Japan’s energy needs post-earthquake aren’t a worry yet

A spike in Japanese demand for LNG can easily be met, but futures markets should calm themselves.

As Japan struggles to cope with the aftermath of the 11 March earthquake, issues of energy security are becoming more prevalent not only in Japan, but across the world.

Five nuclear power plants were affected by the Sendai earthquake, and of those, one has suffered a partial meltdown – the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Three major oil refineries were also closed. Amid scrambled attempts to avert a full-scale, Chernobyl-style disaster, fears are now rising about how the shortfall in Japan's energy production – which Société Générale estimates to be roughly 11.3 gigawatts, enough to power as many as 11 million households – will be managed for the foreseeable future.

Consumption of electricity generated from nuclear power stands at 30 per cent of Japan's total usage. The government had previously planned to increase this to 40 per cent by 2017, and then 50 per cent by 2030.

Whether or not these plans will now be halted or contested as a result of the disaster at Fukushima I remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that Japan will have to meet the demand for energy somehow, despite a large impairment in production facilities.

Japan's energy mix still heavily relies on oil, which accounted for 45 per cent of national energy consumption in 2009, but it is also the world's largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) – in 2010 the Japanese shipped over 70 million tonnes of it. The biggest suppliers of oil and LNG to Japan are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, respectively, with the United Arab Emirates the second-largest supplier of both commodities.

With revolutions still raging across the Middle East, the markets have already been pushing up prices, particularly for oil, in fear of an energy crisis, and the increased demand on the region that Japan's predicament may spur could make the problem even more acute. Due to the shortfall in Libyan supply and worries about Saudi Arabia's stability, prices continue to rise. Today Brent crude spot prices increased to $113.99 per barrel, and LNG futures for April 2015 delivery rose $0.22 per MMBtu on the week to $6.08 according to NYMEX.

If Japan does make up its shortfall with LNG, the UK would bear the brunt of this shift in supplies, as LNG accounts for almost 33 per cent of winter demand, and contracts for next year have risen between 10 and 15 per cent on speculation of increased demand. This follows already high gas prices and a particularly cold winter that added roughly £44 to British domestic gas bills.

This chart, taken from Kiran Stacey's Financial Times blog shows how much LNG Japan needed to make up for an energy shortfall after the 2007quake:

PFC Energy made a prediction based on these figures that, with 9.7 gigawatts of capacity lost (estimates vary, as with the Société Générale figure above), this could lead to at least a 500-600 megaton per month leap in Japanese LNG purchases. PFC believes the price for Asian spot will remain around $8-$9 MMBtu.

There are a few factors to consider in support of this conservative estimate. A global gas glut, including Qatar's huge increase in LNG production capacity, will certainly be able to alleviate Japan's demands. In fact, Qatar has already promised to divert more supplies there if necessary, which it would not have been able to do so easily back in 2007. Further, Japan is still able to use supplies from futures contracts at the moment to meet its energy needs, so its demand is lower than expected.

These factors explain the lack of a significant spike in demand so far, but fears driving the rise in futures prices (as opposed to the relatively stable spot prices) bode less well for the long term.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.