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Lybia and the day that oil prices were almost 120 dollar

By Benedict De Meulemeester

By Benedict De Meulemeester on 25/02/2011

It is with increased horror that I look at the images of Lybia. This shows the true face of dictators, they shun no crime in their lust for power. However, living in the West, I also feel shame. We live in our shelter of a free and democratic society. And we don’t protest when our politicians befriend these dictators. We don’t mind the foreign policy of “rather a dictator that is our friend than a democratic government that is hostile” . The hypocrisy of Western policy in the Middle East and Northern Africa was clearly illustrated by British PM David Cameron’s latest trip. He visited the Tahrir square in Cairo to express his sympathy with the pro-democracy protesters in the region. He was joined by British defense industry people that where on their way to a Defense expo in Abu Dhabi where they will try to sell their weapons to the Middle East’s autocratic regimes. What is the message here? We support your protest for democracy, but we also sell the weapons to shoot at you? (For more on this controversial trip, read the Huffington Post.)

It is hypocrisy, but it is also understandable. The Middle East and Northern Africa have an immense economical importance for the West. They produce the bulk of the oil and the natural gas that fire our economies. The recent unrest has pushed these prices through the roof. The gas price for 2012 is already trading around 25 euro per MWh and Brent oil prices traded near 120 dollar per barrel on the 24th of February. Everyone of us will feel the consequences of the rush for democracy in the Arab world the next time that we fill our car. Is it therefore surprising that we sometimes prefer the stability of a dictatorship? As Berthold Brecht told us ‘Erst das Fressen, dann die Moral”, it is human to put economic interests before ethics. The current situation in Lybia should inspire modesty in the West. We are not the super-ethical beings that can impose our moral superiority upon the rest of the World. We were shaking Colonel Kadhafi’s hand in exchange for his oil. We even got fascinated by his extravagancy, the tents and camels and female bodyguard that he brought in his many recent visits to our capitals. I am not judging anyone. I am only observing that we are only humans. And that we sometimes confuse madness with bling.

The 2008 financial crisis confronted us with the madness of financial markets. Politicians claimed that they would curb the extravagancies of speculative behavior on the markets. And what did we see yesterday morning? A seven dollar price increase in 20 minutes. This reminded us of 2007 – 2008 when similar crazy price moves were observed in the oil markets. What have we learned from the financial crisis? The manic-depression-like movement of energy markets continues. Buyers of energy continue to be confronted with volatility and unpredictability. Until one month ago, we warned energy buyers that rising gas prices should not be taken for granted. There are sufficient gas reserves on this planet for gas to be cheap for some decades to come. But we also warned that supply interruptions from the Middle East could push up prices. Of course, nobody could say then that a few weeks later the whole region would be on fire.

It is not madness that energy prices rise when revolutions brake out in the region that has the largest energy reserves of the world. We are particularly worried about gas prices. We are now in the last weeks of the coldest winter in decades in North-West-Europe. However, our gas prices didn’t rally to previous heights. This was due to LNG ships unloading gas nearly every day in our import terminals. Eight in ten of those ships came from Qatar. These were the marginal MWh’s that kept the system sufficiently supplied. So far, no trouble has been reported in the gas-soaked emirate of Qatar. But trouble in the Suez Canal or in the Strait of Hormuz, the sea passage between Iran and the Arabian peninsula could mean that the LNG ships fail to reach Europe.

However much we sympathize with the protesters in the Arabian countries and in Iran, from an economic point of view this is bad news. Continuing instability will affect the output of the oil and gas industry, as is now already seen in Lybia. This will cause rising energy prices. Moreover, the economy of the region is coming to a standstill. This is bad news for the recovering world economy. These countries are huge importers of consumer goods (the lack of jobs in domestic industries is one of the main reasons for the fiery protests). If people in that region buy less, this will affect the economy. China, whose growth has powered the recent economic recovery, exports ¼ of its goods to the Middle East and Northern Africa. We are starting to fear the disaster scenario of stagflation. Energy prices that continue to grow due to supply cuts while the economy is going into recession. If supply drops faster than demand drops due to economic recession, we will enter this scenario. Both from an ethical and from an economic point of view, we sincerely wish that all these countries make a rapid shift towards a peaceful democratic government. But how likely is that? Therefore, as an energy buyer, you better prepare for a continuation and worsening of the current market situation. We obviously cannot predict the outcome of the current political crisis. But we fear that a swift return to normality is idle hope.

In the longer term, the current situation should be another motivation for Western governments to promote energy independence. Promote the widespread usage of the energy sources that we have in our own region, such as renewable energy and shale gas. In that perspective, the peoples of the Middle East might be shooting in their own foot. But would you care about the longer term economic consequences when you are fighting for your life in the streets of Tripoli?

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