Oil prices have confounded expectations in the first quarter of 2023. Brent – a major global benchmark – hit a low of US$72 (£58) a barrel on March 17, while the world’s other main benchmark, WTI, dropped to less than US$66 a barrel. This is a far cry from the nearly US$114 and US$103 a barrel, respectively, reached on the same day a year before following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a major oil producer.
But oil has now started to retreat again, an unexpected development during a war involving a major oil exporter, and at a time when a giant consumer like China is reopening after three years of economic isolation.
This shows that oil price forecasts continue to be unreliable. The economic outlook and Chinese consumption growth are key to demand expectations, while Russia is the wild card in terms of supply. Until uncertainty around these three factors dissipates, global oil markets will not have a clear direction.
Oil price movements:
US Energy Information Administration, Bloomberg, Author provided
Oil demand is closely linked to economic growth because a slowing economy shrinks income, leading people to curtail expenditure and travel less, and slowing down manufacturing that uses oil. Various economic forecasts have recently highlighted the major challenges facing the global economy, but widely prevailing uncertainty seems to top the list.
In its April 2023 World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) emphasised a high level of uncertainty “amid financial sector turmoil, high inflation, ongoing effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and three years of COVID”.
The World Bank has also warned that “a lost decade could be in the making for the global economy” as “nearly all the economic forces that powered progress and prosperity over the last three decades are fading”.
April’s OPEC+ Monthly Oil Market Report kept its forecast for economic growth and oil demand largely unchanged from previous reports, but said: “The global economy will continue to navigate through challenges including high inflation, higher interest rates particularly in the Eurozone and the US, and high debt levels in many regions.” It stated that “these uncertainties surrounding current oil market dynamics” were behind its decision to cut production.
Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud (centre), minister of energy, industry and mineral resources of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, speaks at an OPEC press conference in Vienna, Austria, October 5 2022. Christian Bruna/EPA-EFE
The China factor
China is the world’s second-largest oil consumer and the second-largest economy after the US. So all eyes have been on its oil demand since the country ended the nearly three-year zero-COVID policy that severely restricted its peoples’ mobility and economic activity.
Today, it is the main bullish factor in many global economic forecasts. The IMF’s managing director recently said:
China this year is going to contribute about one-third of global [economic] growth. We calculated that 1% more growth in China translates into 0.3% more growth for the economies that are connected to China.
However, such enthusiasm is not universally shared. A Citibank report says China’s post-COVID recovery seems slower than expected. Being an export-driven economy, the Asian powerhouse is exposed to the health of the rest of the world. A weakening global economy will reduce demand for Chinese exports, with negative repercussions on its economy and therefore oil demand.
As a major oil producer and exporter, Russia also has a massive influence on global oil markets. Despite sanctions since the beginning of the war in Ukraine (and following the annexation of Crimea in 2014), Russia continues to be the world’s third-largest oil producer after the US and Saudi Arabia.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, oil prices spiked due to fears of a loss of Russian supply. The IEA warned the resulting 3 mb/d loss (around one-third of Russia’s total and almost 3% of world production) could produce “the biggest supply crisis in decades”. Analysts from investment bank JP Morgan said Russia could cut up to 5 mb/d of production driving global oil prices to a “stratospheric” US$380 per barrel.
Such gloomy scenarios did not materialise. Russian oil continued to flow but changed direction from Europe to Asia, helping to ease price pressure for consumers everywhere. And Russia’s cuts in retaliation for sanctions have so far been smaller than expected. Of course, it could cut more, especially if this would put more economic pressure on the west and affect support for Ukraine.
This cocktail of uncertainties should encourage a more cautious stance when it comes to predicting oil prices, this year at least. Some analysts have already reduced their 2023 price forecasts, with estimates varying between US$81 and US$100 a barrel.
Expect more revisions. As one study that tracked the evolution of oil prices over four decades said: “all price expectations are subject to error”.
In a fairy-tale turnaround that few could have foretold, oil prices have soared to multi-year highs, largely aided by strong post-Covid-19 demand, surprise OPEC+ cuts and the disruption caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The petrodollar windfall has really given a boost to previously battered Gulf economies, allowing some Gulf Arab states to pay down debt and others to diversify their oil-reliant economies in very big ways.
All the six Gulf Arab states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman – are on track to post budget surpluses, many for the first time in a decade, thanks to buoyant oil prices and years of fiscal reforms.
But it’s not just the Arabian oil giants that will be enjoying the good times. In its latest forecast, the World Bank has predicted that in 2023, the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will grow 3.5%, more than twice the global average growth rate of 1.7%, thanks mainly to high energy prices and increased oil production.
GCC growth is expected to stabilise at 3.7% this year after expanding at a blistering 6.9% clip in 2022.
Although hydrocarbons remain the backbone of MENA’s economy, the realities of climate change, and wild oil price swings have been forcing Gulf nations to restrategise and diversify their economies away from oil, and Saudi Arabia is leading the way, again.
Although Saudi Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, recently made waves in the oil community after telling Bloomberg News that Saudi Arabia intends to pump every last drop of oil and is going to be the last man standing, Saudi Arabia has crafted one of the most ambitious clean energy blueprints: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic plan.
In the economic plan, Saudi Arabia has set a target to develop 60 GW of renewable energy capacity by the end of the decade, which compares with an installed capacity of roughly 80 GW of power plants burning gas or oil.
So far, Saudi Arabia has only made limited progress deploying renewables with just 520 MW of utility-scale solar in operation while 400 MW of wind power is under construction.
With its sun-scorched expanses and steady Red Sea breezes, Saudi Arabia is prime real estate for renewable energy generation.
Last year, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco, sent shockwaves through the natural gas markets after it announced that it was kicking off the biggest shale gas development outside of the United States.
Saudi Aramco said it plans to spend $110 billion over the next couple of years to develop the Jafurah gas field, which is estimated to hold 200 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The state-owned company hopes to start natural gas production from Jafurah in 2024 and reach 2.2 Bcf/d of sales gas by 2036 with an associated 425 million cubic feet per day of ethane.
Two years ago, Aramco announced that instead of chilling all that gas and exporting it as LNG, it will convert it into a much cleaner fuel, Blue hydrogen.
Saudi Aramco has told investors that Aramco has abandoned immediate plans to develop its LNG sector in favor of hydrogen.
Nasser said the kingdom’s immediate plan is to produce enough natural gas for domestic use to stop burning oil in its power plants and convert the remainder into hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is made from natural gas either by Steam Methane Reforming (SMR) or Auto Thermal Reforming (ATR) with the CO2 generated captured and then stored.
As the greenhouse gasses are captured, this mitigates the environmental impacts on the planet.
Last year, Aramco made the world’s first blue ammonia shipment, from Saudi Arabia to Japan.
Japan, a country whose mountainous terrain and extreme seismic activity render it unsuitable for the development of sustainable renewable energy, is looking for dependable suppliers of hydrogen fuel with Saudi Arabia and Australia on its shortlist.
The Saudi government is also building a $5 billion green hydrogen plant that will power the planned megacity of Neom when it opens in 2025.
Dubbed Helios Green Fuels, the hydrogen plant will use solar and wind energy to generate 4GW of clean energy that will be used to produce green hydrogen.
But here’s the main kicker: Helios could soon produce green hydrogen that’s cheaper than oil.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimates that Helios’ costs could reach $1.50 per kilogram by 2030, way cheaper than the average cost of green hydrogen at $5 per kilogram and even cheaper than gray hydrogen made from cracking natural gas.
Saudi Arabia enjoys serious competitive advantage in the green hydrogen business thanks to its perpetual sunshine, wind, and vast tracts of unused land.
Germany has said it needs “enormous” volumes of green hydrogen, and hopes Saudi Arabia will become a key supplier.
Two years ago, Germany’s cabinet committed to invest €9B (about $10.2B) in hydrogen technology in a bid to decarbonise the economy and cut CO2 emissions.
The government has proposed to build an electrolysis capacity of 5,000 MW by 2030 and another 5,000 MW by 2040 over the next decade to produce fuel hydrogen.
The European economic powerhouse has realised it cannot do this alone, and will require low-cost suppliers like Saudi Arabia especially as it doubles down on its green energy commitments following a series of devastating floods in the country.
Back in 2021, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) announced the commissioning of the country’s first-ever nuclear power plant, the Barakah Unit 1.
The 1,400-megawatt nuclear plant has become the single largest electricity generator in the UAE since reaching 100% power in early December, and is now providing “constant, reliable and sustainable electricity around the clock.
“ENEC says Barakah unit 1 is “now leading the largest decarbonisation effort of any industry in the UAE to date.”
Following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, the UAE is also laying a strong foundation for the energy transition.
Masdar, the clean energy arm of Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Mubadala, is building renewable capacity in central Asia after signing a deal in April 2021 to develop a solar project in Azerbaijan.
Since its inception in 2006, Masdar has built a portfolio of renewable energy assets in 30 different countries, having invested about $20bn to develop 11GW of solar, wind and waste-to-energy power generation capacity.
And now Masdar says it intends to apply the lessons gleaned abroad to develop clean energy capacity back at home.
“Solutions we have developed in our international operations will definitely have applications here in the UAE”, says Masdar’s El-Ramahi.
The reasons are many but the British Prime Minister who according to the latest BBC piece of international broadcast, decided to visit some of the Gulf leaders to mainly talk about ending reliance on Russian oil and gas, will discuss energy security and other issues in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates today. But because critics have expressed concerns about the human rights records of these two countries, he pledged to also raise certain human rights issues although fostering some understanding between the Saudis and the West has always been left to the next day.
Let us here have a look at the supply of oil and gas issue that seems at this stage in contradiction with the latest world trend of distancing all advanced economies from fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, the EU leaders appear to be subtly trying to gain and eventually incorporate the aggressed nation within their ranks; it will certainly increase their “Food Power” vis a vis the rest of the world.
Why is turning to Saudi Arabia for oil so controversial?
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended a trip to Saudi Arabia, saying “the widest coalition” is needed to end reliance on Russian oil and gas.
But maintaining close ties with the Gulf kingdom is controversial among critics of its human rights record.
Why is Saudi Arabia so important for oil?
The US, UK and EU have announced that they will buy less Russian oil and gas, because of its invasion of Ukraine. However, prices have rocketed.
It should not be any surprise to witness first-hand that the good destiny of the planet appears to be postponed from COP to COP because of the obvious preponderance of petrodollars over any agreement, even at the now well-proven cost of jeopardising the planet’s Climate. The UAE must learn from UK’s COP26 when it takes climate leadership by Jonathan Gornall who rightfully forehears “voices will be raised protesting that handing control of COP28 to the UAE is akin to asking a fox to beef up the security of a chicken coop”.
One of the world’s biggest producers of fossil fuels will be in charge of negotiations to wean the world from its addiction to fossil fuels
With hindsight, it seems incredible that, until now, ever since COP1 in 1995 the words “coal” and “fossil fuel” have failed to make the cut in the final reports of any of the Conferences of the Parties to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.
That would be like a report by the World Health Organization on the global response to Covid-19 failing to mention the SARS-CoV-2 virus – unthinkable.
As every schoolchild in the world surely knows, the climate-change catastrophe looming over the planet has been generated by the unfettered burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – since the dawn of the coal-powered Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.
The annual failure of COP delegates to acknowledge the fossilized elephant in the room has, of course, been the product not of ignorance, but of the myriad social and economic pressures, experienced by multiple countries at different stages of development.
Forget elephants, the animal present at every COP for the past quarter of a century has been a giant ostrich, with its head buried deep in the ground. At Glasgow, the ostrich was finally allowed to raise its head, albeit only for a brief peak at reality. Even then, attempts to overthrow King Coal were watered down by last-minute interventions from its loyal subjects, China and India.
What the world needs now, more than anything else, is compelling leadership.
One announcement to come out of Glasgow was that COP28 in 2023 would be staged in the United Arab Emirates, home to the UN-created International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This isn’t the first time the COP roadshow has traveled to the Middle East – in 2012 COP18 was held in Doha – but a decade on the climate-change landscape has changed utterly.
Doha was not insignificant. It was one of a series of dull but necessary COPs that paved the way toward the Paris Agreement in 2015, and it was the first time that developing countries signed up to a legal obligation to reduce their emissions.
The Paris Agreement was to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To achieve that, the world needs to cut global greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 26 billion metric tons every year between now and 2030. To say that the total emission-reduction pledges scraped together in Glasgow of just over 6 billion tons fell short is to understate the huge gap between ambition and commitment.
It highlights the monumental scale of the challenge for the country presiding over these conferences. That the UK’s COP26 president Alok Sharma was almost in tears as he announced the watered-down deal goes some way to illustrate the personal and institutional commitments required by the host.
The kind of leadership needed to rally the world’s nations and their disparate interests to commit to an agreement often appears beyond possibility. Then there is the task of making sure the outcomes and expectations of any COP event are stuck to.
The UK had to draw deep on its resources and global leadership experience just to make Glasgow happen. With more than 25,000 delegates descending on the city, the policing bill alone was estimated at the equivalent of more than US$300 million.
The pandemic brought big challenges to hosting the event, but it also gave Sharma’s team an extra year to prepare after COP26 was pushed back from 2020. The UK won the bid to host the event in September 2019, but Sharma was only appointed president in January 2020 after Prime Minister Boris Johnson fired his predecessor Claire Perry O’Neill.
The jostling showed the escalating importance placed on the herculean task of cajoling global powers into alignment on saving the planet.
While many have called the COP26 outcomes a failure, Sharma won praise for his balanced leadership that involved building relations with small island states most at risk from rising sea levels while handling tricky meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing.
It is some of these skillsets that the UAE will have to draw upon as it prepares to take the reins in 2023. The Emirates has been entrusted to host the event based on its existing commitments toward the environment and renewable energy, including investing heavily in the new sciences of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), and nuclear energy.
Yet the UAE has more to lose than many countries from the inevitable transition to sustainable fuels, but much more to gain than most in shaping the elements of tomorrow’s energy market – and, thanks to its oil and gas revenues, it has the necessary funds to invest in the future today.
But forging its own path is very different to consensus-building between nations with conflicting interests. What lessons can be learned from previous COP hosts and how the UAE can build on their efforts yet bring its own style of leadership is yet to be seen.
Doubtless many voices will be raised protesting that handing control of COP28 to the UAE is akin to asking a fox to beef up the security of a chicken coop. Fingers will also be pointed at comments this week from the group chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) that “the oil and gas industry will have to invest over $600 billion every year … until 2030 … just to keep up with expected demand.”
But to express alarm at this is to misunderstand the nature of a global energy system undergoing dramatic change.
None of the world’s countries can “simply unplug” abruptly from fossil fuels. The world is recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and demand for oil and gas is rocketing – in the process creating the essential wealth in the Persian Gulf region necessary to fund and drive the transition to renewables.
For the UAE and countries such as Saudi Arabia, much of the profit being drawn out of the earth now is being plowed directly into the type of research and development that ultimately will save the planet.
The UAE is working hard to curb its own domestic consumption of fossil fuels. Last month, it announced it was aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – an ambitious target on a par with those of the UK, the US and the European Union.
How? Well, it turns out that oil was not the only economic blessing bestowed on the fossil-fuel-producing countries of the Middle East.
Sunlight is the resource that gives on giving and, in the Gulf, is available for the greatest part of the year. The UAE is already leading the way with domestic solar power plants and investing in solar technology.
COP28 in 2023 will put one of the world’s biggest producers of fossil fuels in charge of negotiations to wean the world from its addiction to fossil fuels. It will put the UAE under a global spotlight that will require an exemplary level of leadership and diplomacy if the climate negotiations will continue to move forward.
And as the outcome of the UK meeting demonstrated, progress is incremental.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.
A good question to ask after Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia declared targeting net zero emissions by 2060 would be how. That is How to know if a country is serious about net zero because achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2060 should follow a plan to phase out all usage of fossil fuels. In any case, here is Fergus Green, Lecturer in Political Theory and Public Policy, University College London thoughts on the current problematics of greenhouse gas emissions. Would we turn a blind eye until 2060? Anyway, would we still be there by then? The COVID-19 lockdown shed some light on the relationship between emissions and consumption. So why focus on the production side only and not on the biggest emitters of GHG’s?
The above image is for illustration and is of Phys.org.
How to know if a country is serious about net zero: look at its plans for extracting fossil fuels
Fresh emissions targets from Saudi Arabia and Australia – two of the world’s largest fossil-fuel producers – are due to arrive just in time for global climate talks in Glasgow. These would commit the two countries to reducing domestic emissions to net zero by around mid-century – though both are expected to continue exporting fossil fuels for decades to come.
For the leaders of countries and governments that produce fossil fuels, UN climate summits are a public relations boon. They get to talk up their commitments to a green and clean future without being held to account for their disproportionate role in fuelling the problem. It’s hard for experts, let alone the average citizen, to tell fact from fiction.
Because it’s only domestic greenhouse gas emissions that are counted for the purpose of the UN climate negotiations, burning exported fossil fuels counts towards the emissions of the importing country. Accordingly, the role that major fossil fuel exporters like Saudi Arabia (oil and natural gas) and Australia (coal and natural gas) play in stoking global heating is not accurately reflected in the talks.
Unlike some areas of international cooperation, like limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, climate-change summits aim to control something which evades easy calculation. Nuclear weapons and their production facilities are tangible, chunky and relatively few in number. Greenhouse gases are everywhere, invisible and caused by lots of different processes – from cow digestion to steel production.
These gases are also in constant flux. Emissions are produced from ubiquitous sources, but there are also natural systems – especially forests and soil – that suck carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere. These natural removals of carbon are known as sinks. That is why scientists and governments speak of net greenhouse gas emissions: emissions minus removals.
It’s relatively easy to monitor aggregate levels of CO₂ in the global atmosphere. This is why scientists have a clear picture of how badly off-track the world is with tackling the climate crisis. But all this complexity concerning sources and sinks makes it easy for governments and corporations to obfuscate their real contribution to climate change.
For example, countries with lots of uninhabited land, like Australia, have become especially adept at gaming the systems of accounting for net emissions of CO₂. Australia effectively gets credited for large amounts of carbon stored in forests, which make it look like overall emissions have been falling, even though emissions from burning fossil fuels have been growing for decades.
One sure-fire way of telling whether a government official is hoodwinking you when lauding their government’s climate credentials is to look upstream and see whether they’re producing the coal, oil or gas that ultimately causes about three-quarters of global emissions, and if so, what they’re doing about it.
Extracted fossil fuels are much easier to monitor and verify than greenhouse gas emissions. They come from a relatively small number of sources and are already measured by multiple parties for a range of purposes. Customers need proof that the shipments they receive reflect their contracts with suppliers. Governments collect production information to assess a company’s compliance with licensing requirements, tax liabilities and customs obligations.
Fossil-fuel infrastructure and projects are even easier to monitor. Oil rigs, gas pipelines and coal mines are large, making them easy to see both on the ground and via satellite. These features make it simpler to hold fossil fuel-producing countries to account for their contribution to global heating, compared with the more slippery measure of net emissions.
The fossil fuel production gap
In a new report, the UN Environment Programme and other research institutions found that governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – the goal of the Paris Agreement. Countries’ fossil-fuel production plans and projections in aggregate even exceed, by close to 10%, the levels of global fossil-fuel production implied by their own climate pledges.
Shockingly, governments are pouring fuel on the fire. G20 countries have directed more than US$300 billion (£218 billion) in new funds towards supporting fossil-fuel production, such as subsidies and tax breaks, since the beginning of the pandemic – about 10% more than they have invested in clean energy.
The report echoes recent calls for greater transparency around fossil-fuel production and the support – financial and otherwise – governments provide at home and abroad. Research by various organisations has provided a better understanding of this, but the information is incomplete, inconsistent and scattered.
Governments could help by disclosing plans, funding and projections for fossil-fuel production, and how they intend to manage a just transition away from coal, oil and gas. Fossil-fuel companies should disclose their spending and infrastructure plans, as well as all the greenhouse gas emissions their product is responsible for, and financial risks to their business from climate change.
Numerous environmental organisations are working to build a global picture of the sources and flows of fossil fuels. So even if governments fail to illuminate the activities of fossil-fuel companies and their role in it, they can still be named and shamed.
Talking only about a country’s net greenhouse gas emissions gives fossil fuel-producing companies and governments a free pass to bullshit their way through the climate negotiations. If we want to force the PR managers to really earn their money, we should turn the conversation to fossil-fuel production.
Originally posted on HUMAN WRONGS WATCH: Human Wrongs Watch (UN News)* — Disinformation, hate speech and deadly attacks against journalists are threatening freedom of the press worldwide, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday [2 May 2023], calling for greater solidarity with the people who bring us the news. UN Photo/Mark Garten | File photo…
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