ODAC Newsletter - 18 April 2008
Welcome to the ODAC Newsletter, a weekly roundup from the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre, the UK registered charity dedicated to raising awareness of peak oil.
Oil set a series of new highs this week, and closed at just under $117 as ODAC went to print. And for once this week’s coverage focused less on market minutiae and more on the fundamental supply constraints.
True, there was some big talk from the head of Brazil’s National Petroleum Agency, who claimed the country harbours a monster discovery offshore of some 33 billion barrels. But the Agency quickly distanced itself from these remarks. In the first of four guest commentaries this week Dr. Michael Smith puts the find into perspective.
Even if true, the Brazilian claims were eclipsed in significance by two major stories in the FT this week. One revealed that a report by advisors to the Nigerian government had concluded the country’s “total oil and gas production will decline by 30 per cent from its current level by 2015” even if current levels of E&P funding are maintained. The other reported remarks by Lukoil VP Leonid Fedun that Russian oil output has peaked. In our second guest commentary, we bring you a real insider’s view of this profoundly important news, from Ray Leonard, the former head of exploration at Yukos.
The other important news story this week is that a Japanese company has succeeded in producing industrial quantities of methane hydrates from more than a kilometer down for six days in a row, a development that potentially heralds the unleashing of vast quantities of this non-conventional gas. To explain what this means for the climate, our third guest commentary comes from Pushker Karecha, a Climate Scientist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and co-author of an important paper on peak oil and climate change with GISS director Jim Hansen.
This week also saw the opening of Britain’s first hydrogen fuel station at Birmingham University, but as usual nobody is asking where the hydrogen will come from in the long term. According to the Times, “the car industry has seen the fuel cell as the holy grail that will help to relieve it of its dependence on oil”, but our fourth guest commentary, from David Strahan, ODAC trustee and author of The Last Oil Shock, shows that to be delusional.
Join us! Become a member of the ODAC Newsgathering Network. Can you regularly commit to checking a news source for stories related to peak oil, energy depletion, their implications and responses to the issues? If you are checking either a daily or weekly news source and would have time to add articles to our database, please contact us for more details.
Russian oil production has peaked and may never return to 2007 levels, a vice president of Russia's second-biggest oil producer Lukoil, Leonid Fedun, said in a Financial Times interview published Friday.
Fedun said he believed last year's production of about 10 million barrels/day was the highest he would see "in his lifetime".
Fedun likened Russia to the North Sea and Mexico, where oil production is declining sharply, saying that in its main oil-producing region of western Siberia, "the period of intense oil production [growth] is over".
The comments reflect a recent downward trend in the country's crude production, which has market analysts fretting about the possibility of a year-on-year decline in production for the first time since 1998.
Russia produced 491.48 million mt (9.83 million b/d) of crude in 2007, up 2.3% from 2006, according to the country's industry and energy ministry.
But in the first two months of 2008, average crude output fell 0.7% to around 9.75 million b/d, while in March it fell 1.2% to 9.72 million b/d.
A combination of high taxes and rising costs could lead to a further decline as they prevent producers from increasing investments as existing resource bases deplete, analysts said.
Five years ago Russia’s rapidly growing oil exports were seen as the cure for the US and Europe’s addiction to Middle East oil, international oil companies’ most exciting potential source of revenue and the only thing that could quench China’s insatiable new thirst.
But today Russia is bracing itself for its first production decline in 10 years. Last month, it failed to increase output for the third month in a row and closed the first quarter with a 1 per cent production decline, which pushed the total to 9.76m barrels per day. Last year, oil output climbed 2.3 per cent to a post-Soviet high of 9.87m bpd, according to the energy ministry.
Even politicians are having to admit the country’s once double-digit growth has halted and at least one oil executive believes it will not, at least in his lifetime, be able to produce more than it has in the past two years.
Leonid Fedun, vice-president of Lukoil, Russia’s largest independent oil company, said Russia would be able to sustain levels of 8.5m-9m barrels a day over the next 20 years only if oil companies invested billions of dollars in tapping new fields. Huge investments in eastern Siberia, the Caspian Sea and in the Arctic seas would be needed to mitigate the loss from the declining fields in western Siberia.
Mr Fedun estimated companies would need $1,000bn, far more than the $4bn extra a year Lukoil calculates will be available to the industry if Russia cuts its production taxes as is being discussed. Lukoil, Russia’s second largest oil producer, has lobbied hard for tax relief. It would gain $1bn to pump into new investment if the law were passed, he said, adding: “That is not enough.”
The turnround from 1998, when output had sunk as low as 6.2m barrels per day, has been slowing since 2003 because of a mounting tax burden and increasing state takeover of the sector. Russian oil companies see little of the windfall returns generated by high oil prices as the government takes 80 per cent of revenues over $27 per barrel in taxes.
Mr Fedun compared Russia with Mexico and the North Sea, although he acknowledged it was declining more slowly than the two competitors because much of its production was onshore, where decline rates were lower. This gave the country more time.
The International Energy Agency, the consuming countries’ watchdog, sees production growth all but halting this year, but said it was too early to know if the country had reached a peak.
Lawrence Eagles, who heads the agency’s oil and markets division, said: “You have a lot of areas in Russia that are completely under-explored, but in order to find that oil and get it to market, the country needs considerable investment.”
Joseph Stanislaw, a consultant who specialises in Russian oil and gas, said: “Four years ago you couldn’t get a private jet into Russia because of all the congestion caused by the foreign executives looking for the opportunity of a lifetime.” Today, international companies had been relegated to holding minority stakes in big projects. However, the cut in taxes could improve the foreigner’s lot, said Sanford Bernstein.
In a report released on Monday, the financial services group said: “So can the Russian public and politicians stomach the decline of the world’s largest oil producer [by some estimates], and bedrock of the country’s rekindled powerbase and nationalistic pride? We think not, and believe that the talk of tax reductions are real, which could herald a huge U-turn in the foreign investment being employed in the Russian oil industry.”
Russian Production Decline: Why and what next?
In the first quarter of 2008, Russian production declined by 1% reversing a trend begun in 1998 that had resulted in a 58% increase in production from 6.2 MMBO/D to the current 9.76 MMBO/D. Actually, this was not the first decline in the ten year period, however, the slight decline in the first quarter of 2005 could clearly be attributed to an exceptionally cold period in Siberia and the reorganization and temporary drop in production as Rosneft took over Yuganskneft, the main producing asset of YUKOS. However production growth then resumed, albeit at a much slower pace than the preceding years. In 2008, though, the winter has not been exceptionally cold (rather the reverse) and there are no shifts in ownership that would interfere with production activities. Therefore, the 2008 decline could possibly not be a temporary phenomenon.
To understand what is happening, it is necessary to review the reason for the 58% production growth in the preceding 10 years. Surprisingly, exploration success played almost no role, just as the amount of oil (shortage or excess) in the ground plays no role in the plateau and possible decline. After the ruble collapse in 1998, development costs in Russia were extraordinarily low. This, combined with attractive fiscal terms and introduction of new technologies opened an opportunity that was mainly filled by the Russian companies led by YUKOS and Sibneft, those two alone accounting for about 35% of the 1999-2003 growth. There was another subtle factor however. While at YUKOS, I worked with Leonid Filimonov, the last Oil Minister in the Soviet Union. One day in 2003 Filimonov sat me down and explained a critical development philosophy in the Ministry planning process. As new discoveries were made, the Ministry would categorize them as “easy fields” with good reservoirs, high quality oil and favorable physical location characteristics as opposed to “difficult fields” with tight reservoirs, heavy or high sulfur or paraffinic oils, and in difficult places to develop, such as swamps or flood plans. Development plans were approved on approximately a 50/50 basis to save a number of “easy fields” for the future. Filimonov was upset that in the new uncontrolled environment, the companies were focusing on the “easy fields” racking up tremendous production gains, leaving only the “difficult fields” for the future.
Coming back to the reasons for the production gains of 1998-2008, the low cost advantage in development has disappeared, slowly at first, but rapidly in the past three years due in large part to the strong ruble. The attractive fiscal terms are long gone, and the export tax has now reached a rate of close to $50/bbl, and almost 90% of the value of oil above $27/bbl is taken in taxes and fees. The “new” technologies are of course still there, but in light of current fiscal terms, it is not economic to utilize them. The final point is that the “easy fields” which provided a significant portion of the increase in the past 10 years are in full production. Any further increase must come from the more difficult and expensive projects.
I am basing most of this discussion on West Siberia, currently holding two thirds of Russia reserves and two thirds of the current production. There are new provinces with coming increases, such as Sakhalin, East Siberia and Timan Pechora, balanced by the declining provinces of Volga Urals and the Caucasus. But the trend of the next few years will be dominated by West Siberia. The chart of West Siberia production, which I presented at the Hedberg Conference in November 2006, clearly illustrates the problem. The current reserve base can peak at about 7 MMBOD but then begins to decline sharply. Unless better fiscal terms are in place and significant investment made, production will steadily drop, taking overall Russian production with it. The current terms do not make optimized secondary methods and tertiary production attractive. Also, Russian companies are focusing efforts and best teams on new frontiers; LUKoil on Timan Pechora and the Caspian, Surgutneft on East Siberia, Rosneft on absorbing the many new assets it has acquired. The tough fiscal terms and political atmosphere (including new legal barriers to acquiring strategic projects, larger than 350 MMBO) is not at all encouraging to foreign firms to tackle the difficult development projects in the mature areas.
What will the future bring? There is serious discussion in Russia on some tax relief. I personally believe that it will happen this year and it will be enough to stem the decline, but not enough to bring back an increase. But then, I do not believe Russia wants nor needs a production increase. More money is coming in from oil and gas revenues than can be comfortably handled in the economy; a stabilization fund has been set up for the overflow, still inflation remains high. Russian production has not peaked, it has reached a plateau at close to 10 MMBO/D and there it could stay for many years. For those who cling to the (remote) possibility that world oil production can somehow exceed 100 MMBO/D in the next decade, they will have to look for places other than Russia for an increased supply.
WEST SIBERIA FUTURE PRODUCTION (Leonard, 2006)
See also - http://www.davidstrahan.com/blog/?p=57
Ray Leonard, Vice President Kuwait Energy, and former head of exploration for Yukos
Nigeria risks losing a third of its oil output by 2015 unless it finds ways to boost investment in joint ventures with foreign energy companies, an internal report by President Umaru Yar’Adua’s energy advisers warns.
The progess report, seen by the Financial Times, highlights the government’s need to find ways to finance the oil industry in the country. It comes after an internal memo from the Shell Petroleum Development Company late last year that said funding problems could put the existence of the company’s joint venture with the Nigerian government at risk. The fresh warning could add to supply fears that have pushed oil prices to fresh records this week and saw prices reach a record $115.45 a barrel on Thursday.
Traders are already worried about Russia’s oil production, considered critical to keep up with Asian demand, after warnings from industry executives that production there has peaked at about 10m barrels a day.
Mr Yar’Adua’s advisers include former Opec secretary-general Rilwanu Lukman, who chairs a committee created to draft proposals for an overhaul of Nigeria’s energy sector. The government hopes the reform process will help double production in Africa’s biggest crude exporter from its current 2.1m b/d.
The report says funding shortfalls “portend a grave danger not just to the reform process, but to the continued well-being of the industry as a whole”, adding that even if funding levels are maintained “total oil and gas production will decline by 30 per cent from its current level by 2015”.
The government’s failure to pay its share of costs of the joint ventures with companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron, is one of the biggest obstacles to raising production.
Excitement about the potential of Brazil as a massive new source of oil and gas has intensified after a senior energy ministry official declared the newly-found Carioca field could contain 33bn barrels.
Haroldo Lima, head of Brazil's National Petroleum Agency, said the country was harbouring an oil find that vied with the largest in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. As a result, the price of shares in BG, the UK exploration company, soared 8% and helped lift the wider London stock market.
Lima told an industry conference that Petrobras, the national oil company partnered by BG, "may have discovered a huge petroleum field that could contain reserves as large as 33bn barrels, amounting to the world's third largest reservoir."
Amid expressions of surprise and scepticism from industry experts, Lima's agency later issued a statement saying his comments were based on a recent report in a world oil magazine. Other ministers said it was better to wait for official estimates from Petrobras itself.
But industry analysts said it was possible Lima was adding together the reserves of nearby fields in the wider Carioca area off Rio Janeiro.
Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford University and a British government energy adviser, said: "It does not surprise me that these kind of numbers are out there. Whether it is attributed to Carioca itself or elsewhere, it should not distract from the point that there is plenty of oil around."
BG declined to comment but sources close to the business - formerly a part of state-owned British Gas - said it was too early to make estimates of how much oil or gas was contained within the Carioca reservoir. "More evaluation (by drilling) is needed," said one well-informed source.
Matthew Shaw, the Latin American energy analyst with Edinburgh-based oil consultant Wood Mackenzie, said the 33bn-barrel claim was not credible. "This is an unfortunate slip of the tongue by a senior member of the NPA," he said. "It is likely to be a fairly modest discovery with a few hundred million barrels in place."
But Shaw said the comments were symptomatic of the "oil fever" that was sweeping Brazil in the aftermath of recent - and confirmed - discoveries such as Tupi, another field where BG has a stake and which has got 5bn-8bn barrels of recoverable reserves.
Those figures are 10 to 16 times higher than BG's Buzzard discovery in the North Sea which caused new optimism about the UK's own offshore potential and helped revive drilling interest in the area at a time when local crude prices have been hitting new highs.
Ironically, Brazil is at the centre of the current biofuels revolution because the government encouraged motorists to switch to crop-based fuels such as ethanol before anyone else - at a time when the country was trying to cut its oil import bills because it had no indigenous supplies.
But while corn-based ethanol is now being exported from Brazil all over the world, the country is beginning to believe that it could become one of the world's great crude oil exporters and might join the OPEC oil cartel.
Petrobras has just spent more than $8bn ($4.05bn) signing up new rigs to go and explore in the very deep waters off Brazil.
While the potential of the latest find in Brazil could add significant supplies to a global oil market that has seen prices reach record levels on the basis that supplies are very tight, it would take the best part of a decade before Carioca is ready for production.
BG has increasingly targeted Brazil as an important area, having bought a 51% stake in the downstream gas distribution business, Comgas. It has an estimated 8,000 sq kms of offshore acreage to explore and holds a 25% stake in the Tupi find and a 30% holding in Carioca.
Brazil has traditionally been overlooked as an energy provider because other Latin American producers such as Venezuela and Mexico are much more significant.
The president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was once seen as a left-wing firebrand in the mould of Hugo Chavez, his counterpart in Venezuela. Although he has since proved himself to be more pragmatic he is currently considering whether to toughen up conditions under which foreign oil companies operate in his country.
The discoveries during 2007 of Carioca in BM-S-9 and Sugar Loaf in BM-S-8 within the Santos Basin, as well as other discoveries in the region, are very significant in that they confirm the potential of the sub-salt play originally identified in Tupi (BM-S-11) in 2006. Tupi pointed to the potential of the area for further oil and gas accumulations buried beneath a layer of salt and these wells confirm that potential.
The reason such a play has remained hidden for so long is this salt layer, which presents the dual challenge of imaging (since salt is relatively impervious to seismic energy) and drilling (since salt tends to wash out whilst drilling, creating zones of lost circulation) as well as the great water depth (over 2000m). In addition Petrobras has had its work cut out in the Campos Basin up to now. Modern technology, high oil prices and new foreign contractors are progressively overcoming, albeit at great cost, all these challenges.
The play will add large volumes to Brazil's reserves. However, as always, there are question marks. Firstly the press reports do not reveal how much of the volumes are gas, especially since the Santos Basin, has, up to now, been a gas-prone region. Also with just a few wells it is impossible to be sure of such large volumes. Proper analysis and application of SEC rules to the definition of proven plus probable reserves would likely limit volumes to less than 500 million barrels until additional successful wells are drilled. What's more the complex geology and difficult surface conditions would mean many years (up to a decade) before such discoveries could be put into production, particularly in such a tight market for deep water equipment and personnel.
Nevertheless the find is very significant to Brazil. It has long been known that large resources of oil and gas are located beneath the salt basins of the world. Indeed many deep water fields in the Gulf of Mexico are already being exploited from such horizons. The play could perhaps eventually add 1 mm bbls per day by 2030 (if the reports are reasonably accurate) and delay the Brazilian peak date by a decade (to 2025). However in a global sense the play is unlikely to affect the oil supply situation significantly over the coming decade. A net loss of over 500,000 barrels per day each year to the global market will probably be already occurring (and growing) by the time the first giant fields in the Santos Basin ramp up their output.
Is there really an ocean of oil off Brazil?
JUST how much oil is there off the coast of Brazil? Until recently, Brazil’s oil reserves were thought to be relatively modest: about 12 billion barrels at the beginning of 2007, according to BP, or about 1% of the world’s total. But last year, Petrobras, Brazil’s partly state-owned oil firm, announced the world’s biggest oil discovery since 2000: the Tupi field, which it hopes will produce between 5 billion and 8 billion barrels. Now the head of Brazil’s National Petroleum Agency (ANP) says another nearby discovery might hold as much as 33 billion barrels, which would make it the third-largest field ever found. That alone would be enough to raise Brazil to eighth position in the global oil rankings—and there is talk of further big discoveries. But the peculiar way in which the information came to light is casting doubt on its significance.
The ANP, which regulates the oil industry in Brazil, was quick to distance itself from the remarks of its boss, Haroldo Lima. His comments were of a personal nature, it said, and were based on past reports in the media. It helpfully cited an article from a magazine, World Oil, that had mentioned the magic figure of 33 billion barrels in February. Petrobras and its partners in the field, BG of Britain and Repsol-YPF of Spain, said that they had not yet done enough tests to determine exactly how much oil it contained.
But no one dismissed the estimate as preposterous. That, plus the fact that a senior official had given any credence to such a dramatic number, caused the share prices of the three firms to jump, despite the fact that Mr Lima claims he does not even know where the stockmarket is, and certainly did not intend to influence it. At one point Repsol’s was up by 14%. The shares of Hess, an American firm which is part of a consortium looking for oil nearby, posted their biggest gain since 1981.
Both Tupi and the field mentioned by Mr Lima, Carioca-Sugar Loaf, lie far below the seabed, beneath a thick layer of salt that is some 800km long and 200km wide. José Sérgio Gabrielli, Petrobras’s boss, has hinted that there are vast reserves of oil to be found in this “pre-salt” formation. At any rate, Petrobras has struck oil every time it has drilled there. It is currently assessing the reserves of yet another nearby discovery, Jupiter, which appears to be very similar in scale to Tupi. The firm’s head of exploration says “there is practically no exploratory risk” in the area. While this does not necessarily transform Brazil into an oil power on a par with Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, as Dilma Rousseff, the chairman of Petrobras’s board and chief of staff to Brazil’s president, has excitedly proclaimed, it suggests that the volumes of oil involved are very big.
Nonetheless, the immediate impact of the “pre-salt” discoveries will be small. It will be several years at least before any of the new oil comes to market. What is more, it will be expensive to produce. The fields are all far out at sea, deep under ground that is itself far below sea level. Simply drilling the first test well at Tupi cost $240m, and costs are likely to rise, thanks to fierce inflation throughout the oil industry. As if to underscore the point, the oil price hit a new record, of $114.41 a barrel, a couple of days after Mr Lima dropped his bombshell.
Even if there is an ocean of oil off Brazil’s coast, it will not necessarily be of much benefit to big oil firms, which have struggled to gain access to promising territory for exploration of late, thanks to growing nationalism in oil-rich countries. Brazil had been a heartening exception. But after Petrobras announced the discovery at Tupi, the ANP cancelled a planned auction of rights to explore for oil in several adjacent areas. Mr Gabrielli, the boss of Petrobras, says that the state’s relatively low share of the revenues from oil production in Brazil should be increased to reflect the decreasing risks and increasing profitability of exploration.
The discoveries do suggest that the gloomiest pundits are wrong to predict that the world will soon run out of oil. It is not that there are still lots of huge oil fields out there: the number of mammoth discoveries is declining, Tupi (and perhaps Carioca-Sugar Loaf and Jupiter) notwithstanding. But the new finds do illustrate how the technology with which oil firms hunt for, extract and process fossil fuels is constantly improving. Petrobras’s recent success is only possible thanks to recent advancements in seismic surveys, drilling, and offshore platforms. Other technological developments are allowing a greater proportion of the oil found around the world to be recovered and are even expanding the definition of oil, as firms conjure liquid fuel from the solid tar-sands of Canada, for example, or from coal and natural gas. Indeed, among the shares that rose in the wake of Mr Lima’s comments were those of the firms that supply Petrobras with all its clever kit.
Foreign oil companies are poised to enter Iraq later this month after Baghdad signalled it was prepared to sign five oil field services agreements covering its biggest fields.
Five years since the US and Britain toppled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, there have been few forays by oil's major players into Iraq, even though the country accounts for almost 10pc of world reserves.
A violent insurgency forced most oil companies to keep executives responsible for Iraq outside the country. Most are based in the Gulf.
Despite lack of foreign involvement in oil production, Iraq has returned to pre-war export levels of 2.5m barrels a day.
The two-year service contracts that have been negotiated would see British, American and Australian oil companies supply equipment and expertise that would boost output by hundreds of thousands of barrels at each field.
"I expect the oil companies will get their first deals in Iraq before the end of the month," said a British official. "The Iraqi government has said it's ready to do the deal. For the big oil companies it's not so much security that's the stumbling block now, it's the legal framework. This is the development that starts the ball rolling."
The five deals will cover Kirkuk, Missan, West Qurna, Zubair and Rumaila oil fields and have a face value of £1.5bn, though reimbursement will be satisfied in barrels.
"In this politically sensitive and difficult situation, service contracts are a pragmatic step forward for Iraq," said Steve Peacock, head of exploration and production for BP in the Middle East.
BP's contract, which is substantially negotiated, would involve the British firm providing project management, technical services and parts supplies to the North and South Rumaila fields.
The measures are described as a stopgap until Iraq's parliament ratifies a long-delayed oil law to allow foreign firms an exploration and production role in Iraq for the first time since the industry was nationalised in the 1970s.
While the security situation has prevented the large oil companies establishing a presence in Iraq, Mr Peacock said there had been extensive mapping of its resources. "We've studied the whole of the rest of the country, so we're waiting for what comes next after the service agreements.
"We have an opinion on which bits we'd be more interested in. Whether it gets linked into the contract or not - it's a natural question that's on the table," added Mr Peacock.
"These contracts are valid for a couple of years; how does that link with what comes next?"
Royal Dutch Shell is set to emerge with interests in Kirkuk, Iraq's biggest field, discovered in 1927, and Missan, which it will serve in joint venture with the Australian miner BHP. The remaining contracts will go to Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Total.
Oil experts estimate that Iraq can reach a geologic potential of 10m barrels a day with substantial foreign investment. But its achieved output is likely to rest on security improvements and nationalist resistance to foreign involvement.
Foreign oil firms operating in Venezuela will pay higher taxes on profits made in the country, under laws approved by parliament.
They face a 50% tax when a barrel of crude is priced at $70 or more, rising to 60% when average prices tops $110.
It is President Hugo Chavez's latest attempt to get greater control over his country's oil.
In 2006, he enacted laws making foreign oil firms hand over at least a 60% share in their Venezuelan operations.
The country has also begun nationalising its electricity, telecommunications and natural gas industries as part of President Chavez's drive toward "21st century socialism".
Oil prices are currently around $110 a barrel and income from the new tax could reach $9bn (£4.5bn) a year, according to oil minister Rafael Ramirez.
Analysts said that the move would make foreign firms think carefully before making any further investments in Venezuela, which is one of the world's most oil-rich nations.
"Their opportunities to turn a profit are diminishing," said Juan Carlos Sosa, editor of Venezuelan oil industry magazine PetroleoYV.
The tax comes months after President Chavez's nationalisation drive forced out two of the world's largest energy companies: Exxon Mobil Corp and ConocoPhillips.
Exxon is seeking $12bn in compensation from Venezuela after its oilfields were nationalised last year.
Last week President Chavez announced the immediate nationalisation of Venezuela's entire cement industry.
He said his government could not allow private companies to export cement that was needed to tackle a severe housing shortage.
The president promised they would be paid fair compensation for the forthcoming state takeover of what he described as a strategic industry.
Beijing's share-buying in Britain's largest company, which has so far reached nearly 1pc, is being closely watched by Downing Street.
A Chinese sovereign wealth fund has built up a stake of about £1bn in BP, in a move which has caused a stir within the British Government.
The sovereign fund is understood to have quietly acquired the shares in the market over a period. It has accumulated just under 1pc of BP, which is the UK's largest company with a capitalisation of £104bn.
A BP spokesman said: "We are aware of the Chinese holding and we welcome all shareholders."
The Chinese fund has also built up a stake in France's oil giant Total worth about £1bn.
China has used its deep cash reserves to snap up shares in blue-chip companies in the UK, such as Barclays, as well as in the United States.
However, there has been particular sensitivity about funds controlled by Beijing sinking large amounts of cash into the West's major energy companies.
A bid by China National Offshore Oil Company (Cnooc) for America's Unocal in 2005 caused a political storm and was thwarted by the US administration.
China is dependent on being able to import oil to power its rapid development. To secure supply, its government has struck deals with oil producers the West has spurned in Africa. Buying stakes in European oil companies appears to be another way in which Beijing is seeking to have a seat at the table, sources said.
Banking sources said Downing Street was aware of the stake-building by a Chinese fund in BP. All parties are thought to be monitoring the situation closely.
The UK Government may be more open to a Chinese investor in its largest oil company than was the case in the US over Unocal.
The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is this week in Beijing to forge greater links with London. He is due to meet Lou Jiwei, the chairman and chief executive of the Chinese Investment Corporation (CIC), and is expected to encourage the fund to consider further investments in the UK.
CIC has $200bn (£100bn) to deploy and has made a $3bn investment in the private equity firm Blackstone.
It also bought just under 10pc in Morgan Stanley for $5bn. The investor in BP is not CIC.
The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, also extended friendly overtures to Chinese sovereign funds when he visited Beijing in January.
Mr Brown said at the time: " We want Britain to be the number one destination for Chinese business as it chooses to invest in the rest of the world. Tens of thousands of jobs in Britain can be created from co-operation between our two countries."
BP has several other sovereign funds from other countries as shareholders, including the Kuwait Investment Authority.
The KIA, the world's largest sovereign fund, was forced in 1988 to divest some of its 20pc-plus holding in BP by the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Shares in BP closed up 2 to 549p yesterday. They have jumped from 500p since the start of April.
The rise in crude oil prices in recent weeks has appeared to defy the conventional wisdom that says prices should fall as the world economy – and particularly the US – slows and energy demand decelerates.
This has led to warnings that the oil market could have become the latest asset bubble following the boom in dotcom shares and house prices.
But that is to focus too much on demand. What is arguably driving the market to record highs is supply.
Non-Opec production is growing far less than expected just a few months ago, weighed down by the first fall in Russia output in a decade and a sharp supply drop in other mature areas, including the North Sea and Mexico.
At the same time, Opec, the oil producer’s cartel, has started to cut output, reducing production by about 350,000 barrels a day between January and March, according to the International Energy Agency, the western countries’ oil watchdog.
Traders say Opec’s cuts are likely to deepen in April after the cartel on Tuesday highlighted its concerns about the strength of oil demand during the spring.
The slower growth in non-Opec supply and the cartel cuts have offset the impact of lower demand growth, analysts say, tightening the market and boosting prices.
West Texas Intermediate crude oil on Tuesday jumped to a fresh all-time high above $113 a barrel, up more than $2 on the day.
Paul Horsnell, head of commodities research at Barclays Capital in London, acknowledges that the growth in demand has been fairly slow in the past three years, but he adds that it has risen much faster than the growth in non-Opec supply.
The IEA says global oil demand will grow by 1.3m b/d this year, while non-Opec supply, including a large addition from biofuels, will increase by about 800,000 b/d. Additional Opec output will have to close the gap.
“Global demand growth has outstripped non-Opec supply growth in each of the last five years and 2008 is set to become the sixth year,” Mr Horsnell says. He expects the imbalance to continue.
Long-dated oil futures already reflect the market’s fears that demand growth, led by the industrialisation of emerging countries in Asia, will continue to exceed non-Opec supply, forcing the world to rely more on the cartel.
The five-year forward crude oil future on Tuesday surged above $100 a barrel, having jumped 32.8 per cent in the past six months. Over the same period, spot prices have risen 29.8 per cent to Tuesday’s intraday high of $113.93 a barrel.
The entire forward curve, which extends to December 2016, is trading above $100.
That increase reflects, in part, a structural shift that makes the current boom different to previous ones.
In the late 1970s oil companies were able to expand geographically, oil fields were conventional and production was located close to the main consuming centres. Today, most of the reserves are in countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Mexico, that ban foreign investment, in challenging environments such as east Siberia or in politically inhospitable countries such as Iran.
Otherwise, there are fields producing non-conventional oil such as Canada’s tar sands.
One reason for the long-dated futures price jump is that cost inflation is eating into international oil companies’ extra investment in exploration, according to a recent analysis by the International Monetary Fund.
It found that nominal investment surged in 2006 to about $250bn from about $80bn in the early 1990s. But surging costs “meant that this did not translate into large real investment increases”, the IMF said, pointing out that real investment, adjusted for inflation costs, moved from about $80bn in 1994 to $115bn in 2006.
Adam Sieminski, chief energy economist at Deutsche Bank in Washington, says that the exploration and development costs for US-based international oil companies have risen from a low of $5.4 a barrel in 1995 to about $22.8 a barrel in 2007.
“The pace of the rise in price since the mid-1990s has been a stunning development that mirrored the impressive decline in costs from $20 a barrel in 1980,” he says.
Meanwhile, fears that the world’s biggest oil producers cannot keep up with demand have escalated after the warning from a senior Russian oil executive that the country’s output has peaked.
Leonid Fedun, vice-president of Lukoil, Russia’s largest independent oil company, told the Financial Times that he believed last year’s Russian oil production of about 10m b/d was the highest he would see “in his lifetime”.
If Mr Fedun’s warning proves correct – and analysts say this year’s production declines support his view – medium-term oil supply and demand forecasts that rely on further Russian oil output growth could be wrong.
The IEA’s latest medium-term outlook, published in July, points to Russia as the third largest contributor to an expected 2.6m b/d increase in non-Opec supply, just behind Brazil and biofuels.
It said that Russia would increase its production to 10.5m b/d in 2012, about 600,000 b/d above last year’s level.
But it is not only Russian production that could fall short. Analysts believe that the current rise in food prices raises questions over whether biofuels will contribute as much as expected to fuel needs if acreage devoted to biofuels is reduced. If that is the case, it is all too likely that the world will become more dependent on new supplies from Opec, Brazil, Canada, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
LONDON (Reuters) - World oil demand will rise much less than expected in 2008 because of slower economic growth in the United States and elsewhere, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Friday.
The cut to demand growth is the IEA's biggest since 2001 and follows the release of lower economic growth forecasts by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) this week, and the impact of high oil prices above $110 a barrel.
"The latest GDP projections from the IMF suggest less robust oil demand growth in the coming months," the IEA said. "This report projects April and May oil balances tipping towards a supply surplus."
Global oil consumption will rise by 1.27 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2008, 460,000 bpd less than the previous forecast, said the IEA, adviser to 27 industrialized countries, in its monthly Oil Market Report.
Even though demand is expected to be lower, supply is also rising less than forecast, which could help to keep prices high. The agency cut its forecast for supply outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Oil prices rose after the IEA report was released, but later steadied. U.S. crude, which hit a record high of $112.21 this week, was trading at $110.11 by 8:18 a.m. EDT, unchanged from the previous close.
Lower demand in members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) accounted for the bulk of the IEA's reduction. The IEA cut forecast OECD demand this year by 320,000 bpd to 48.9 million bpd.
The IMF trimmed its prediction for 2008 economic growth for top oil consumer the United States to 0.5 percent from 1.5 percent. China, the second largest, was also expected to use less oil than anticipated.
The cut in demand growth brings the IEA's view closer to that of OPEC, which expects an expansion of 1.2 million bpd this year and has rebuffed calls from consumer countries for more oil to lower prices.
Demand for oil, by contrast with other energy forms, is regarded as inelastic because of a lack of viable alternatives for transport, but high prices have helped to change consumption especially in the United States.
"A bit of demand shift is going on there, which is related to price ... The price has probably a more significant impact on consumers who are feeling the pinch," said Lawrence Eagles, head of the IEA's Oil Industry and Markets division.
This month's cut in demand growth was the largest since the agency lowered 2001 demand growth by 509,000 bpd in July 2001, he said.
The IEA said weaker demand might not translate into lower oil prices given supply risks in countries such as Nigeria and Iraq. Oil rose in the second half of 2007 even though inventories were also climbing, it noted.
"That perhaps explains why, in the face of weakening economic growth, prices continue to remain high: there is concern that projected stockbuilds may not materialize, or may not be high enough."
The IEA trimmed its forecast for oil supply outside OPEC this year and said OECD oil inventories fell by 49 million barrels in February and preliminary figures showed only a small increase in March.
Supply from non-OPEC, which pumps about three in every five barrels of oil, was expected to rise by 815,000 bpd this year, less than world demand growth and down 90,000 bpd from the previous forecast, the IEA said.
Non-OPEC supply has missed expectations in recent years, contributing to rising oil prices.
Oil prices have surged to almost $115 a barrel as China builds up stocks before the Olympics and hedge funds pour money into commodity futures as a way to exploit the collapse of the dollar.
The Opec producers cartel yesterday defied calls from Gordon Brown for a boost in output to help ease the global shortage, sticking to its target of 32m barrels per day (bpd) for the next three months.
There is some evidence that Opec has actually cut output by 350,000 bpd since the start of the year - a hostile move in the current climate. It blames the latest spike on "speculators", claiming that world demand will fall 1.4m bpd to 85.7m this quarter as the US grapples with recession.
Nobody else can step into the breach. Output is falling in the non-Opec trio of Britain, Norway and Mexico. Russia's production slipped 1pc in the first quarter. The cost of developing oil fields worldwide has doubled in three years. The cost of operating an oil rig per day has risen from $200,000 to $600,000 since 2003.
"The system is operating flat out," said Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review. "We have been very lucky for the past few years that there has not been any major war or revolution to disrupt supplies. The market is incredibly tight as it is."
Société Générale said the near $30 spike in prices since early February is largely due to money pouring into commodity index funds, now worth some $200bn. Crude has taken on a "safe-haven" role for investors fleeing the dollar, or those betting that central banks will let rip with excess liquidity.
"This is now entirely investor driven," said Dr Frederic Lasserre, the bank's head of commodities research. He added that most of the money is coming from pension funds, insurers and other long-term investors. They view the US recession as a mere hiccup in a powerful upward cycle, convinced that Chinese and Mid-East demand will hold up long enough for America to recover. "They are all convinced by the fundamental tightness of the market," he said.
Hot money funds are also playing a role, trading oil as a sort of "anti-dollar". Crude is moving in reverse lockstep with the greenback, pushing ever higher (with double or triple leverage) as the dollar reaches fresh lows against the euro. Surging oil prices are in turn stoking inflation, causing investors to bet yet more on oil futures as an inflation hedge. "This has entered a vicious spiral," Dr Lasserre said.
Analysts say it is no coincidence that oil punched higher on the same day that the euro reached a record of $1.5979, up 28pc in two years. BNP Paribas says central banks should intervene to stabilise the dollar. Every major country now has an interest in slowing the commodity frenzy.
The G7 group of major powers took a step in that direction over the weekend, warning that sharp currency moves had become a threat to financial stability. The markets have dismissed this as empty bluster, prompting a warning from French finance minister Christine Lagarde that speculators may have "misunderstood" what had been agreed.
It is a contentious point whether investors have now caused the price of crude to become unhinged from economic reality. Commodity prices have jumped 47pc since the credit crunch began in August last year, despite three downgrades in global growth forecasts by the IMF. Oil and metals normally fall hard as growth slows.
The crucial difference this time is that the US, Britain, Germany, Japan and other rich OECD countries are no longer the driving force in the oil market. The US added just 7pc of total demand growth from 2004 to 2007, compared to 34pc for China, 25pc for the Mid-East and 17pc for emerging Asia. The newcomers are oil guzzlers, with a high crude use per unit of GDP created.
Most are still booming. China grew at a blistering 10.6pc in the first quarter, slightly down from 11.9pc last year. The country has been raising its oil use by 500,000 bpd a year. Crude imports jumped 25pc in March, topping 4m bpd for the first time.
"The OECD doesn't matter much any more," said Mr Skrebowski. "We have an Atlantic-centred view, and we are having trouble getting our heads around the idea that the world has changed."
Of course, China's growth may prove more fragile than it looks. Inflation has reached the danger zone of 8.3pc. The central bank tightened credit again yesterday. The Shanghai bourse has lost almost half its value since peaking last autumn. Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight, warns that China faces post-Olympics "crunch" as the colossal bad debts of the state banking system exact their toll.
Whatever happens, oil cannot easily fall below $70. That is the break-even cost for biofuels, the new oil substitute. Short of a global depression it is hard to imagine what could depress oil prices for long as the rising nations of Asia embrace the affluent society.
Japan is celebrating a groundbreaking science experiment in the Arctic permafrost that may eventually reshape the country's fragile economy and Tokyo's relationships with the outside world.
For an unprecedented six straight days, a state-backed drilling company has managed to extract industrial quantities of natural gas from underground sources of methane hydrate - a form of gas-rich ice once thought to exist only on the moons of Saturn.
In fact, the seabeds around the Japanese coast turn out to conceal massive deposits of the elusive sorbet-like compound in their depths, and a country that has long assumed it had virtually no fossil fuels could now be sitting on energy reserves containing 100 years' fuel. Critically for Japan, which imports 99.7 per cent of the oil, gas and coal needed to run its vast economy, the lumps of energy-filled ice offer the tantalising promise of a little energy independence.
Environmentalists, though, are horrified by the idea of releasing huge quantities of methane from under the seabeds. Although methane is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal or oil, the as yet untapped methane hydrates represent “captured” greenhouse gasses that some believe should remain locked under the sea. The mining of methane ice could also wreak havoc on marine ecosystems.
Japan is growing ever-more desperate to secure its energy, as once-reliable suppliers - such as Indonesia and Australia - have begun either to cut back exports of natural gas and coal or charge crippling prices.
Its direct interests in vital global energy projects, such as oil drilling in Sakhalin and Iran, have also been whittled away by politics and diplomatic rivalries.
The potential of methane hydrates as a source of natural gas has been known scientifically for some time, though how much was lurking off the Japanese coast has been confirmed only in the past couple of years. Methane hydrates are believed to collect along geological fault lines, and Japan sits atop a nexus of three of the world's largest.
In 2007 the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry declared that there were more than 1.1 trillion cubic metres (39 trillion cubic feet) of methane hydrates off the eastern coast - equivalent to 14 years of natural gas use by Japan at current rates. Academic studies suggest total Japanese deposits of 7.4 trillion cubic metres.
Realising how valuable the technology of unlocking the methane hyrdrates could be, Japan has invested frenziedly in the science of exploiting them. The Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (Jogmec) has, for more than a year, been experimenting with the methane hydrate reserves under the tundra of northwestern Canada. Its six-day continuous extraction of methane from a deposit more than a kilometre below the Earth's surface has been hailed as the breakthrough Japan had been waiting for: undersea experiments in Japanese waters are to begin early next year. Commercial production, a Jogmec spokesman told The Times, would begin within the decade.
The Japanese Government is so excited at the prospect of even modest relief from its energy problems that it has drawn up a basic policy for ocean-related extractions. It may also licence the technology to allow China, South Korea and other nations thought to have large methane ice deposits off their coasts to unleash the potential of the flammable sorbet.
Methane hydrates, which are formations of methane gas molecules enclosed in ‘cages’ of water ice, represent an enormous reservoir of fossil carbon. Although the magnitude of this reservoir is still highly uncertain, it is widely believed to contain thousands of giga-tonnes of carbon (GtC). To put that in perspective, the Earth’s atmosphere currently contains about 800 GtC as CO2, of which about 180 GtC and 40 GtC were added through human burning of fossil fuels and biomass, respectively. This anthropogenic addition of CO2 has been the dominant cause of the observed global warming since the industrial era, and it is now apparent that continuing on the current emissions trajectory would result in disastrous climate-related impacts.
These basic facts, along with the well-established fact that a significant fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions will remain in the atmosphere for many centuries, make it abundantly clear that widespread extraction and use of even a seemingly small fraction of the world’s methane hydrates would be extremely undesirable from a global climate perspective, if such use results in further unconstrained emissions of CO2 (or methane).
Thus, the recent buzz about Japan’s methane hydrate exploration is certainly cause for concern. However, in the interest of basic fairness and avoidance of premature finger-pointing, it should be noted that my own country’s government has made no secret of its plans to make methane hydrates a commercially viable fuel source within the next decade, see reference.
Whether or not this is a feasible goal remains to be seen. However, given the worldwide dependence on fossil fuels, the impending ‘peaks’ in global conventional oil and natural gas production, and the massive fuel potential of hydrates, it seems very likely that more and more countries (and energy companies) will be tempted to pursue similar goals as the American and Japanese governments (e.g., see reference).
Several recent studies by James Hansen, myself, and our colleagues have concluded that unconventional fossil fuels such as methane hydrates can only be burned if the resulting greenhouse gases are prevented from entering the atmosphere (see Implications of "peak oil" for atmospheric CO2 and climate and Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?). A major concern is that fuel derived from methane hydrates would most likely be used to substitute for dwindling oil and gas. But since most CO2 emissions from current oil and gas use are not amenable to capture and sequestration (because these fuels are used mainly in vehicles, homes, etc.), any hydrate-derived fuels must be used differently in the future. One possible way to resolve this would be to use these fuels only at power plants that employ carbon capture and sequestration, with the resulting electricity being used to power plug-in hybrid cars.
In a broader sense though, the pursuit of methane hydrates as fuels seems like a step backward, since it would only entail continuing reliance on finite, nonrenewable fossil energy. Given that the world must inevitably move beyond such resources, it would make far more sense to focus near-term efforts on large-scale development of truly ‘green’, carbon-negative technologies.
Pushker Kharecha, Climate Scientist, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies/Columbia University Earth Institute
Russia’s Gazprom took further steps to strengthen its hold on natural gas supplies to Europe on Thursday, signing a joint venture with Libya and saying it was in preliminary talks on a multibillion dollar project to pipe Nigerian gas to Europe across the Sahara.
News of the two projects came as Vladimir Putin, Russian president, became the first Russian leader since 1985 to visit Libya. According to the country’s official news agency, Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi said during talks with Mr Putin he supported the idea of forming an Opec-style group of gas-exporting countries.
Industry experts say the idea of a gas exporters’ cartel – which has now been backed by several producers – remains a distant prospect. But Thursday’s events showed the extent to which Russia, the world’s biggest gas producer, is building ties with other large gas exporters and increasingly playing a co-ordinating role.
Among a string of commercial deals sealed during Mr Putin’s visit, Gazprom agreed to set up a joint venture with the National Oil Corporation of Libya to explore for, produce, transport and sell oil and gas.
The agreement came two weeks after Gazprom and Italy’s Eni said after talks in Moscow they had agreed to work together in “third countries”, later identified by industry officials as Libya – seen as one of the north African oil and gas producers with most potential.
Oil fires warmer ties with the west
Flush with oil and gas money and emerging from sanctions, Libya has been mending relations with the west and attracting executives from all over the world lured by the promise of big projects and big returns, writes Heba Saleh in Cairo.
The north African country earned some $40bn (€25bn, £20bn) from its oil and gas sales in 2007.
“The Libyan economy is attractive precisely because there is a huge amount of liquidity and a vast cash flow,” said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to the country.
“Of course liquidity is hard to come by now, so Libya has become something of a honey pot.” Libya shook off United Nations sanctions in 2003 and US sanctions a year later after its leader, Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, gave up his nuclear weapons programme in 2004.
Oil and gas are the main areas of interest. Libya remains a relatively unexplored country.
Eni, the leading foreign operator in Libya, recently agreed to double capacity with an 8bn cubic metres a year pipeline carrying its gas across the Mediterranean to Italy.
Alexei Miller, the Gazprom chief executive who accompanied Mr Putin to Tripoli, reiterated on Thursday that the Russian monopoly was interested in taking part in construction of the second stretch of the pipeline linking Libya and Sicily.
Mr Putin flew from Libya on Thursday night to Sardinia for a meeting with Silvio Berlusconi, newly re-elected prime minister of Italy, which is emerging as one of Russia’s most important business partners, particularly in energy.
Meanwhile, Mr Miller said Gazprom was holding talks with Nigeria about participating in a $13bn (€8bn, £6.6bn) project to build a pipeline 4,000km across the Sahara linking the Niger Delta to an export terminal on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast.
Mr Putin’s visit to Libya highlighted Russia’s determination to strengthen its influence in north Africa and aggressively to pursue deals around the globe for the large, often state-owned, corporations that have emerged during his presidency.
The Russian president agreed to write off $4.5bn of debt from Libya in return for a multibillion dollar contract with Russian companies. “I am satisfied by the way we have solved the debt problem,” Mr Putin said. “I am convinced we found a scheme which will benefit both the Russian and Libyan economies and...people.”
Much of the debt was accrued from Soviet-era arms sales to Libya, when the country was a big buyer of Soviet weapons.
While little information was released Thursday on arms deals, defence officials had been quoted by Russian media before Mr Putin’s visit as saying agreements were in prospect to sell arms to Tripoli valued at up to $3bn.
Some of that was said to relate to new equipment, including anti-aircraft systems, jet fighters, helicopters and submarines, and some to modernisation of Soviet-era weaponry.
The largest single deal announced on Thursday was a €2.2bn ($3.48bn, £1.77bn) contract for the Russian railways monopoly to build a 554km line between the cities of Sirte and Benghazi.
Iran’s oil minister on Wednesday warned Royal Dutch Shell, France’s Total and Spain’s Repsol that the June deadline to sign multi-billion dollar natural gas contracts would not be extended.
“It is the last chance,” Gholam-Hossein Nozari said, reiterating he had urged officials to “finalise” the deals around mid-June on three phases of South Pars, the world’s biggest gas field.
Tehran urged the companies in October to finalise their deals by mid-2008 or lose the contracts, after they delayed investment because of soaring costs.
On the sidelines of an annual international oil, gas and petrochemicals exhibition, Mr Nozari said parliament had permitted his ministry to use 3 per cent of oil revenues, which stood at about $70bn (€44bn, £35bn) last year, for development of South Pars.
He told reporters that the phases of South Pars being discussed with Total, Shell and Repsol could be given to domestic contractors instead.
Tensions over the country’s nuclear programme and heightened US pressure on financial institutions and companies to halt business with Tehran have also undermined lucrative energy deals. Most western companies try to execute a delicate balancing act to keep their foothold in Iran while not signing big contracts that jeopardise their interests in the US.
The oil minister admitted to exhibitors that “financing is the most important and the main challenge” ahead in developing the oil sector, which he said would need $500bn of investment over the next 16 years.
Iran has recently signed multi-billion dollar gas contracts with Chinese and Malaysian companies, stressing its options in Asia and threatening westerners that the energy sector could not wait for them to make decisions on investments.
Some Iranian officials suggested Asian and other European companies could replace Total, Shell and Repsol. “We still prefer these three companies to finish their jobs, but if they keep being slow their Swiss and Austrian friends may take over,” Hossein Noghrehkar Shirazi, deputy oil minister for international affairs, told the Financial Times.
A Repsol official at the exhibition said the Spanish company was “still interested” in phases 13 and 14 of South Pars and was “making progress” in its “very productive negotiations” with Iranian authorities.
“We are expecting some progress in a very short period of time,” the official said, asking not to be named. However, he complained that financing was the most difficult part of doing business with Iran and that, as a result of sanctions, the costs of transferring money were too high.
Oil experts say such delays in contracts and financial problems as a result of sanctions have dramatically postponed development of South Pars, which was part of the reason behind a shortage of gas last winter.
Separately, Iran this week extended its one-month supply of unsubsidised petrol outside the rationing system “until later notice”. To curb over-consumption and to fend off the possibility of sanctions on petrol, Iran engineered a rationing scheme last year.
10 billion cubic metres of natural gas are set to flow from Turkmenistan into EU markets as of next year and the EU may clench a deal for Iraqi gas this week, amid growing concerns about the EU's over-dependence on Russian gas.
The Turkmenistan deal, agreed last week between the EU's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is part of a wider EU 'outreach' strategy to Central Asia and the Caspian region, home to some of the world's largest known reserves of natural gas.
With Europe's dependence on (mostly Russian) natural gas imports expected to reach 85% by 2030, the EU has been anxious to diversify its natural gas supply sources.
Turkmenistan's guarantee of 10bn cubic metres annually is "not a vast quantity" compared with the EU's total yearly gas needs of approximately 500bn cubic metres, but it is still a "very important first step," Ferrero-Waldner told the Financial Times.
Details of how the Turkmen gas will be brought to EU markets still remain foggy, however.
The EU hopes to transport the gas across the Caspian via a new mini-pipeline and to feed it into the bloc's flagship Nabucco pipeline, which runs through Turkey directly into the EU, bypassing Russian territory.
But there is opposition to the plans from other Caspian states and from Russia, an influential player in the region, which has secured its own supply contracts with Turkmenistan.
A separate 'political agreement' for Iraqi gas could also be agreed this week as part of an official visit by the country's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. While no supply quantities or specific guarantees are foreseen, the EU is keen to secure a supply of Iraqi gas for Nabucco.
Now this straight-talking Southerner is launching the biggest and most audacious project of his career. This month he will make the first down payment on 500 wind turbines at a cost of $2m each. The order is the first material step towards his goal of building the world's largest wind farm.
Over the next four years he intends to erect 2,700 turbines across 200,000 acres of the Texan panhandle. The scheme is five times bigger than the world's current record-holding wind farm and when finished will supply 4,000 megawatts of electricity - enough to power about one million homes.
It's not just the breathtaking scale of the scheme that is striking, though at a total cost of $10bn it impresses even Pickens himself: "It's pretty mind boggling," he says. The fact that Pickens, a tycoon who made his fortune in oil, has turned his attention to wind power is an indication of how the tectonic plates are moving. Until recently wind was seen as marginal and alternative; now it is being eyed by Wall Street.
"Don't get the idea that I've turned green," Pickens tells the Guardian in the Dallas offices of his new venture Mesa Power. "My business is making money, and I think this is going to make a lot of money."
His fascination with wind developed as Pickens engaged in his favourite leisure pursuit - quail hunting. For years he has been shooting Bobwhite quail on his 68,000-acre ranch in the panhandle. "I've been hunting quail for 50 years, I know where the wind is," Pickens says.
The idea formed that this area of Texas, with its wide-open space, low population and steady south-westerlies would make a perfect location for wind-generated energy. Studies proved him right - there was more wind than even he had imagined, much of it at peak times in the middle of the day when power sells at a premium.
So he set about convincing neighbouring ranchers to join his scheme, promising them between $10,000 and $20,000 in annual royalties for every turbine they allowed on their land. They have all signed up, eager to cash in on this literal windfall. (Pickens, by contrast, refuses to have any of the turbines placed on his own ranch. "They are ugly!" he says, unashamedly.)
To see exactly what the promise is to ranchers and rural communities of the new dash for wind, you have to drive four hours west of Dallas into the Texan prairies. Until a couple of years ago Sweetwater was a gently declining railroad town, its population falling year on year and its infrastructure quietly rotting. Now it is a boom town, a 21st-century equivalent of the Wild West. German wind technicians who have poured into the area have coined a name for it - the Wind West.
The three largest wind farms in America are all situated in the surrounding area, Nolan county, which, with a population of just 18,000, now produces more wind power than the UK, France and California.
While other towns in the region are struggling with plummeting house prices and job losses, Sweetwater is in the midst of a construction explosion. Two new companies opened this week, one servicing the blades of the county's 2,000 turbines, another renting out cranes used in erecting new turbines. The turbines, state of the art models 400 feet to the tip of their blades, span out for 150 miles in any direction.
New roads and houses are going up, and local schools and medical centres have been renovated using the influx of tax revenues from the energy companies. Greg Wortham, Sweetwater's mayor, says he has watched over the past two years as wind power was transformed "from a hobby - a green thing - into an industry. Suddenly it was all about welders and engineers and truckers. We have companies here begging for new workers and paying them more than the thousands being laid off by the car companies."
Back in Dallas, Pickens believes there are several reasons to invest in this new energy source. Beyond the mere profit motive, which clearly excites him, there is the fact that Texan oil has been on the wane since it peaked at 10m barrels a day in 1973, and is already down to half that amount. "Oil fields have a declining curve - you find one, it peaks and starts downhill, you've got to find another one to replace it. It drives you crazy! With wind, there's no decline."
There is also a political edge to his obsession. Politics and Pickens go together, as is obvious from the walls of his offices, lined with photographs of him with world leaders. One shows him with the Queen, Prince Philip and George HW Bush; another is with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; a third shows him on board Air Force One with the current President Bush. There is a signed calendar from Arnold Schwarzenegger on the table.
As the pictures suggest, Pickens has for many years been a major financial backer of both George Bushes, but he professes to be frustrated by the lack of action on energy by this administration and all its predecessors. "George Bush has done nothing. Nothing. Every guy that ran for president clear back to Nixon said he would make us energy independent, but not one goddamned thing has been done. Zero. The biggest problem facing the United States in the next 50 years is energy and nobody has come up with a solution."
Pickens, being Pickens, has come up with a solution - and it makes his own gargantuan plans for a wind farm in the panhandle look tiny. For the benefit of the Guardian, he draws on a white board his master scheme. He carves out an enormous corridor of land running north to south through the middle of the US - along the great plains - where he would build an army of wind farms. Then he draws an equally enormous corridor running east to west from Texas to southern California which he would similarly dedicate to solar energy.
"You need a giant plan for America. Not the pissant 83 megawatt [windfarm] deals being stamped all over the country. There needs to be a huge plan from someone with leadership. It's going to take years to do, but it has to start now." Only then, he explains, can the US stop what he regards as the madness of a flood of money flowing out of America to the oil producers of the Middle East. "That money is going God knows where - a few friends, a lot of enemies. We've got to stop it."
T Boone Pickens certainly is thinking big. And all this as he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday next month. How is it that he appears to be expanding his ambitions at a stage in life when most people are retrenching theirs? "You're getting older so you are running out of time," he says. "So let's go! We haven't got long, and we've got to get this job finished."
All petrol and diesel which is sold at UK pumps now has to include at least 2.5% biofuels.
These renewable fuels, made from crops such as sugar cane or maize, have been added to fuel sold around the country.
This target will rise to 5% by 2010. The move is aimed at making transport fuels more environmentally friendly and will not change how cars work.
But some scientists and green groups say biofuels contribute more greenhouse gases than they save.
The idea behind the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) is to reduce climate change emissions from transport - which produced more than a quarter of overall greenhouse gases in the UK - by using renewable fuels instead of fossil fuels.
But some critics say the biofuels' carbon benefits may be outweighed by negative effects from their production.
For example Oxfam said millions of indigenous people faced clearance from their land to make way for biofuel plantations such as palm oil.
The aid agency is also concerned that the switch to energy crops from food production - including a large-scale drive in the US to produce bioethanol from maize - is contributing to rising food prices.
Oxfam joined campaigners from Friends of the Earth and the RSPB for a protest outside Parliament on Monday aimed at urging the government not to go ahead with the new rules.
But Transport Minister Jim Fitzpatrick said gradually introducing biofuels could help save millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the next few years.
"The UK has done more than any other country to make sure they are produced sustainably," he said.
Mr Fitzpatrick said fuel suppliers would be required to report publicly on the sustainability of the biofuels they provide.
"We will not increase biofuels targets beyond 5% unless we are satisfied this can be done without damaging the environmental impacts," he said.
Shadow Environment Secretary Peter Ainsworth said the government's policy on biofuels was in "total disarray".
"The government has embarked on a course which endangers food security, threatens poverty, damages natural habitats and could increase climate change emissions," he said.
"It is utter madness that without proper sustainability criteria the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation threatens to destroy vast swaths of rainforest in the name of the environment."
Friends of the Earth has demanded that greenhouse gases from transport, which account for about 28% of overall emissions, be tackled by investing in better public transport and mandatory emissions limits on cars.
Friends of the Earth transport campaigner Tony Bosworth said biofuels would not help the environment.
"The government is introducing these fuels because they think it's going to help cut climate change emissions from transport, but we believe they're a false solution," he said.
"In many cases some of the biofuels which they're using won't cut carbon dioxide emissions and could indeed lead to more carbon dioxide emissions."
A survey for Friends of the Earth suggested almost nine out of 10 people did not know that renewable fuels would be required in their vehicles.
The production of biofuel is devastating huge swathes of the world's environment. So why on earth is the Government forcing us to use more of it?
From today, all petrol and diesel sold on forecourts must contain at least 2.5 per cent biofuel. The Government insists its flagship environmental policy will make Britain's 33 million vehicles greener. But a formidable coalition of campaigners is warning that, far from helping to reverse climate change, the UK's biofuel revolution will speed up global warming and the loss of vital habitat worldwide.
Amid growing evidence that massive investment in biofuels by developed countries is helping to cause a food crisis for the world's poor, the ecological cost of the push to produce billions of litres of petrol and diesel from plant sources will be highlighted today with protests across the country and growing political pressure to impose guarantees that the new technology reduces carbon emissions.
On the day when the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) comes into force, requiring oil companies to ensure all petrol and diesel they sell in the UK contains a minimum level of biofuel, campaigners condemned as "disastrous" the absence of any standards requiring producers to prove their biofuel is not the product of highly damaging agricultural practices responsible for destroying rainforests, peatlands and wildlife-rich savannahs or grasslands from Indonesia to sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.
A study by the RSPB published today criticises the introduction of the RTFO as "over-hasty" and "utter folly". The conservation body said there is already widespread evidence that biofuel production is destroying vast areas of unspoilt habitat and has made at least one species extinct.
Demonstrators will gather outside Downing Street and other locations including Aberdeen, Bristol, Manchester and Norwich to protest at the "perverse obstinacy" of the Government in going ahead with the RTFO and will call for its abandonment until the impact of biofuel production can be properly assessed.
Graham Wynne, chief executive of the RSPB, said: "The volume of biofuel that can be genuinely described as sustainable is at present very small indeed and is nowhere near enough to warrant the 2.5 per cent obligation. The impacts of biofuel production on forests and wetlands are already being seen worldwide. It is a tragedy that customers' money is going to be spent on driving this destruction."
The World Bank and the UN have, in recent days, expressed concern about the impact of biofuels on world food prices, sparking riots from Haiti to the Philippines. Gordon Brown, who has put the issue on the agenda at the forthcoming G8 summit, has also voiced concerns at EU level about deforestation and loss of habitats caused by biofuel production. And Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, raised the issue at the weekend's G7 meeting in Washington.
But ministers insisted that the RTFO, which will require Britain to produce or import up to 2.5 billion litres of biofuel each year, puts the UK at the forefront of efforts to make the industry sustainable by demanding that suppliers provide reports on where their green petrol and diesel comes from as well as the expected carbon savings.
The Department for Transport estimates 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be saved by 2010. The proportion of biofuel will rise to 5 per cent by 2010 in the UK and there is a proposed EU-wide target of 10 per cent by 2020.
Jim Fitzpatrick, the Transport minister, said: "Making it easier for motorists to use greener fuel is an important step towards reducing carbon emissions from transport. It should help save millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the coming years."
For motorists, there will be no discernible difference at the petrol pump. Bio-diesel, largely sourced from processed palm oil, soya beans and rape seed, and bio-ethanol for petrol, produced from cereals and sugars, are simply mixed with fossil fuels.
But environmentalists insist the projected carbon dioxide savings are based on a false premise because the clearance of huge areas of Indonesian rainforest and peatland or South American savannahs, the use of fertiliser to grow crops, conversion into biofuel and transportation to petrol stations mean emissions caused by the manufacturing of the fuels can vastly outweigh any CO2 saved once put in a car's tank.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota published a study in February this year which found that growing biofuel crops on converted rainforests, grasslands or peat bogs created up to 420 times more CO2 than it saved.
Campaigners have pointed to palm oil, one of the key biofuel crops, as a particular menace because many plantations across south-east Asia are based on reclaimed forest and peatland, creating carbon emissions that can never be reclaimed by biofuel production. In South America, the Alagoas curassow, a large bird once found in north-eastern Brazil, has become extinct because sugar cane production wiped out its habitat.
The RSPB study, entitled A Cool Approach to Biofuels, points out that legally enforceable standards designed to eliminate such crops from the RTFO will not be imposed until 2011, leaving a three-year gap for non-sustainable biofuel to flood into Britain.
Mr Wynne said: "Proof that biofuels were truly green should have been in place long before the RTFO came into force. The method of production of some biofuel will cause habitat loss, displace food production and emit more greenhouse gases than are being saved."
Campaigners are calling for a legally binding target to ensure all biofuels save at least 60 per cent more carbon than they produce.
In the meantime, they point to a loophole in the RTFO which means that suppliers can answer "don't know" to a question about the previous use of the land that produced the biofuel.
Tesco, which has claimed all its biodiesel comes from rapeseed and soya, was forced to admit palm oil can make up a significant part of its product after a sample analysed was found to contain 30 per cent palm oil.
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said: "Thanks to flaws in the Government's system, companies selling these fuels will even be allowed to get away with saying that they don't know whether they've been sourced sustainably or not. This makes a mockery of the entire idea of sustainability standards."
How sustainable the production of green energy sources can be is key to the climate debate. Politicians Ruth Kelly and Peter Ainsworth debate the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation
Our cars and other forms of transport are the third-largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK and the only one likely to have increased by 2020. Any serious attempt to tackle climate change requires us to dramatically step up our efforts to reduce these emissions. So a clean, renewable energy that can be mixed with fossil fuels to power our cars has great attraction.
This is exactly what supporters of biofuels believe they offer. They say they are one of the few existing, feasible ways of slowing the growth of carbon emissions from transport. They point as well to their advantages in reducing dependency on imported fossil fuels at the same time as providing opportunities for developing countries to grow and refine the "green" energy source.
These arguments and the evidence that supports them have convinced many countries to promote their production and led the government to take cautious steps to encourage their use through the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation. The RTFO, which comes into force tomorrow, requires 2.5% of the fuel sold on garage forecourts to come from renewable sources, a figure set to rise to 5% after two years.
But the government also recognises increasing concern about biofuels. Critics say there is very little "green" about them; in their view, savings of greenhouse gases have been exaggerated, if not invented. They warn that the dash to grow palm oil, sugar cane and other crops from which biofuels are made is leading to widespread destruction of forests and wildlife habitats around the world - and worsening food shortages as farmland is switched to industrial crops. This is something that must be examined closely. As Alistair Darling outlined at the weekend, the government has asked the World Bank to look into food markets and the impact of subsidies in time for the next G7 meeting in June.
These concerns have led to demands for the government to scrap or postpone the introduction of the RTFO. The critics also have in their sights the European commission's proposed target of increasing the use of biofuels across the EU to 10% by 2020. But I am not convinced postponing the RTFO is the way forward. Not because the government dismisses concerns over biofuels, but because we took these concerns into account when drawing up our proposals.
The government has consistently stressed that biofuels are only worth supporting if they deliver genuine environmental benefits. We require suppliers to report on the impact of their biofuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability. The Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) will collect these reports - shaming poor performers, encouraging best practice and enabling us to monitor the impact of our policy.
I have also asked the RFA to lead a review into the wider indirect impact of biofuels, and to report in the summer. If we need to adjust policy in the light of new evidence, we will. We have kept up our demands internationally to ensure sustainable development of biofuels, and have made clear that we won't agree any increase in the European biofuels target until these demands are satisfied.
The expert consensus is that the best biofuels can deliver significant greenhouse gas savings. We need to encourage this type of biofuel, and discourage those that offer little or no savings and whose production can have a negative social and environmental impact.
Postponing the RFTO would not help this process or prevent other countries pressing ahead with unsustainable biofuels. It would put an end to investment in new clean, low-carbon biofuel production facilities in the UK, and could weaken our influence over the direction of EU policy in this area.
Ruth Kelly is the secretary of state for transport
Tomorrow sees the introduction of the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), one of the government's alarmingly few "flagship" environmental policies. When it devised the plan, which requires the addition of a proportion of biofuel to the traditional fossil version we put in our tanks, ministers presumably thought they were on to something both green and popular. How disappointing, then, that instead of a bouquet of organically grown blooms from the environmental movement, all they are getting is a sustained and bellicose raspberry. The RSPB has branded the scheme "utter folly" and demonstrations have been planned outside No 10 and across the UK.
But the government was warned. It could have listened to The Archers, because Ambridge has been playing out many of the local aspects of the biofuels dilemma for weeks. Or it might have listened more carefully last autumn, when Conservatives voted against the obligation on the grounds that the targets coming into force make no distinction between sustainably produced biofuels and those that will hasten climate change, deepen poverty, endanger food security, and threaten habitats and species with extinction.
The idea of destroying vast swaths of rainforest in the name of the environment will strike most people as insane. Yet that is exactly what is happening; institutionalised demand for biofuels is causing major land-use change, damaging biodiversity and undermining the earth's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. In our small, incompetent and well-meaning way, our country is contributing to biofuel madness.
Under the terms of the RTFO, about 2.5bn litres of biofuel will be needed every year to meet the government's target. In the absence of sustainability criteria, the inescapable consequence is that the RTFO will simply suck in imports from plantations that contribute to carbon emissions and the destruction of habitats. There is worrying evidence that existing biofuel programmes are already doing significant harm, especially in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil. Indeed, the UN has estimated that virtually all Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests will be destroyed by 2022 as a result of clearances for palm cultivation, which is the world's number one source of biofuel. Voices from within the UN have also expressed concern about "biofuel refugees", highlighting the forced dispersal of indigenous people and the human rights implications of the policy.
It is disturbing that our government appears to be completely in the dark over the source and volume of current imports of biofuels. It confesses to being unaware of whether imports are causing damage. It is this kind of casual ignorance that informs the approach to the rapid expansion of biofuel use. We have heard a lot from this government about evidence-based policy-making; but what we are looking at is ignorance-based policy-making. It could be a first.
There is a case for biofuels. Fuels derived from sustainably grown crops have the potential to make real savings in greenhouse gas emissions while providing farmers with new markets.
We need an ambitious, forward-looking policy to encourage investment in the next generation of biofuels, and a government prepared to drive the market not just for sustainable biofuels, but for green technology across the board.
All that accompanies the RTFO today is a "reporting requirement". The earliest the government hopes to have sustainability standards in place is 2011, by which time over 5bn litres of biofuel will have been sold in the UK. And we will have to live with the knowledge that we played a small but nonetheless shabby part in the extinction of the orang-utan.
Peter Ainsworth is shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs
Rocketing global food prices are causing acute problems of hunger and malnutrition in poor countries and have put back the fight against poverty by seven years, the World Bank said yesterday.
Robert Zoellick, the Bank's president, called on rich countries to commit an extra $500m (£250m) immediately to the World Food Programme, and sign up to what he called a "New Deal for global food policy".
Zoellick said: "In the US and Europe over the last year we have been focusing on the prices of gasoline at the pumps. While many worry about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs. And it's getting more and more difficult every day."
He said the price of wheat had risen by 120% in the past year, more than doubling the cost of a loaf of bread. Rice prices were up by 75% in just two months. On average, the Bank calculates that food prices have risen by 83% in the past three years.
"In Bangladesh a 2kg bag of rice now consumes almost half of the daily income of a poor family. With little margin for survival, rising prices too often means fewer meals," he said. Poor people in Yemen were now spending more than a quarter of their income on bread. "This is not just about meals forgone today, or about increasing social unrest, it is about lost learning potential for children and adults in the future, stunted intellectual and physical growth. Even more, we estimate that the effect of this food crisis on poverty reduction worldwide is in the order of seven lost years."
The Bank's analysis chimes with research from the International Monetary Fund which shows that Africa will be the hardest hit continent from rising food prices. More than 20 African countries will see their trade balance worsen by more than 1% of GDP through having to pay more for food.
Gordon Brown, the prime minister, has written to his Japanese counterpart, Yasuo Fukuda, who is chairman of the G8 industrialised countries, calling for a "fully-co-ordinated response" to the food crisis.
Zoellick welcomed Brown's initiative, and said this weekend's meetings of the World Bank and the IMF had to do more than simply identify the scale of the crisis.
"This is about recognising a growing emergency, acting and seizing opportunity too. The world can do this. We can do this," he said. "We cannot be satisfied with studies, and papers, and talk." As well as the $500m contribution to the World Food Programme, there should be an expansion in safety-net programmes for poor communities. Zoellick also called for a boost to long-term financial support to aid production. "We must make agriculture a priority."
The Bank plans to double its loans to agriculture projects in developing countries in 2008, to $800m.
Riots have broken out in several countries, including Mexico and India, as a response to the rapid rise in the cost of basic foodstuffs over the past 12 months. A number of governments have imposed export bans on commodities, to try to bring prices under control. Zoellick warned against such protectionist responses.
He was also critical of the dash to grow crops for biofuels. The US and EU have encouraged wider use of such fuels to try to tackle climate change and provide an alternative to oil, but the policy has sometimes diverted agricultural land away from food and exacerbated price rises.
Zoellick criticised the subsidies and import tariffs used to promote wider use of the fuels.
Liz Stuart, spokeswoman for Oxfam, said: "Europe and the US must stop adding fuel to fire by increasing crop production for biofuels. These have dubious environment benefits, and by driving up prices, are crippling the lives of the poor."
Rice prices hit the $1,000-a-tonne level for the first time on Thursday as panicking importers scrambled to secure supplies, exacerbating the tightness already provoked by export restrictions in Vietnam, India, Egypt, China and Cambodia.
The jump came as the Philippines, the largest rice importer, failed for the fourth time to secure as much rice as it wanted.
The unsuccessful tender followed Bangladesh’s inability to buy any rice at all this week.
Traders and analysts warned that rice demand was escalating in spite of prices rising to three times the level of a year ago as countries try to build up stocks.
Vichai Sriprasert, president of Riceland International, a leading rice exporter in Bangkok, said several of its customers, including governments, were buying far more than they usually did amid fears about scarcity.
“It is panic,” he said. “My customers are demanding double the usual volume. We would not have enough supplies for all the demand we are facing.”
Michael Whitehead, a rice specialist at Rabobank in New York, added: “The potentially destabilising social effect of rice shortages in most high-consumption countries has strengthened the resolve of governments to build supply.”
Rising rice prices have triggered riots in the past month in countries such as Haiti, Bangladesh and Ivory Coast. Rice is considered the most political agricultural commodity as it is a staple for about 3bn people in poor countries in Asia and Africa.
Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Sri Lanka’s central bank governor, told the Financial Times that the rise in food prices was “definitely” a bigger problem for Asia than the ongoing credit crunch.
“Food is something which without we cannot live,” he said. “Social consequences could be very adverse.”
In an effort to maintain social peace through low local prices, governments have stepped up their purchases.
Manila’s rice tender on Thursday received offers for only 325,000 tonnes, a third below the government’s target. It faced record prices, with the average offer at $1,046 a tonne, up 47 per cent from March. Some of the offers hit $1,220 a tonne.
That strength boosted indicative quotes for Thai medium-quality rice, the global benchmark, to a range of $950-$1,000 a tonne, traders said. In Chicago, US rice futures hit an all-time high of $23.3 per 100 pounds.
But Anthony Lam, of Golden Resources, the largest rice wholesaler in Hong Kong, said prices were near their peak. “There is now no big natural disaster to raise it further.”
World leaders on Sunday called for urgent action to tackle soaring global food prices, while promising to quickly implement measures to strengthen the international financial system and prevent a repeat of the credit crisis.
The call for a global effort to deal with both the immediate food crisis in the developing world and the longer-term challenge of ensuring adequate food supplies came on the final day of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund spring meetings in Washington.
Earlier, the Group of Seven industrialised nations and the IMF governing council made up of global finance ministers and central bank governors endorsed a 65-point plan to reform the global financial market.
The G7 also expressed fresh concern about “sharp fluctuations in major currencies” which it said potentially threatened financial and economic stability.
The plan, drawn up by the Financial Stability Forum, involves raising the amount of capital banks have to hold if they want to invest in complex credit securities, hold these assets in their trading portfolios or support off-balance sheet investment vehicles. It also includes new disclosure requirements for banks, reforms to credit rating agencies, guidance on liquidity management and the creation of a “college of supervisors” from different countries to monitor banks.
Policymakers discussed the crisis and the FSF plan with leading private sector bankers in Washington on Friday. But European officials emphasised that governments were willing, if necessary, to take steps the private sector did not support.
Wall Street bankers rejected the G7 call to raise more capital, saying they were opposed to selling shares at the current depressed prices.
World leaders said they would implement the FSF plan in a co-ordinated manner to a strict timetable. But there was no co-ordinated action plan for tackling the current credit crisis. The G7 made it clear it expected national authorities to take the lead in combating economic risks.
Ministers rejected the IMF’s call for globally co-ordinated public intervention to tackle the problems in the financial system directly as a “third line of defence” against the credit crisis.
However, Angel Gurría, the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, told the Financial Times he believed public intervention would be necessary to “kick-start” global markets.
The high-level economic meetings ended up putting as much weight on the global food crisis as the credit crisis. Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s finance minister, told his colleagues rising food prices were causing severe problems.
Leaders agreed on Sunday to support a World Bank “New Deal” for food and called on donors to provide $500m in funding for short-term relief.
Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, welcomed calls from Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, and Susilo Yudhoyono, president of Indonesia, to make the “global food crisis” the top priority of the next Group of Eight meeting in Tokyo.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, IMF managing director, warned of “terrible” consequences if food prices continued to rise.
Mr Zoellick said countries had committed only about half of the $500m in aid called for by the world food programme and that more was needed. Mr Zoellick and Mr Strauss-Kahn said more work should be done on possible links between biofuel crops and food prices.
The Philippines, the world's largest rice importer, is urging China, Japan and other Asian nations to convene an emergency meeting on the region's food crisis to try and reverse export curbs that have driven prices to a record.
"Free trade should be flowing," Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said yesterday. "We'd like to take up also the export bans being imposed by several countries."
The meeting may be arranged within two months.
Grain prices including rice, staple food for half the world, have surged this year on shortage concerns, prompting some growers to impose export restrictions. The gains in prices are stoking unrest and fanning inflation, world finance ministers said over the weekend.
China, Egypt, Vietnam and India, representing more than a third of global rice exports, have curbed sales this year, and Indonesia says it may do the same.
Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, meanwhile, said he does not expect the food riots that have erupted in other countries to occur in the Philippines.
"We don't see any immediate threats caused by this rice crisis or otherwise," Teodoro said.
Rising food costs have sparked violent protests in Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Madagascar and Mauritania.
In Pakistan and Thailand, troops have been deployed to avoid the seizure of food from fields and warehouses, while price increases fueled a general strike in Burkina Faso.
In Bangladesh, 50 people were hurt when workers rioted over food costs.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has said 37 countries may be facing a food crisis. More people in Singapore, Southeast Asia's wealthiest economy, are joining the queue for free meals. Thirty percent more are turning up daily at a free vegetarian meal temple and 10 percent more elderly citizens go to a senior care center. An official said those who show up come from all walks of life. French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier said governments must take action to regulate surging food prices and stop them being driven by speculative forces. "We cannot, and we must not leave food for people to the mercy of the rule of the market alone and to international speculation," he said. Jean Ziegler, UN special rapporteur for the right to food, said massive production of biofuels is "a crime against humanity" because of its impact on food prices. He said the IMF should change its policies on agricultural subsidies and stop supporting only programs aimed at debt reduction. Nihon Shokuhin Kako, Japan's largest buyer of corn for use in food, is importing genetically modified supplies as prices deter gene-pure purchases. AGENCIES
The global agriculture system will have to change radically if the world is to avoid future environmental and social problems, a report has warned.
The study, commissioned by the UN and World Bank, concluded that while recent advances had increased food production, the benefits were spread unevenly.
It said that 850 million people were still not getting enough food to eat.
The authors added that food prices would remain volatile as a result of rising populations and biofuel growth.
The findings were published by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an intergovernmental body that involved more than 400 scientists and 30 governments.
"We tried to assess the implications of agricultural knowledge, science and technology both past, present and future on a series of very critical issues," explained IAASTD director Robert Watson.
"These issues are hunger and poverty; rural livelihoods; nutrition and human health.
"The key point is how do we address these issues in a way that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable?"
'Need for reform'
Speaking at the launch of the final report in London, Professor Watson said advances over the past 50 years had seen total food production grow faster than the human population had increased.
"The price of food, in real terms, has also gone down. Even today, many food commodities are comparable to the early 1990s; so what's the problem?
"Well, we still have over 800 million people going to bed hungry every night. There have been some successes but if we look at it on a region-by-region basis, there have been uneven results."
He added that the study identified other consequences: "We have lost some of our environmental sustainability.
"There have been adverse effects in some parts of the world on soils, water, biodiversity; our agricultural systems have contributed to human-induced climate change and, in turn, human-induced climate change threatens agricultural productivity."
IAASTD co-chairman Dr Hans Herren said "contentious political and economic stances" were affecting attempts to address some of the imbalances.
"Specifically, this refers to the many OECD member countries who are deeply opposed to any changes in trade regimes or subsidy systems," he stated.
"Without reforms, many poorer countries will have a very hard time."
Food for thought
The authors projected that the global demand for food was set to double in the next 25-50 years, primarily in developing nations.
As a result, they said that it was necessary for the agricultural sector to grow, but in a way that did not result in social hardship or environmental degradation.
As well as looking at the global picture, the IAASTD also examined the situation in different regions:
- Central/West Asia and North Africa: unique agricultural biodiversity is beginning to disappear. Likely to suffer the consequences of limited water supplies and climate change
- East/South Asia and the Pacific: development in the region is increasing pollution levels. Climate change is likely to trigger large-scale migration
- Latin America and the Caribbean: increased yield from agriculture has not led to a significant decrease in poverty. Food imports have created dependence and disruption to local production
- Sub-Saharan Africa: agriculture accounts for about 32% of the region's GDP, yet 80% of arable land is experiencing water scarcity
- North America and Europe: private sector funding has affected the direction of agricultural research and has increased the influence of transnational companies
The study found that access to food was taken for granted in many nations, and farmers and farm workers were poorly rewarded for acting as stewards of almost one-third of the Earth's land.
It recommended a fundamental rethink of agricultural knowledge, science and technology, in order to achieve a sustainable global food system.
The experts said that efforts should focus on the needs of small-scale farmers in diverse ecosystems, and areas with the greatest needs.
Measures would include giving farmers better access to knowledge, technology and credit. It would also require investment to bring the necessary information and infrastructure to rural areas.
Professor Watson outlined some of the challenges facing the sector over the coming 50 years: "We need to enhance rural livelihoods where most of the poor live on one or two dollars a day.
"We also need to stimulate economic growth because half of the countries in Africa have a significant percentage of their GDP in the agricultural sector.
"At the same time, we need to meet food safety standards and make sure that we do not have pesticide residues, unacceptable levels of hormones or heavy metals.
"All of this must be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner."
He warned that agriculture could no longer be approached as a single issue.
"We need to consider the environmental issues of biodiversity and water; the economic issues of marketing and trade, and the social concerns of gender and culture.
"How do we pay farmers to not only produce food, but to value the environmental services?
"Agriculture is far more than just production of food, and that is what we have to recognise."
Sixty countries backed by the World Bank and most UN bodies yesterday called for radical changes in world farming to avert increasing regional food shortages, escalating prices and growing environmental problems.
But in a move that has led to the US, UK, Australia and Canada not yet endorsing the report, the authors said GM technology was not a quick fix to feed the world's poor and argued that growing biofuel crops for automobiles threatened to increase worldwide malnutrition.
The report was issued as the UN's World Food Programme called for rich countries to contribute $500m (£255m) to immediately address a growing global food crisis which has seen staple food price rises of up to 80% in some countries, and food riots in many cities. According to the World Bank, 33 countries are now in danger of political destabilisation and internal conflict following food price inflation.
The authors of the 2,500-page International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development [IAASTD] say the world produces enough food for everyone, yet more than 800 million people go hungry. "Food is cheaper and diets are better than 40 years ago, but malnutrition and food insecurity threaten millions," they write. "Rising populations and incomes will intensify food demand, especially for meat and milk which will compete for land with crops, as will biofuels. The unequal distribution of food and conflict over control of the world's dwindling natural resources presents a major political and social challenge to governments, likely to reach crisis status as climate change advances and world population expands from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050."
Robert Watson, director of IAASTD and chief scientist at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "Business as usual will hurt the poor. It will not work. We have to applaud global increases in food production but not everyone has benefited. We have not succeeded globally. In some parts of India 50% of children are still malnourished. That is not success."
Watson said governments and industry focused too narrowly on increasing food production, with little regard for natural resources or food security. "Continuing with current trends would mean the earth's haves and have-nots splitting further apart," he said. " It would leave us facing a world nobody would want to inhabit. We have to make food more affordable and nutritious without degrading the land."
The report - the first significant attempt to involve governments, NGOs and industries from rich and poor countries - took 400 scientists four years to complete. The present system of food production and the way food is traded around the world, the authors concluded, has led to a highly unequal distribution of benefits and serious adverse ecological effects and was now contributing to climate change.
The authors say science and technology should be targeted towards raising yields but also protecting soils, water and forests. "Investment in agricultural science has decreased yet we urgently need sustainable ways to produce food. Incentives for science to address the issues that matter to the poor are weak," said Watson.
The GM industry, which helped fund the report, together with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the British and US governments, abandoned talks last year after heated debate.
The scientists said they saw little role for GM, as it is currently practised, in feeding the poor on a large scale . "Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable," said the report.
"The short answer to whether transgenic crops can feed the world is 'no'. But they could contribute. We must understand their costs and benefits," said Watson yesterday.
The authors also warned that the global rush to biofuels was not sustainable. "The diversion of crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce our ability to alleviate hunger. The negative social effects risk being exacerbated in cases where small-scale farmers are marginalised or displaced form their land," they said.
Responding to the report, a group of eight international environment and consumer groups, including Third World Network, Practical Action, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, said in a statement: "This is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the needs of communities."
Lim Li Chung, of Third World Network in Malaysia, said: "It clearly shows that small-scale farmers and the environment lose under trade liberalisation. Developing countries must exercise their right to stop the flood of cheap subsidised products from the north."
Guilhem Calvo, an adviser with the ecological and earth sciences division of Unesco, one of the report's sponsors, said at a news conference in Paris: "We must develop agriculture that is less dependent on fossil fuels, favours the use of locally available resources and explores the use of natural processes such as crop rotation and use of organic fertilisers."
At a glance
Bio-energy The report says biofuels compete for land and water with food crops and are inefficient. They can cause deforestation and damage soils and water.
Biotechnology The use of GM crops, where the technology is not contained, is contentious, the UN says. Data on some crops indicate highly variable yield gains in some places and declines in others.
Climate change While modest temperature rises may increase food yields in some areas, a general warming risks damaging all regions of the globe. There will be serious potential for conflict over habitable land.
Trade and markets
Subsidies distort the use of resources and benefit industrialised nations at the expense of developing countries.
A proposal by President George W. Bush to halt the growth of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 met a cool response from other governments on Thursday.
The proposal, made on Wednesday before two days of US-led talks in Paris on climate change, fell far short of what other governments have demanded as a response to scientific warnings on global warming.
The reaction dimmed prospects for progress at the Paris talks, and at later United Nations negotiations.
Germany slammed the proposal, which would allow emissions from the US to continue to rise until 2025. The environment minister’s office issued a statement describing the speech as “neanderthal” and demonstrating “not leadership but losership”. France said the target was “a bit late”.
The European Commission took a more measured approach, saying the White House target did “not match the level of ambition needed on the part of developed countries, considering their responsibilities in the challenge we face”. The Commission’s plan is to cut emissions in the European Union by 20 per cent by 2020.
Privately, officials involved in the international climate change negotiations said they were startled by the weakness of the US proposal. Mr Bush launched a series of meetings of the world’s biggest emitting countries last year with much fanfare – pledging to reach an agreement on how far to cut global emissions.
Talks had focused on proposals to halve emissions by 2050 – a goal that has the broad support of the EU, Japan and other developed countries. But Mr Bush’s proposal to set 2025 as the date for halting the growth of emissions would render such a target nearly impossible to meet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found last year that worldwide emissions should peak between 2015 and 2020 if irreversible damage was to be avoided.
The White House said it was not surprised by the negative reaction. It hinted at the fierce debate in the US between those who favour a more aggressive approach and climate-change sceptics, concentrated in the Republican party, who want Mr Bush to do little or nothing.
“Slings and arrows would have been thrown yesterday – no matter what we said. That’s the nature of the debate on climate change,” said Tony Fratto, White House spokesman.
Jim Connaughton, the chief White House adviser on environmental affairs, acknowledged that the US target fell short of those set by other countries, but questioned whether the EU’s goal was achievable. “There are a number of proposals around the world for very, very aggressive targets, but nobody can explain to you how you get from here to there,” he said. “If you don’t have the technologies to meet the target, the target is no good.”
Mr Bush also had domestic reasons for making his speech. The Democratic party-led Congress is pushing a range of measures to tackle global warming – most of them unacceptable to the White House. Critics said Mr Bush’s 2025 target was designed in part to head off a Senate proposal to halt emissions growth by 2012.
The Stern report on climate change underestimated the risks of global warming, its author said on Wednesday, and should have presented a gloomier view of the future.
“We underestimated the risks ... we underestimated the damage associated with temperature increases ... and we underestimated the probabilities of temperature increases,” Lord Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, told the Financial Times on Wednesday.
The Stern report on climate change underestimated the risks of global warming, according to its author, Lord Stern, and should have presented a gloomier view of the future In retrospect, he said, he would have taken a much stronger view in the report on the drastic changes that would come about if greenhouse gas emissions were not abated.
In the report, he estimated the costs of climate change at between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of global gross domestic product.
But these costs would be much higher if the report had taken a more aggressive stance on the probable consequences of warming.
Lord Stern said data published since his report came out, in October 2006, had led him to change his mind.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of the world’s leading climate scientists convened by the United Nations, published the most comprehensive study of climate change science.
It predicted a temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius within the next 100 years with catastrophic consequences for the planet, unless greenhouse gas emissions were stabilised and then cut within the next decade.
“The damage risks are bigger than I would have argued. Things like the damage associated with a 5 degree temperature increase are enormous. We can’t be precise about what it would be like but you can say it would be a transformation,” he said.
But he defended his estimates of the cost of taking action on emissions, which he put in the report at about 1 per cent of global GDP.
“Subsequent reports, [from] McKinsey, the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have pointed to the [Stern report’s] costs of action being roughly in the right ball park. Nothing [since] has led me to revise the cost of action,” he said.
“I probably would have emphasised the importance of good policy [if writing the report again today] and how bad policy puts up the costs [of cutting emissions],” he added.
Lord Stern has come under attack from economists and climate change sceptics since his report, which some sceptics regard as scaremongering.
Some argued that he underestimated the cost of taking action to cut emissions and overestimated the benefits to future generations.
Following the publication of his report, Lord Stern visited dozens of governments around the world to persuade them of the need to cut emissions and the low cost of doing so.
His report has formed a key part of discussions on climate change policy, including the UN-led negotiations last December in Bali at which a timetable was drawn up for two years of negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto protocol.
The government said yesterday it had brokered a deal with Britain's big six energy suppliers under which the companies will increase spending on fuel poverty by £225m over the next three years.
John Hutton, business and enterprise secretary, said the money could take 100,000 households out of fuel poverty but campaigners dismissed the initiative as "scratching the surface" of the issue.
The big six energy companies - British Gas, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), ScottishPower, E.ON, npower, and EDF - already spend £50m a year on social assistance. In the budget last month the chancellor, Alistair Darling, said he wanted to see that figure rise to £150m a year and that he was prepared to legislate if necessary.
Hutton said agreement was reached in one-to-one talks with the energy suppliers to raise their spending this year to £100m, then to £125m in 2009-10 and hit the chancellor's £150m target in 2010-11.
"This is a significant boost to the billions already spent by government and the energy companies, and means we can now get this vital extra support to the people who really need it in time for the coldest months this coming winter."
"I do not underestimate the difficulties and anxiety that rising energy prices can cause but I believe this extra cash, coupled with ensuring we have the most competitive energy market possible, will help towards our goal of eradicating fuel poverty," he said.
Ann Robinson, of the comparison website uSwitch, said recent rises in domestic energy prices had pushed an extra 500,000 households into fuel poverty, which is defined as having to spend at least 10% of incomes on energy bills.
While the new money was welcome, she said: "If it is spread across the whole 4.5m households in fuel poverty, it would amount to less than £18 a year, which is a drop in the ocean when consumers are facing average fuel bills of £1,048 a year."
Help the Aged, which this week joined Friends of the Earth to launch a legal action to ensure the government keeps to its fuel poverty pledges, also warned the new money was not enough.
Kate Jopling, the charity's head of public affairs, said: "While it is promising that the government and energy providers are working together to try to alleviate fuel poverty, this initiative will only just begin to scratch the surface. The government cannot shirk its own responsibility to tackle this serious and growing problem. It must stop relying on 'quick wins' to resolve a long-term problem."
Ian Marchant, chief executive of SSE, said: "The single biggest contribution energy suppliers can make to preventing fuel poverty is to keep prices as low as possible for as long as possible. SSE will maintain its long established responsible pricing policy: we will seek to be the last, or one of the last, of the major suppliers to increase prices if we have to and the first, or one of the first, to cut prices if we can.
"The next biggest contribution which suppliers can make is to ensure social tariffs are genuine. Vulnerable customers need the lowest prices available, not simply a tariff labelled 'social'."
Japan has blocked a bid by a British hedge fund to increase its stake in the country's biggest power wholesaler - citing national security legislation.
The London-based Children's Investment Fund wanted to up its 9.9% holding in Electric Power Development Company - or J-Power - to about 20%.
But Japan's finance and trade ministers "recommended" that the proposed move should be abandoned.
It was the first time the law had been used to refuse foreign investment.
Under the legislation, overseas investors must get government approval before building a stake of 10% or more in a firm considered important for national security and maintaining public order.
Allowing the fund to raise its stake in J-Power would have "a negative impact on stable supply of electricity and our national policies on nuclear power," the ministers said.
But the head of the investment fund's Asian operations, John Ho, said that the decision would have "profound implications for the Japanese energy sector".
"The ability to attract investment into the sector in the long term is now severely curtailed," he said.
"Japanese assets will also be undervalued because legitimate capital has been turned away."
However, the Japanese government insisted that foreign investment would be unaffected.
"There is no room at all for the argument that Japan is closed," a spokesman said.
"It is something that any country is doing in a very limited manner in areas that concern national security such as electric power, nuclear power generation and power supply."
Britain’s first hydrogen fuel station will open tomorrow in the first stage of a technology revolution offering drivers the prospect of pollution-free motoring.
Another three hydrogen stations are planned for London and there will be at least twelve stations countrywide by 2010, paving the way for the commercial production of cars powered by fuel cells.
For more than a decade, the car industry has seen the fuel cell as the holy grail that will help to relieve it of its dependence on oil.
A fuel cell combines hydrogen from a tank with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, which powers an electric motor. The only byproduct is water and the whole process can be totally without carbon dioxide emissions.
Manufacturers have displayed dozens of fuel-cell concept cars but have been reluctant to put them into mass production without an infrastructure to support them.
The first station will open at Birmingham University, which is conducting trials with a fleet of five fuel-cell vehicles.
Professor Kevin Kendall, head of the research team, said: “It is absolutely necessary that we have the means to refuel our fleet of hydrogen-powered cars so that we can carry out our research project into the feasibility of hydrogen in a transport context.”
Air Products, the company that installed the fuel station, is also working with Transport for London (TfL) to build fuel stations for a fleet of 70 hydrogen-powered vehicles being introduced from next year. Ian Williamson, of Air Products, said: “The Japanese are by far the most advanced in developing hydrogen-powered cars. The US car companies are trying to catch up.” Honda will offer the FCX Clarity from this summer, the first fuel-cell car to be produced commercially, to drivers in California. Mer-cedes plans to start mass-producing fuel-cell cars in 2014 and BMW has a test fleet of hydrogen combustion cars.
TfL’s vehicles will be a mixture of buses, vans, cars and motorcycles that will be used by TfL staff, the police and the fire brigade.
The five-year trial of both fuel cells and hydrogen combustion engines will cost around £22 million.
London’s first hydrogen station will open next year at a bus garage in East London.
Edmund King, the president of the AA, said: “Images of the burning Hindenburg airship could undermine confidence in carrying hydrogen tanks.”
Mr Williamson said: “Hydrogen needs to be treated with respect. It is significantly more volatile [than conventional fuel]. But the safety criteria we apply mean you end up with a very safe system.”
The debate about hydrogen normally focuses on short term obstacles such as the cost of fuel cells or the lack of a fuel distribution infrastructure. But the real issue is how to produce enough of the fuel itself.
Most hydrogen today is stripped out of natural gas, a process which emits carbon dioxide – rather defeating the climate claims of the proponents of the so-called hydrogen economy. To produce the gas cleanly and in bulk you must electrolyze water, which requires huge amounts of power. (To give an idea of scale, two chlorine plants operated in Cheshire by Ineos Chlor, which produce the chemical by electrolyzing salt water, consume more electricity than the entire city of Liverpool).
Then, to reduce the hydrogen gas to a manageable volume, it must either be chilled to -160C to become liquid, or must be compressed, both of which processes require more energy.
Because of all this, to run Britain’s road transport on cleanly generated hydrogen would require a massive expansion of electricity generating capacity: 42 Sizewell B nuclear power stations (we currently have the equivalent of 10); solar panels covering every inch of Lincolnshire; or a wind farm covering the either northwest region of England. You would be much better off developing electric vehicles, where the energy losses between wind turbine and tarmac are massively smaller. It is mystifying therefore that so many apparently intelligent people remain transfixed by the hydrogen mirage.
David Strahan is a trustee of ODAC, and the author of The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man, John Murray, 2007 - now also available in mass market paperback
Thailand is expected to produce 800,000 units of energy-efficient eco-cars by 2015, likely including those of Germany's Volkswagen, which is reportedly moving a planned investment from Malaysia, industry executives say.
Vallop Tiasiri, president of the Thailand Automotive Institute, said that seven eco-car projects, six of which have been approved by the Board of Investment (BoI), were targeted to come onstream by 2015.
By then, about 800,000 units of the small cars would be produced in Thailand, of which 600,000 would be exported.
The BoI to date has approved eco-car investment proposals by Honda, Suzuki and Nissan of Japan for annual production of about 120,000 units each. Early this month the agency also approved plans for about 100,000 units a year each by Mitsubishi, which aims to export 80% of its output, India's Tata Motors and Toyota of Japan.
Volkswagen, which produces a type of eco-car in Germany, had also confirmed its intention to produce the small car in Thailand with a total investment of 27 billion baht. However, its final manufacturing plan had yet to reach the BoI, according to Mr Vallop.
''Volkswagen has been looking to have a manufacturing base in Asean in addition to the company's huge production in China,'' he said.
The German carmaker is considering Thailand after failing to form a partnership with Proton, the Malaysian national car company, he added.
So far, none of the eco-car developers has confirmed when the first units would be rolled out. The tax incentives for the environmentally friendly vehicles would take effect by October next year, Mr Vallop said.
Under the eco-car investment promotion scheme, the excise tax on the cars would be only 17% compared to the normal rate of 30%.
To be eligible for tax incentives, the cars must have engine sizes of no more than 1,400cc, must comply with the Euro 4 emission standards and must consume no more than one litre of fuel for every 20 kilometres.
Adisak Rohitasune, senior vice-president of Bangkok-based Asian Honda Motor Co, said Honda's eco-car was still under the development by the parent company in Japan.
''We will be able to produce it in 2009 at the soonest but it is unlikely,'' Mr Adisak said, adding that the model would be exported from Thailand to capture high demand for energy-efficient cars in the global market.
Mr Vallop said global sales of eco-car models had doubled to six million units over the past four years as oil price shad risen sharply.
Honda is now building a new factory in Ayutthaya. Once it is completed sometime next year, the company's maximum capacity would double to 240,000 units annually, said Mr Adisak.
''We are currently producing at our existing capacity of 120,000 units a year and need more capacity by the end of this year,'' he added.
Continental Airlines swung to a quarterly loss, while rival Southwest Airlines eked out a small profit on Thursday amid record fuel costs.
Both US carriers followed American Airlines in taking steps to brace for losses that Wall Street expects to deepen as an economic slowdown saps demand for air travel.
Continental, whose fuel expenses surged 53 per cent from a year earlier, plans to remove 14 older, less fuel-efficient jets from its fleet and trim 5 per cent of its domestic flight schedule this autumn.
The company also plans to cut regional capacity, and is seeking to extract better terms from its contract with ExpressJet, which flies many of Continental’s commuter jets.
Southwest deferred the delivery of some aircraft and continues a “rigorous review of our flight schedule to eliminate non-productive flying”.
Continental reported a first-quarter loss of $80m, or 81 cents a share, compared with net income of $22m, or 21 cents, a year ago. Revenue jumped 12 per cent to $3.57bn.
“In this fuel environment, we must reduce our domestic capacity to help reduce our losses in the domestic system,’’ Jeff Smisek, Continental’s president, said on Thursday in a statement.
The Houston-based carrier paid $100 to Northwest Airlines, redeeming its so-called golden share provision and clearing the carrier to pursue a merger unencumbered by Northwest’s right to block the deal. Continental was granted the right to buy the golden share when Northwest agreed this week to merge with Delta Air Lines
Continental has had preliminary merger talks with United Airlines and American, two of its bigger competitors, people familiar with the carrier have said.
Southwest’s consistent profitability and financial strengths have helped the Dallas-based airline hedge against well over half of its fuel needs even as oil prices spiralled to $100 and beyond.
For the year Southwest’s derivative contracts cover more than 70 per cent of its estimated fuel consumption, at an average price of about $51 a barrel.
First-quarter earnings slipped 63 per cent to $34m, or 5 cents a share. Fuel costs jumped 34 per cent from a year earlier. Southwest said revenue climbed 15 per cent to $2.53bn.
“Traffic thus far in April has been solid, and bookings for the remainder of the second quarter 2008 appear strong,” Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive, said in a statement.
Eurostar reported a 21.3% increase in passenger numbers today as the opening of St Pancras International station and debut of a £5.8bn high-speed link through south England lured more passengers to the cross-Channel train operator.
Eurostar said 2.17 million customers travelled between London, Paris and Brussels in the first three months of the year, an increase of more than 21.3% on the same period in 2007.
Nick Mercer, Eurostar's commercial director, said the service was benefiting from shorter journey times thanks to the high-speed link and more customers from around Britain due to the location of St Pancras, which is better connected to the UK rail network than the train operator's former base in Waterloo.
"The passenger increase is coming from shorter journey times, better punctuality and improved connectivity, particularly from the UK regions. We have seen a near doubling of passengers from places such as York and the east Midlands," he said.
Eurostar is embarking on a joint marketing campaign with Virgin Trains, East Midlands Trains and National Express East Coast this summer and will tour stations in cities including Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham to advertise deals such as £77 for a return trip from Sheffield to Paris, via St Pancras.
Mercer said around half the growth in passenger numbers came from new customers based north of London, with the rest taken from rival ferry operators and airlines.
He added that Eurostar had not lost as many passengers as it expected from south-west England following the move from Waterloo, which it had thought would drive some customers towards Heathrow and Gatwick instead.
"In all business models you always expect when making a geographical move that you will lose a small proportion of customers, in our case from the south west. That has not happened," he said.
Ticket revenues for the privately owned company increased 25.2% to £178.4m in the first quarter, helped by the early Easter, the leap year and the Six Nations rugby tournament.
The company also reported its punctuality figures reached a record high, with 93.6% of services turning up on time on time or arriving within 15 minutes of schedule.
The items contained in this newsletter are distributed as submitted and are provided for general information purposes only. ODAC does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in these submissions, nor does it guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information presented.
FAIR USE NOTICE: This newsletter contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of issues of environmental and humanitarian significance. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this newsletter for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.