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The Bigger Picture: Convergence of Geopolitics and Oil

Osama Rizvi

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The rising tensions in Middle-East and the rising oil prices only show how strong the link between oil prices and geopolitics is. There are many fronts: Israel and Gaza, Trump and Iran deal, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Then there are vested interests, wherein Trump, Saudi Arabia and Israel form one alliance and Russia, China and Iran another. All in all unrest in Middle-East is reshaping relationships and shaking markets. Understanding the bigger picture while delineating relevant factors can help provide us track the potential implications of matters in this region and thereof of oil prices in posterity.

Adding an influential voice to the chorus of energy analyst, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Daniel Yergin recently said that oil prices might hit $85 in July. Bank of America, last week, caused quite a stir saying that oil can hit $100 by next year. Not to mention an oil hedge fund manager who, see oil at $300, a possibility (he deleted his tweets afterwards). Over all the market sentiment is very bullish and rightly so.

What are the underlying reasons? Declining Venezuelan production, sanctions on Iran and of-course the geopolitical wildcards: war in the ever raging Middle East.

Production in Venezuela has been in decline, from 2.3 million bpd in 2016 to 1.5 mbpd in April 2018. However, it is only its combination with Trump’s decision to repudiate Iran deal (with it the fear of sanctions and a reduction in supply) that the oil prices haverallied up to levels not seen after 2014: $80 for Brent and $72 for WTI.

Few days back the inauguration of U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and the ensuing protests, wherein many people were killed, can have spectacular consequences in future and can trigger another rally. One can recall the time of intermittent Arab conflicts between Israel and Muslim countries. Below we dive into a complex geopolitical soup that can shape the future ofoil prices.

Taking Iran as the focal point, we can disentangle the present and future possibilities. Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been vying for the regional balance of power. Any move that is perceived to tilt that balance in either direction has caused protest from the other side. Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Action of Plan (JCPOA) commonly known as Iran deal, was probably one of the most important acts that Saudi Arabia perceived to be threatening to the existing balance of power and therefore, regional stability.Therefore, Trump’s move was welcomed by the Saudi’s. The consequences despite having a strong geopolitical and security dimension have a commensurately important economic side as well: Oil prices. The cancellation of the deal will ease the markets off by anywhere between 300,000bpd to 500, 000 bpd. It is instructive to note that it comes at a time when both Iran and Saudi Arabia are party to what is called the Vienna Agreement—the prime reason for the rebalancing of the markets.

As Saudi Arabia vows to use its spare capacity to offset the effects of sanctions on Iran this represents nothing short of a dilemma for the Kingdom. MbS’ plan to transform the Saudi economy into a diversified one rests on Aramco’s IPO scheduled for 2019. To get desired evaluation the country needs oil prices to rise. $80 is desirable. Now, the question arises why Saudi Arabia would stop oil prices from rising, which suits them, and that too without cutting further production? Also, doing so may hurt the Vienna agreement as other might protest. There is another factor, China, one of the largest buyer of Iranian crude, is exempt from any sanctions by U.S. hence free to do business with Iran. It’s record oil consumption which made headlines few days back, shows that it will not be difficult for Iran to sell those sanctioned barrels to China making the overall effect of supply zero or insignificant. Some have even said that this can threaten Petrodollar dominance in oil trade.

The next front is that of Israel. Further unrest in Gaza will lead to a heated rhetoric about Hamas which brings in Iran that further drags Saudi’s completing the picture for conflict. This can spill over to war in Yemen. All of this can make the geopolitical risk premium stay for a very long time hence, prospects of oil prices sky-rocketing ($100, may be?).

But here is the opposite scenario. One should remember (and expect), quite gleefully, that such tensions cannot go for good. Either they end in a military escalation, a war of sorts, or some agreement is reached. If the latter happens we can bring in another factor into the puzzle that is not temporary: rise in U.S. shale production. The number of rigs, 844, now stands at highest since 2015. The production has surpassed 10.7 mbpd. Shale drillers are exercising restraint and tackling some bottlenecks, but for how long?

We can pose the same question regarding Vienna agreement. How long can the oil producing countries continue cutting production? Can the pact afford a disgruntled Iran which might leave the oil pact? What about Russia’s commitment . . . if matters in Middle-east turn out ugly, Russia will evidently side with Iran rather than Saudi Arabia.

Also, if production is increased that would undermine or even jeopardize the deal and if it doesn’t that will, if on one side serve the Kingdom’s purpose of increasing oil prices (due to a fall in supply), on the other hand help U.S shale producers drill even more. Higher oil prices, if on one side reduce demand; at a certain point can also jeopardize the Vienna pact itself as the countries will have no incentive to continue it.

Lastly, if oil prices continue to rise then demand might slow down, at the same time when Shale production continues to rise. As an article in The Guardian noted, the oil prices might “come back to earth with a bump”. It is therefore quite early to call whether we’ll see a three digit oil price very soon. We are in the middle, prices can go both ways. All depends upon how events will unfold in Middle-East in the days to come.

Independent Economic Analyst, Writer and Editor. Contributes columns to different newspapers. He is a columnist for Oilprice.com, where he analyzes Crude Oil and markets. Also a sub-editor of an online business magazine and a Guest Editor in Modern Diplomacy. His interests range from Economic history to Classical literature.

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Energy and Poverty

Todd Royal

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Energy and poverty are intertwined. In the last ten years India according to the United Nations (UN) 2019 Multidimensional Poverty Index, lifted over 270 million Indian citizens out of extreme poverty; since they acquired growing electrification and access to energy. But many nations believe chaotic, intermittent renewables – mainly wind and solar – will achieve these results. Meanwhile, the world watches passively while the weaponization of energyled by China, Russia and Iran (CRI) is teetering Asia towards memories of 1939 and the emergence of World War III.

Europe and the U.S. wholeheartedly believe renewables will power billions in China, India, Africa, and Asia hungry for energy and electricity. Europe even welcomes with open arms, Iranian terrorist-monies for their dispirited economies. What the U.S. should do is “drown the world in oil.”Build power plants, and watch the planet flourish with affordable electricity. Nations need energy now.

Whoever controls energy – mainly oil, natural gas, coal and increasingly nuclear power – rules with either an iron fist or a benevolent one? But the world is in a stage of chaotic order with CRI challenging the US-led liberal order in place since the end of World War II (WWII). Energy is the new superpower.

Never before has energy and electricity played the leading role in alleviating poverty. Social order, religion, and family structure are still important – though all three are under attack over environmental extremism – but nothing has done more for human achievement, increased life expectancies, and ameliorating hunger like access to oil, natural gas, and coal that brings scalable, reliable affordable, abundant and flexible energy and electricity.

Allowing the Guardian newspaper, and green clergy parading as environmentalists such as Bill McKibben, Paul Ehrlich and John Holden to determine energy policies that lead to poverty is evil and shameful. These men then attack human reproduction, productivity, longevity, and technological progress through delaying or crushingenhanced infrastructure projects.

Renewables and believing an existential crisis exists via climate change when there are serious doubts (research the Oregon Petition and Marc Moreno for starters) won’t stop CRI from becoming the new hegemonic powers. Even NASA has admitted it is the sun that affects the earth more than burning fossil fuels. Then the last seventy five years of fighting poverty will be overturn over dubious, global warming claims, and relying on the sun and wind for electricity backed up by fossil fuels onto electrical grids.

We have entered the era of allowing Al Gore-types (whose predictions and science are generally wrong) to set national security, foreign policy, and realist balancing based on inaccurate predictions of the weather. But the former U.S. Vice President isn’t the only doomsayer whose global warming/climate change prognostications are deceptively incorrect. This has profound implications for energy, poverty, and global peace.

Renewables, and setting energy polices based on global warming/climate change only leads to poverty and geopolitical chaos. Poverty is now in the form of:

“Trillions in subsidies, rocketing power prices, pristine landscapes turned into industrial wastelands, wrecked rural communities and bird and bat carnage.”

The U.S. and European led “Green New Deals” will destroy humanity, and lead to backbreaking poverty. It’s why India has chosen reliable, affordable coal-fired power plants over solar and wind farms for electricity. China is following India’s lead, and slashing renewables, clean energy and technology subsidies by 39 percent; and building coal-fired power plants at a record pace.

Chinese has even used “green finance” monies for coal investments.Overall “global renewable growth (and investment) has stalled,” particularly in Europe.Why are global subsidies, production credits and tax incentives for renewables are being cut by governments and private investors?

Solar and wind have led to electrical grid blackouts in Australia, Britain, New York City, and grid instability in U.S. state, Texas, and substantially higher electricity costs. Additionally, renewables cannot replace the approximately6,000 products that came from a barrel crude oil.

Renewables (solar and wind) will never be enough for decades ahead to power modern, growing economies, or countries, and continents such as China, India and Africa, which are emerging from the energy and electrical dark ages. A city, county, state, nation, or continent needs reliable electricity 24/7/365, and renewables are chaotically intermittent. U.S. energy firm Duke Energy now believes solar farms are increasing pollution; Michael Shellenberger, Time Magazine environmental hero recipient echoes the same sentiments. Mr. Shellenberger also includes wind power with solar increasing emissions.

Moreover, renewable investments are plummeting, because unless electricity markets are skewed towards favoring renewables, the entire market for solar and wind produced electricity breakdowns. Then the entire renewable to electricity model relies on energy storage systems that do not have enough capacity or technological progress currently available to provide uninterrupted, on-demand electricity to all ratepayers and recipients from the grid.

It energy-nihilism to think, or believe storage from wind and solar will generate affordable, reliable, scalable, and flexible electricity. If fossil fuels are replaced on a large-scale basis it will lead to increased pollution, higher than average levelized cost of electricity, grid instability, environmental destruction, and poverty. This why most people don’t want renewables near them; meaning, there isn’t a green transition-taking place.

But geopolitics is where energy and poverty collide, and renewables replacing fossil fuels based on the overarching belief of anthropogenic global warming (whose climate models consistently fail) is how the global instability could deepen and grow.

According to the Bloomberg Economic gauge, China’s economy is dramatically slowing, “due to its vast self-made problems.” Which means as long as President Trump is in office the U.S.-China trade war will continue. The U.S. is winning, and Iran is still in Trump’s and the U.S.’ “crosshairs.” Both strategies receive negative media attention, but are causing geopolitical consternation. China and Iran will forcefully respond.

Nations and governments better have policies in place for energy and electrical stability to counter renewables instability, and the nation-state rivalry occurring between the U.S., NATO, and Asian allies against CRI. Either reliable energy will be chosen, or geopolitical wars over blackouts leading to lower military preparedness will happen. Either way energy and poverty are intertwined, or poverty can be defined as lower per-capita-GDP leading to conflicts that destroys countries. Choosing renewables and global warming-based energy policies will likely lead to poverty and possibly wartime catastrophes.

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Rethinking Energy Sector Reforms in a Power Hungry World

MD Staff

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Every country aspires to provide reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity to its citizens. Yet during the past 25 years, some countries made huge strides, while others saw little progress. What accounts for this difference?

A new World Bank report—Rethinking Power Sector Reform in the Developing World—looks at the evidence on the ways in which developing countries have attempted to improve power sector performance and on what the outcomes have been.

Since 1990, many countries embarked on market-oriented power sector reforms that ranged from establishing independent regulators and privatizing parts of the power industry, to restructuring utilities and introducing competition. Each of these reforms has a story to tell.

Regulation: Regulation proved to be the most popular of the reforms, with about 70 percent of developing countries creating quasi-independent regulatory entities to oversee the task of setting prices and monitoring the quality of service. Although many countries enacted solid legal frameworks, the practice of regulation continues to lag far behind. For example, while almost all countries give the regulators legal authority on the critical issue of determining tariffs, this authority is routinely overruled by the governments in one out of three countries. While three out of four countries have adopted suitable regulations for quality-of-service, these regulations are only enforced in half of the cases.

Privatization: Thanks to the widespread adoption of Independent Power Projects, the private sector has—remarkably—contributed as much as 40 percent of new generation capacity in the developing world since 1990, even in low-income countries. However, the privatization of distribution utilities has proved much more challenging. Latin American markets drove an initial surge in the late 1990s, but there has been relatively little impetus to continue subsequently. Where distribution utilities were privatized, countries were much more likely to adhere to cost-recovery tariffs. Many privatized utilities also operate at high levels of efficiency; and their performance is matched by the better half of the public utilities. Irrespective of ownership, more efficient utilities have adopted better governance and management practices, including: transparent financial reporting, meritocratic staff selection, and modern IT systems.

Restructuring: Most developing countries continue to operate with vertically integrated national power utilities that operate as monopolies. Only one in five countries implemented both vertical and horizontal unbundling of utilities, separating out generation from transmission and transmission from distribution and creating multiple generation and distribution utilities. Restructuring is intended primarily as a stepping stone to deeper reforms, and countries that went no further tended not to see significant impacts. Indeed, restructuring of power systems that are very small and/or poorly governed—as in the case of many Sub-Saharan African countries—can actually be counter-productive by reducing the scale of operation and increasing its complexity.

Competition: Only one in five developing countries has been able to introduce a wholesale power market during the past 25 years, in which generators are free to sell power directly to a wide range of consumers. Most of these power markets are in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Such countries have reaped the benefits of more efficient allocation of generation resources, but they have typically needed to introduce more incentives to ensure adequate investment in new capacity. A demanding list of structural, financial, and regulatory preconditions for power markets prevents most other developing countries from following suit. Such a transition is rarely possible until power systems reach a size of around 3GW and a wholesale power turnover of around US$1 billion. For countries that are not yet ready, participating in a regional power market can bring many of the benefits of trade.

Reflecting on these experiences leads to conclusions that can inform future efforts to improve power sector performance. The main takeaways from the study are as follows.

Power is political: The implementation of market-oriented power sector reforms raises political challenges. Many countries announced reforms that did not subsequently go through, and some countries enacted reforms that later had to be reversed. In practice, electricity reforms proved to be most feasible in countries that already espoused a broader market ideology and in political systems based on the decentralization of power. Reform champions often played a crucial role in driving the change process, but broader stakeholder alignment proved to be equally important for reforms to be sustained in the longer term. For example, in the Dominican Republic, a far-reaching market-oriented reform was enacted in an unsupportive political environment and a turbulent macro-economic context that eventually led to the renationalization of the power utilities.

Starting conditions matter: Market-oriented reforms are complex and presuppose a power system that is already largely developed, adequately governed, and financially secured. Countries starting from this vantage point generally saw quite positive outcomes from power sector reform. But those that embarked on the process before these basic conditions were in place faced a much more difficult trajectory, with outcomes that often fell short of expectations. Thus, market-oriented power sector reform led to much better outcomes in relatively developed middle-income countries like Colombia, Peru, or the Philippines, than in more challenging environments such as Pakistan or the Indian State of Odisha. For example, in Peru, the power sector was fully restructured by 1994; private sector investment substantially increased in generation, transmission, and metropolitan area distribution networks, amounting to about $16 billion over 20 years. The creation of an effective sector regulator and wholesale power market institutions has driven the efficiency of the Peruvian power sector to best-practice levels and led to a significant reduction in the cost of energy.

One size does not fit all: Power sector reform is a means to an end. What ultimately matters are good power sector outcomes, and there may be different ways of getting there. Among the best-performing power sec­tors in the developing world are some that fully implemented market-oriented reforms, as well as others that retained a domi­nant and competent state-owned utility guided by strong policy mandates, combined with a more gradualist and targeted role for the private sector. This reality makes a case for greater plural­ism of approaches going forward. In Vietnam, for instance, the central policy focus was on achieving universal access to electricity and rapid expansion of generation capacity to achieve energy security in a fast-growing economy. These objectives were achieved through strong leadership of state-owned entities, complemented by gradual and selective adoption of market reforms and targeted private sector investment.

Goal posts have moved: It used to be enough to achieve energy security and fiscal sustainability, but countries now have more ambitious 21st century policy objectives, notably, reaching universal access plus decarbonizing electricity supply. Market reforms can be helpful in improving the overall efficiency and financial viability of the power sector, and in creating a better climate for investment. However, they cannot—in and of themselves—deliver on these social and environmental aspirations. Complementary policy measures are needed to direct and incentivize the specific investments that are needed. For example, in Morocco, an ambitious scale-up of renewable energy was achieved through the creation of a new institution parallel to the traditional utility, with a specific policy mandate to direct private investment toward the achievement of government policy goals.

Technology disrupts: Rapid innovation is transforming the institutional landscape through the combined effect of renewable energy, battery storage, and digitalized networks. What used to be a highly centralized network industry is increasingly contested by decentralized actors. These include new entrants and consumers who may have the ability to generate their own electricity and/or adjust their demand in response to market signals. How this ultimately reshapes power sector organization will depend on the extent to which regulators open up markets to new players and reconfigure incentives for incumbent utilities to adopt innovative technologies.

In sum, a nuanced picture emerges from the experiences of developing countries that have aimed to turnaround power sector performance in the past 25 years. Drawing on this wealth of historical evidence, and informed by emerging technological trends, this report offers a new frame of reference for power sector reform that is shaped by context, driven by outcomes, and informed by alternatives.

The complete report can also be accessed at http://www.esmap.org/rethinking_power_sector_reform

World Bank

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Energy

Aramco’s IPO: A bell weather of Saudi balancing between East and West

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia’s planned awarding of mandates for the management of an initial public offering (IPO) by its national oil company Aramco is likely to serve as a bell weather for how Riyadh balances its relations with the United States and China.

In an early indication that Western financial institutions like Goldman Sachs may be losing their near monopoly, Saudi Arabia this week invited China’s biggest state-owned banks, Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd (ICBC) and Bank of China Ltd to pitch alongside major US, European and other Asian underwriters for the mandate of what is expected to be the largest listing ever.

Analysts took the invitation to Chinese institutions as a sign that Saudi Arabia was considering Hong Kong in addition to London, New York and Tokyo as possible exchanges on which to list the five percent stake in Aramco that would be on offer.

ICBC, the world’s largest lender by assets, is the only major Chinese state-owned bank to have a commercial banking presence in the kingdom. Bank of China’s London branch was a co-manager on Aramco’s US$12 billion bond sale in April.

The invitation to the two Chinese banks came as US investment bank and financial services giant Goldman Sachs was believed to have significantly enhanced its chances as the result of a sustained high-level lobbying effort.

Goldman had failed to secure a prominent role in 2017 when Aramco initially nominated major Western firms to manage the IPO. The offering was ultimately postponed after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman failed to persuade the market to adopt his US$2 trillion valuation of Aramco.

The success of the bond sale, months after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, that attracted more than $100 billion of investor orders persuaded Prince Mohammed that he might be able to pull off the Aramco offering. Goldman Sachs was the bond’s bookrunner.

Chinese state-owned oil companies PetroChina and Sinopec offered to buy the stake when the kingdom first announced that it wanted to sell five percent of Aramco in the hope of raising US$100 billion.

The sovereign funds of Russia, Japan and South Korea also signalled an interest in becoming cornerstone investors.

Granting a Chinese bank a leading role in the IPO would further cement the kingdom’s pivot towards Asia.

It would underline Saudi Arabia’s ever greater economic interdependence with Asia that it needs to balance with its increasingly uncertain security relationship with the United States and Europe and reliance on Washington in its struggle against Iran.

The kingdom’s relations with its onetime main ally have changed as the United States becomes less dependent on energy imports on the back of shale oil and renewables.

On the flip side, Saudi Arabia last year accounted for some 12 percent of Chinese oil imports and its share has since almost doubled. The US-China trade war has prompted Chinese buyers to reduce oil purchases from the United States and look elsewhere.

China and Saudi Arabia earlier this year inked deals worth US$28 billion, including a Saudi commitment to build a $10 billion petrochemical complex in China that will refine and process Saudi oil. Saudi Arabia has also invested in energy assets in the United States.

Talk of Saudi energy investments in China first emerged two years ago at the time that a possible direct Chinese investment in Aramco was being touted.

Meanwhile, Saudi relations with the US are troubled by a growing sense that the United States will over time reduce its security commitment to the Gulf and mounting questioning in the US Congress of the alliance with the kingdom as a result of its disastrous four-year-long war in Yemen and the killing of Mr. Khashoggi.

Some analysts suggest that the kingdom’s revival of the prospects of an Aramco IPO is a political ploy rather than a serious effort to sell a stake in an asset that generates the bulk of the state’s revenue. The revival coincided with Saudi plans to accelerate privatization of other state assets.

The IPO “is wheeled out to investors the same way an ailing, elderly Arab ruler is put on display — to remind subjects of the immense power of patronage, and the threat of retribution for disloyalty. But it is also sad and tiresome, a farce that everyone knows is a representation of the past and not where things are headed. The Aramco IPO has become a regular reminder to those in the finance world who depend on the Saudi government for fees, for access to deals and for that slim possibility that the offering goes through. The message is clear — stay loyal, just in case,” said Gulf scholar Karen Young, writing in Al-Monitor.

Ms. Young argued that Aramco’s ambition to diversify into refining, gas and petrochemicals neatly aligns itself with Prince Mohammed’s effort to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy. She notes that expanding the company’s shareholder base could complicate the oil company’s ability to execute its plans.

Said Ms. Young: “Any discussion of the Aramco IPO always ends on the same note. It is a political decision, which the company will have to be prepared to accept. Oil prices are not helping, as they continue to be depressed, despite rising political tensions in the Persian Gulf. If the government wants to keep its Aramco prize and be able to use its energy resources to wield political influence, it is better off making a deal with China to buy a small stake in the company.”

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