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
Oil sprays from a well at Tuba oil field in Iraq © Getty Images
Oil is now clearly a cyclical commodity that is in a period of over-supply. According to recent commentaries from the International Energy Agency, the excess of production over consumption was as much as 3m barrels a day in the second quarter of this year, which is why prices have fallen. The question for producers, consumers and investors is: how long will it be before the cycle turns back up?
The initial caveat, of course, is that the “normal” oil market could be overturned by political decisions at any time. The Saudis, instead of greedily trying to maximise their market share and imposing huge losses on others, could decide that the stability of the region, and of their own kingdom, would be better served by cutting production and settling for a new equilibrium. There is a chance of that, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and the Saudis are under huge pressure from other Opec members but there is a mood of rigid arrogance in Riyadh which suggests that the necessary climb down will not come easily. What follows assumes that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and his son the deputy crown prince stick to their current policy.
What then drives the cycle ? Read more
Price forecasts – particularly for gas – are being used to justify both public policy (including heavy subsidies to renewables in many parts of Europe) and investments in very expensive sources of supply. But when events start to show that the forecasts are wrong, both policy makers and investors can be left stranded.
There are basically three ways of approaching the challenge of forecasting. The first, favoured by non economists, is to project forward recent trends. But which trends? I once produced an oil price forecast based on the trends of the last six days, six months, six years and six decades. Not surprisingly the result was a hedgehog style set of spikes going in quite different directions. As a planning tool it was completely useless.
The second approach to forecasting, much used by those who have over-invested, or want to invest (think of High Speed 2), or want to advance a particular policy response is to reach for a forecast which fits the bill and then to construct a justification.
Both approaches have been used in gas price forecasting, with the result perhaps not surprisingly being a widening divergence between projections of ever rising prices and the reality which is that prices are clearly falling in the short term and look set to keep falling longer term.