Showing posts with label Futures. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Futures. Show all posts

Sunday, 31 July 2011

I spy with my little eye: Introducing Suitpossum’s map of Global Energy Geopolitics

Recently Google Maps has been blowing my (admittedly somewhat unstable) mind. It all started when I thought it would be great to travel around China, looking at Special Economic Zones. In the absense of cash to get a ticket to China though, I used Google Street View to drive through the outskirts of Hong Kong and to look longingly across the bay at Shenzhen, an economic engine on overdrive.

Virtual driving with Google streetview requires no petrol, but the system does rely on giant Google data centres sucking up huge quantities of electricity, so it ain’t exactly carbon-free travel yet. That’s a goal for the future, and in the spirit of a great transformation from carbon-intensive economies to a carbon-free one, I thought it would be interesting to use Google’s software to map the harware of global energy. Thus, I'm happy to introduce Suitpossum’s Map of Global Energy Geopolitics.

View Suitpossum's Global Energy Geopolitics in a larger map

It's the beginning of an ongoing project to break the global fossil fuel nexus down into easy-to-digest chunks. It's being created in conjunction with another map (to be introduced later), tracing the emergent geography of renewable energy. Ideally, over the next ten years or so, the importance of the former map will diminsh vis-a-vis the latter

The map is still under development, but thus far, the points of interest are split into 4 categories:

1) Oil (and gas) fields

This includes the gigantic Ghawar and Shaybah Oil Fields in Saudi Arabia, and badass fields in other important oil-exporting nations, like the Samotlor Field in Russia and the Tengiz Field in Kazakhstan. I recommend checking out the enormous dying Burgan oil field in Kuwait, which can literally be seen from the sky (seriously, it looks like pools of oil are coming to the surface). That's the field that was set alight by Iraqi troops during the first Gulf War. Nowadays though, it appears to be the Rumaila oil field in Iraq that's on fire.

Another aim of the map will be to profile unconventional and controversial oil and gas operations, such as shale gas deposits, and the obnoxious tar sands excavations in Fort MacKay, Canada. These are the focus of much environmental concern, not to mention dubious economics.

2) Oil (and gas) Terminals

The map has some special points for those who are interested in the world of commodity futures trading. To the left is Cushing, Oklahoma, the theoretical delivery point for all those WTI oil futures contracts that the financial press always talks about. I say 'theoretical', because about 95% of oil futures trades are made by daytrading speculators who have never actually seen real oil, never mind actually taken delivery of it. Cushing has however, recently seen some interesting investigations into oil market manipulation by physical oil traders. Another point of interest on the map is Sullom Voe, stuck out on the wilds of the Shetland Islands. That's where the ICE Brent Crude futures get settled, and you can use Google Streetview to drive right up to the entrance.

Another fun one is Henry Hub, south of Erath Louisiana. This is where a load of natural gas pipelines in the US meet, and it's also where NYMEX natural gas futures get settled. A particularly interesting curiosity just north of Erath is Lake Peignure, made famous when oil prospectors in the lake accidently drilled through the ceiling of a salt mining operation below, causing the entire lake to drain in a swirling vortex of doom that made the river flow backwards from the Gulf of Mexico. More recently, the salt caverns of Lake Peignure have become somewhat controversial storage facilities for natural gas.

Do take a look at the other oil and gas terminals. There's a really interesting one in the murky delta at Bonny, Nigeria, and another in the far reaches of De-Kastri, Russia. There's the Sangachal Terminal in Baku, Azerbaijan, right in the heart of the oil and gas operations of the Caspian sea. Finally, there is the amazing R’as Tanura Oil terminal in Saudi Arabia. Take a look at the town - it hosts Najmah, one of the gated communities for foreign expats that work for the world's largest oil company - Saudi Aramco. See if you can spot the golf course. One might say that political opinions on all this are somewhat fractious: Check this pissed off dude.

3) Coal fields
This aspect of the map remains underdeveloped. Coal tends to be less of a geopolitical issue than oil, due to it’s wide geographic spread and large quantities, but it's certaintly the dirtiest fossil-fuel of them all. Over the next few weeks I will be identifying key coal zones, which shouldn't be too hard, considering that the coal strip mines are about as subtle as bomb zones.

4) LNG operations, and other curiosities: This is going to be a section to trace exotic curiosities like Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) plants, coal liquefaction facilities, and liquified natural gas facilities like the one at Ras Laffan in Qatar. Ras Laffan looks like a cross between Star Trek and Mordor, except set in a desert. Take a look at some of the photos available on the Panaramio tool on Google Maps.

5) Strategic transportation routes
Finally, the map will seek to point out various chokepoints in energy transportation systems, including areas of pipeline vulnerability, and shipping lanes like the Strait of Hormuz that keep US generals up at night, popping Valium.

This project remains a work in progress, so any suggestions are most welcome. Hope it can be useful.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Suitpossum does Food Speculation: Farmers, Hedge Funds and the Ecologist

On Thursday I made my first appearance in the Ecologist, by all accounts one of the world’s leading environmental publications, founded in the 1970s. Yeah, airpunch!

The subject of the article was food speculation. It sounds obscure, but concerns around speculation on agricultural futures have been seeping into the mainstream agenda over the last few months in the context of rising global food prices. There is rising suspicion that the activities of financial players in commodity futures markets could have a distorting effect on futures prices, and thus that food price increases might be linked to computer algorithms running in some hedge fund in Mayfair.

Having had experience in the world of derivatives, I’m always prepared to accommodate the idea that irrational behaviour in financial markets could distort prices. That said, I’ve remained cautious about populist arguments about why speculation must necessarily be a negative force. Thus, in late 2010, I attended a talk on agricultural speculation organised by the World Development Movement (WDM), who were one of the first to make a scene about this issue. I asked some difficult questions to the speakers and got thinking about the argument. Several months down the line, I ended up working with WDM on a report, and found myself joining a chorus of veritable shitstirrers raising awareness about the potential dangers of this issue.

The debate started a few years ago in the context of the 2008 commodity price spike. In the US, advocacy group BetterMarkets have been a leading critical voice advocating heightened regulation and position limits in agricultural futures markets. The US think-tank, IATP, has also been outspoken, recently releasing a compendium of useful articles they’ve published on the subject of excessive speculation. In the UK, WDM have been a trailblazer on the radical front for the last couple years, but more mainstream UK institutions have recently been catching onto this as well. Last month, Christian Aid added a bit of righteous anger in their report Hungry for Justice, and Oxfam is getting uneasy about it too. Then last week the UN global trade body, UNCTAD, added their stamp of disapproval towards ‘financialisation’ and poor transparency in commodity markets, with a hard-hitting technical report on the matter.

The UNCTAD report should hopefully add some more fire into the debate, which since 2010 has been somewhat stifled by an academically controversial, but politically safe report commission by the OECD. The OECD report’s authors, Scott Irwin and Dwight Sanders, claim to have found no connection between the increased participation of financial players in commodity markets and the crazy 2008 commodity spike. I’m all for healthy skepticism, but there’s something vaguely reminiscent of climate change denialism in the way that conservative pundits have latched onto this work as if it’s the final be-all-and-end-all of the matter. In real academic life, nothing can be settled with a single study, and the extensive critiques of this piece have been strangely ignored by the mainstream economic fraternity.

Certainly, this issue has the potential for highly polarised opinions. In January, Murray from WDM went head to head with Scott Irwin on CNBC, and to my mind, lays the smackdown on him. I mean, I’m sure Scott is a cool guy to hang out with at the pub, but he makes almost no attempt to engage here. 

A similar level of disinterest is found in Terry Duffy, the chairman of the CME group, in his debate against the UN's Olivier De Schutter on BBC’s HardTalk in March. Terry says there’s no problem. Olivier says there is. Terry behaves like a condescending dick. Olivier doesn’t. Who should I believe?

For my part, I took part in a wheat price debate on the Farmers Guardian website last week. I suggested that farmers concerned about wheat price volatility should lobby financial institutions to spend less time investing in food prices, and more time investing in agricultural innovation and productivity. Failing that, I suggested farmers should band together, form a hedge fund, and use their superior knowledge of agricultural realities to outclass the precocious pseudo-farmers sitting in Barclays Capital. I got some enthusiastic responses to that.

I’d love to see that happen. What I don’t want to see happen is for this issue to go unscrutinised, only to lead to seriously serious fallout five years down the line. We've got to get the precautionary principle into action, so please do take a read of my Ecologist article, join the debate, and feel free to leave comments.