Saturday, November 25, 2006

Energy: Markets vs Contracts, Nuclear vs Oil

Just finished reading a long article on Russia, China, and oil markets: Russia tips the balance, which follows the short leader in this week's New Statesman.

The latter summarises Russia's increased centralisation and state control over oil and gas, but the former goes into the matter in far, far greater detail. It's also part 2, although I haven't read the first part yet.

In essence, the article describes the current move away not just from dollars (in the form of foreign oil/gas exchanges), but also from a market system that the West relies on. China, India et al have gotten, or are getting so big that they can essentially negotiate long-term contracts with Russia and Middle Eastern states. This cuts down the amount of oil available to the Western markets (sending prices up yet further). Furthermore, the state control of fuel supply is mutually exclusive to the controlling interests of Western companies (which would otherwise help 'feed' the market), affecting not just the control of market supplies, but also access to exploratory ventures. Global peak-oil starts to look like a relatively sane nightmare compared to the multitude of factors that suddenly need to be considered in its place. (As always, the reality is humanity-driven...)

To quote from the article:

"The lucrative economic, financial, political and diplomatic package of enticements being offered to producers around the globe by China, India and the other economies of the East far outweigh what the US can offer - the US simply cannot compete."
"Russia, China, India and the rest of the world outside the West ... do not feel an integral part of the global system they see as greedily and inordinately dominated by the multinational oil companies of the West, with which their relations are growing ever more tense."

Something I didn't realise is that, while the Iranian Euro-backed Oil Bourse is possibly being cut, the Chinese have set up the Yuan-backed Shangahi Petroleum Exchange, and the Russians are planning a ruble-backed exchange too. Others are getting procedures in place to make it easy to switch away from the dollar:
"the fact that the West's oil majors have lost control of all but 9% or 10% of reserves means that state-controlled oil companies can reroute any amount of product they wish from the New York-London exchanges to any of the new exchanges. This will provide a more than sufficient supply to guarantee the success of the new exchanges, and the US can do nothing to stop it."

Western Governments are naturally in a bind, and a very immediate one at that. Exchanges are pretty much ready to go. Russia has taken control back. Peak-oil, if one goes with it, is a matter of several hundred years probably, but the realistic threat to our "modern" economies is one of decades, if not less.

This, I believe, is why Blair is tetchy about renewables and so "enamoured" by nuclear. There are a number of options, but the timescales involved serve to differentiate their likelihood (and attractiveness) enormously. The West does not have the possible growth of China and the East, so we have less bargaining tools available to step outside the market - indeed, the market is our bargaining tool, our lifeline to foreign energy.

The romantic option is to invest in renewables - adhere to the true definition of "energy supply security". But the shift in paradigm is too much in too short a time to focus al our efforts on it. Whether people like it or not, even a successful transition to decentralised, clean, local energy sources would involve a fundamental shift in the attitudes, lifestyles and culture of the masses. This they would adapt to, but probably not agree to (if the current level of eco-apathy is anything to go by) in advance. Renewables, then, should be a long-term investment strategy, but politicians are too busy being short-sighted for that. (If renewables are to make a difference, they must spring Napster-like from communities, from the ground up. But that induces issues of control in such a centralised, network-bound regime...)

So nuclear is the way forward, for two reasons. Firstly, it shifts is not away from the market paradigm, but merely the oil market paradigm. Markets are good when you have something to sell that nobody else does (competition amongst consumers = higher price), or when you need simply to be able to buy something (a la oil and gas currently). By controlling the supply of radioactive fuel (through the fortunate coincidence that it is "ambiguous", dual-purpose, and therefore subjectable to control mechanisms), the structure of the market that emerges can be swayed easily too. This brings us to the second reason - nuclear power reflects, and indeed accentuates the linkage between fuel and military control. Two for the price of one.

(On a sidenote, one could also conjecture that control over the market, and over the market platforms - dollar vs euro, oil vs nuclear - is somewhat akin to the control over and fragmentation of Social Networking Providers.)

There's a good chance, then, that higher-level clashes will "tear us apart" (although not necessarily in a bad way, depending on your perspective...) The market decisions informed by political decisions (and vice versa) hereby clash with democratic awareness and the flipside of decentralised communications - alternative channels. It's possible that the UK public (and, indeed, the American one) is by now placid and disillusioned enough to let nuclear get the go-ahead. Personally, I think there's more chance that a "2-tier" mode of governance will emerge - one concentrating on global deals, nuclear superiority (or rather, a nuclear-vs-oil battle) and the ilk, while the other, diffuse network of "survivors" will have removed themselves further from the political sphere and set up their own. What form this will take, I'm not sure, but perhaps it's for the best, anyway.

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