Saudi Arabia abruptly altered its oil production strategy in early March and began to flood the market with cheap oil. Financial markets worldwide haemorrhaged value at the prospect of a protracted and painful price war, and American oil firms immediately cut back spending and dividend payments as the price for their primary product halved. As of this morning, WTI Crude (a pricing benchmark tied to U.S. supply) was barely north of $20/bbl, prices not seen since 2002.
This sudden tumult represents an opportunity for the renewable energy sector. At first glance, this may sound counterintuitive. After all, oil prices seem largely unrelated to the prospects of wind, solar, and other renewables in the electricity generation sector, because in the United States the primary fossil source of electricity is natural gas. Natural gas prices have been largely uncorrelated with the price of oil since 2007, when large-scale domestic shale-gas production began to come online (see chart). In other parts of the world, coal drives electricity generation, which is similarly decoupled. Virtually nobody uses oil as a primary electricity source, except in certain very specific locations, such as Hawaii, where the demands of unique geography and supply logistics align to make oil the best bet for power production.
Oil’s link to renewables instead comes through competition in the financing marketplace. As new projects are developed and financing is sought, the infrastructure funds that provide capital to enable these developments naturally prefer projects that promise the most attractive financial returns. With relatively high prices over the last decade and unmatched value as a transportation fuel, oil exploration has beaten out renewable project development on the financial metrics time after time.Today In: Energy
The oil shocks over the last weeks could dramatically alter that calculus. Revenues for potential oil projects have suddenly dropped by over 50%, and futures contracts currently show only a modest improvement in prices by year’s end. The market is already pricing in the expectation that oil prices remain below $40/bbl for the foreseeable future, a dramatic change from the $55+/bbl that has been the norm for the last few years.
Even if prices do recover, the sudden volatility will still weigh on the minds of project investors. Oil markets haven’t resembled a purely competitive market since the mid-1960s, and since that time prices have been regularly impacted by sudden and unforeseen changes in supply by OPEC producers, primarily Saudi Arabia. The rise in shale-oil in the U.S. in the last decade has effectively put a cap on prices and provided a counterweight to OPEC’s pricing power. But the muscle being flexed now shows that the OPEC nations and Russia still maintain substantial influence over the fate of American oil producers. This ‘stroke of the pen’ risk, now that it has again bared its head, maybe unlikely to be forgotten in the near future.
Renewables, by contrast, have no supply risk whatsoever, and are primarily exposed to fluctuations in the price of electricity. Insomuch as this relates to the price of natural gas, investors in the U.S. will take comfort knowing gas is essentially a local market, with U.S. prices driven by supply and demand within North America; there is little ability to arbitrage against global markets due to limited export capacity. Therefore, as oil prices come down, project financiers should start to turn more of their attention to the new safe bets that offer more durable returns: wind, solar, and the like.
This isn’t to say that renewables don’t face headwinds in the current environment. Cheap oil also competes with renewables in the transportation sector. Electric Vehicles will be less competitive with their gasoline-powered cousins as the price for gasoline at the pump drops, lowering demand for new grid capacity and forcing renewables to wait for retirements of current assets. The price for natural gas in the U.S. is dropping as well, driven primarily by the sudden decrease in demand due to the shuttering of entire industries. These drops make fossil power from natural gas more competitive with their renewable counterparts.
Futures markets, however, are currently pricing in a full rebound of natural gas prices by year’s end, with the futures contract for Henry Hub for December 2020 currently priced above market levels at the end of 2019. This suggests that the drop in prices of natural gas will be temporary, and investors making long-term bets do not view the current situation as durable. Further, natural gas prices are just one component of the price paid by utilities to power producers, and so a drop in natural gas prices doesn’t necessarily imply a similar fall in the rates negotiated in new power purchase agreements. So the drop in natural gas prices evident in the market now looks to be temporary, and unlikely to dramatically alter the widespread conclusion that renewables are now the cheapest power source to build.
Altogether, the oil market has changed dramatically in the last three weeks, in ways unforeseen just a few short months ago. But despite the headlines and worrying drops across financial markets, opportunity lies in these disruptions. Renewables are well positioned to capitalize.
Brentan Alexander‘s words: I am the Chief Science Officer and Chief Commercial Officer at New Energy Risk, where I lead the detailed diligence of novel technologies and business models across the energy landscape. I have devoted my career to advancing solutions to the climate crisis and use my experience to help technology companies assemble everything they need to reach the market faster. I hold a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, where I studied gasification, thermochemistry, and electrochemistry, and Masters and Bachelors degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When I’m not in the office, you can find me hiking the hills outside Oakland, California, or turning wood in the shop. All of my articles reflect my personal views and not those of my employer nor the volunteer initiatives that I am involved in. You can find out more about me via my website (brentanalexander.com) or follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Nation will be able to finance current account deficit for 35 years even with prices this low
The UAE is best-positioned among GCC economies to weather the decline in oil prices as it can finance its current account deficit longer than any of its regional peers, says a new report.
According to Capital Economics, the UAE can finance its current account deficit for 35 years if oil prices stay at $25 a barrel. Kuwait comes second followed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman.
“In the four largest Gulf economies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar – current account deficits could be financed through a drawdown of large foreign exchange savings for a considerable amount of time. Saudi Arabia could do so for around a decade and the other three countries for even longer,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at
Capital Economics. The report said the UAE still runs a current account surplus at $30 a barrel.
Brent crude was trading down $3.37, or 12 per cent, at $25.35 a barrel by 1720GMT after dropping as low as $25.23, its weakest since 2003. US crude was down $5.19, or 19 per cent, at $21.76. The session low was the lowest since March 2002.
Data showed that UAE-based sovereign wealth funds held over $1.21 trillion worth of assets in August 2019 compared to $825.76 billion by Saudi Arabia, $592 billion by Kuwait, $320 billion by Qatar and $22.14 billion by Kuwait.
Oil prices have plummeted over the last few weeks, firstly due to coronavirus and then the collapse of Opec+ talks on production cuts. Brent has dropped 45 per cent in the past month from $57.60 a barrel on February 17 to $31.60 on March 17.
Tuvey noted that large foreign exchange savings provide substantial buffers and the likes of Bahrain and Oman, which are most vulnerable to a period of low oil prices, and can probably rely on financial support from their neighbours to avert devaluations.
He said dollar pegs in Bahrain and Oman are more vulnerable, with foreign exchange savings only able to cover current account shortfalls for a couple of years at most. Bahrain secured a $10 billion financing package from its neighbours in mid-2018.
In recent days, GCC governments have stepped up fiscal support in order to mitigate the economic hit from efforts to contain the virus. “If oil prices stay low even after the virus fears have subsided, austerity will come on to the agenda and this means that an eventual recovery in non-oil sectors will be slow-going,” he said.
Khatija Haque, head of Mena research at Emirates NBD, has said that the UAE posted a budget surplus of Dh37 billion ($10 billion) in 2019 and is well-positioned to withstand lower oil prices in 2020.
“If we strip out volatile oil revenues, we estimate the UAE’s non-oil budget deficit narrowed to just under 20 per cent of non-oil GDP, down from 27 per cent of non-oil GDP in 2015, and pointing to a tightening of fiscal policy in recent years,” Haque said.
Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, said the sharp fall in oil prices and the outlook for a price war adds significant downside risks to the economic outlooks of GCC countries.
“We estimate that all GCC countries will realise a significant fiscal deficit at the current oil price of $37 per barrel, with Oman and Saudi Arabia seeing particularly significant shortfalls relative to GDP. A weaker oil revenue backdrop will require a meaningful pull-back in government spending, as was the case in 2015 and 2016, to limit the size of the fiscal deficit,” Malik said.
She sees a forecasted increase in output from Saudi and Russia and the changing dynamics of oil market fundamentals will likely bolster global oil stocks significantly in 2020. A number of oil-importing countries are also likely to accumulate inventories at the current low price levels, which in turn would lower oil demand during second-half of 2020.
Furthermore, the outlook for inventories beyond 2020 will depend on global demand and coronavirus-related developments in the coming months, she added.
Edward Bell, commodity analyst at Emirates NBD Research, has said that dust has not entirely settled yet caused by travel restrictions and lockdowns due to coronavirus.
OPINION: The epic oil price slump, if prolonged, is bound to prove calamitous for the upstream sector of the financially strapped Middle Eastern and North African producers and those with high production costs.
The consequences will go beyond the energy sector for the more populous nations, where autocratic governments have long used oil windfalls to shield themselves from social unrest through generous handouts and subsidies.
World Bank warning
“As the world struggles with the fear of recession, the Middle East and North Africa could be the hardest hit by what is arguably a perfect storm: the coronavirus spreads to the region and oil prices collapse,” the World Bank says.
“If the decline in oil prices persists, it will erode the fragile macroeconomic and social stability of countries, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, that have been hit by the novel coronavirus.”
Only the wealthy Persian Gulf producers with small populations — such as Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — can be expected to weather a prolonged storm thanks to their enviable financial position.
Iran position precarious
The major losers will primarily be Iran as well as Iraq, Libya Algeria, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.
Iran, whose economy is being seriously squeezed by unprecedented US sanctions against its vital oil sector, will find itself struggling to pay for basic imports as the price collapse will further reduce income from the crude sales achieved through circumventing the stifling sanctions.
Iran’s exports have fallen to a fraction of the 2.5 million barrels per day that the Islamic Republic used to export before May 2018, when US President Donald Trump tore up the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement and imposed draconian punitive measures against the country.
The Iranian Central Bank has just put out an international distress call amid rising cases of the coronavirus outbreak by asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in emergency funds to cope with containment.
Iran is fast becoming the global epicentre of the endemic, with more than 500 dead and 11,000 afflicted.
Severe economic problems have led to widespread unrest in the past two years, with the clerical leadership employing heavy-handed tactics to quell dissent.
Iraq set to suffer
Neighbouring Iraq is in the grip of growing political unrest with protesters demanding jobs and end to endemic corruption.
Iraq, Opec’s second-biggest producer, has been without a functioning government for months, disrupting planning and delaying major upstream projects.
Rising tensions between the US and Iran — both of which are fighting for influence in Iraq — have added to the security and political woes.
Algeria, often seen as a hostile destination for international oil companies, will find it difficult to attract fresh investment in the face of the price collapse and social unrest.
Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad said the North African country is faced with an unprecedented “multi-dimensional crisis”, while also urging the public to make fewer demands of the government and reduce their presence on the streets.
Libya’s civil war, which has crippled the oil industry, is showing no signs of ending.
Oman has so far been spared social unrest but the future remains bleak since the Persian Gulf sultanate has the highest production costs among regional producers because the bulk of its oil production is ultra-heavy heavy, which needs robust commodity prices in order to compete with other blends.
The oil price rout, arising from the collapse earlier this month of Opec+ talks to persuade Russia to agree to new production curbs, is also a real threat to Saudi maverick ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has pinned his success as the future king on delivering on an ambitious economic diversification scheme funded by oil money.
Oil market rout as Saudi Arabia and Russia launch a price war and the coronavirus pandemic sparks an equities meltdown.
Oil prices were headed for their worst weekly loss in more than a decade Friday after Saudi Arabia and Russia launched a price war and the coronavirus pandemic sparked an equities meltdown.
US benchmark West Texas Intermediate reversed earlier losses in afternoon trade, rising about two percent to around $32 a barrel after the US military launched air strikes in major crude producer Iraq.
But prices are still down more than 20 percent this week and on course for their biggest weekly drop since the global financial crisis of 2008.
Brent crude, the global benchmark, also jumped about two percent to about $34, erasing earlier losses — but is still down 25 percent for the week, Bloomberg News reported.
Crude markets were plunged into turmoil at the start of the week after top exporter Saudi Arabia began a price war amid a row with Russia over whether to cut output to support the virus-battered energy sector.
That triggered the biggest one-day drop on Monday since the start of the Gulf War in the 1990s.
The virus outbreak then added to downward pressure, as growing concerns about a global recession and travel restrictions — including a temporary ban on travel from mainland Europe to the US — dimmed the outlook for demand.
“The scale of the oil price crash would have economists and analysts revaluating their forecast for growth, and even increase the urgency among central bankers to cut interest rates,” said Phillip Futures in a note.
Emergency measures by central banks Thursday failed to douse concerns about the economic toll from the outbreak, and markets suffered their worst day for decades.
The rout continued in Asia Friday with stocks and oil plummeting in morning trade, although they pared their losses in the afternoon.
Analysts said oil prices were boosted after US air strikes against a pro-Iranian group in Iraq, a member of the oil-exporting cartel OPEC.
The price war started after Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members pushed for an output cut to combat the impact of the virus outbreak.
But Moscow, the world’s second-biggest oil producer, refused — prompting Riyadh to drive through massive price cuts and pledge to boost production.
Energy generation through renewable sources is improving exponentially and is something that is no longer simply better for the planet but also for investors. Nevertheless, the oil industry has no intention of voting itself out of office and will continue extracting and exploiting the planet’s oil reserves. We don’t have time to wait for investors to tire of these companies. The much-needed end of the oil industry should be brought about not by its profitability or otherwise, because it could linger on for decades, but instead through political decisions guided by scientific evidence, links to which can be found throughout this article. The writing is on the wall, and has been for years; when will we bother to read it? Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.
Enrique Dans Teaching Innovation at IE Business School since 1990, and now, hacking education as Senior Advisor for Digital Transformation at IE University. BSc (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela), MBA (Instituto de Empresa) and Ph.D. in Management Information Systems (UCLA).
Today, 8 January 2020, it appears that the US is more relaxed about oil spike than Europe – which helps explain differences over Iran, according to Mueid Al Raee, of United Nations University.
Oil prices shot up following the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, rising more than US$5 per barrel to more than US$71 (£54) on January 6, its highest level since the Saudi oil refinery attack last September. Brent crude has since eased to around US$69 at the time of writing, though there is much discussion that it could climb a lot higher if the current crisis leads to an all-out war.
In keeping with many recent developments in US-Iranian relations, the Europeans have taken a dim view of America’s decision to take out the military commander. When trying to make sense of the very different approaches Iran on either side of the Atlantic, one factor that is often overlooked is that the US and Europe are affected in different ways by a rising oil price.
People tend to see more expensive oil as bad news for the global economy, but the reality is that it’s not necessarily bad for America. It may be that, in continuing to provoke Iran, driving up the oil price is almost seen by the Americans as an added incentive.
The complex oil effect
Oil pricing and its associated effects are often more complex than portrayed. As citizens, we are most often concerned with the price of fuel for our cars and the cost of heating our homes. This is the first way that oil prices affect the broader economy: if consumers have to spend more on fuel and associated taxes, they have less to spend elsewhere – and this can lead to a global slowdown.
Like all countries, the US is affected by this. Yet on previous occasions where US actions on the geopolitical stage drove up oil prices, there were also benefits to the country’s economy. Take the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which ushered in a period that would see the price of Brent nearly triple by the end of the decade. This led to a wave of investment into the US shale oil sector, which would eventually account for approaching two-thirds of the country’s total oil production.
Brent crude price, 1940s to present day
The trouble with shale oil is that it is expensive to produce, with average break-even of fields not far below US$50 per barrel. Shale oil wells also produce most of their oil in the first year of production, which means that producers have to continually drill new wells.
Due to the lower prices of the last few years, a large number of oil-related companies in the US have filed for bankruptcy, including both producers and services businesses. And while US production of shale oil managed to continue rising impressively throughout this period, mainly thanks to the bigger producers, it has been slowing down markedly in recent months.
If the oil price now trends higher, it could well mean that shale oil production in the US can resume its upward march. It also raises the prospect of US oil services companies earning more both locally but, most importantly, from foreign oil-production ventures, since there is a well-established correlation between their stock price and higher oil prices.
At the same time, six of the last eight recessions in the US were followed by high oil prices. One reason why this was not a hindrance for the economy is that, in the longer term, stable higher prices promoted the development of more energy-efficient technologies within the country.
The Americans can also argue that there are some longer-term economic benefits to higher oil prices that can help everyone. Oil-producing countries with surplus cash from oil profits invest in foreign technology and foreign assets. At the same time, oil-importing countries innovate to mitigate the profit-reducing effects of higher oil prices. These are both ultimately good for economic vibrancy and growth.
On the other hand, there are advantages to cheaper oil that are particularly important to countries in Europe – including the UK – because, unlike America, they are not oil self-reliant. Lower oil prices are shown to be beneficial for Europe’s highly energy-intensive economies and are expected to help with job creation. During the oil price drops of 1986 and the early 1990s, for instance, energy-intensive industries in Europe increased their earnings. Consumer product businesses and European airlines benefit from lower oil prices, too.
What happens next
Whether or not the Americans actually want higher oil prices, there are certainly good economic reasons why they probably won’t mind them. Deepening the chaos that started with the US withdrawing from the West’s nuclear deal with Iran is an “easy” way to achieve higher oil prices while meeting other strategic objectives.
Yet how the Europeans, China and Russia respond will also determine the global flow of oil from Iran and Iraq. Whatever the ultimate pros and cons of a higher oil price from an economic point of view, the Europeans clearly have more reasons to be unenthusiastic than the US. If the new exchange and payment instruments that have been developed by Europe to circumvent US sanctions are effective, and the US does not escalate the conflict, it may yet mean that oil prices remain stable at current levels.
The central problem which the world faces in its attempts to avoid catastrophic climate change is a contrast of time scales. In order to save human civilization and the biosphere from the most catastrophic effects of climate change we need to act immediately. Fossil fuels must be left in the ground. Forests must be saved from destruction by beef or palm oil production.
These vitally necessary actions are opposed by powerful economic interests, by powerful fossil fuel corporations desperate to monetize their underground “assets”, and by corrupt politicians receiving money from the beef or palm oil industries.
However, although some disastrous effects of climate change are already visible, the worst of these calamities lie in the distant future. Therefore it is difficult to mobilize the political will for quick action. We need to act immediately, because of the danger of passing tipping points beyond which climate change will become irreversible despite human efforts to control it.
Tipping points are associated with feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the methane hydrate feedback loop. The albedo effect is important in connection with whether the sunlight falling on polar seas is reflected or absorbed. While ice remains, most of the sunlight is reflected, but as areas of sea surface become ice-free, more sunlight is absorbed, leading to rising temperatures and further melting of sea ice, and so on, in a loop.
The methane hydrate feedback loop involves vast quantities of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, frozen in a crystalline form surrounded by water molecules. 10,000 gigatons of methane hydrates are at present locked in Arctic tundra or the continental shelves of the world’s oceans. Although oceans warm very slowly because of thermal inertia, the long-term dangers from the initiation of a methane-hydrate feedback loop are very great. There is a danger that a very large-scale anthropogenic extinction event could be initiated unless immediate steps are taken to drastically reduce the release of greenhouse cases.
The World Is on Fire!
“The world is on fire!” says Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. She is right. California is burning. The Amazon is burning. Indonesia is burning. Alaska is burning. Siberia is burning. These fires have been produced partly by the degree of climate warming that has already occurred, and partly by human greed for profits, for example from beef production or palm oil.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the UN climate conference COP24, the universally loved and respected naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, said:
“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world are on the horizon.”
Sir David’s two-part program, “Climate Change: The Facts” is currently being broadcast by BBC Earth. Hopefully, this important documentary film, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s excellent film “Before the Flood”, can do much to mobilize public opinion behind the immediate action that is needed to save the long-term future of human civilization and the biosphere.
Recently more than 7 million young people in 150 countries took part in strikes aimed at focusing public opinion on the need for rapid climate action. The Extinction Rebellion movement, which started in the UK, has now spread to many countries, and is also doing important work. In the United States, popular political figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are doing much to mobilize public opinion behind the Green New Deal and much to counteract Donald Trump’s climate change denial.
The Remarkable Properties of Exponential Growth
Positive feedback loops occur when the presence of something leads to the generation of more of the same thing. For example in the presence of an unlimited food supply, the growth of a population will lead to more individuals reaching reproductive age, and hence an accelerated growth of the population. This type of relationship leads to the mathematical relationship known as exponential growth.
Exponential growth of any quantity with time has some remarkable characteristics, which we ought to try to understand better, since this understanding will help us to predict the future. The knowledge will also show us the tasks which history has given to our generation. We must perform these tasks with urgency in order to create a future in which our descendants will be able to survive.
If any quantity, for example population, industrial production or indebtedness, is growing at the rate of 3% per year, it will double in 23.1 years; if it is growing at the rate of 4$\%$ per year, the doubling time is 17.3 years. For a 5% growth rate, the doubling time is 13.9 years, if the growth rate is 7% (the rate of economic growth that China’s leaders hope to maintain), the doubling time is only 9.9 years. If you want to find out the doubling time for any exponentially growing quantity, just divide 69.3 years by the growth rate in percent.
Looking at the long-term future, we can calculate that any quantity increasing at the modest rate of 3% per year will grow by a factor of 20.1 in a century. This implies that in four centuries, whatever is growing at 3% will have increased by a factor of 163,000. These facts make it completely clear that long-continued economic growth on a finite planet is a logical absurdity. Yet economists and governments have an almost religious belief in perpetual economic growth. They can only maintain this belief by refusing to look more than a short distance into the future.
Exponential decay of any quantity follows similar but inverse rules. For example, if the chance of a thermonuclear war will be initiated by accident or miscalculation or malice is 3% in any given year, the chance that the human race will survive for more than four centuries under these conditions is only1 in 163,000, i.e. 0.000625 percent. Clearly, in the long run, if we do not completely rid ourselves of nuclear weapons, our species will have no hope of survival.
Besides nuclear war, the other great threat to the survival of the human species and the biosphere is catastrophic climate change. The transition to 100% renewable energy must take place within about a century because fossil fuels will become too rare and expensive to burn. But scientists warn that if the transition does not happen much faster than that, there is a danger that we may reach a tipping point beyond which feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the methane hydrate feedback loop, could take over and produce an out-of-control and fatal increase in global temperature.
In 2012, the World Bank issued a report warning that without quick action to curb CO2 emissions, global warming is likely to reach 4 degrees C during the 21st century. This is dangerously close to the temperature which initiated the Permian-Triassic extinction event: 6 degrees C above normal. During the Permian-Triassic extinction event, this occurred 252 million years ago. In this event, 96 percent of all marine species were wiped out, as well as 70 percent of all terrestrial vertebrates.
Is a quick transition to 100% renewable energy technically possible? The technology is available, remarkable characteristics of exponential growth can give us hope that it can indeed be done, provided that we make the necessary effort. Governments currently give enormous subsidies to fossil fuel industries. These must be stopped, or better yet, shifted to subsidize renewable energy. If this is done, economic forces alone will drive the shift to renewable energy. The remarkable properties of exponential growth can give us hope that the transition will take place rapidly enough to save the future of our planet from the worst effects of climate change.
Feedback Loops and Ethics
All of the major religions of the world contain some version of the Golden Rule,
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
In Christianity, there is a striking passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
This seemingly impractical advice, that we should love our enemies and do good to them, is in fact extremely practical. It prevents the feedback loops of revenge and counter-revenge that we see so often in today’s conflicts. In fact, if nations that claim to be Christian really followed this commandment, their participation in war would be impossible. Conflicts can be prevented by unilateral acts of kindness.
Feedback Loops and the Information Explosion
In 1965, the computer scientist Gordon E. Moore predicted that the number of components per integrated circuit would increase exponentially for the next ten years. In 1975, he revised his growth rate to correspond to a doubling time of every two years. Astonishingly, Moore’s Law, as this relationship has come to be called, has proved to be valid for much longer than he or anyone else believed would be possible.
Moore’s Law is an example of the fact that the growth of knowledge feeds on itself. The number of scientific papers published each year is also increasing exponentially. This would be all to the good, if our social and political institutions matched our technology, but because of institutional and cultural inertia, the exponentially accelerating rate of technical innovation is threatening to shake human society to pieces. We need new global institutions of governance and new global ethics to match our new technology.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy andreceived his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).
Sukru Cildir of Lancaster University wonders how Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry has been shaped by American power. It has not historically been going for a long time and the recent decarbonisation wave sweeping the world does not seem to affect either party.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both oil-rich states in the Middle East, has oscillated from co-operation to conflict throughout history. Alongside a range of factors that shape their rivalry including sectarianism and nationalism has been the politics of oil.
Oil is a strategic international commodity, and its use as a political tool is widespread. Its role in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry can’t be understood without unpicking the international context, and the power structures that govern the way countries interact with each other. At the heart of this is the dominance of the US over this international system.
The dynamics between the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia over oil were laid bare in September 2019, after a series of drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The attacks caused the suspension of 5.7m barrels per day (mbpd) of crude oil production, nearly half the Saudi output.
The Houthis, a Yemeni faction, claimed responsibility. However, American and Saudi government officials accused Iran of committing these attacks. In return, the Iranians blamed foreign forces in the region for the insecurity and told the US to leave the area.
While the Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry is ostensibly the business of these two countries, it has always had an international dimension, overshadowed by the US.
The 1979 Iranian revolution marked a turning point for the place oil played within the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Before then, both countries were important allies of the US, a position which brought with it political and economic benefits, particularly to their oil industries. But the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran paved the way for a separation of paths.
As a result, ever since 1979, the Iranian oil industry has been subject to American pressure, through a range of economic sanctions and embargoes, which has crippled Iranian oil production. Iran has been unable to reach the level of oil production of over six mbpd that it had in the pre-revolution years. Meanwhile, Saudi oil production reached over 12 mbpd in 2018.
This led to the Iranian oil industry being deprived of necessary foreign investment and technology transfer, and it has fallen behind Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s state-owned oil company, and other regional competitors. Saudi Arabia has largely backed the US policy of isolating and sanctioning Iran, particularly the Iranian oil industry, which has, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contributed to the ongoing tensions in the Saudi-Iranian relationship.
As Saudi Aramco prepares for an IPO in December that could make it the world’s biggest publicly listed company, Iran is desperate to revitalise its own outmoded oil industry. As Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh admitted in early 2019, many of Iran’s ageing oil facilities are in fact “operating museums”.
The US continues to have such an influence on Middle Eastern oil politics because of the way it has successfully pushed its own international agenda since 1945. After World War II, the US cemented its dominance over an international system built on the basis of liberal and capitalist principles. While the US rewards its allies with economic and political benefits, it punishes its challengers through a range of political and economic measures, not least economic sanctions.
Oil became a strategic international commodity in the post-World War II period, and began to play a pivotal role in the way the US maintained its global dominance. To do this, the US aimed to open up and transnationalise oil-rich economies in the Global South such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to both promote its national interests and solidify its privileged position within the current system.
Accordingly, the supply of Middle Eastern oil into international markets without disruption – and at a reasonable price – became an essential instrument for maintaining American dominance, even though the US didn’t need to import oil from the Middle East.
A world of US dominance
The political economist Susan Strange provided a theoretical framework back in 1987 to explain the structure of US dominance over the international system through four main dimensions: production, finance, security and knowledge. This is also a useful way to understand how the US shapes the international oil market – and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
By 2018, in the wake of a shale boom, the US became the largest oil-producing country in the world by reaching production of 15 mbpd. Financially, oil has been priced and traded in US dollars, in particular since the early 1970s when a series of negotiations and agreements linking the sale of oil to the US dollar were made between Saudi Arabia and the US. This has increased global demand for US dollars, and helped the US deal with its trade deficit and keep its interest rates low. It has also helped the US to monitor the petroleum trade by controlling global bank transfers.
The US also stands as a main security provider to oil-rich Gulf monarchies, with publicly acknowledged military bases in over 12 countries in the Middle East. Additionally, it has a supremacy over global knowledge, most obviously through its continued domination and control of the sector’s technological needs. By leading global innovation and technological development in the shale revolution, for example, and having the highest budget for research and development, the US largely controls global technology transfer. This has also deprived Iran of necessary technology, capital and know-how to modernise its ageing oil industry, constraining production.
Therefore, despite the fact that the Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry seems like a regional issue, the role of American power in a globalised world has been key to shaping this regional political competition over oil.
DUBAI/RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Aramco aims to announce the start of its initial public offering (IPO) on Nov. 3, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters, after delaying the deal earlier this month to give advisers time to secure cornerstone investors.
The people also said Aramco’s chief executive officer, Amin Nasser, was not present at the conference on Tuesday as he was meeting investors abroad ahead of the offering.
Aramco is looking to float a 1% to 2% stake on the kingdom’s Tadawul market, in what would be one of the largest ever public offerings, worth upwards of $20 billion.
Aramco, in response to queries by Reuters, said on Tuesday the oil company “does not comment on rumour or speculation. The company continues to engage with the shareholders on IPO readiness activities. The company is ready and timing will depend on market conditions and be at a time of the shareholders’ choosing.”
The people declined to be identified due to commercial sensitivities.
The company will soon have more shareholders from institutions, the head of the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, Yassir al-Rumayyan, said.
Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) and chairman of Aramco’s board of directors, was speaking at a panel at the conference in Riyadh.
Aramco will start subscription for investors in its initial public offering on Dec. 4, Saudi-owned news channel Al-Arabiya said in a news flash on Tuesday citing sources.
The oil giant plans to announce the transaction’s price on Nov. 17, it added. The company will begin trading on the local stock market, the Tadawul, on Dec. 11, the broadcaster reported.
The prospect of Aramco selling a piece of itself has had Wall Street on tenterhooks since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman first flagged it three years ago.
However, his desired $2 trillion valuation has always been questioned by some financiers and industry experts, who note that countries have been accelerating efforts to shift away from fossil fuels to curb global warming, putting oil prices under pressure and undermining producers’ equity value.
Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), is working on a consortium of investors for Aramco’s IPO, its chief executive said.
“There are several Russian pensions funds who are interested to invest in the Aramco IPO and we have also received indications from our Russia-China fund of some Chinese major institutions also interested in Aramco IPO,” Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) head Kirill Dmitriev told reporters on Tuesday.
Separately, Aramco has not approached the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) to invest in the IPO, the sovereign wealth fund’s managing director Farouk Bastaki said on Tuesday.
“KIA has not been approached by Aramco or its advisers for the IPO, and KIA will look at the IPO like any other investment,” Bastaki told reporters on the sidelines of an investment conference in Riyadh.
Reporting by Hadeel Al Sayegh in Dubai, Davide Barbuscia and Saeed Azhar in Riyadh; Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Marwa Rashad in Riyadh, and Asma AlSharif in Dubai; editing by Giles Elgood and Jason Neely
The political impasse in which Algeria has been mired for more than seven months would result in a sharp economic slowdown in the short term. This Algeria’s Political deadlock and economic breakdown that the World Bank forecasters have reached is by any means comprehensive but could be read as some sort of alert.
The institution expects non-hydrocarbon sectors, as well as all oil and gas-related activity, to run through an air hole this year; which should have some unavoidable consequences on the country’s GDP growth. In effect, in similar way to other developing countries, it is expected to come down to 1.3% in 2019 from 1.5% the previous year.
“Uncertainty policy is expected to lead to a slowdown in the non-hydrocarbon sector in 2019,” reads a World Bank report released last Thursday. The Bretton Woods institution has not failed to highlight the impact of the arrests of business leaders on investment morality grounds or lack of these, and more generally, on the economy. “Business leaders from various sectors were arrested in connection with corruption investigations, which has disrupted the economy due to sudden changes in the direction and supervision of these companies, as well as uncertainty over investment,” the same report said. Since the beginning of the crisis, a wave of arrests affected the business community, public institutions, banks and social bodies alike. This blocking situation had worsened over the weeks; appropriation sets did not meet, officials at the level of economic administration were careful not to take the slightest risk. That is to say how violent the shock wave was. The impact on the economy could be disastrous as the situation continues to worsen by the day. As such, the World Bank (WB) estimates that “the pre-election period also risks further delaying the fiscal consolidation process scheduled for 2019, increasing the budget deficit to 12.1% of GDP and increasing the risk of a more abrupt adjustment in the future.” For the WB, widening budget and current account deficits is almost inevitable. While the fiscal deficit would be unlikely to be reduced internally, “on the external front, the current account deficit is expected to widen to 8.1% of GDP, mainly due to a significantly larger trade deficit.”
Investment is being impacted
“As the course of political events is expected to have an impact on economic activity, it is also expected that more resources will be allocated to social measures, to the detriment of public investment spending,” the Bank predicts. The report, stating that “private sector activity and investment will be affected by political disruptions and an unfavourable business climate, as well as disruptions caused by delays in payment of workers in several industries.” This is the case, since the draft Finance Bill 2020 foresees a sharp decline in capital expenditure, to the tune of 20.1%, while operating expenses and social transfers are maintained as they are. WB experts are merely saying out loud what Algerian economists and operators are thinking, warning of a situation that could go along if solutions to the political impasse run out. “The delays at the end of the political impasse and political uncertainty could further damage the country’s economy, leading to increased imports and further dwindling foreign exchange reserves,” concludes the WB report. Moreover, macroeconomic indicators are unlikely to improve at any time under current political conditions.
Economic growth to only 1.9% in 2020
Moreover, against a background of falling capital spending and low morale among investors, the growth of the Algerian economy would be only 1.9% in the year 2020. A stagnation is due in particular to the “slow” growth of the hydrocarbons sector, combined with the contraction in economic activity, which has limited growth in non-hydrocarbon sectors, according to the WB’s economic monitoring report released on Thursday. “Growth in the hydrocarbon sector has been slow, with economic activity contracting by 6.5% and 7.7% in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, respectively, partially off-sparing the effects of the slight increase in non-core growth 3.4% and 3.9% in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, respectively,” the WB noted. The tiny increase in investment in the first half of the year (4.9%) was driven by public investment in construction, public works and hydraulics, as a result of the expansion of social housing programmes, the WB said. Furthermore, the institution believes that “the recent discovery of a new gas field suggests a rebound in gas production and exports, but only in the medium term, and if and only if the framework for investment in hydrocarbons lends it to it.” The World Bank is merely bringing water to the government’s mill, which has called the enactment of the new hydrocarbon law urgent.
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