oil

When will oil demand peak ? The very fact that the question focuses on demand rather than supply is in itself remarkable, given where conventional wisdom on the subject stood only a decade ago. Now there is a consensus that demand will peak first but there is no agreement on when that peak will come. Shell speculated a few weeks ago that it would be within five to 15 years. The Opec producers’ cartel suggested recently that the peak could come in about 2029. But the International Energy Agency in its latest World Energy Outlook predicts that oil demand will be rising up to 2040. Read more

President Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin  © Getty Images

Twenty years ago, a small group of Russian businessmen saved the country from a return to communism. Boris Yeltsin, physically and politically weak, was close to being beaten in the presidential election by Gennady Zyuganov. In the first ballot, Yeltsin led by just 3 per cent. The money and organisation the oligarchs brought to the party put him more than 13 points ahead in the second and decisive vote. Now, in very different circumstances, the oligarchs may need to intervene again.

Russia is in a parlous state. Real incomes have fallen by 10 per cent in just a year. The rouble depreciated 37 per cent and in real terms gross domestic product fell 3.7 per cent, according to World Bank figures. Household incomes and investment fell sharply. The trends have persisted into 2016. Forget the bluster of President Vladimir Putin and the military activities in Ukraine and Syria. What was once a superpower is now a country in decline. Read more

The new, pragmatic Saudi oil minister, Khalid al-Falih

The new, pragmatic Saudi oil minister, Khalid al-Falih  © Getty Images

Two years ago, the Saudi government put in place a strategy intended to protect its position in the world oil market. The plan was to increase their production to the point where prices fell. The aim was to squeeze other producers, in particular the US shale industry, and force them to cut output. The belief then was that the US industry needed a price of around $90 a barrel to keep going. Once prices fell below that level, the Saudis thought they would have protected their market share, and in the process, sent a sharp warning to others, particularly the Iranians who want to restore their production following the nuclear deal with the US.

The strategy has not only failed but has caused serious damage to the Saudis themselves. Prices fell much further than anyone anticipated because other participants in the market did not respond as expected. The Saudi increase in production has not destroyed the US industry – American output has fallen only marginally despite a 70 per cent drop in prices. The kingdom simply underestimated the resilience of the US producers and their ability to cut costs. Read more

With the UK government's green light for the Hinkley Point nuclear power project came the announcement of a new national security test for would-be investors in infrastructure

With the UK government's green light for the Hinkley Point nuclear power project came the announcement of a new national security test for would-be investors in infrastructure  © Getty Images

For most of the last half century, energy security has been defined in terms of Opec boycotts, the risk of the Strait of Hormuz being closed to oil tankers and the dangers of Russia cutting off gas supplies through the European pipeline network. In the last few years, however, much has changed. Now, energy security concerns are focused internally and the risks are concentrated around the networks that sustain complex modern economies. The networks are physical but they are controlled by electronic systems. The greatest threat on this updated analysis is that hostile forces – whether terrorists or state-sponsored cyber specialists – could penetrate and disrupt or destroy those systems. These fears are beginning to reshape public policy and that will affect how the energy business develops across the world. Read more

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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

FRANCE-CLIMATE-WARMING-COP21-DEMO

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

  © Getty Images

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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