Oil and gas discoveries to energise recovery of the economy
THE energy sector is unlike any other field in the business world. It is possible to do everything right and never make a penny, while it is also possible to mess up time and time again and retire with a fortune.
Luck will always play a role. A bore hole that turns up empty could perhaps have yielded a find if it had been drilled just a few miles away.
A government can fall or new discoveries can make old discoveries commercially unviable. That makes energy one of the most most thrilling sectors for investors, but also one of the most difficult when it comes to forecasting.
The year drawing to a close has been no exception. Tullow Oil, a London-based company set up by Irishman Aidan Heavey, has seen its share price fall more than 25pc this year as it failed to find oil in parts of Ghana and struggled with political setbacks in Uganda.
Those sorts of stories dominate the headlines, but there is a bigger story that gets surprising little attention – where will we get our oil and gas in the future? The answer is not the oil-rich sheikdoms of the past, but a whole new set of countries from Tanzania to Canada.
There will be many mishaps along the way, but we know for sure that the great question of where we get our oil and gas is under review.
Here in Ireland, there are exciting signs that the long drought is over. Halfway through the biggest exploration programme ever undertaken in Irish waters, there is every reason to be hopeful that fields off Kerry and Cork contain large amounts of oil and gas.
The share price of companies such as Providence Resources has rocketed as a result, but it will take another year or two before the small exploration companies can bring in the oil majors who have the technology and resources to start extracting the stuff in commercial quantities and prove once and for all that we have oil.
We are, in other words, very close to knowing whether Ireland is about to benefit from the sort of bonanza that has transformed the British, Dutch and Norwegian economies.
Discoveries of oil in large quantities would have a profound effect on Ireland. While it is true that the law here is generously tilted in favour of oil companies, oil will bring in tax revenues that will help the economy and create skilled jobs.
A big discovery would also protect Ireland if there we\re some political emergency. It is not always appreciated here that we are almost completely dependent on fossil fuels.
Our gas comes from Russia through gigantic pipelines, while our oil comes from all the usual places. Any crisis in these politically unstable regions could have disastrous repercussions for Ireland and bring life to a standstill.
While most of any oil found in Ireland will be exported, the knowledge that it is being pumped ashore means any future government can re-direct it to the home market in an emergency. We will finally have the security that other countries enjoy thanks to their oilfields or those of their close neighbours.
Irish oil is a game-changer, but it is part of a much bigger trend around the globe thanks to new extraction methods.
Perhaps the most significant story of 2012 was the prediction that US oil output is poised to surpass Saudi Arabia's within four years, making the world's biggest fuel consumer almost self-reliant and putting it on track to become a net exporter.
The prediction, made last month by the International Energy Agency, is based on the new fracking techniques that allow companies to extract vast amounts of oil and gas from places that produced nothing until recently.
The technique can damage the environment, and the way oil production is measured is open to debate, but the basic fact remains: new techniques mean that the US, like Ireland, could soon move from being an importer of oil to an exporter.
This could have profound effects on everything from oil prices to politics in the Middle East – it will be interesting to examine US engagement in places like Iraq as demand for oil disappears.
For decades, high oil prices have been a threat to the US. In future, high oil prices might be a boon. Either way, the US will be able to influence prices through production rather than warfare.
This is not science fiction. In the first half of this year, the US met 83pc of its energy needs from domestic supplies, and the country is on track to produce the greatest volume of oil since 1991.
These developments might be bad for the environment and deter countries and individuals from reducing pollution, but it appears likely that they will be good for the status quo. Energy shortages always lead to slowing economic growth which sometimes spills over into conflict or resources wars.
The year drawing to an end began with the fallout from the Arab spring, a movement that was triggered by fuel and food shortages.
The year ahead could well see similar developments if Israel really does carry through threats to attack Iran.
The immediate future remains opaque when it comes to energy, but the medium-term looks good for Ireland and the rest of the western world.