EU must change tack on oil, gas and minerals: Report


Access to natural resources in Europe through 2040 will depend on economic, political and technological factors that are hard to predict. Therefore, the policy approach from the EU has to be broader and more flexible, according to a new EU-funded research project.

The EU-funded research project Polinares has identified the main challenges facing the EU and the rest of the world in securing supplies of oil, gas and minerals over the next three decades.

In the concluding report, "Accessing oil, gas and minerals in a changing world", which will be published in December, Polinares also makes recommendations on policy approaches to address these challenges.

“We think that there is a problem on the supply side," Peter Buchholz, one of the authors of the report, told a news conference in Brussels on Wednesday (28 November).

"It's not the geological availability, but there are supply restrictions coming from economic, environmental, social and political aspects," added Buchholz, who is head of unit for mineral economics at BGR, the German federal institute for geosciences and natural resources.

"We have intentional supply disruptions via the use of exports pricing as a political instrument for example embargoes restricting exports," Buchholz stated, referring to China's export restrictions on rare earths, which are being challenged by the EU at the World Trade Organization.

Russia has also not hesitated to use its dominant position on the natural gas market to "reward" or "punish" individual countries by applying considerable price differences.

"On top of that we could risk accidental supply disruption or price hikes coming from natural disasters, but also from political instability," Buchholz said.

As a consequence, policy and strategy makers in the public and the private sector have to plan for a high degree of uncertainty in both the short and long-term, the report states.

New strategic and policy approaches will be required on the part of the EU, its member states and its industrial enterprises in order to address these new challenges.

“Each raw material has its own market. This means that each market is different, each raw material is different. We have to look at these markets individually and in detail,” Buchholz said.

State capitalism as an unpredictable obstacle

The authors added that long-standing approaches and assumptions concerning the efficacy of markets in oil, gas and mineral sectors may no longer be valid, especially given the recent rise of state capitalism.

“State capitalism as an approach or as a tendency is really important in understanding how resource-rich countries wish to control, produce and export those resources," said Peter Styles of the University of Dundee in Scotland.

Today, on the one hand there is a mismatch between the criteria and principles which democratic countries may wish to see underlying policy approaches to encourage cooperation in the exploitation of natural resources on the part of state capitalists governments. On the other hand are the values and priorities of those governments.

Buchholz added that the major producers of platinum are South Africa, Russia and Zimbabwe, but that could change overnight.

"In a world in transition, we can see that the supply of platinum group metals, although today it is stable and works, may get problems when regimes change from liberal capitalism to state capitalism, which may occur in South Africa at the moment," he said.

In the future, the EU would need a more constructive approach in the areas of oil, gas and minerals. That could be to build a policy framework around elements of the enlightened self-interest of those governments displaying features of state capitalism, such as China, the report suggests.

Coby van der Linde, director of Clingendael International Energy Programme (CIEP), said: “Lately, we have had a period of relatively high oil prices with limited access. It basically unlocked new dynamics in oil and gas.

“What we also see from state companies from China for example is that they have become very active in all over the world, and what I find very interesting is that they are very keen on moving into the frontier areas, maybe not so much because of the number of barrels they can harvest there, but for the technology and learning to do these thinks that they may be able to apply somewhere else.”

Peter Buchholz, head of Unit Mineral Economics at Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe (BGR), commented: “Emerging technologies have a strong impact on the market, and where the markets are small, supply cannot react immediately. That causes price peaks and various other problems.”

The EU and other regions of the world face ever-growing challenges to secure supplies of energy and mineral raw materials which have the potential to threaten economic stability and competitiveness.

The origin of these challenges can be traced, in part, from the worldwide surge of economic growth in the first years of this century and to the consequent rise of resource prices.

But other factors are also playing an important role.

These include the changing balance of global economic and political power which threatens to undermine the influence of traditional actors; the return of state capitalism which weakens the effective operation of markets for commodities and investment; rapid technological advances which can cause sudden surges in demand for new raw materials; and shifts in the scale of economic rent along commodity value chains.

  • Dec. 2012: The report "Accessing oil, gas and minerals in a changing world" to be published.

Research & Academia

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