oil

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 Sultan 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

ALGERIA-GAS-SHALE-ENVIRONMENT-DEMO

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

Protesters Take To Kayaks To Demonstrate Against Shell's Plans To Drill In Arctic

Protesters approach Shell's Polar Pioneer oil drilling rig in May  © Getty Images

Shell’s decision to abandon exploration in the Arctic is an acknowledgment of reality, although that makes it no more comfortable for those involved. Some $7bn (more, according to some estimates) has been lost in its Chukchi Sea campaign — the unsuccessful Burger J well must be the most expensive ever drilled, anywhere in the world. But, financially, Shell can afford it, and many in the oil company will be relieved that the issue is out of the way.

The exploration effort was a PR disaster for a company that prides itself on its environmental record. The prospect of success, followed by years of conflict over the next steps — the development of permanent facilities for actual production — worried some senior executives more than the prospect of failure. The possibility of facing up to a new US president in the person of Hillary Clinton who is on record as opposing Arctic drilling was hardly welcome for a company that believes itself distinct from companies such as ExxonMobil that take a more challenging line on climate change and other issues. These reputational issues were no doubt very important elements in the decision to pull out. Read more

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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

RUSSIA-PUTIN-POLITICS-CIVIC-CHAMBER

President Vladimir Putin  © Getty Images

With oil prices back down to $50 a barrel for Brent crude, a falling gas price and its share of the European energy market declining, the Russian economy is in real trouble. The situation is dangerous because the problems cannot easily be corrected. The risk is that the economic problems could lead to political instability both within Russia and around its borders.

Anyone wanting to understand the historical context for what is happening in Russia should read Restless Empire a newly published book written around a series of maps which take go back to the emergence of the Slavs some 5000 years BC. The book, edited by the late Ian Barnes who sadly died before publication, is beautifully presented and free of the biased commentary so often associated with histories of Russia. The maps in particular are fine examples of immaculate design applied to the presentation of complex data. I only wish there were more maps, and in particular more on the production and trade in energy that dominates the modern Russian economy. Read more

CHINA-STOCKS

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The Chinese economy is clearly going through its most serious downturn in more than 30 years. After three decades of continuous growth averaging more than 8 per cent per annum, the problems of industrial over capacity and excessive debt are starting to take their toll. The stock market volatility of the last few weeks is a symptom of the bubble that has been allowed to develope in recent years and of the doubts that are now setting in about the sustainability of high growth. The more serious problem, as the published data is now showing, lies in the real economy and in the accumulated and now unfundable debts that have financed booms in sectors such as housing construction and urban property development. 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

BRAZIL-ROUSSEFF-CONSTRUCTION-SALONThe corruption investigation initiated by the Brazilian prosecutor, Rodrigo Janot, into 54 individuals including leading politicians is just beginning. The allegations behind the inquiry concern the diversion of huge amounts of money from Petrobras, the state oil company.

No one know how much money is involved, which means that no one knows what the company is now worth.

Petrobras’s share price has fallen by 44 per cent over the last year, with some some $90bn wiped off the value of the company in just six months.

Part of that is due to falling oil prices, but more is the direct result of the company’s internal problems. There are no signs yet of the ambulance-chasing investors who like to pick up undervalued assets for a song piling in. They must think, probably with good reason, that the worst is yet to come.

In the US a class action law suit has begun. The scandal could yet bring down the Brazilian government, not least because for most of the period when the corruption is said to have happened Dilma Rousseff just happened to chair Petrobras. It could also be a deep embarrassment for the audit firms who seemed to have missed what was happening.

The question for the moment is what happens now to Petrobras itself. Read more

The next few months will be a critical period in the history of the North Sea. After 50 years which have seen 42 billion barrels of oil and gas produced, the province could now see a significant proportion of activity brought to a premature end. Fields which are uneconomic at current prices could be closed down and then decommissioned. Much of of the oil and gas which remains ( between 12 and 24 bn barrels ) could be left behind, undeveloped and valueless. For some fields, such as Brent, the exhaustion of reserves makes decommissioning inevitable. For others, however, we should be finding a way to maintain operations and to ensure that the resources in place can be developed when prices rise again. Read more

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman meets with US President Barack Obama

Saudi Arabia's newly appointed King Salman meets with US President Barack Obama  © SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Having talked vaguely for many years about the possibility of developing nuclear power as an alternative source of energy, it seems that Saudi Arabia under its new leadership may finally be taking steps towards what would be one of the world’s largest nuclear building programmes over the next decade. Read more

News has diminished value if it comes from far away. Just as terrorism gets more coverage if it occurs in Paris, much of the analysis of the consequences of falling oil prices has focused on the US shale industry and the North Sea. But spare a thought for some of the other losers, starting with Nigeria where the fall will not only further damage a fragile state but will pose risks which could affect all of us before too long.

It would be good to be able to be optimistic about Nigeria — a country which in the past has been listed as one of the possible economic powerhouses of the 21st century. Remember MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), the successor grouping to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)? Great acronyms invented by the always imaginative Jim O’Neill, but in both cases the groupings look a little shaky and performance is well short of promise. Nowhere more so than in Nigeria, which provides a sharp reminder that even if Opec is broken, oil is still vulnerable to political upheaval. 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

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