ECONOMY-AUTOMOBILE-SHOW-IAA

Penetration of electricity into new areas – such as cars – is still low  © Getty Images

Renewables are taking a growing share of the energy business. In 2014, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency, they accounted for more than 45 per cent of all the new electricity generating capacity added worldwide. Over the next five years the prediction is that they will supply more than half of all new capacity. By 2020 renewables should be providing over 26 per cent of global electricity supplies. They will enhance energy security and reduce emissions. They will also reshape the energy business creating both winners and losers. Read more