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The Lebanon, natural gas and local political equilibria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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As can be easily foreseen, the huge amount of natural gas that is being discovered throughout the East Mediterranean region is bound to quickly change the whole economic, strategic and military system of the Middle East.

As well as the links between the Greater Middle East and the European Union.

While, before the discoveries of the East Mediterranean region, the primary theme was the network of contacts between the EU West and the Arab-Islamic universe, currently these productive transformations change the internal relations among traditionally producing countries and place  Israel in a new economic context, thus making the EU countries enter this new maritime production system as full members.

Hence it is by no mere coincidence that the first East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGS) was organized in Cairo last January.

The Forum participants included Egypt, Italy, the European Union, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority.

However, it also included Israel and this is certainly a fact not to be overlooked.

The logic of the meeting, however, is to create – in the short term – a politically and productively cohesive group, capable of maximizing the financial and political effects of this great operation and also avoiding competitive policies by other neighbouring gas areas.

First and foremost the Persian Gulf, but also the coastal areas of the Horn of Africa and the possible exploration areas off the Yemeni coast.

The Conference was sponsored by Schlumberger and Deloitte and hosted by World Oil, Gas Processing& LNG, Hydrocarbon Processing, Petroleum Economist, Pipeline & Gas Journal and, finally, by Underground Construction.

As can be easily imagined, also the large European and North American companies of the sector were present.

It should be noted that, this year, the Forum has also been slightly brought forward, for obvious reasons of strong political and productive needs.

Two countries, namely Syria and the Lebanon, did not participate and over the last few years they have started to exploit their offshore deposits in an autonomous way.

Obviously Syria will primarily support the Russian and Iranian networks towards Central Asia and China, while the Lebanon will use its offshore deposits, which are largely independent from neighboring countries, so as to revive its economy.

Zohr, the great Egyptian gas field, was discovered in 2015. In the future, however, Egypt also wants to become the hub for all the natural gas passages in the region, both to the EU and to the rest of the world.

The Israeli Leviathan and Karish gas fields have already started production, despite some tensions between the private technical and financial managers and the State of Israel, which wants a different use of a part of extractions.

If Israel’s gas transits through the Balkan line to Vienna, or through the Greek-Albanian network and Italy, it will anyway be fundamental for the European economy and its strategic equilibria.

In all likelihood, Israel’s gas will be even more decisive in the first operational version of the Southern Corridor – the one we have called “Viennese” – than in the Greek-Italian one.

As already mentioned, the Lebanon will mainly play the game against the Israeli gas, for both political and eminently economic reasons.

So far the Lebanon has indicated two Exploration and Production Agreements (EPAs) to a consortium led by Total, with the participation of ENI and Novatek, while Norway and the Lebanon are still collaborating for technical and legal issues through the oil for development program, which will last until 2020.

The Lebanon, however, has also completed its LNG import network for domestic electricity production, a primary problem for the country.

There are also several contracts expiring or to be renewed in the small, but very important market of Lebanese gas.

Political factionalism and the many overt and covert alliances of the Lebanon do not allow to have a homogeneous market of its natural gas.

With specific reference to Cyprus, ENI has discovered Block 6, with the wide Calypso deposit inside, while Exxon-Mobil still “drills” Block 10.

It should be recalled that Turkey has recently blocked the SAIPEM 12000 drillship just a few days after Block 3 was discovered. Turkey, however, has not behaved in the same way with Exxon-Mobil Block 10, in which it does not currently show any direct interest.

The problem is well known: Turkey believes that every exploration and processing-selling activity of all Cypriot gas should benefit both island’s communities and hence not only the Greek one.

The Cypriot government is dealing with Total for Block 11 and with ENI and Total for Block 6, but its real big problem is Aphrodite, the gas field  that should be connected to Egypt with a pipeline enabling Egypt to liquefy and transport gas to end markets.

Meanwhile Israel has already started production in 70% of its Leviathan fields, while the Karish and Tamimgas fields have been fully financed and are now operational.

Egypt’s Parliament has also voted for the creation of a new national natural gas Authority and already receives the LNG extracted by ENI in Zahr.

Hence currently the interests of the various gas producing countries tend to coincide and the Conference about which we are talking is very similar to the creation of what in the past – when economy still existed – was called “cartel”.

A cartel that depends, however, on the future distribution networks in Europe, as well as on the possible choice of some players to play the very “American-style” game of shale gas, and on the moves of the Russian Federation, which is entering this market in many regions. A cartel that finally also depends on the reactions of the Iran-Qatar axis and, hence, of the Saudi system that organizes the Emirates’ natural gas.

A very interesting fact was the request made by all participants to create an international gas organization in the region.

A new OPEC of natural gas?

Too early to say, but the idea is still in the minds of many Forum participants.

According to many Chinese analysts, this is highly probable.

It is worth recalling that currently the Forum countries already account for 87% of all the East Mediterranean’s natural gas.

Furthermore, the logic of opening to private investment and the “mutual benefit” criterion make this new gas OPEC a powerful attraction for all the new producing countries, which will not fail to join this network in the future.

Apart from geopolitical assessments and considerations which, however, are not currently clear yet.

Neither Israel nor Palestine can export their gas without passing through Egypt. Hence, in the coming years, the reasons for achieving a lasting peace will be much stronger than usual.

Unless, as someone predicts, we are faced with a very technological and utterly ubiquitous terrorism 2.0, which could take the form of the old Palestinian or “global” jihad or, possibly, of a mass anarchic-populist rebellion, but especially in the West.

Not to mention the new relationship between Palestine and Arab or Islamic countries, which would be changed radically by the new financial autonomy of the Palestinian world.

What are the challenges that the Forum countries must face to become stable producers in such an important and geopolitically sensitive market?

A market that tends to saturation, above all because of the structural economic crisis of Western markets.

Firstly, all deposits are in deep water and offshore, which makes extraction much more expensive than usual.

We are not talking about the cost of the North American shale gas, but we are not far off.

In the minds of many Middle East decision-makers, this linkage to the US and Canadian cost cycle can be very dangerous.

This could also force some competitors, outside the East Mediterranean region, to play the geopolitical and military card of the stable price increase, so as to temporarily taking the Eastern marine deposits off the market.

The geopolitical effects are hard to imagine.

Furthermore the infrastructure to put these huge resources on the market is extremely expensive and still very scarcely developed and will probably carry a very high and currently unpredictable geopolitical risk.

In fact, the standard geopolitical risks are well-known: the war in Syria; terrorism, which would certainly find a new area of action; the ambiguity of a vacuous and aimless Europe, which does not yet know what energy it wants to use in the future, undecided between the rhapsodic purchases of US shale gas and the strong tensions between France and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, with the related recent agreement on the European Directive for gas pipelines (which regards Ukraine).

The Aachen agreement, although certainly being the basis of future links between France and Germany, clashes with the short and medium-term interests of two EU countries that have different energy networks, based on different geopolitics.

Moreover France and Germany are anyway thwarting the EU common energy policy, with the very recent stop of the South Transit East Pyrenees (STEP) between France and Spain.

It is well-known that Spain is currently the country with the highest re-gasification potential in Europe and France plans to fully exploit the already existing networks on its own.

The more energy prices are competitive at the EU edges, the fewer incentives exist for a common energy policy.

Moreover, on the basis of practical calculations, it can be inferred – with some degree of accuracy – that the political risk, combined with structurally high and not yet competitive extraction costs, has left 36% of East Mediterranean’s gas potential still unexplored and untapped.

However, the structure of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which is already based in Cairo, will be open to everybody including European countries, which could thus escape the grip of a “German-style” energy policy – the last and definitive phase of Southern Europe’s exclusion from the EU centres of power.

For the time being Turkey will not be part of the EMGF.

And it is by no mere coincidence that also the Lebanon will not be a member.

The reason is simple. There are very old tensions between Turkey and Cyprus but, as early as 2003, Turkey has denounced the agreements on maritime borders signed by Cyprus, considering that, according to Turkey, Cyprus – as EU Member State – cannot represent the two local communities, namely the Greek and the Turkish ones, and hence has no full international legal capacity.

Secondly, Turkey believes that Cyprus’ autonomy in defining its Special Economic Zones should be reduced significantly.

Moreover Turkey still thinks that also the current Cypriot Economic Zones are often in areas which are de facto in Turkish waters.

Hence, as early as 2008, Turkey has been rejecting all oil exploration activities in Cyprus and its disputed waters.

Furthermore Turkey intends to promote only its own exploration activities, always in the maritime area attributed to Cyprus.

Turkey’s relations with Greece are certainly not performing better. For years Erdogan has been claiming many Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Not to mention the air crash, caused by an attack of Turkish fighters, which cost the life of a Greek pilot in April 2018.

As early as his visit to Greece in 2017, Erdogan has been constantly calling for the reform of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

This refers to Turkey’s taking possession of the border areas with Greece that – according to the long-standing Turkish polemic in this regard -were “taken away” by Westerners to be given to Greece.

Erdogan strongly argues against Greece’s right of oil and gas extraction in certain sea areas, again on the border between the two countries, albeit  outside the Cypriot region, that he believes are part of a new finally legitimate border between Turkey and the Greek islands.

Turkey does not even agree on the current relations between Greece and Libya, given that Turkey repeatedly argues with Greece for its direct oil operations on the Libyan continental shelf, which it believes it can claim for a greater share.

However, there is also a further dispute between Turkey and Egypt.

Erdogan, in fact, has never fully accepted the coup of the Egyptian military services that in 2013 – in eleven days only -overthrew Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Cairo.

Moreover, at the time, Erdogan -who has still many links with the Ikhwan – even asked the UN Security Council to impose specific sanctions on  Egypt and its internal operations against a government that certainly toppled Morsi’s democratically elected government, which anyway resulted from a great but obscure media, political and strategic operation, namely the Arab springs.

It is worth recalling that a deputy-director of CIA, Michael Morell, wrote in one of his memoirs, that the “Arab springs” were orchestrated and engineered by the Agency to foster popular uprisings “against Al Qaeda”.

The results of this crazy reasoning is before us to be seen. Erdogan, however, does not give up and often demands the release of all political prisoners held in Egyptian jails.

Yet the tension of this true mad card of the East Mediterranean region, namely Turkey, mounts even with Israel, which was once its best ally throughout the Middle East, when Turkey still was the heir of the old “secular” Republic of Atatűrk, with the young Turks who trained to seize power in the many Lodges of the Grand Orient of Italy scattered throughout the Ottoman Empire.

We can also recall the tension between Israel and Turkey during the Operation “Cast Lead” of 2008-2009 or the issue of the Marmara ships in 2010.

The situation between the two countries has never returned to normalcy, despite Israel’s apologies to Turkey, quickly organized by the United States in 2013 and the subsequent normalization of 2016, partly justified by the new energy scenario emerging in the East Mediterranean region.

Then there was the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Ankara in 2018and Erdogan accusing Israel of “genocide”. Finally the choice, which Turkey considers strongly prompted and desired by Israel, to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

Hence, on the one hand, the East Mediterranean’s oil and gas extraction requires a very high degree of collaboration between all the parties involved, while, on the other, it is the exactly the new Eastern wealth to create new rifts and fuel old tensions.

In fact the perception of an “aggressive” Turkish behavior is currently extremely widespread among all the participants in the Cairo Forum (but obviously not in Italy).

This tension, however, also affects the Lebanon, where many leaders still believe that the Forum is primarily targeted against their country.

In short, especially with this new and recent government led by Saad Hariri, the Lebanon believes it can manage, on its own, to effectively extract and monetize its maritime gas resources.

In fact, some Ministers of this Hariri-Hezbollah’s government maintain that the Lebanon could be connected to Europe through Northern Turkey (and this is another temptation for Turkey) via the Arab Gas Pipeline, although obviously, the expansion of this network with the pipeline in Syria is to be completed yet.

However, there would also be the line through Egypt, again using the Arab Gas Pipeline.

In short, the Lebanon thinks it has been thrown out, but it will soon realize that there is the possibility – also and especially with a Forum in which there is also Israel – to use at best and, above all, soon the distribution systems put in place by the Forum.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Energy

Oil and gas geopolitics and its end

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Let us see how oil barrel prices have really fluctuated in recent weeks: in April, in fact, the European and Asian Brent benchmark, in parallel with the US West Texas Intermediate (WTI), decreased by about 1 U.S. dollar per barrel a day. 

 The WTI, however, is a mixture of different light and sweet American crude oil and is refined especially in the Midwest and on the Gulf Coast.

 The benchmark known as Brent, instead, is oil extracted in the North Sea and it has greater and faster access to large markets. It is therefore used as a common benchmark for the broader oil market, while the WTI is now used above all as a reference for the American market.

 It should be noted, however, that in the previous month of March, the two benchmarks had fallen by 26.5 U.S. dollars per barrel and 24 U.S. dollars per barrel respectively.

In short, the imbalance in the oil market fully affected the March futures prices in particular, while the April fluctuations were mainly due to the OPEC plus agreement reached on April 2, setting the price at 26.03 U.S. dollars per barrel. 

 The breakdown in negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Russia led to a Saudi super-production – at first of 10 million barrels a day and then immediately of 12 million barrels a day – with a subsequent choice by OPEC to agree on a “fall” in the oil barrel price at 60 U.S. dollars, given the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

 A mistake, but probably a too classically macroeconomic forecast that does not consider strategic and internal competition assessments within OPEC, which are often essential to set prices.

 Later the oil barrel price increased immediately to 34.44 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 9, then to 16.04 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 22 and finally closed at 25.04 U.S. dollars per barrel.

In mid-April the WTI opened at 20.48 U.S. dollars per barrel, then reached 28.26 U.S. dollars and finally closed at 19.29 U.S. dollars, after having also reached the negative and paradoxical price of -37.63 U.S. dollars per barrel on April 20, 2020.

Moreover, on April 14, the International Monetary Fund published a forecast from which it could be inferred that the world GDP would decrease by 3% in the remaining period of 2020, while on April 15 the International Energy Agency published its own analysis which estimated a reduction ofthe oil demand by 9,300,000 barrels per day by the end of 2020.

Hence the WTI futures for May delivery, immediately collapsed to -37.63 U.S. dollars per barrel. Here, however, the real problem is storage.

 Short-term contracts do not envisage it at all.

 In fact, as many industry analysts maintain, this caused the fall in prices.

 It is no coincidence, in fact, that U.S. commercial oil stocks have risen significantly, from 469,193,000 barrels on March 27 to 527,631,000 barrels on May 24. Hence, in all likelihood, the U.S. ETF Oil Fund – which plunged by 15% in the April 27 session alone, after the announcement of major changes in the composition of its portfolio – has fallen due to unexpected overstocking.

 In other words, the U.S. Fund has stated it plans to remove all WTI contracts expiring in June from its portfolio and replace them with longer-term contracts, with obvious immediate losses.

 Therefore,the US Oil Fund will be broken down as follows: 30% of the portfolio will be WTI contracts expiring in July; 15% of the portfolio will be WTI contracts expiring in August; then contracts expiring in the following month up to the remaining 10% expiring in June 2021.

 The losses of the U.S. Fund are now -87% since the beginning of this year.

The U.S. Fund has an estimated value of 3 billion U.S. dollars. A financial phenomenon that has made it similar to other funds specializing in oil futures.

 It is clear that this behaviour has contributed to the bearish trend of recent months and this has certainly not favoured Donald J. Trump’s election campaign.

Furthermore, the WTI decline can also be explained by the structural logistical shortcomings that characterize the oil transport system within the United States.

Nevertheless, based on the ideas of the current Algerian Chairman-in-office, OPEC predicts that the oil barrel price will be equal to 40 U.S. dollars at the beginning of the third quarter of 2020 and that, in any case, the oil market will return to balance before the end of this year. A very unlikely hope.

The new OPEC plus plus agreement, however, entered into force on May 1, 2020.

 The first phase of the agreement signed on April 12, 2020envisaged that all OPEC members plus the others would reduce production by 9,700,000 barrels a day until June 30, 2020.

 At the beginning of May, the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia brought their production to 8,750,000 barrels a day (with a decrease of 2 million barrels per day), with the further intention of bringing their output to the limit of 8,500,000 barrels a day.

 The first phase of the bilateral agreement signed on April 12 also envisaged that the producers nor belonging directly to OPEC would “voluntarily” cut production by at least 5,000,000 barrels a day over the same period of time.

It should be recalled that these important non-OPEC producers include Norway, Canada, Brazil and, obviously, the United States.

Nevertheless, the non-OPEC total cuts have reached – with some difficulty – just 4,100,000 barrels a day.

Indeed, according to Standard & Poor’s calculations, the United States decreased production by as many as 11,600,000 barrels a day and only for the week which ended on May 8.

Hence a decrease of 1.5 million barrels a day, compared to the level of 13,100,000 barrels a day reached on March 13, 2020.

Therefore, for the first time since February 2019 the U.S. production has fallen below 12,000,000 barrels a day.

 Moreover, on April 30, 2020, the U.S. strategic oil reserves reached 636 million oil barrels, compared to a total maximum capacity of 714 million barrels.

According to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, however, global oil demand will decrease by as many as 11,400,000 barrels a day throughout 2020, before slightly increasing by 10,600,000 barrels a day in 2021.

Despite all possible statistical tricks, however, the unemployment rate has currently reached 14.7% in the United States and it is rising quickly.

This leads to a fall of about 30% in U.S. oil consumption, but the Russian Federation records a 4-6% GDP drop at least until the end of 2020.

Moreover, on April 24, the Russian Central Bank cut rates by 50 basis points to 5.5%, while the Russian inflation rate is expected to rise by 4.8% until the end of this year.

According to data of April 30 last, China shows an increase in the composite index (manufacturing + services) from 53 to 53.4, while the index of services alone has grown from 52.3 to 53.2.

However, the index of Chinese purchases in the manufacturing sector alone has decreased by two points, while the CAXIN index – which measures Chinese private SMEs – points to a small recession.

 Chinese oil imports in April, in fact – driven only by public enterprises – increased by 4.5% year over year.

 Chinese imports from Saudi Arabia, however, decreased by 90,000 barrels a day while, despite U.S. sanctions, Chinese purchases of Iranian oil rose by 11.3% as against the previous year.

 Therefore, we are faced with a new distribution of geopolitical and oil control areas.

The alternative for China is between Iran, the core of the new Silk Road, and Venezuela, although both Russia and China have agreed to give Russia a primary role in Venezuela.

Hence the global geopolitical games are postponed to the return of a robust oil demand after the Covid-19 crisis, which will end only with a vaccine or a universally accepted therapy. On a geopolitical level, however, it will probably concern a new agreement between China, the United States and the Russian Federation.

 An agreement that this time could see a real role of mediator for Italy, involving both ENI and governmental and private technical structures.

There are many issues to be considered in the relations between the United States, China and Russia: Russia’s alleged penetration into the North American electoral and political machinery and apparata; the commercial negotiations between the United States and China which, coincidentally, exacerbated during the oil price crisis; finally, the infra-US conflict regarding the reduction of local oil production.

It has to be said that if there is a recovery of the oil market, demand could reach 90-95 million barrels a day, but the country recording the greatest loss of production will certainly be the United States, which has the highest cost of oil barrel production.

Meanwhile, in its anti-coronavirus aid programme of April 30 last, the Federal Reserve envisaged direct support to U.S. oil and gas companies.

As many analysts maintain, however, several companies of the shale sector, which live only on high prices, would go bankrupt by the end of 2020.

 In terms of global assessments, however, world oil demand is estimated to fall by 19,000,000 barrels a day during this quarter of 2020 and by 8,600,000 barrels a day throughout 2021.

 Global oil supply is expected to decrease by 12,000,000 barrels a day since May to 88,000,000 next year.

 OECD stocks have increased by 68,200,000 barrels a day to a total of 2,961,000,000, well over 46,000,000 barrels a day above the average of the last five years – a quantity worth 90 days of average demand.

Non-conventional crude oil production in the U.S., however, declined by 183,000 barrels a day with a peak until March 13, before falling by approximately 12,000,000 barrels a day on May 8.

 There are currently 374 drills operating in the United States, of which 292 oil and 80 gas ones, plus 2 mixed ones.

 They are 228 fewer than those recorded on April 9, 2020, the minimum level since 1940.

 In short, the Covid-19 pandemic is redesigning all geopolitical scenarios, through oil, above all, but not only through it. Here not only energy counts, but rather the whole economic system which, however, is still currently oil-dependent.

The G20 has already put forward international cooperation proposals to cancel the debt of some of the poorest countries and for a coordinated response against the pandemic by the most technologically advanced countries.

Hence any radical transformation of energy systems entails a paradigm shift at geopolitical level.

 According to the International Monetary Fund, no oil-producing country can make money with an oil barrel price at 40 U.S. dollars. Only Qatar barely can, but every country in the Middle East needs prices of at least 60 U.S. dollars per barrel.

However, there is more than the tax or productive breakeven point: the producing countries’ economic diversification is essential.

 From this viewpoint, only Mexico, the Russian Federation and the United Arab Emirates could survive, while some others with less differentiated economies can still ask for loans or temporarily stop public spending.

Nevertheless, this depends not only on macroeconomic evaluations, but above all on political and structural issues: the presence of foreign manpower that can be easily sent away (Saudi Arabia); the possibility of using other forms of energy (Morocco) or the negative impact of some old Welfare State on the oil price (Algeria).

 Other countries are, instead, particularly vulnerable: Iraq, which is currently also one of Italy’s main suppliers; Oman, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, Angola, Surinam, not to mention Iran and Venezuela, where the oil issue is part of a severe international political crisis.All these countries can shortly fail or fall into an indefinite crisis, with unpaid salaries in the public sector and primary services largely reduced, as well as military crises and great political instability.

In some cases, this may lead to the expansion of “terrorism”, more exactly of the “sword jihad”, which can drive a wedge within the hotbeds of crisis and rule the States or the areas left by the old legitimate governments. It may also lead to the uncontrolled expansion of the great international crime, which can turn the failed States into bases to attack the still relatively healthy economies of some Western countries, and to connect the areas of illegality one another and hence turn the crime territories into a new great geopolitical player.

 A further possibility – not to be ruled out at all – concerns the mounting of regional tensions, which could become a not entirely irrational option, at least for some producing countries.

Just think of the oil barrel price crisis triggering a final showdown between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 There will also be Asian or African countries that will benefit from the vertical fall in prices.

It should be recalled, however, that on April 20 last, the West Texas Crude contract expiring in May fell to -40.32 U.S. dollars.

The countries which will benefit – to a certain extent – from the fall in prices include Argentina -which is currently already prey to yet another default, but which will pay much less for energy imports- as well as the Philippines, India, Turkey and South Africa.

 These countries will no longer be burdened by the cost of oil imports, but will also attract less investment from producing countries, whose availability of capital will collapse quickly.

 Previously oil prices had fallen due to the expansion of the shale market in the United States, to lower global growth and to the slow, but stable shift to renewable energy in most consumer countries.

 Then the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, which accelerated all these factors and, in fact, blocked the economy and saturated oil inventories and warehouses.

 The world economy will not “recover” soon or, more exactly, will no longer be as it was before the pandemic.

 Global Value Chains will become much shorter and many mature, but essential productions will go back to the countries which, in the times of rampant globalization, moved everything – except for high technology and finance – to countries with low labour costs and low taxes.

 The producing countries’ adaptation to the new context will certainly be slower than needed.

 The large solar energy basin planned by Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 was stopped indefinitely last November, while the privatization of Saudi Aramco has now proved to be a failure.

 Once the profitability of the Saudi oil has ended – and hence the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.S. penetration in the Middle East -currently a phase of great instability in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is beginning, in which Iran could play other cards besides the purely military ones.

However, the Iranian oil extraction cost is higher than the Saudi one.

 The Russian Federation “falls” at an oil barrel price of 40 U.S. dollars and, if it cannot control its internal areas and the border with China and the Caucasus, it is very easy to imagine what could happen.

 Even the United States is not in a better situation.

 Shale oil is the biggest source of employment in Michigan, Arkansas and Ohio. These are essential States for the re-election of Donald J. Trump and surely the President will do everything to support the workers-voters and these States.

 The end of the oil economy is near – or probably it has already arrived – and no one can imagine what will happen to energy markets and to our economies in the near future.

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The greening of China’s industrial strategy

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The prominence of China’s role in the global green shift currently underway may seem a paradox. Whilst it has been despoiling its own environment and that of some other countries in pursuit of the same fossil-fuelled industrialisation strategy that made the West wealthy, China has also emerged as a renewables superpower, dwarfing other countries in its building of renewable capacity and the speed of its transition to innovations such as electric cars, trucks and buses. China is betting big on renewables and on a circular economy. Indeed, the success of its development depends on this wager succeeding. Scale is the key to understanding its strategy: China’s industrialisation is a process taking place at a scale without historical precedent.

Like all previous industrial powers, China initially depended on fossil fuels for its industrialisation. It has paid a terrible price for this – far more than earlier industrialisers, including its predecessors in East Asia. As China became the largest manufacturing power on the planet, it created a huge domestic market that provided a first port of entry to global industry for its manufacturing and service firms, on a scale that exceeded its East Asian predecessors. China was able to utilise its domestic banking system to channel flows of savings to firms as they sought to catch up with international rivals. In these ways, the strategy has followed earlier patterns of industrialisation, with emphasis on manufacturing, state guidance and state-derived finance, while exhibiting some differences in emphasis, such as the use of its own domestic market, its own finance and foreign reserves, and a combination of national and provincial state involvement and guidance.

But a feature of China’s industrialisation that is decidedly unique is its strategy for supplying the energy needed for its industrialisation efforts. Alongside China’s “black” industrialisation strategy, powered by fossil fuels, has been a “green” strategy, focused on renewables and circulated resources – again, at unprecedented scale. China has been greening its energy and resources system at a furious pace, while maintaining a dependence on fossil fuels that is steadily diminishing. The chart below reveals how China has been ramping up its green electric power system to become the largest green electricity producer on the planet. The shift in electric power generation towards water, wind and sun as sources is clear – a 15% green shift in capacity in just the past decade, an enormous change for such a huge technoeconomic system.

What is driving this green trend?

If China were to proceed with the typical industrialisation strategy – based on fossil fuels and the plunder of raw materials – then it would face insuperable problems. These would not just be problems of shortages of resources and immediate environmental problems, but most centrally problems to do with the geopolitical limits to a fossil-fuelled strategy relying on virgin materials. To put it bluntly, China would face entanglements in oil wars and resource wars if it were to pursue such a strategy at the scale of industrialisation it is managing – not to mention the burden on its balance of payments as it sought to raise its imports of these fossil fuels. It would mean a horrendous 21st century – for China and for everyone else.
 

As interpreted by China, a green growth strategy is not so much about a return to nature, but instead involves a clear reliance on manufacturing of energy, as well as greening of food supply through increased reliance on enclosed urban agriculture. The advantage for China of renewables technologies is that they can be manufactured domestically and enjoy economies of scale and cost reductions associated with the manufacturing learning curve.

It is not lost on China that these are all potentially the mainstream energy, transport and food production industries of the future, where the country’s state agencies clearly anticipate it will emerge as world leader, at the technological cutting edge. While the United States under President Trump battles to maintain the supremacy of its fossil fuel industries, China is forging ahead to dismantle its coal, oil and gas dependence and build strong renewables and resource recirculation industries based on its manufacturing strengths. This is what may be interpreted most accurately as China’s green growth industrialisation strategy.

No alternative

When one looks at the scale involved in its industrialisation, China really has no alternative to a green strategy. And in the typical no-nonsense approach of the Chinese government, their leadership has adopted it with determination and ambition. As China adopts this green shift strategy, so it drives down costs for itself and for all – and makes such a strategy more accessible to other industrialising countries like India, Brazil or nations in Africa. And so the green shift that is initiated by China becomes a global green shift – even if it is complicated by further investments by Chinese state-owned enterprises in coal power as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. This in turn opens opportunities for companies and countries nimble enough to take advantage of them – including companies based in the US, the EU or Japan.

As China’s economy emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be expected to focus even more on this green growth strategy. After all, this is where China holds decisive competitive advantages in terms of manufactured exports and energy as well as resources security. The 14th Five Year Plan can be expected to place primary emphasis on both features of China’s industrialisation in the 2020s – the greening of its energy, transport and industrial systems, and the growing levels of resource recirculation (e.g. “urban mining” of electronics materials) as it pursues circular economy strategic initiatives.

At the time of writing, oil prices have hit a record low (even moving into negative territory) and so no doubt some tactical purchases are being made by China. But it would be a serious error to regard these purchases as deflecting China from its long-term strategy of green growth, and the energy and resource security it brings with it.

From our partner chinadialogue

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Energy

The oil market crisis

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a crisis or rather a real collapse in the oil barrel price, down from approximately sixty US dollars just before the coronavirus spread to the current twenty dollars – with downward peaks before the end of April 2020, still significantly lower than the current twenty dollar average.

The origin of the price collapse is obvious, i.e. the closure of the purchasing countries’ economies and the major crisis in the car market, in particular, with the lockdown of all public and private mobility.

 Moreover, for many producing countries, twenty dollars a barrel is a price well below break-even points and sometimes below the mere production cost.

Fifty-sixty US dollars a barrel is less than the cost of oil extraction in the Arctic, for example, and less than what is necessary to break even European and Brazilian biofuel production, but also US and Canadian shale oil. In Great Britain the oil barrel cost is 52.50 US dollars, while in Saudi Arabia the cost for producing an oil barrel is still 10 US dollars approximately.

Saudi Arabia, however, also needs much higher prices, at least from eighty US dollars per barrel upwards, to rebalance its public budget and seriously invest in production diversification, not to even mention the social stability of this country and, in other ways, that of the Russian Federation.

 World demand has therefore plummeted, with a reduction of 29 million barrels per day from the over 100 ones a year ago.

This also means that storage capacity has reached the saturation point, with countries selling directly at sea, with a view to avoiding the high and unpredictable costs of overproduction and, by now, even at direct agreement low prices.

 According to some specialized analysts, oil production will fall by at least 9.3 million barrels per year, until the time in which the coronavirus epidemic stops significantly. But this is a very optimistic forecast.

As is already seen, the most predictable effects of collapse in oil prices will most likely be the bankruptcy of small and medium-sized oil companies in the United States and Canada, where the banks had also strongly supported these companies with debt.

 The economic, financial and social repercussions on these countries’ productive systems will be immediate and hard to manage.

 Some extraction of US and Canadian “zombie” companies has continued, in view of cashing immediate liquidity, but, obviously, this cannot last very long.

It is hard to speak about public support for oil companies, considering their international corporate structure and, above all, because of the large mass of liquidity that would be greatly needed and would inevitably be drawn from other budget items, which are more socially necessary and with a strong psychological and hence electoral impact.

Nevertheless, the whole economy of producing and of typically consuming countries – which, for various wrong or short-term choices, have never established their own “OPEC” – will be severely affected by the vertical fall in oil prices, even though the US IAEA supported and legitimized the cut in production last April. The initial sign of an inevitable agreement between producers and consumers in the future, also at financial and investment level.

Furthermore, some producing countries have considerable financial funds to stand up to the fall in the oil barrel price, probably even until the end of the pandemic, but this is certainly not the case with other producers.

 Saudi Arabia, the UAEs and Kuwait can last relatively long, albeit stopping their plans for economic expansion and diversification in the short term. Just think here of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan.

 Iraq, Iran and Venezuela – with Iraq which is currently one of Italy’s largest exporters – will certainly have to withstand periods of extreme social crisis and even political legitimacy.

 In Africa, Nigeria and Libya will face further political and social crises of unpredictable severity – in addition to internal wars by proxy, as in Libya.

 China itself, the current largest oil buyer, has stopped as many as 10 oil shipments by sea from Saudi Arabia.

The tax break-even point reveals the complex internal dynamics and trends of manufacturers: Saudi Arabia is at 91 US dollars; Oman at 82; Abu Dhabi at 61; Qatar at 65; Bahrain at 95. Iraq is currently at 60 US dollars, but it should be noted that Iran is now at 195 US dollars, Algeria at 109 and Libya at 100- to the extent to which Libyan oil exports can work after General Haftar’s closure of oil wells- while Nigeria is at 144 US dollars and Angola has only acost + tax per barrel of 55 US dollars.

Currently Russia has a strong need for a tax per barrel of at least 42 US dollars, while Mexico 49 and Kazakhstan 58 US dollars.

 In order to survive, the US, Canadian and Norwegian oil companies need an oil barrel cost of 48, 60 and only 27 US dollars, respectively, to simply break even.

 Russia will probably be able to survive(“for ten years”, as it says, but probably exaggerating) a pandemic crisis, which has also hit its own population hard, by using its Strategic Fund, which is currently worth 124 billion US dollars.

Every year of crisis, however, is likely to cost Russia 40-50 billion US dollars.

 Not to mention jobs, which could be reduced by over a million in Russia.

 Saudi Arabia, too, is very liquid, and predicts a loss of over 45 billion US dollars at the end of the pandemic.

 If Saudi Arabia makes another deal with Russia and manages to raise the oil barrel price to 40 US dollars, it is supposed to reduce losses to 40 billion US dollars annually.

Iraq, the second largest Middle Eastern exporter, covers 90% of its public spending with oil revenues.

 In Iran and Iraq, the closing down of private companies has caused the almost total closure of oil production since last March.

Moreover, Iraq has no sovereign funds. Mexico has already started to implement “austerity” measures, although it has stated there will be no closures or staff cuts in the public sector.

 The Nigerian GDP will certainly go below zero. Nigeria was the economy recording the greatest development rate in Africa, but since May it has had 50 million barrels unsold.

 The unemployment rate will rise from 25% to well over 25 million people, but Nigeria has a very small Sovereign Fund that owns 2 billion US dollars.

There are very large differences among producing countries. There are countries with a financial power potentially able to further stand up to the collapse of oil prices and countries with an internal social and economic situation on the verge of collapse, as well as other economies floundering in a very severe crisis.

Just think of the Lebanon, which had already defaulted before the fall in oil prices. Obviously neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran will help it any longer.

 This means that the producing countries with a more “liquid” financial situation can start buying oil assets – not at a very low cost – from their fellow OPEC competitors or even outside that OPEC protectionist framework, while the countries without long or short liquidity, will quickly be economically colonized by the strongest ones and this would make their economic autonomy irrelevant. Especially if they are, like Iraq, truly oil dependent countries.

 The GDP for the current year, however, is expected to slightly decrease in Kuwait (-1%) while Algeria and Iraq are expected to immediately fall to a -5%, which could be fatal not only for their economy but also for their social stability.

 Libya, just to remind us of a key country for our security, as well as for oil, will record an expected fall in GDP of almost -58%. 

 It is easy to understand what will happen and how much impact it will have on Italy.

  The International Monetary Fund has also predicted a quick rebound in prices beyond the oil break-even point for the whole oil area between Africa and the Middle East as early as 2021, but the forecast seems to be completely unfounded, given the multi-year length of the buyers’ crisis and hence the inevitable fall in producers’ prices.

 Even if the coronavirus crisis were to end in a month, which is highly unlikely, the economic outlook would not change radically even for 2021.

 The fact is that, according to all the most reliable projections, the GDP of non-producing countries will fall even faster than that of oil-producing countries.

 Certainly there is the temporary relief and redress of public accounts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) non-producing countries, which is estimated at around 3-4% of their GDP, but these are countries like Morocco and Jordan having little economic weight in their respective geo-economic regions.

 There is also another factor to consider: the producing countries’ crisis adds to the much longer-standing crisis in the African countries exporting not oil, but food products.

I am here referring to Jordan, Mauritania and Morocco – which is still a leading country in the world production of citrus fruits, with companies cooperating with the United States – and to the wine-producing Tunisia.

 The FAO sugar index has fallen to -14.6% – more than ever over the last 13 years.

 The FAO index for vegetable oil is -5.2%. The dairy prices are currently falling by 3.6% and meat prices by 2.7%. Wheat prices, however, are expected to remain stable, although storage, and hence the future final cost, will increase from now on.

Certainly the “rich” producing countries, i.e. those with greater liquidity reserves, have already begun to inject liquidity and implement tax rebates.

 Saudi Arabia has tripled VAT from 5 to 15%. It has also issued 7 billion US dollars of public debt securities that will fall due in 5, 10 and 40 years respectively, with a 5% planned restriction of public spending, and as many as 13.3 billion US dollars in support of small and medium-sized enterprises, with the nationalisation of 14,000 jobs in the most technologically advanced sectors.

Just to give an example of the most capitalized oil exporting country.

 It is not even said that soon the Saudi and Emirates’ sovereign funds do not want to acquire – at selling-off prices – even the U.S. and Canadian shale oil industries undergoing an evident crisis.

Both in countries in crisis and in those with greater financial resources investment will be well diversified in the health or in the large infrastructure sectors. Investment will be made also in research and in the expansion of the oil sector, which will certainly start working again – as and probably more than before – at the end of the pandemic.

 There will probably be an economic and financial rebalancing between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which have similar interests, both in the purchase of shale oil companies in crisis, obviously, but also in a closer direct financial relationship, considering that Saudi Arabia still holds 177 billion US dollars of North American public debt securities.

 A record amount which could increase rapidly.

 Obviously, in the darkest phase of the crisis, the objective of the financially sound OPEC countries will be diversification from oil to more technologically advanced and expanding sectors, such as health and pharmacology, particularly abroad, but again without neglecting the oil sector.

 While maintaining the same – or almost the same – current investment in the oil sector, which cannot but take off again in the short to long term.

 For the other less financially sound countries, it will be about implementing great political reforms, which may at least stabilize the countries floundering in severe economic crisis, or having their oil assets quickly sold by the richest Arab countries, which will thus have a much greater power of pressure vis-à-vis consumer countries when the oil recovery starts.

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