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Earthquake shakes energy markets

By Benedict De Meulemeester

By Benedict De Meulemeester on 15/03/2011

German Cal 12 power ended above 58 euro per MWh today. The disastrous events in Japan have sent ripples across the worldwide energy markets. A brief résumé of the consequences of the earthquake that we currently observe:

  1. Oil prices have declined. The Brent traded below 110 dollar per barrel today. Oil traders fear that the economic disruptions due to the earthquake will reduce oil demand in Japan, the world’s third largest consumer of oil. For the moment, it looks like the earthquake has (temporarily?) stopped the bull run in the oil markets.
  2. Gas prices increased rapidly. TTF Cal 12 traded above 27 euro per MWh today. Nuclear power production in Japan is out due to the earthquake. It is assumed that the MWh’s not produced by the nuclear facilities will be produced in gas-fired power plants. The extra MWh’s of gas will probably come with LNG shipments from (mostly) Qatar. This sparks fears that the LNG supply to Europe, so important in keeping European gas prices at a reasonable price level, will be reduced.
  3. Power prices rallied. This was not only due to the rising gas price. The problems with Japan’s nuclear facility could mean the end of plans to keep nuclear power plants in Europe open for longer than originally planned. Today, German Chancellor Merkel even announced that seven nuclear power plants in Germany would be shut down immediately for safety controls. If other countries would adopt similar measures, we would see a severe shortage of electricity in Europe.

The energy markets have changed completely in less than two months time. Revolution and war in the Middle east and an earthquake in Japan have severely shaken the supply / demand balance. The short term price movements might just be speculation or panic reactions. They could also be the start of a further bull trend. But then the question is: can the recovering economy stand this combination of: 1. Commodity price inflation, 2. Severe disruption of one of the world’s most important economies, 3. A massive switch of insurance money towards the Japanese reconstruction? Is the current crash of stock exchanges the precursor of a new economic crisis looming? Or is it just a panic reaction?

No better illustration of the unpredictable character of energy markets than the past two months. Keep counting on that lack of predictability and spread your buying decisions is the best that we can advise in such circumstances. We have to watch carefully in the next days whether the spot gas prices continue to rise. Because that would clearly indicate that increased Japanese LNG buying is affecting supply to Europe.

For the longer term, it is clear that the Japanese disaster will affect the nuclear power sector. It was the Tsjernobyl disaster in 1986 that inspired European governments to decide to phase out nuclear power production. The 25 years that followed without nuclear incidents inspired those governments to turn back those plans of shutting down nuclear power plants. But what politician will dare to defend expanded lifetimes for nuclear power plants after what has happened in Japan? Let alone decide whether to build a new nuclear power plant. If the nuclear phase-out plans would be resumed, this would inevitably have consequences for power pricing in Europe. But that’s the longer term. No idea what it will bring, as every morning we get up in surprise over a new explosion or fire in the Japanese nuclear power plant.

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