The Oil and the Glory

The Weekly Wrap — Feb. 24, 2012

The news on the axis of oil — Africa and South America: A key new travel route for oil executives is the south Atlantic shuttle between the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America. This is because, geologically speaking, they are "anologues" — millions of years ago, the two continents were ...

Yuri Kadobnov  AFP/Getty Images
Yuri Kadobnov AFP/Getty Images

The news on the axis of oil — Africa and South America: A key new travel route for oil executives is the south Atlantic shuttle between the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America. This is because, geologically speaking, they are "anologues" — millions of years ago, the two continents were united, so that when oil is found on the coast of one, it can also be found on the coast of the other. Take this week for example. Houston-based EnerGulf Resources announced that it is drilling a supergiant 3.1 billion-barrel oilfield off the coast of Namibia, Bloomberg reports. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in northern Brazil, BP took a 40 percent stake in an offshore area held by Petrobras for an undisclosed sum of money; for BP, that is on top of a $3.2 billion investment in Brazil last year. On the South America side, this area is called the "equatorial margin," which includes northeastern Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname, write Bloomberg’s Peter Millard and Rodrigo Orihuela. Companies working the equatorial margin have conviction that they can find oil straight across the sea in Africa as well. The Bloomberg writers quote Bob Fryklund of IHS CERA, a Massachusetts-based energy research firm: "It’s one of the hottest trends in the business at the moment. People are marching up and down the coasts to figure out where those fan-shaped deposits are."

Yet the African continent can be perilous, as Chinese companies have discovered. South Sudan has expelled the head of the Chinese-Malaysian partnership conducting most of the country’s oil production, reports the Associated Press. Liu Yingcai, chief of Petrodar (81 percent owned by the China National Petroleum Company and Malaysia’s Petronas), was given 72 hours to leave after being accused of helping Sudan to steal South Sudan’s oil. The alleged theft of more than 2 million of barrels underlies a ferocious row between the two neighbors. South Sudan asserts that Petrodar helped Sudan to build a dogleg pipeline that aided the alleged oil theft. It is the second recent drama involving the Chinese — last month, 29 Chinese workers in South Sudan were abducted and held for 10 days by rebel forces. Yet, for the reasons stated above, the stakes are too high to leave. China relies on Africa as a whole for 24 percent of its oil imports, writes Reuters’ David Stanway, and is not likely to pull back.


For Putin, the price of oil goes up: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is waging a furious contest for a third term as president. His opponent? Enemies abroad (mainly Americans) who, he suggests, covet Russia’s oil, corrupt its citizens into traitorous behavior, and all in all wish harm to the country. To buttress his fiery defense of Russia against a potential new invasion such as Napoleon’s of 1812 (yes Putin really cited the French dictator), Putin is promising to dispense billions of dollars — for higher pay for police and doctors, for cheaper health care, and for a stronger military. The spending, and the sharp-edged confidence behind Putin’s politics, both flow from the spigot of Russia’s prodigious oil exports, writes the Financial Times’ Charles Clover. Many of the world’s petro-rulers have become bolder with the rise of oil prices, and more profligate with the revenue given the challenges of the Arab Spring. In Putin’s case, it is less than two weeks before a March 4 election that has ignited unprecedented criticism of his rule. That he has resorted to populist spending places enormous demands on Russia’s oil income. The state budget already required an estimated $90-a-barrel oil to break even. Now the break-even price could be $120 a barrel, Clover writes. He quotes former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov: "For Putin to have serious room for maneuver, he needs to have oil at $150 or $200 per barrel. What we have now is not enough." Finances are just one indication of a coming post-election Russian hangover. Putin’s jingoism does not seem to be mere electoral politics — with opponents now able to muster tens of thousands of supporters in the street, Putin will continue to need a bogeyman in order to rule effectively. Look for reset — the thaw between the U.S. and Russia of the last three years — to stay stubbornly on the back burner.

Go to the Jump for more of the Wrap.


Fleeing the smoke in China: Trevor Houser, who runs the energy consulting practice at New York-based Rhodium Group, inserts a simple calculus into his forecast for the future growth of Chinese coal consumption: "What do China’s leaders want? To stay in power," Houser told me. The outcome of Houser’s equation? Chinese coal use grows at a less torrid pace than many conventional models suggest. We have suggested the same — that with increasing affluence, China’s citizens are increasingly intolerant of pollution, so that, for reasons of political survival, the Communist Party will double down on a natural gas-burning electric system. The Wall Street Journal’s Jeremy Page adds another important angle to the story — that the smoke may help to trigger an exodus of wealthier Chinese out of the country altogether. Page profiles a couple of these potential émigrés and trots out a compelling statistic — a 1,000 percent rise in the last four years in the number of Chinese applications for special U.S. visas accorded to investors putting $1 million into an American company. There is a complex bundle of reasons why some newly rich pull up stakes from emerging economies and head to more established ones, including education and less corruption. One does not often hear pollution cited as one of the rationales. Now it is.

Lord Browne in repose: The Financial Times’ Caroline Daniel manages a serious scoop — she gets the reclusive John Browne, the former CEO of BP, to allow her into his home "overlooking the Thames," as she writes, for a tour and a long chat. (One interesting fact of Big Oil is that the former executives of only one company — BP — seem to sustain public interest.) We are rapt as Browne — 63 years old and dapper — shows off his art collection, including a "jaunty parade of eight elephants." Then Daniel gets the elfin oilman to talk about his former career at BP. Notwithstanding BP’s safety record, Browne single-handedly turned the company into a global giant from a sleepy receptacle for marginal members of Britain’s outdated peerage. He knows his stuff. Among Browne’s observations: The troubles facing shale gas are largely the fault of a few smaller operators who "didn’t do a good job," he says. This is what typically happens in oil: "The industry is always marred by events." He adds his belief, however, that hydrocarbons embedded in shale — both gas and oil — have a bright future: Shale gas will spread as an industry to "Europe, China, India and Argentina." As for shale oil, the U.S. is a decade away from energy independence, he says. "It is what every president of the U.S. has wished for since Nixon," Browne says. "This is the beginning of something very different in America." On shale gas, Browne leaves out that innocent large companies have refused to break ranks with those bad, smaller operators, and he seems to swallow whole a scenario of U.S. oil abundance that has yet to be validated. But the interview is well worth reading.

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