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

Whitehall Prepares For Major Cuts Under Coalition Government

  © Getty Images

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

One of the most exhilarating aspects of working in the energy business – at least for a humble economist such as me – is that companies think and act on a timescale measured in decades. Projects are built to last for 30-40 years, and often longer still. This is in sharp contrast to the government where timescales are measured in hours and where long-term means the not-too-distant horizon of the next election. It is also in contrast to sectors such as telecommuications where the pace of change is so fast that thinking more than five years ahead makes no sense. But, as the current slide in oil, gas and coal prices demonstrates, a long-term perspective does not make investment judgments easier.

Most oil and gas fields, coal mines, nuclear power plants, wind farms and other energy sources are designed to last for decades. The construction time can be long: a liquefied natural gas plant can take six or eight years; a new nuclear power station a decade or more especially if the technology is unproven or excruciatingly complex. Payback only comes when the plants have been on stream for several years. Beyond that, however, the operating costs are usually low and the cash flow is strong and secure. Or, at least it should be. 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 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

President Obama’s victory means that as far as America’s domestic energy business is concerned, very little changes. The real consequences flow from the impact of what is happening in America on the wider global market. But there is also the tantalising possibility of a surprise.

As Joe Lelyveld wrote before the ballot closed, the one sure winner is “dysfunction”. The results, with a divided Congress and a close popular vote, did nothing to remove the risk of gridlock in Washington. Power is so fragmented that the potential for leadership on major policy issues barely exists. Read more

Mitt Romney has given Barack Obama a free pass when it comes to energy and environmental policy.  Obama needs only to point to Romney’s energy plan - with its proposed demolition of federal controls on new energy developments and its omission of any mention whatsoever of climate change to claim the votes of the environmental lobby.

Even those most disappointed by the last 4 years can hardly fail to back Obama when the alternative is someone who used his acceptance speech last week to mock Obama’s commitment to the environment and to contrast Obama’s aim of helping to save the earth and the oceans with his own commitment to helping ordinary American families get jobs.  But what won’t be said this week at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte is that the American energy outlook for the next four years at least is already very largely set, and won’t be much altered by whoever is elected in November. Read more