Iranians protest against Saudi Arabia after the hajj stampede  © Getty Images

Oil prices are now 50 per cent lower than they were a year ago, and less than 40 per cent of their peak in 2012. Worldwide, there is a continuing surplus of supply over demand of around 2.5m to 3m barrels a day. This is despite the loss of exports from Libya and two bloody wars – the first against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) in Syria and Iraq, the another against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Those two wars, which do not directly affect any significant oil producing areas, are proxy conflicts for the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now, however, there is a growing risk of open war between Riyadh and Tehran. Oil facilities and exports would inevitably be primary targets and in those circumstances a price spike would be unavoidable. The question is whether such an escalation can be prevented.

Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have never been close. The conflict is partly religious, partly economic and territorial. Both want to be the clear regional leader. In recent months relations have deteriorated. The latest trigger is the death of 767 Islamic pilgrims at the annual hajj in Mecca. The dead included an estimated 169 Iranians. Since the tragedy – caused by a stampede at a bottleneck as about 2m took part in the journey – Iran’s leaders have used the event as a stick to beat the Saudi authorities in general and the royal family in Riyadh in particular. The failure of the Saudis to return the dead Iranians to their own country has provoked an unspecific commitment of “retaliation” from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The heightened language indicates the tension that pervades the region. The situation is comparable to Europe in the months before the first world war, and equally dangerous. Read more

British Government Signs A Deal For New Nuclear Power Plant

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The election is over and against all expectations we have a clear result. When it comes to energy policy, however, the agenda will be set not by what the Conservative party has promised in its manifesto but by external events. A number of looming issues are already obvious and the government will have no control over most of them.

The first is the further postponement of the plans for nuclear development starting at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Two new reactors capable of supplying some 7 per cent of total UK electricity demand are planned. The first was originally supposed to be on stream in time to cook Christmas dinner in 2017. But despite the prospect of a lavish price — index linked for 35 years regardless of what happens to global energy prices – and £10bn of even more generous financial guarantees, funding for the investment required is not in place. The reluctance of investors to commit will not be helped by the technical problems in the reactor vessels, which are now under investigation by the French nuclear regulator. This problem has widespread implications for the companies involved (Areva and EDF) and for nuclear development in many countries across the world, starting with France itself. Read more


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An intriguing process has begun in the EU, almost unnoticed outside the small world of Brussels and the shrinking circle of those who believe in an ever-closer European Union. The EU is asserting its role in the energy market. The policy was nodded through at the March meeting of the European Council on the basis of a paper published at the end of February by the new European commissioner for the energy union — Maros Sefcovic, one of the vice-presidents of the EU and also one of the most effective players in a Commission that is already showing itself to be stronger and more determined than its last three predecessors.

The February document was a good piece of work. It is careful and meticulous in the best European tradition. There are no grand statements of ambition. No country is forced to give up the power to set its own energy mix. The French will not be told to start fracking for shale gas or the extensive volumes of tight oil that exist in the Paris basin. Germany will not be required to change its policy of phasing out nuclear power. There is no proposal to unify taxation on energy production or consumption. The idea floated by Commission president Donald Tusk to establish a common buyer for imported natural gas in order to strengthen the trading power of the EU was not endorsed.

What changes is simply but crucially that a new level of policy making is established above the nation states. Read more

Whitehall Prepares For Major Cuts Under Coalition Government

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Imagine that you are a minister with an important decision to take. The decision is finely balanced and you have your doubts about costs and the commitments on deliverability. You are inclined to say no. But hold on – the firm involved employs your wife as a consultant which brings in a helpful £ 40,000 a year. If you take the wrong decision the consultancy is very likely to come to a rapid end.

Or consider that you are a moderately senior civil servant who can see your career coming to an end as one round of spending cuts follows another. There is a company, already successful, and if it expands further it will need experienced staff. You like them and they like you, as they have made clear over a couple of very pleasant lunches. The only slight problem is that in order to expand they need a decision taken on which your advice is likely to be decisive. Read more

As Martin Wolf has noted in the Financial Times, world oil prices have fallen 38 per cent since the end of June. A Martian listening to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement would have no idea of this. For consumers lower oil prices can have positive effects but for mature producing provinces they are very damaging and could be fatal.

Mr Osborne proposed a cut in the supplementary charge on oil company profits by 2 percentage points from 32 per cent to 30 per cent. There is to be a “cluster” area allowance to help the development of small fields which sit next to each other. The ringfence expenditure supplement is to extended from six years to 10. Wow! That will really keep the investment flowing. Read more

BP oil platform in the North Sea  © Reuters

After 40 years of production that far exceeded original expectations, the North Sea oil and gas industry is in serious jeopardy. At the beginning of the year, there was a degree of optimism following Sir Ian Wood’s report and the establishment of a new, more interventionist regulator considered capable of driving a further wave of activity. But with the fall in oil prices over the past four months, the mood has changed dramatically. Read more

The Saltire national flag (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

  © Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Devolution max — the home rule option endorsed by the three UK party leaders — could just encourage Scots to vote No next Thursday. For many in the business sector, however, including the energy companies, the idea looks half baked; a proposal adopted in panic because of a solitary poll showing the Yes campaign ahead. The consequence will be an extended period of uncertainty with a new question mark over every prospective investment in Scotland. Read more

A sign pointing to Whitehall (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

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Applications close this week for the newly created post of chief executive of the UK civil service. The general reaction to the advertisement of the vacancy has been muted, to put it mildly, with a much repeated view that the job is un-doable.

The role is certainly not an easy one – think of it as Yes Minister with knives – but the conventional wisdom is too negative.

Whitehall badly needs reform and this could be a good way to drive forward the changes which have been so elusive over the past few years. But if they really want change and a modern, professionalised civil service, ministers will have to adapt as well. Read more

Readers will be familiar with the issue of shale gas - its potential to change the world energy market and the controversies surrounding its development. But you might be less familiar with tight oil – oil from shale rock which can also be extracted by hydraulic fracturing. That is the next story and its development particularly in the UK will be every bit as controversial. Even the publication of the initial basic survey of the resources in place is being held up by political nervousness. Read more

Nearly. That was my summary of the state of negotiations between the UK government and EDF on new nuclear last month. Nearly but not quite as comments by Ed Davey over the past week make clear. The government had hoped to make a positive announcement before the summer but it is now looking at the prospect of more months of further talks. A deal, intended by ministers in London to represent a final offer, was put on the table four weeks ago. EDF in Paris, where all the energy company’s decisions are made, has failed to respond.

Frustrated by the unwillingness of EDF to engage, the government, which wanted to do a deal and thought an agreement was possible after the last Anglo-French summit in May, has now effectively stepped back and is talking to other possible suppliers. Read more

The new estimates of shale gas resources published by IGas, one of the energy companies involved in exploration in the UK, complicate still further the decisions facing the Government on energy. Ed Davey, energy secretary, talks about moving to a point at which power supplies will be almost carbon free. But at the same time civil servants across Whitehall, including some from his own Department, have been asked to produce a paper on the competitiveness of UK energy supplies at a time when US costs are falling dramatically. That will be an interesting piece of work and should be published openly. Read more

The announcement that the Department of Energy and Climate Change – along with half a dozen other Whitehall ministries – has accepted another reduction in its budget under the latest spending review will be celebrated only by the energy companies and their lobbyists. A weak department has been weakened further with its negotiating capability undermined at a critical moment.

Most of DECC’s £3bn budget goes to meet its statutory obligations – including nuclear decommissioning costs. Those obligations can’t be cut so the burden falls on the “discretionary” areas of policy making which include negotiations around the vexed issue of Electricity Market Reform. Cuts and natural wastage, which leaves a significant number of posts unfilled, mean that the department is now seriously understaffed for these negotiations. There is big money at stake and for the companies no expense on staff and lobbyists is too great. The secretary of state has been supine in accepting the cuts without challenge. Read more

The news that Exxon is to build a $10 bn LNG export facility in Texas marks another significant step forward in the story of shale gas and its disruptive impact on the world energy market. Those who want a parallel for the painful process through which so many of the established forces of the industry on one side and the lobby groups on another have struggled to come to terms with the reality of shale gas over the last three years should read John Heilbron’s fascinating book on GalileoRead 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

Ed Davey, secretary of state for DECC

Ed Davey, secretary of state at DECC, outside his ministry

The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change is about to publish forecasts suggesting that gas prices could rise by up to 70 per cent over the next five years. This is scaremongering nonsense, and shows just how out of touch the Department is with the realities of the international energy market. Officials appear not to have consulted the industry or the traders. In reality the odds are that prices are just as likely to fall as to rise for three distinct reasons. Read more

A number of well-sourced reports over the past two days suggest that, as predicted, we are on the edge of a deal for the construction of new nuclear power stations in the UK.

The champagne corks however are not quite popping either in Whitehall or in Paris. Read more

There is absolutely no need for an energy shortage in the UK, but the indecision of policy makers is making serious problems over the next few years ever more likely. There is no shortage of supply – but the raw materials of the energy business – such as gas and coal, or for that matter wind – have to be converted into power to produce the electricity which is essential for a complex modern economy. If the power stations are not in place electricity can’t be produced. Read more

Shale gas drilling rig near Blackpool, in north-west England . Getty Images

I spent the holidays in Wales, dodging the odd shower, and contemplating the potential if someone could invent a technology that, short of massive hydro-power schemes, could convert rainfall into power. Wales would undoubtedly be the Saudi Arabia of rain power.

But Wales may not have to wait for new technology to become an energy producer again. The country looks set to be one of the main centres in the UK for the rapidly expanding shale gas business.

One of the most significant events of 2013 for the energy sector in the UK will be the publication of the next report on shale gas prospects across the country from the British Geological Survey. Well timed leaks of part of the report, which appeared just before the chancellor’s statement in December, have already suggested a significant increase in the resource base available near Blackpool. Read more

Wholesale gas market faces investigation. Getty

The announcement of an inquiry into the wholesale gas market in the UK reflects the increasing concern about the way in which pricing structures operate in a business with a limited number of powerful players. It would be wrong to prejudge the specific inquiry. What matters is that the sector as a whole needs to regain consumer trust.

From the wholesale electricity business and retail gas supply, to the negotiations between the government and private sector over subsidies to wind and nuclear power generation, there is a culture of complexity with too many decisions taken in private. The commitment to transparency from the new energy minister, John Hayes, is very welcome and long overdue. Read more

Japanese company Hitachi buys into nuclear

The news that Hitachi has paid what seems a high price for the Horizon franchise to build new nuclear stations in the UK is good news for the industry. Hitachi has a strong balance sheet and a good technical record – untarnished by Japan’s Fukushima incident. The deal is a tribute to the Department of Energy and Climate Change officials involved and to Number 10′s strong support for the nuclear programme.

Now, only two questions remain. What price will UK consumers pay for nuclear generated power and who will fund EDF’s initial investment in Hinkley Point.

After a long and successful campaign to make nuclear power acceptable within the UK the companies involved in the industry seem to be jeopardising further progress by refusing to spell out the detailed costs of the new nuclear stations they want to build. Read more