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Oil and gas contracts should drive climate gains

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The French government’s decision to block the import of US liquefied natural gas, produced with high CO2 emissions, offered producing nations and energy companies a glimpse of what is to come.

Under current policies, global demand for natural gas is expected to grow by 30 per cent by 2040. Governments must therefore seek ways to reduce the risks of producing a fuel whose processing generates the equivalent of the annual CO2 emissions of the Netherlands.

The answer is to make emissions abatement a standard component for developing new gasfields. This is already happening with some governments, which have included decarbonisation methods in contracts for such energy assets.

The matter is all the more urgent as gasfields with low CO2 content are depleting, and companies are increasingly targeting fields with high CO2 content, many of which are in north Africa and south-east Asia.

Governments and international energy groups will find that applying carbon capture and storage (CCS) to natural gas processing offers a cost-effective way of fulfilling their climate objectives.

Different applications of CCS face very different costs, and the concentrated streams of CO2 generated by natural gas processing are inexpensive to capture and store in underground geological reservoirs — as Norway has been doing since 1996 at its Sleipner offshore field. 

The cost can be as low as $15 to $20 per tonne of CO2, depending on location, which is within the range of official carbon pricing schemes, below many companies’ internal carbon price, and is comparable with carbon offsets by planting of forest.

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Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 

While CCS has numerous benefits, the upfront costs are too high for any single company to bear alone — even if such projects make commercial sense in the long run. But there is a strong case for governments to provide incentives for CCS infrastructure.

Oil and gas production is increasingly becoming a contest of the last man standing. As climate policies tighten around the world, and the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, oil and gas production is likely to be concentrated in areas with low-cost reserves and low levels of emissions. 

By providing fiscal and other incentives for companies to set up CCS infrastructure, governments can extend the productive lives of their natural gas reservoirs.

In exchange for incentives, governments should insist on broad access to the infrastructure across the oil and gas sector. This would reduce unit costs for abatement in the sector as a whole, and improve the commercial viability of future discoveries. 

Governments should also require energy companies to make CCS infrastructure available to other emissions-intensive sectors, such as heavy industries, metals, petrochemicals, fertiliser and cement. Admittedly, the implementation of shared access could be a challenge for some developing countries.

Nonetheless, in a future with higher prices on CO2, or carbon border adjustment taxes, these industries’ ability to produce low-carbon final products could be crucial to their competitiveness, profitability and sustainability. 

Shared CCS hubs can support the production of low-emission “blue” hydrogen, produced from natural gas. The resulting hydrogen can be used domestically for low-carbon industrial production, or be exported.

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The establishment of shared CCS hubs could be a first step for governments to establish a CO2 storage service sector, to store CO2 generated abroad as well as domestically. In a low-carbon world, geological CO2 storage capacity could become a highly valued asset and could become internationally tradable.

To the extent that CCS confers opportunities for national economies, it is reasonable for governments to share some risks and costs with the companies that develop the infrastructure — as Norway is doing with the Northern Lights project in the North Sea. 

Such incentives should reflect a fair sharing of risks and costs, and should be limited to what is necessary to get the projects going. 

Governments and energy groups should make emissions abatement standard practice for production contracts, not only for natural gas but also for oil production, as part of efforts to achieve climate objectives.

Havard Halland is a senior economist at the OECD Development Centre and Tony Zhang is the senior client engagement lead with the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, based in Melbourne, Australia

The Commodities Note is an online commentary on the industry from the Financial Times



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Financial bubbles also lead to golden ages of productive growth

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Sir Alastair Morton had a volcanic temper. I know this because a story I wrote in the early 1990s questioning whether Eurotunnel’s shares were worth anything triggered an eruption from the company’s then boss. Calls were made, voices raised, resignations demanded. 

Thankfully, I kept my job. Eurotunnel’s equity was also soon crushed under a mountain of debt. Nevertheless, the company was refinanced and the project completed. I raised a glass to Morton’s ferocious determination on a Eurostar train to Paris a decade later.

With hindsight, Eurotunnel was a classic example of a productive bubble in miniature. Amid great euphoria about the wonders of sub-Channel travel, capital was sucked into financing a great enterprise of unknown worth.

Sadly, Eurotunnel’s earliest backers were not among its financial beneficiaries. But the infrastructure was built and, pandemics aside, it provides a wonderful service and makes a return. It was a lesson on how markets habitually guess the right direction of travel, even if they misjudge the speed and scale of value creation.

That is worth thinking about as we worry whether our overinflated markets are about to burst. Will something productive emerge from this bubble? Or will it just be a question of apportioning losses? “All productive bubbles generate a lot of waste. The question is what they leave behind,” says Bill Janeway, the veteran investor.

Fuelled by cheap money and fevered imaginations, funds have been pouring into exotic investments typical of a late-stage bull market. Many commentators have drawn comparisons between the tech bubble of 2000 and the environmental, social and governance frenzy of today. Some $347bn flowed into ESG investment funds last year and a record $490bn of ESG bonds were issued. 

Last month, Nicolai Tangen, the head of Norway’s $1.3tn sovereign wealth fund, said that investors had been right to back tech companies in the late 1990s — even if valuations went too high — just as they were right to back ESG stocks today. “What is happening in the green shift is extremely important and real,” Tangen said. “But to what extent stock prices reflect it correctly is another question.”

If the past is any guide to the future, we can hope that this proves to be a productive bubble, whatever short-term financial carnage may ensue.

In her book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, the economist Carlota Perez argues that financial excesses and productivity explosions are “interrelated and interdependent”. In fact, past market bubbles were often the mechanisms by which unproven technologies were funded and diffused — even if “brilliant successes and innovations” shared the stage with “great manias and outrageous swindles”.

In Perez’s reckoning, this cycle has occurred five times in the past 250 years: during the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 1770s, the steam and railway revolution in the 1820s, the electricity revolution in the 1870s, the oil, car and mass production revolution in the 1900s and the information technology revolution in the 1970s. 

Each of these revolutions was accompanied by bursts of wild financial speculation and followed by a golden age of productivity increases: the Victorian boom in Britain, the Roaring Twenties in the US, les trente glorieuses in postwar France, for example.

When I spoke with Perez, she guessed we were about halfway through our latest technological revolution, moving from a phase of narrow installation of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, 3D printing and vertical farms to one of mass deployment.

Whether we will subsequently enter a golden age of productivity, however, will depend on creating new institutions to manage this technological transformation and green transition, and pursuing the right economic policies.

To achieve “smart, green, fair and global” economic growth, Perez argues the top priority should be to transform our taxation system, cutting the burden on labour and long-term investment returns, and further shifting it on to materials, transport and dirty energy.

“We need economic growth but we need to change the nature of economic growth,” she says. “We have to radically change relative cost structures to make it more expensive to do the wrong thing and cheaper to do the right thing.”

Albeit with excessive enthusiasm, financial markets have bet on a greener future and begun funding the technologies needed to bring it to life. But, just as in previous technological revolutions, politicians must now play their part in shaping a productive result.

john.thornhill@ft.com



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US tech stocks fall as government bond sell-off resumes

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A sell-off in US government bonds intensified on Wednesday, sending technology stocks sharply lower for a second straight day.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond, which acts as a benchmark for global borrowing costs, climbed to nearly 1.5 per cent at one point. It later settled around 1.47 per cent, up nearly 0.08 percentage points on the day.

Treasury trading has been particularly volatile for a week now — 10-year yields briefly eclipsed 1.6 per cent last Thursday — but the rise in yields has been picking up pace since the start of the year and the moves have begun weighing heavily on US stocks.

This has been especially true for high-growth technology companies whose valuations have been underpinned by low rates. The tech-focused Nasdaq Composite index was down 2.7 per cent on Wednesday, on top of a 1.7 per cent drop the day before.

The broader S&P 500 fell by 1.3 per cent.

The US Senate has begun considering President Joe Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus package, with analysts predicting that the enormous amount of fiscal spending will boost not only economic growth but also consumer prices. The five-year break-even rate — a measure of investors’ medium-term inflation expectations — hit 2.5 per cent on Wednesday for the first time since 2008.

Inflation makes bonds less attractive by eroding the value of their income payments.

“I would expect US Treasuries to continue selling off,” said Didier Borowski, head of global views at fund manager Amundi. “There is clearly a big stimulus package coming and I expect a further US infrastructure plan to pass Congress by the end of the year.”

Mark Holman, chief executive of TwentyFour Asset Management, said he could see 10-year yields eventually trading around 1.75 per cent as the economic recovery gains traction later this year.

“It will be a very strong second half,” he said.

Line chart of Five-year break-even rate (%) showing US medium-term inflation expectations hit 13-year high

Elsewhere, the yield on 10-year UK gilts rose more than 0.09 percentage points to 0.78 per cent, propelled by expectations of a rise in government borrowing and spending following the UK Budget.

Sovereign bonds also sold off across the eurozone, with the yield on Germany’s equivalent benchmark note rising more than 0.06 percentage points to minus 0.29 per cent. This was an example of “contagion” that was not justified “by the economic fundamentals of the eurozone”, Borowski said, where the rollout of coronavirus vaccines in the eurozone has been slower than in the US and UK.

The tumult in global government bond markets partly reflects bets by some traders that the US Federal Reserve will be pushed into tightening monetary policy sooner than expected, influencing the costs of doing business for companies worldwide, although the world’s most powerful central bank has been vocal that it has no immediate plans to do so.

Lael Brainard, a Fed governor, said on Tuesday evening that the ructions in US government bond markets had “caught my eye”. In comments reported by Bloomberg she said it would take “some time” for the central bank to wind down the $120bn-plus of monthly asset purchases it has carried out since last March.

After a series of record highs for global equities as recently as last month, stocks were “priced for perfection” and “very sensitive” to interest rate expectations that determine how investors value companies’ future cash flows, said Tancredi Cordero, chief executive of investment strategy boutique Kuros Associates.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 equity index closed down 0.1 per cent, after early gains evaporated. The UK’s FTSE 100 rose 0.9 per cent, boosted by economic support measures in the Budget speech.

The mid-cap FTSE 250 index, which is more skewed towards the UK economy than the internationally focused FTSE 100, ended the session 1.2 per cent higher.

Brent crude oil prices gained 2 per cent at $64.04 a barrel.



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UK listings/Spacs: the crown duals

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City-boosting proposals are not enough to offset lack of EU financial services trade deal



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