World Review: Oil, vigilantism in America, refugees, Swedish politics and Omicron

Prepare for an oil price war in 2022. The combatants are OPEC and a consortium of top energy consuming countries including the US, China, UK, Japan, India and South Korea. All of these countries have built up huge strategic oil reserves in case of emergency such as war or another 1973-style OPEC oil embargo. The US has the largest reserves with 638 million barrels tucked away in storage facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The last two times America’s oil reserves were used was after Hurricane Katrina and during the Gulf War. Biden is depleting them to combat the energy shortage which has pushed up prices to $81 a barrel and is threatening the US and world economic recovery from the pandemic.

The OPEC countries (and Russia), however, like the high prices and they are used to controlling the market to suit their needs by raising and lowering production. They fear that Biden’s move on economic rather than security grounds threatens their historic stranglehold on the market. An OPEC summit is planned for 2 December. The oil ministers were planning to announce a 100 million barrel increase in production from January; not enough to substantially reduce prices, but possibly enough to stabilise them. That is expected to be off next week’s agenda. President Biden also has internal problems in the form of the Republicans who advocate increasing domestic oil production and reinstating projects such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline to reduce reliance foreign sources. But that, of course, runs afoul of climate change promises.

The jury is still out on the future of vigilantism in America. A Wisconsin jury found in its favour when it acquitted teenager Kyle Rittenhouse of murder on the grounds of self-defence. But in the Deep South a Georgia jury rejected the self-defence plea and convicted former policeman Gregory Michael, his son Travis and William Bryan of the murder of 25-year-old African-American jogger Ahmed Arbery. To be honest, there were reasonable legal grounds for the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse. He was more of an idiot than a criminal. The problem was that he was an idiot who was able to easily lay his hands on a semi-automatic rifle and cross state laws contrary to federal law to “protect property” in a Black Lives protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In Georgia, three white men armed with a shotgun systematically pursued an unarmed Black man and then shot him because they thought he was a burglar. In both cases people who should not have had guns had them and decided to use them to take the law into their own hands. They were vigilantes. In the eyes of the Second Amendmenters, the National Rifle Association, White Supremacists and Donald Trump they are heroes. To the gun control lobby they are a threat to civilised society.

People like to do business with people they like. French President Emmanuel Macron does not like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He didn’t like him when he was the face of the Brexit campaign. He did not like him when he was foreign secretary and he especially does not like him now that he is in 10 Downing Street. He regards him as a double-dealing no-goodnik which is diplomatic speak for a liar and a cheat. He is certainly not inclined to go the extra kilometre to help Boris and his equally disliked Home Secretary Pritti Patel with their refugee problem, which this week resulted in 27 dead asylum seekers dying in the freezing waters of the English Channel.

Boris immediately wrote a public letter to Macron to seek French help in stemming the flow of refugees. It infuriated the Elysee Palace. A planned meeting between Ms Patel and her French counterpart Gerald Dormanin was immediately cancelled. Not only was the substance unacceptable but by publishing it on Twitter, Boris took the issue out of the diplomatic realm and into the domestic political arena. Leading the French government to conclude that the British are trying to shift blame and responsibility onto French shoulders for the sake of winning British anti-immigrant votes.

For the French, Brexit is the root of the problem. There was a fairly effective mechanism for dealing with refugees in the Lisbon Treaty. And during the withdrawal negotiations Brussels offered a post-Brexit refugee deal. The Brexiteers said no. They wanted to control British borders. In 2016, 25 percent of the asylum seekers that arrived in Britain were returned either to another EU country or their country of origin. In 2021 the figure was five people. Brexit was meant to stem the flow of refugees. It has had the exact opposite effect.

Magdalena Andersson has broken two records this week: She became Sweden’s first woman Prime Minister and, after just seven hours in the job, the shortest-serving PM. Swedish politics are in a mess. Andersson’s government fell because her coalition partners in the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament) refused to pass Andersson’s budget and instead allowed a budget from the right-wing Opposition to go through. In most Western democracies this would mean resignations and a change of government. But not in today’s Sweden. Social Democrat leader Ms Andersson has announced that she plans to form a minority government with just her 100 Social Democrat MPs (179 are needed for a majority) and the parties that pulled out of the coalition over the budget said they would support her return to the Premiership. This means that until the scheduled election is held on 11 September 2022, Ms Andersson could be heading a government 79 seats short of majority and working with the budget set by the Opposition.

At the root of this chaos lies a fear of the anti-immigrant Euro-sceptic Swedish Democrats. They started in the 1980s with a clear Fascist platform. At the turn of the century the leadership started purging violent extremists and the party began to climb in the polls. It now has 62 Riksdag seats. For years the established political parties refused to have anything to do with the Swedish Democrats. But recently the Christian Democrats broke ranks to say that they could work with the far-right party. An election now could be a disaster for the small parties that generally support Andersson and a boost for the Christian Democrats and Swedish Democrats. Andersson appears prepared to stomach anything to postpone that feared eventuality.

We have a new Covid variant B.1.1.529, now names Omicron by the WHO. It is coming from Southern Africa. The scientists who discovered it have described it as “horrific.” That is because it has mutated so far from the original virus that there is doubt about the ability of the current crop of vaccines to combat Omicron. It is also expected to be more easily transmissible. The new virus is another scary element in the winter nightmare that is descending on Europe, once again the epicentre of the pandemic. Two weeks ago, the World Health Organisation was predicting 500,000 European deaths by the end of February. This week they revised that figure up to 700,000. Austria has gone into national lockdown and made vaccinations mandatory. Germany is expected to follow suit. As the number of cases rise to new records there have been anti-vax demonstrations in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. Britain and the EU are suspending flights to and from six Southern African countries where the new virus is believed to taken hold. It looks like a second European winter of discontent.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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24 Comments

  • Barry Lofty 28th Nov '21 - 9:46am

    Tom [email protected] I cannot say reading your Sunday Morning World Review has made my Sunday morning any less stressful but happy to read President Macrons view of our PM chimes with my own, even if it doesn’t change our present predicament.

  • Brad Barrows 28th Nov '21 - 11:26am

    Thinking about OPEC, and energy supplies in general, I have just emerged from a 42 hour power cut due to Storm Arwen and am very conscious of how lucky I have been in having a gas fire in my living room – many of my neighbours in newer houses were fitted with Ground Source Heat Pumps as part of the move to decarbonise, and had to endure 42 hours in literally freezing conditions with no means of heating their homes, cooking food or even having hot drinks. I hope to build a new house in the next few years and will not put myself in the position of relying on electricity alone for these basic needs. Perhaps OPEC will have a continuing role in supplying fuels for back up purposes into the foreseeable future.

  • Brad Barrows 28th Nov '21 - 12:50pm

    By the way, regarding the Rittenhouse acquittal, he did not carry a weapon across state lines as has been widely reported in the media – the evidence in court that he collected it from a friend’s house after he crossed state lines. Though the prosecution tried to paint him as an outsider who came to the state looking for trouble, he was very much part of the community having been brought up there, his father still living there and him working there as a lifeguard. He travelled from his current home 20 miles away in Illinois twice over 2 days – the first day he was helping remove graffiti from a school building, the second day he was trying to help stop businesses being burned down by rioters. The ‘only’ people he shot that day were trying to attack him by grabbing his gun, hitting him with a skateboard, kicking him in the head and pointing a gun at him. He did not shoot rioters who were ‘just’ destroying property and burning buildings – only those who had chased him to attack him. In Wisconsin, this use of force was regarded as legitimate self-defence. We may disagree with Wisconsin’s laws that allow open carry of firearms (and Rittenhouse was not breaking any laws in this regard as the barrel was over 16 inches), but I do think calling him a ‘vigilante’ is unfair and repeats the misinformation that has characterised much of the coverage of this tragic case by media outlets with a political agenda.

  • There’s a lot to be said for planning resilience into our systems, as Arwen has just reminded us. Especially for those in areas most vulnerable to supply interruptions.

    I’d argue that doesn’t have to mean relying on oil, though I wouldn’t automatically rule it out – yet. If a village has access to local micro-generation, perhaps even their own micro-grid, then they’ll cope even if the main powerline from the big power station goes down fifty miles away.

    Wood burning stoves are the bane of local authority air quality officers’ lives, but that’s more of an urban and sub-urban issue. Perhaps rules about shifting people away from fossil fuels could be zoned according to how reliable the local electricity network is?

    You can’t plan for everything, but far better to have most people moving mostly to renewables ASAP than meet resistance forcing it onto those who have good reason to be concerned. If we’re talking very rural communities, then letting those who install a ground source heat-pump also have a back-up generator for very occasional use will help us make progress. Though if they have access to power from solar and/or wind and/or micro-hydro, that would be even better.

    After all, climate change is driving a lot of the extreme weather. Relying on fossil fuels because we’re worried about the ability of the electricity network to deal with fossil fuels is all a bit chicken and egg.

    That said, if it’s just for occasional or emergency heating, what about a good old fashioned Calor gas heater?

    Good insulation is also key. If you have genuinely decent insulation in a modern house then you should be able to cope fine without heating for a few hours at least.

  • John Marriott 28th Nov '21 - 4:02pm

    Instead of pumping natural gas through the pipes, what about using hydrogen?

  • There are a number of issues with hydrogen. Not least that it takes a lot of electricity to generate and we don’t yet generate enough electricity via renewables for hydrogen generation not to require the use of fossil fuels, either directly or indirectly.

    Another massive issue, if we want to use it in the same way as natural gas is that hydrogen molecules are much smaller and needs to be kept at much greater pressure so normal gas pipes aren’t suitable.

    It’s not an impossible task, but IMO hydrogen is best used for powering buses etc.

    Though worth pointing out that many homes in remote areas are not on the gas network and have had to make do without a gas boiler for ever.

  • John Marriott 28th Nov '21 - 7:48pm

    @Fiona
    We have a network of pipes, already in place and much of it relatively modern, which will become redundant if we switch are domestic heating to things like heat pumps. What a waste, especially as many properties will be difficult to convert to other more ‘green’ forms of heating and this conversion will cost a fortune. As for those properties not on the gas network, can’t hydrogen be stored like other gases and oil?

    As for ‘back up generators’, what will power them? Quite frankly, nobody seems to be think ahead in their rush to be greener than green.

    PS: What was wrong with my contribution earlier in the day?

  • Matt Wardman 28th Nov '21 - 8:17pm

    @Brad Barrows.

    The solution for such powercuts in the longer term will perhaps be a storage battery as reserve, which works well combined with say PV.

    Or an e-car could be used for similar, with an appropriate control box of tricks, which will eventually cost a few 10s of £.

    @John Marriott

    A further issue with hydrogen is that the heat density is considerably less than natural gas (consider the energy in H-2 vs CH-4), I think by 2/3. So you need a lot more of it – in a gas network which therefore needs to confine a far higher pressure of far smaller molecules to match the existing energy density.

    The upshot is that the best we will get for the foreseeable is perhaps 10-20% of H2 mixed in with the natural gas.

  • @Matt Wardman; I believe you are correct about hydrogen heat density by volume being lower than natural gas at a given pressure. But are you sure that therefore requires higher pressure pipes? Couldn’t you equally work round that by having the boilers burn a higher volume of hydrogen per second than they do for gas? (That would cause the hydrogen to flow through the pipes faster, but wouldn’t require higher pressures, if my understanding of the physics is correct).

  • John Marriott 28th Nov ’21 – 4:02pm:
    Instead of pumping natural gas through the pipes, what about using hydrogen?

    Just a pipe-dream. A hydrogen molecule is much smaller than a methane molecule so more likely to leak through plastic pipes and joints. Natural gas pipelines made from hard steel would need to be replaced or lined due to risk of hydrogen embrittlement causing cracks. Any mix between 4% and 75% hydrogen in air is potentially explosive. It’s not possible to add a stenching agent. Linepack — the energy stored in larger pipelines — would be reduced to a third reducing supply reliability. New and expensive compressors would be required. Compression would take three times more energy. Manufacturing hydrogen is inefficient due to large conversion losses. Using natural gas either directly or indirectly via electricity makes no sense. Renewables – which means wind in the UK – are too unreliable and expensive. It will be decades before there is a surplus of nuclear generated electricity.

    ‘Is Hydrogen The Best Option To Replace Natural Gas In The Home? Looking At The Numbers’:
    https://cleantechnica.com/2020/12/14/can-hydrogen-replace-natural-gas-looking-at-the-numbers/

    Why Are We Doing This Again?

    In summary, it seems to me quite clear that hydrogen’s role as a replacement for natural gas has more to do with a need for gas production and distribution companies to stay in business by having something to sell than any real GHG emissions benefit or significant technical need. And if they want to make the necessary investments entirely on their own nickel, to provide truly green or even “blue” hydrogen via an upgraded network to replace natural gas, perhaps that’s okay with me. Sadly, it seems quite clear that their caps are in hand, reaching out to the public sector to fund the necessary infrastructure investments. Personally, my thinking is that this would be throwing good money after bad.

    Quite frankly, nobody seems to be think ahead in their rush to be greener than green.

    Indeed; it’s people who aren’t in a rush to be greener who are doing the thinking.

  • Matt Wardman 28th Nov ’21 – 8:17pm:
    The upshot is that the best we will get for the foreseeable is perhaps 10-20% of H2 mixed in with the natural gas.

    Technically possible, but doesn’t make any economic sense. If the objective is to reduce CO2 emissions it’s unlikely to make much difference anyway…

    ‘Is Hydrogen The Best Option To Replace Natural Gas In The Home? Looking At The Numbers’:
    https://cleantechnica.com/2020/12/14/can-hydrogen-replace-natural-gas-looking-at-the-numbers/

    Hydrogen/Natural Gas Mixtures
    The initial projects all try to smooth over these problems by mixing a little H2 into natural gas instead of making the big leap to pure hydrogen. And when you hear about “replacing 20% of natural gas with hydrogen,” you’d think that would make a big difference!

    Think again.

    A 20% mixture of H2 in natural gas is a 20% mixture by volume. That mixture has only 86% of the energy of an average natural gas, meaning that you’d have to burn 14% more volume of gas to make the same number of joules or BTU of heat. The savings in GHG emissions are nowhere near 20% — they’re closer to 6% just looking at the burning, and less than that when you consider the compression and pressure loss noted above.

  • Jenny Barnes 29th Nov '21 - 10:17am

    I don’t understand why the oil consuming countries are so reluctant to increase taxes on road and aviation fuel. Many of the ME suppliers can produce oil at a cost of around 2$ a bbl, but sell it at 80$ because of the demand. Oil is generally in both inelastic supply and demand – ie you have to change the price a lot to get a small change in either supply or demand. So if you put a 100% tax on oil consumption, roughly speaking the consumption price would go up a very small amount, the price received by the suppliers would roughly halve, and the governments of the oil consumers would get a large tax windfall. Even better – from an oil price pov- because many of the oil producers depend on getting a certain amount of revenue from their oil, they would probably have to increase production, which of course would result in a drop in the price.

  • Matt Wardman 29th Nov '21 - 10:45am

    @SimonR

    I’m not clear how you boost the flow through the same pipes without boosting the pressure.

    But I have not revisited my gas laws from O level for the post 🙂 .

    @Jenny

    >I don’t understand why the oil consuming countries are so reluctant to increase taxes on road and aviation fuel.

    In the UK something like 60-70% of the cost of petrol has been tax. A little lower at present as oil prices have gone up. So it’s quite high already.

    Aviation fuel and similar needs to be done by international agreement, and it is all politics afaics.

    Even with just Air Passenger Duty within Europe there are certain countries (eg iirc Ireland, Holland), which keep it at almost zero. Which is one reason why there are a lot of unnecessary landings and takeoffs at Dublin to avoid the Heathrow taxes (APD and other) on London -? NY flights.

  • Our government either does not understand the niceties of inter-governmental diplomacy or chooses to ignore them. Both are unfortunate when you are dependent on cooperation with those who you deal with. It needs to find someone who can advise them on how to maintain cordial relations independent of existing political and diplomatic friction.

  • Jenny Barnes 29th Nov '21 - 1:28pm

    @jeff
    “Using natural gas either directly or indirectly via electricity makes no sense.”
    exactly. The marginal unit of electricity in the UK is gas fired (mostly) although I note that we’re burning between 0.5 & 2 GW of coal at the moment, so your marginal electricity to go in your electric car or make hydrogen or run a heat pump is effectively gas. Carnot efficiency says that about 50% of your primary gas energy can create electricity in a combined cycle gas tubine (about 40% for coal), so if your heat pump has a COP of 2 you just about break even. Might as well just burn gas in a boiler for now.

  • David Goble 29th Nov '21 - 1:32pm

    @ Peter Hirst. I am of the opinion that our Government chooses to ignore the normal niceties of inter-governmental diplomacy. It suits their purpose to be seen to be fighting to defend poor, misunderstood “Little England” against the big, bad “Nasty Europeans”, because it plays well with the populist voter. I cannot help but feel that all this is being done with a view to the next General Election!

  • @Jeff, I’d say people who are keen to be green are doing a lot of thinking on this, and there’s an awful lot of it out there for those who are interested.

    @John, the point is that much of the existing gas network isn’t suitable for hydrogen. If we have to dig most of it up to replace it with high grade steel then what’s there now is just as ‘wasted’.

    “As for ‘back up generators’, what will power them? Quite frankly, nobody seems to be think ahead in their rush to be greener than green.

    They have these things called diesel tanks. Yes, still a fossil fuel, but if only used very occasionally and to aid the transition to less damaging heating systems, then it’s still a net environmental benefit.

    As others have said, and I alluded to in my original post, there are other back-up options, such as enhanced battery storage and ensuring that resilience is built into the network is key. It’s not that complicated, and should be easier than ever.

    In the short-term there’s the well proven technology of back-up generators and Calor gas stoves, both of which are already used by people not on the network or with an unrealiable network. Same for hospitals who can’t risk even a short power-cut.

    In the longer term, more local and micro-generation and better local and regional ‘storage’ is essential.

  • John Marriott 29th Nov '21 - 7:17pm

    You know, I really don’t think that some of you climate change ‘experts’ have any idea of how much all these proposed changes are going to cost. What could turn out to be the biggest challenge could be how we are to heat our homes in future, pampered as many of us are by central heating. I’m old enough to remember waking up in the morning to ice on the INSIDE of my bedroom window. Are we going to have to get used to that again?

    My love affair with hydrogen is based on the fact that the product of its burning is water and not CO2. Mind you, if John Redwood is correct about global warming, perhaps having higher temperatures might make heating our homes less vital! The trouble is that people in so called developed countries lead a life based on assumptions that, if we believe the experts, is about to be turned on its head. Their reactions should be very interesting.

  • Properly built, well insulated homes require less heating and are less likely to have ice on the inside, and I’d say the costs of not facing the reality of the climate emergency will be borne by those who lose their lives because of it.

    The various proposals have been costed. It’s not insignificant, especially to start with, but the great thing is that so much of the initial investment in climate change prevention schemes leads to long-term savings. If you invest in building well insulated homes, energy bills drop. The cost of renewables has dropped massively, to the point that solar is now the cheapest form of electricity production in the UK.

    Burning hydrogen isn’t the problem – so long as it’s done in a controlled way. The challenge is producing it, because it takes a lot of energy to do so, which has to come from somewhere, and then distributing it.

    As I said before, it’s not that hydrogen isn’t part of the future energy mix. It can be and probably will be, but it also comes with a lot of challenges, and we need to be realistic about them.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Nov '21 - 8:41pm

    @John Marriott
    “My love affair with hydrogen is based on the fact that the product of its burning is water”
    Water vapour – another greenhouse gas.

    “Mind you, if John Redwood is correct about global warming, perhaps having higher temperatures might make heating our homes less vital!”
    Doesn’t feel like it today!

    @Fiona
    “Properly built, well insulated homes require less heating”
    Absolutely

  • @John Marriott 28th Nov ’21 – 4:02pm
    >Instead of pumping natural gas through the pipes, what about using hydrogen?
    Currently, the only way to produce the volume of hydrogen required is from natural gas…

  • John Marriott 30th Nov '21 - 7:38am

    @Fiona
    “Properly built, well insulated homes”? Were you one of those fanatics glueing their hands to the motorway recently? I hope not!😀😀

  • No John. Many people understand the need for good quality building standards, including insulation. Thinking that we should have good housing is not on any of the scoring sheets used by psychiatrists to make a mental health diagnosis.

    @Roland, funnily enough, I had a meeting this morning about a possible hydrogen hub near to me. It’s likely to use hydrolysis, but will be for fuelling buses and won’t be generating anything like enough to be a replacement for natural gas. It’s also going to be powered by some existing wind turbines, so the PR is all about how it’s ‘green hydrogen’, forgetting that those turbines currently feed into the national grid, notionally powering the local industrial estate. Unless they build some more, it’s forcing the grid/industrial estate to increase their use of fossil fuel.

    They’re talking about putting some PVs on the roof of one of the big warehouses, which I’ve encouraged, but I have my suspicions that it’s just something they are talking about for the sake of PR and to deflect from questions about how ‘green’ the ‘green hydrogen’ really is.

    Hydrogen can have a useful role to play in the resilience of our future energy requirements, but it’s more that you can generate hydrogen while the turbines are turning and everyone sleeps. It can help to even out demand, which remains one of the bigger challenges with renewables.

  • @Fiona – forgetting that those turbines currently feed into the national grid, notionally powering the local industrial estate.

    Personally, from the evidence, I think it is a mistake to connect the turbines – with their uncertain and fluctuating output to the gird!
    However, wat s a good use of those turbines is the local production of stuff that can be stored and doesn’t need to be used immediately, like fertilizer feedstock and hydrogen, both largely for local consumption.

    Digression – to me one of the lessons from Storm Arwen is that with a more locally focused delivery of energy we wouldn’t have headlines like “Storm Arwen leaves 30,000 homes without power”…

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