oil prices

The Brent oil price has fallen by more than $10 – which means 10 per cent – in less than two weeks and now stands below $ 100. The precise number matters less than the trend. Now the question is how much further prices will fall.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world with the ability to cut production and to keep prices up. Some feel the Saudis are using the fall to discourage investment in high-cost projects including tight oil and some deep water ventures. I am not convinced. The Saudi oil minister, Dr Al Naimi looks tired and unsuited to such a high-stakes game. I expect the Saudis to pursue the tactic of making small incremental cuts in output in the hope that the market will stabilise. I doubt if this will work. Only a cut of 1.5m to 2m b/d will suffice to maintain prices and that would squeeze Saudi revenues too much. With growing domestic demand Saudi Arabia has little room for manoeuvre. As noted last week, the Saudis seem to be in process of losing control of the oil price. Read more

The news of another excellent year for investment in the North Sea will come as a surprise only to those who do not understand the dynamic relationship between economics and technology.

The original predictions were that North Sea oil and gas – certainly in the UK sector – would be exhausted by 1990. A strict depletion policy in Norway might keep production running for a few more years. That was the received wisdom of the 1970s.

Now, 56 years after the first gas was produced at the West Sole field, the prospect for the whole province is for at least two more decades of production. Total output is down but there is a long tail. Resources which were once thought inaccessible are now being brought onstream thanks to advances in drilling and reservoir management technology. Read more



The sanctions imposed on Iran are not working. The Iranian economy is in a mess with shortages and inflation. But, as a very interesting paper just published by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute shows, it is not collapsing. Non-essential imports have been cut back and a range of exports – including minerals, cement and agricultural products – are actually growing. Iran’s main trading partners are Iraq, China, the UAE and India. Unemployment is high and no one believes the official figures, but it is probably lower than that of Spain. And, most seriously, oil sanctions are breaking down.

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The Brent oil price fell by more than six dollars last week and at $ 104 is now 20 per cent below its recent peak in the spring of 2012. No particular events have triggered the fall. There has been no deal with Iran which would end sanctions. Economic activity levels are hardly exciting but they haven’t suddenly collapsed. Uncertainties around North Korea might normally have been expected to push prices up. Read more

The death of Hugo Chávez and the prospect of a regime change in Venezuela will cause no more than a momentary blip in the oil market. This is a remarkable change from the situation a few years ago, when developments in Carcacas would have destabilised prices across the world.

In reality, Chávez diminished Venezuela’s potential role in the international oil business by undermining the status of the state company Petróleos de Venezuela SA and excluding major international investment. Production and exports from Venezuela are now well below their potential levels.

To restore PDVSA to its former glory will take time. Many of the people best able to build the company and the country now live comfortably in London or New York and will take some persuading to go back home. Oil industry investors will be circling the airport in their private jets, but there is no new consensus as yet as to the terms on which they might be allowed to return. That too will take time. Read more

Oil refinery. Getty Images

The energy market is moving on two very different tracks. Oil prices are stubbornly high and gas prices are low, especially in the US, and look set to fall further across the world. The question is when, if ever, will these two tracks meet?

Let’s start with why the oil price at $114 a barrel for Brent remains so high. There is no physical shortage and demand growth worldwide is minimal. The answer lies in fear of what might happen next. The threat of an open conflict between Israel and Iran may have receded but there are enough uncertainties in the market to keep people nervous. Libya is out of control because of the limited international support for the new government following last year’s military intervention by France and Britain. There is continued nervousness about events in Algeria after the terrorist attack last month and concern about the negative effect on investment of the renewed outbreaks of violence in Iraq. Read more

Tel Aviv, Israel's financial centre. Getty Images

There is much talk in Davos of black swans, grey swans and white swans. But what about a kosher swan?

For the uninitiated, black swans are unexpected events that have a dramatic impact and sweep away previous certainties and plans.

Tel Aviv is a long way from Davos and not many Israeli politicians find their way up the Magic Mountain, but Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, is a very rare exception. Read more

Oil fields in Iraq. Image by Getty

The International Monetary Fund is not well known for its expertise on the energy sector and the oil market. A new paper just published by the organisation on the possible future for oil and the world economy is not likely to correct that impression. Ignoring much of the evidence, the authors try to breathe life into the old theory of “peak oil”.

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly has taken the immediate heat away from the confrontation between Israel and Iran. The prospect of an imminent strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and of retaliation from Tehran has been removed. What does this mean for oil prices? Read more

The abandonment by Shell of this years drilling plans in the Arctic is hardly a surprise. The project is complex and has run into one technical problem after another. Shell is rightly prudent when it comes to the risks involved in an area which is both environmentally sensitive and under the intense scrutiny of the world’s media not to mention a set of lobby groups energised by the prospect of taking on one of the world biggest companies.

There will now be another delay adding to the five years and several billions of dollars the company has already devoted to the project.

Shell has decided to take on the environmental lobby and to prove that the Arctic can be drilled and developed safely. That is a big bold move in itself, but the real problem for the Shell board and it’s shareholders – which include most pension funds in the UK and the US – is that the economics of development make sense only if one assumes ever higher oil prices.

Shell has never published a detailed analysis of the economics of Arctic development. The commonly quoted numbers for the resources which could be found – 26bn barrels of oil and 130tn cubic feet of gas – suggest a big prize. But what is the cost of development? And what oil or gas price in the US or the world market is necessary to make the project profitmaking?

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Why are oil prices so high?  After falling by over $30 in a matter of weeks the oil price has crept up again – back over $100 for a barrel of Brent crude.  With nothing in the fundamentals of  supply and demand to justify an increase, is the market anticipating (and perhaps over anticipating ) a crisis yet to come? Read more