David Fuller's view -
Spectacular advances by Jihadi forces across northern Iraq have raised the spectre of a Sunni-Shia conflagration in the heart of the Middle East, triggering a surge in oil prices and throwing into doubt the structure of global Energy supply for the next decade.
Brent crude jumped above $113 a barrel as the self-described Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) raced down the Tigris Valley towards Baghdad with sophisticated weaponry, seizing on its momentum after the historic capture of Mosul. Oil prices are approaching levels last seen during the Arab Spring.
“Iraq is turning into a nightmare. There are real risks that this movement will spread to other countries. Our economies are too weak to pay for oil at $120, and they can’t stand $140 if it spikes that high,” said Chris Skrebowski, a veteran oil analyst and former editor of Petroleum Review.
Iraq is Opec’s second-biggest producer, though output has slipped 8pc to 3.3m barrels a day (b/d) since February due to sabotage of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey. Ole Hansen, from Saxo Bank, said a fall in Iraqi output to levels seen in the last Gulf war would cause a $20 price spike. “The entire economic recovery could stall, and we could even slip back into recession in some regions,” he said.
The International Energy Agency is counting on Iraq to provide 45pc of the entire increase in global oil supply by the end of the decade, badly needed to meet growing demand in China and India. This requires vast investment – rising to $540bn by 2035 as output tops 8m b/d – but such outlays are implausible as the state slides towards sectarian civil war.
A risk alert put out on Thursday by IHS said the West Tikrit and Ajul oil fields and other Energy assets in the North are at “severe risk of being raided or targeted for sabotage”. The highways linking Baghdad to Basra are also at risk, and cargo travelling almost anywhere in the north is vulnerable to bomb attacks. The government claims to have stopped an assault on the country’s biggest oil refinery at Baij but IHS said the plant is still at “severe risk”.
Iraq’s oil minister, Abdul Kareem Luaibi, said most of country’s crude was pumped from “very, very safe” regions in the Shia South. He insisted that Iraq would meet plans to boost output to 4m b/d by the end of the year, the highest since the late 1970s.
Such assurances count for little as the Iraqi security forces melt away in the face of lightning strikes by the army of Sunni extremists, a group of up to 5,000 warriors that is too radical even for Al-Qaeda and harks back to the 8th century Caliphate.
I do not think that the headline above is correct. Nevertheless, the last thing a gradually recovering global economy needs is an oil price shock, which has suddenly become a possibility following the advance of a radical group of Sunnis calling themselves the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’ (ISIS). It has rolled swiftly into Iraq in recent days, encountering little opposition from the infiltrated and demoralised army backed by the Shia-dominated regime of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. Global stock market sentiment is being tested by this generally unexpected event.
It is the latest in the long history of Sunni-Shia conflicts. It also has suspicious financial undertones because regional oil producers, unaffected by the conflict, would benefit from somewhat higher oil prices in the short to potentially medium term.
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Despite the technological development of commendable renewable sources of Energy, it will be at least several decades before the global economy can prosper without crude oil. Most countries now know that technologies are available to develop their own oil and gas reserves from both conventional, and increasingly, unconventional shale sources. A few are doing so and reducing their carbon emissions by producing and using much more natural gas.
What are other countries waiting for, especially when they risk being hostages to fortune in terms of even higher Energy prices?
(The current Energy risk is discussed in more detail in Friday’s Big Picture Audio. See also Thursday’s written comment.)
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