Saturday, December 29, 2007

Thoughts On Oil

Merry Christmas everyone!

I hope everyone had a merry and relaxing Christmas, spent with friends and loved ones. Although I had a lot of pent up Christmas spirit in me, this being my first one in 4 years to be spent with my family, I have found that it has lost some of the magic for me. Whether this is due to my trip having put things into a different perspective, or whether it's just a case of getting older and increasing my humbug quotient I'm not sure, but some things, like putting up the tree and going Christmas shopping have become more of a chore for me. That said, there are still things that I appreciate: the laziness of being able to stay in and do nothing, seeing friends and gorging on mince pies and mulled wine (the latter being the true embodiment of the festivities for me).

Before the revelries began I had my first week at work. To be honest it was rather slow; partly due to the various administrative tasks that took a fair bit of toing and froing with the head office which is inconveniently located in the States, and also partly because it is a completely new position, both for me and the company, so I have to feel my way into what is required and do a lot of learning on the job, not least about the oil and gas industry. At least it has been very educational so far, as it has helped dispel some of the commonly held myths that circulate about oil.

Despite the price of a barrel of crude being at record highs and people everywhere complaining about how expensive it is, the black stuff is in fact pretty cheap. A litre of unrefined crude costs about 30p, about the same as the price of a Kit-Kat. Even at the pump, after having been refined, transported and taxed it costs about the same as bottled water. It is therefore ridiculous for people to complain about the price of petrol when they're prepared to pay the same amount for water which, and it is important to remember this, is available for free and contains no nutritional content (apart from a few trace elements). If one were to think logically petrol ought to be a good deal more expensive if one were to properly consider what you get for your money (not a popular point of view perhaps, but probably necessary for the future).

Similarly it is generally accepted that we are soon going to run out of oil. Now the veracity of that statement depends on your interpretation of the word soon, but there is certainly a good deal more of it than some scaremongers would have us believe. 20 years ago there were 875 billion barrels of obtainable oil reserves and today there are over 1200. That doesn't mean that they have miraculously appeared out of thin air, but that, due to improvements in technology, people have been able to find more sources of oil and extract greater percentages of it once they have found it. In a way it's unfortunate because, as far as the people who make the decisions are concerned, there's plenty of the black stuff about and so there's no urgency in doing anything to address the eventual demise of oil.

Another point of attack, especially for the anti-globalisation crowd, are the big oil companies. They are demonised for being incredibly rich and powerful and using their power and dominant position to ride roughshod over the interests of local people and even governments of developing countries. Now there is a certain ruth to this, and like all companies they are out to make a profit and stay ahead of their competitors, but one must also look at the facts of the business. The five biggest oil companies (known as IOCs, or International Oil Companies) have, together, less than 25% of world production and 15% of the world's oil reserves. Compare this then to NOCs (National Oil Companies, which are owned by state governments, such as NIOC in Iran, Aramco in Saudi Arabia and PdVSA in Venezuela) who produce more than 60% of the world's oil and own 80% of its reserves. When one thinks that these NOCs are often run by suspect governments that are accountable to no-one and endemically corrupt, the IOCs begin to look like paragons of justice with their shareholders and regulatory bodies keeping them in check and economic necessity ensuring that they aren't wasteful. And with regards to their wealth it is true that of the five richest companies in the world are IOCs, but that's not surprising when one realises that just to develop a single oilfield often requires investments in excess of a billion dollars. Small companies just don't have the capital, and very often the IOCs have to work together on the same field out of financial necessity. This isn't to say that they are without sin, far from it, but the alternatives are probably worse.

Anyway, that's enough about the macroeconomics of oil; since I haven't posted a picture in quite some time I thought I'd give you one that I took on my morning cycle to work as the sun was rising on Richmond Park.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Global Warming And Expanding Waistlines

I remember, as a child, the optimism and enthusiasm that even made its way to my juvenile consciousness during the first Earth Summit in Rio 15 years ago. The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen and all the nations would go forward together, hand in hand, towards a brighter future. Even back then there was a consensus amongst scientists that global warming was being influenced by human activity and that if nothing was done soon then it would have catastrophic consequences on the global climate. Fast forward to the present day and things have advanced painfully slowly since then, with the present Bali summit producing a watered down agreement, which, as it stands, is far too little far too late to be able to stem the climate change flood. It's particularly galling to me that the stumbling block should be the United States. here's a country that calls itself, with some pride, the Leader of the Free World. Every year its government trumpets reports of human rights abuses throughout the world and bemoans the lack of democracy, going so far as to wage a war for the spread of it (amongst many other reasons, depending on the time of day they are talking). Yet when the moment arrives for true leadership, for difficult, painful choices being made, for sacrifice the bravado turns to selfishness, intransigence and sheer bloody-mindedness.

It had become ever harder to deny either the scientific or the democratic arguments (the latter being the fact that the majority of countries of the world wanted and were willing to make sacrifices to fight climate change) and so the barrel was well and truly scraped to find less and less convincing arguments. The economic: we won't be able to have things as cheaply as before and some people might lose a few jobs. True as it might be, the costs of allowing climate change to go on unchecked would be far greater still, and most likely in ways that we cannot foresee. Also, if America's direct competitors (other developed countries) were to sign up to the same commitments then the trade playing field would still be level. But, counter the Americans, what about China and India and other devloping countries who are also polluting. Those sneeky Chinese are now polluting as much as we are! Blithely ignoring the fact that there are four times as many Chinese and that they haven't been polluting nearly as much much nearly as long as them. Apparently the aspiration of having a better quality of life and all the comforts of modern living is only for the West and developing countries are only to have a role as factories for our cheap goods.

Luckily even their bare-faced conceit couldn't stop a final agreement being reached, however toothless it may be. It's a shame that it has turned out like this as this was a golden opportunity for the Americans to restore their damaged international reputation and regain the moral high ground. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, I am very pessimistic about our long-term ability to maintain the planet as it is. That's not to say that all life will die, because Mother Nature has a boundless ability to adapt to new circumstances, but we will lose the beauty and diversity that is there now. Forever.

What, however, is perhaps more worrying for the world, is that I have now unearthed a good number of my old clothes and I am finding that I no longer fit into my old trousers. For years I had a constant 30" waist and weighed around 62kg, and now I've suddenly realised that I've eaten my way up to a 32" paunch and I tip the scales at the wrong end of 68kg. I'm afraid of not only becoming a sedentary slob like my brother (a good way of testing to see whether he's actually reading this), but that I might also have to buy new clothes - an idea which fills me with dread, not just because it's another expense, but because I seriously dislike the whole shopping experience (clothes in particular) and am suddenly realising that I still need to get my Christmas shopping done. Aaarrggghhh!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Last Taste Of Freedom

This weekend I celebrated my birthday in Britain once again. After spending three birthdays and Christmases on the road their importance has paled for me and I don't see them as being any different from other days. In fact I was going out with some friends from the south America days of my trip on my birthday and didn't realise that it was my birthday until halfway through the evening. Personally I think the best present one can have is to spend time with friends (copious quantities of mulled wine, beer and cocktails just make it that bit better). Apropos of friends I got to see an old friend from school in France last week. Marina and Guillaume were flying off to New Zealand for a belated honeymoon and had a three hour stopover at Heathrow. Seeing as I hadn't seen them since 2002 I took some time off to go and snatch a few hours with them for some quick reminiscences and updates before they jetted off to to escape the European Winter for a few weeks.

I am trying to take advantage of my final week of freedom before my job starts next week to sort out my life a bit while I still have some free time. My main task (and it's one I won't be finishing for some time) is to get my pictures sorted. I've managed to get my photos that I developed from film annotated and put into albums (six of them). That covers my first year of travelling before I switched to digital. I've gone through all my other pictures on my computer and touched them up where it has been necessary and now I'm sifting through them to pick out which ones to actually develop. I took my first six months' worth in to be processed today and gave the girl behind the counter a bit of a fright when she saw I was developing 1162 photos (that's all that would fit on my memory stick). I thought it would be funny to get them done in 1 hour, but then decided against it to give the poor girl some time.

My other main task is to try and get on top of my finances (or lack thereof). I have come to realise that I now have 4 current accounts, 3 savings accounts, 2 debit cards and 3 credit cards. Maybe I ought to keep my cards apart in my wallet to keep them from reproducing! I mean just trying to keep track of all the different PIN codes and online passwords is a major effort in itself, not to mention trying to understand all the various accounts, taxes, pensions contributions, national insurance and other financial oddities. What strikes me as particularly shameful is that as students at school (both here in Britain and in France, and probably many other countries as well) we are not taught even the most rudimentary aspects of finance and so people are left blindly feeling their way alone through the financial maze.

Monday, December 03, 2007

No Longer Looking

Since I went to school in France I have many French friends, and as they graduated from university I would tell them to come over to Britain where employment opportunities are greater than over there (young people find it notoriously difficult to find jobs in France, which is one of the reasons for the numerous riots and strikes that paralyse the country with increasing frequency). Today I have proved how true that is. Without actively seeking it out I have been offered a research analyst position at the consultancy I'm temping at. It might not have been what I was aiming for (although I'm not exactly sure what I was aiming for) but after talking to the various partners, managers and consultants it sounds like quite an exciting job with plenty of scope to learn new skills and broaden my knowledge about the energy industry, not to mention the fact that the pay is very reasonable and well in excess of the positions I was looking at. I will let you know more about the details of the job once I actually start as the job description is rather vague and leaves a lot of room for improvisation. The one drawback of this stroke of good luck may be that it reinforces my rather laissez faire attitude towards life in general as things in general really have seemed to work out fortuitously for me with very little input on my behalf. But then again I am quite easily pleased so it doesn't take much to make me content.

Other news has been my recent return to the roads behind the wheel of a car. Despite having got my driving licence at the age of 18, 5 years of urban living followed by 3 years of travelling have meant that I hadn't driven in over 5 years and my total number of hours driving ever barely exceeds a dozen. It was no wonder therefore that I viewed a return to clutches, gearsticks, indicators and windscreen wipers with more than a little trepidation. To say that I don't hold much confidence in my driving skills would be a sizeable understatement. As it turns out I have driven the 8 or so miles to and from my brother's flat on three occasions now and not only am I still alive but I have neither crashed nor even damaged the paintwork. Nevertheless I still feel more at ease on my bike (despite the idiot drivers who haven't the slightest inkling what a cycle lane is) where I feel more in control.

Christmas fever has also reached it apogee some 4 weeks before the actual event with high streets jam-packed on weekends and television adverts extolling Christmas offers for the past month already. Some people even have their decorations up already. Not that I particularly mind though, what with the short days and the grim weather I am finding it hard not to just stay in and veg, which is of course what Christmas is all about (some misguided people think it may be about the giving of gifts, or even to celebrate the birth of some guy a long time ago, but in fact it is a celebration of weather-induced laziness and indolence).