The very strong passed and announced price increases of the fossil energies and of power remind us a time we thought it was bygone, with the oil prices shocks of the Seventies. The Middle-East and African countries oil producers did gather in 1960 to create OPEC in order to counterbalance oil majors full power. In 1973 the organization decided to limit its production and ordered an embargo against the United States and the Low Countries as the consequence of the Kippur war. The barrel price jumped from 3 to 12 dollars. A new disequilibrium occurred on the market four years after due to the strong world economic rebound which sent its price to 33 dollars. After being stabilized, between 20 and 30 dollars during near twenty years, the oil price surged again to reach 140 dollar at the eve of the 2007 sub-prime crisis. After a quick fall, it recovers that level but the rebound was short-lived due to the shale oil and gas revolution. OPEC members were confronted with a dilemma: to make prices falling to weaken their new American competitors whose production costs were higher or to protect their revenues. The issue is still current and is dividing the organization.
A little like during the sub-prime crisis, the fall consecutive to the economic recession provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic, has been short-lived. The Brent barrel price has rebounded to 80 dollars in September. But for the end-consumer, except in the United States, that rebound has had limited consequences because the taxes on gasoline are forming the most important share of the price. If the choice to increase them is deeply unpopular, as the French “yellow shirts movement” has shown it, the evolution of the world quotations is not susceptible to have economic and political important consequences. The situation is very different for natural gas and power.
The natural gas price jump since the beginning of the year is resulting from several factors. The world economic rebound has generated a strong demand increase, amplified in the U.S. by a cold wave and by violent storms in Texas notably which have provoked the interruption of the shale gas production. The markets speculation has then amplified the trend which was just a classical moment of adjustment between supply and demand. But these events were occurring in a context where several countries like China, in order to reduce their CO2 emissions, had privileged natural gas to the detriment of thermal coal in their power plants.
In Europe, the phenomenon has even been amplified by the failure of the German energy policy. The closure of the nuclear power plants could not be offset by renewable. The lack of wind has put wind turbines to a stoppage and it has been necessary to put back into operation coal and natural gas power plants. So the proof was brought that these energy sources can only play an additional role. That situation has provoked a huge rise of electricity prices which has been transferred to neighbors, due to European tariffs regulations.
Energy has also been a favored ground for the rivalry between Moscow and Washington can be expressed. The second gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea connecting Russia and Germany would have satisfied everyone since precisely it brought a supply guarantee for Europe in offsetting any uncertainness and in making speculation purposeless. But it was coming at a time when the U.S. had as an ambition, them too, to export their shale gas. But this one is difficult to carry and it is necessary to plan costly equipments and its expedition aboard methane tankers.The threats on transport networks, as for instance American sanctions against any European company which were contributing to its construction and to the operation of the Nord Stream 2 have again worsened an already distended situation, already affected by the degradation of the relations between North African countries and Spain.
Worries about environment have, at last, contributed to the tensions on the natural gas market. To reach their objectives, the States have favored the transfer, to the detriment of coal, heavily emitter of greenhouse gas and of particles dangerous for the health of neighboring populations, to the benefice of natural gas. That has been spectacular in the U.S. which has succeeded for the first time to significantly reduce their emissions. But that has provoked an increase of the natural gas global demand, of its price and so of the power price. It is what the Financial Times editorialist, Gillian Tett has called the “greenflation”, the green inflation.
This phenomenon is all the more important than everything contributes to an increase of the power consumption. The change in travel modes, with the transfer toward electric vehicles, the digitalization and the enterprises automation, crypto currencies and the interdiction of oil and coal boilers are driving toward a more and more electrified society which will not be able to be satisfied only by intermittent renewable because essential activities will need a supply safety that no responsible government can ignore. To reconcile that requirement with the objectives of a reduction of CO2 emissions, they only have two possibilities, natural gas and nuclear power.
The increase of electricity prices would never have occurred in France because less than 10% of the power production is coming from fossil fuels. Regarding natural gas, worries about an eventual shortage are excessive because inventories, at the end of July were, despite an abnormally cold spring, superior the levels observed in 2018 and 2019. It is the prices regulation in the European Union which is its cause. A meeting between relevant European ministers occurs this week and the French government should propose a reform of the prices regulations which harm consumers. It would also try to obtain that the investments in nuclear power plants can profit from the European Rebound Plan decided by Brussels.
The main lesson of this new energy crisis it is that, in France, enterprises and consumers cannot have both in the same time a diminution of CO2 emissions, reasonable prices and a guaranteed supply without having recourse to nuclear energy. The time for procrastination and vague announcements is over. Investments in favor of a better thermal isolation in homes and in buildings are necessary but achieved progresses will be slow and, anyway, insufficient to offset the necessary reduction of the use of fossil fuels.
So it is urgent to look at the reality in face, to amend the law about energy planning, to confirm the investment program dedicated to increase the life duration of existing nuclear power plants to allow them to operate with full safety and to start the new reactors construction program.
The candidates to the French presidential election will have to assume their responsibilities and to not mislead the electors with commitments they will be unable to fulfill in favor of environment. Then the new energy crisis will have had that merit. Oil shocks of the Seventies had led France to build nuclear power plants among the safest and the most competitive in the world and to guarantee its energy independence. The current crisis would allow with the rebound of nuclear energy to protecting both purchasing power and environment.