When developing a strategy or making investment decisions, there will be many uncertainties that need assessment. These can range from cost and timing issues to broader questions at the macro level, for example political, regulatory or social developments. A way to get to grips with the latter category is by using ‘scenario analysis’, sometimes called ‘scenario thinking’ or ‘scenario planning’.
A scenario in this context is an alternative future: a coherent narrative of a set of developments, trends and events that could unfold within some defined environment space. Examples of such spaces are: a country, a group of countries, a sector, a city, the world. This is the environment space within which an entity (company, organization) anticipates operating over a predefined time frame, usually somewhere between 10 and 40 years. By articulating multiple such scenarios, each internally consistent but distinctly different, the entity is able to fathom various significant external (contextual) uncertainties that might have an impact on its future well-being or existence.
The purposes of scenarios can be multiple. They are a framework for discussion and strategy development. The entity can use them to engage with external parties. They can be a means to bridge gaps between different interests. A famous example of that are the Mont Fleur scenarios in South Africa, composed in 1991. In this article I however focus on the use of scenarios for decisions.
The question is how, once the scenarios are available and digested, the entity can use these in decision making. The common basis for investment or strategic decisions is some quantification of opportunity attractiveness coupled to various forms of risk analysis. Descriptions of alternative futures, however interesting they may be, do not easily find a place within the decision processes. For example, in most cases it is not (credibly) possible to assign probabilities to scenarios to sharpen the outlook (in another article I will discuss situations when this may nevertheless be an option). There is not a most likely future that can be used as a basis for landing the decision. The fuzziness around the scenario concept makes it difficult to appreciate its use for concrete decisions. This is the reason for the skepticism that the scenario approach encounters in many organizations. It should, however, be accepted that scenario analysis, like any quantitative modelling for that matter, does not eliminate the uncertainties. It justs helps to map them out, frame them, categorize them, discuss them. But we will see that meaningful operationalization of scenarios is certainly possible.
I distinguish three ways of incorporating scenario analysis in the decision making process.
Firstly there is the pervasive impact of the influence on senior leaders and decision makers within the organization of the insights that are brought about by the scenario analysis process. When a significant decision is taken, the underpinning data and analysis, of course, play a crucial role. However, the experience, background and intuition of decision makers is also important. In decision boards they will bring their own perceptions and judgements to the table, calibrating these against the analysis results and information presented to them. The insights from scenarios will assist shaping the perceptions of decision makers of the future contextual environment. At that level, they will have clear views of their own about themes such as the market, (geo)politics, technology and societal developments. Scenarios will enrich these perspectives and allow decision makers to adapt and adjust their thinking as appropriate. A well known characterization is that scenarios act like ‘memories of the future’. Of course it is then a great benefit if senior leaders within an organization are involved themselves in devising the scenarios to the extent practical.
Secondly there is the option of qualitatively stress testing investment decisions, but in particular strategies, against the different scenarios developed. This is what Kees van der Heijden, in his book Scenarios, The art of strategic conversation, called ‘wind tunneling’. This is about creating a matrix with the scenarios on one axis and the various strategy options on the other axis. Each box triggers a discussion of how attractive a specific strategy option will be under a particular scenario. This could result in qualitative attractiveness scoring in some form. Also here, the discussion associated with this process is more important than the resulting overview.
Thirdly, a quantitative approach is possible. The starting point is the key decision variable, for example the (aggregate) NPV of the investment or strategy. This variable is decomposed in its components (revenues, costs, tax) and the chain of influences on these components is mapped out. This is best done with an influence diagram so as to also visualize the interrelationships. In the contexts of the various scenarios, reasonings and quantitative assumptions are developed for the key influences. This is worked through to the level of the NPV: different NPVs under different scenarios (even better: NPV ranges under different scenarios). For the quantitative analysis techniques from the econometrics discipline can be useful (e.g. regressions). Sometimes a system dynamics model can be of assistance. But it does not need to be very complicated. Developing rounded estimates of some key external drivers whilst considering the interrelationships can be good enough. This is in fact what oil companies do (to some extent) when they annually consider a scenario based outlook for the oil price, link this to an assumption about cost escalation, exchange rates and a future price for carbon emissions.
There is no scheme that will allow collapsing all considerations into one number of attractiveness of an investment opportunity or strategy for the benefit of decision makers (except perhaps by judgementally assigning a ‘score’). But the earth is not flat and projecting its surface on a plane leads to substantial geometric distortions. Likewise, the richness of a scenario based analysis should not be kept away from decision makers, be it that the insights need to be adequately presented. Vice versa, decision makers should be prepared to digest the perspectives offered by the scenario approach and contrast that with their own perceptions, even though in the end the decision itself may be quantifiable by a single bit: 0 or 1.
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory
In both 2019 and 2020, project developers in the United States installed more wind power capacity than any other generating technology. According to data recently published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory, annual wind turbine capacity additions in the United States set a record in 2020, totaling 14.2 gigawatts (GW) and surpassing the previous record of 13.2 GW added in 2012. After this record year for wind turbine capacity additions, total wind turbine capacity in the United States is now 118 GW.
The impending phaseout of the full value of the U.S. production tax credit (PTC) at the end of 2020 primarily drove investments in wind turbine capacity that year, just as previous tax credit reductions led to significant wind capacity additions in 2012 and 2019. In December 2020, Congress extended the PTC for another year.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly
Texas has the most wind turbine capacity among states: 30.2 GW were installed as of December 2020. In 2020, Texas generated more electricity from wind than the next three highest states (Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas) combined. However, Texas generates and consumes more total electricity than any other state, and wind remains slightly less than 20% of the state’s electricity generation mix.
In two other states—Iowa and Kansas—wind is the most prevalent source of in-state electricity generation. In both states, wind surpassed coal as the state’s top electricity generation source in 2019.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly
Nationally, 8.4% of utility-scale electricity generation in 2020 came from wind turbines. Many of the turbines added in late 2020 will contribute to increases in wind-powered electricity generation in 2021. EIA expects wind’s share of electricity generation to increase to 10% in 2021, according to forecasts in EIA’s most recent Short-Term Energy Outlook.
It was a good run while it lasted. Almost exactly a decade ago, the military junta in Myanmar was dissolved, following civilian elections. The country’s figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest to lead, following in the footsteps of her father. Although her reputation has since been tarnished with the Rohingya crisis, she remains beloved by most of her countrymen, and her installation as Myanmar’s de facto leader lead to a golden economic age. Sanctions were eased, trade links were restored, and investment flowed in, not least in the energy sector. Yet the military still remained a powerful force, lurking in the background. In early February, they bared their fangs. Following an election in November 2020 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an outright majority in both houses of Parliament. A coup d’etat was instigated, with the Tatmadaw – the Burmese military – decrying fraud in the election. Key politicians were arrested, and rule returned to the military.
For many Burmese, this was a return to a dark past that many thought was firmly behind them. Widespread protests erupted, quickly turning violent. The Tatmadaw still has an iron grip, but it has created some bizarre situations – ordinary Burmese citizens calling on Facebook and foreign governments to impose sanctions on their country, while the Myanmar ambassador to the United Nations was fired for making an anti-army speech at the UN General Assembly.
The path forward for Myanmar from this point is unclear. The Tatmadaw has declared a state of emergency lasting up to a year, promising new elections by the end of 2021. There is little doubt that the NLD will win yet another supermajority in the election, IF they are fair and free. But that is a big if. Meanwhile, the coup threatens to return Myanmar to the pariah state that it was pre-2010. And threatens to abort all the grand economic progress made since.
In the decade since military rule was abolished, development in Myanmar has been rapid. In the capital city Yangon, glittering new malls have been developed. The Ministry of Energy in 2009 was housed in a crumbling former high school; today, it occupies a sprawling complex in the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw. While not exactly up to the level of the Department of Energy in Washington DC, it is certainly no longer than ministry that was once reputed to take up to three years to process exploration licences for offshore oil and gas blocks.
And it is that very future that is now at stake. Energy has been a great focus for investment in Myanmar, drawn by the rich offshore deposits in the Andaman Sea and the country’s location as a possible pipeline route between the Middle East and inland China. Estimates suggest that – based on pre-coup trends – Myanmar was likely to attract over US$1.1 billion in upstream investment in 2023, more than four times projected for 2021 and almost 20 times higher than 2011. The funds would not only be directed at maintaining production at the current Yadana, Yetagun, Zawtika and Shwe gas fields – where offshore production is mainly exported to Thailand, but also upcoming megaprojects such as Woodside and Total’s A-6 deepwater natural gas and PTTEP’s Aung Sinka Block M3 developments.
The coup now presents foreign investors in Myanmar’s upstream energy sector with a conundrum and reputational risk. Stay, and risk being seen as abetting an undemocratic government? Or leave, and risk being flushing away years of hard work? The home governments of foreign investors such as Total, Chevron, PTTEP, Woodside, Petronas, ONGC, Nippon Oil, Kogas, POSCO, Sumitomo, Mitsui and others have already condemned the coup. For now these companies are hoping that foreign pressure will resolve the situation in a short enough timeframe to allow business to resume. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum has already called the coup a ‘transitionary issue’ claiming that it will not affect its exploration plans, while other operators such as Total and Petronas have focused on the safety of their employees as they ‘monitor the evolving situation’.
But the longer the coup lasts without a resolution satisfactory to the international community and the longer the protests last (and the more deaths that result from that), the more untenable the position of the foreign upstream players will be. Asian investors, especially the Chinese, mainly through CNPC/PetroChina, and the Thais, through PTTEP - will be relatively insulated, but American and European majors face bigger risks. This could jeopardise key projects such as the Myanmar-to-China crude oil and natural gas pipeline project (a 771km connection to Yunnan), two LNG-to-power projects (Thaketa and Thilawa, meant to deal with the country’s chronic blackouts) and the massive Block A-6 gas development in the Shwe Yee Htun field by Woodside which just kicked off a fourth drilling campaign in December.
It is a big unknown. The Tatmadaw has proven to be impervious to foreign criticism in the past, ignoring even the most stringent sanctions thrown their way. In fact, it was a huge surprise that the army even relinquished power back in 2010. But the situation has changed. The Myanmar population is now more connected and more aware, while the army has profited off the opening of the economy. The economic consequences of returning to its darker days might be enough to trigger a resolution. But that’s not a guarantee. What is certain is that the coup will have a lasting effect on energy investment and plans in Myanmar. How long and how deep is a question that only the Tatmadaw can answer.
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The year 2020 was exceptional in many ways, to say the least. All of which, lockdowns and meltdowns, managed to overshadow a changing of the guard in the LNG world. After leapfrogging Indonesia as the world’s largest LNG producer in 2006, Qatar was surpassed by Australia in 2020 when the final figures for 2019 came in. That this happened was no surprise; it was always a foregone conclusion given Australia’s massive LNG projects developed over the last decade. Were it not for the severe delays in completion, Australia would have taken the crown much earlier; in fact, by capacity, Australia already sailed past Qatar in 2018.
But Australia should not rest on its laurels. The last of the LNG mega-projects in Western Australia, Shell’s giant floating Prelude and Inpex’s sprawling Ichthys onshore complex, have been completed. Additional phases will provide incremental new capacity, but no new mega-projects are on the horizon, for now. Meanwhile, after several years of carefully managing its vast capacity, Qatar is now embarking on its own LNG infrastructure investment spree that should see it reclaim its LNG exporter crown in 2030.
Key to this is the vast North Field, the single largest non-associated gas field in the world. Straddling the maritime border between tiny Qatar and its giant neighbour Iran to the north, Qatar Petroleum has taken the final investment decision to develop the North Field East Project (NFE) this month. With a total price tag of US$28.75 billion, development will kick off in 2021 and is expected to start production in late 2025. Completion of the NFE will raise Qatar’s LNG production capacity from a current 77 million tons per annum to 110 mmtpa. This is easily higher than Australia’s current installed capacity of 88 mmtpa, but the difficulty in anticipating future utilisation rates means that Qatar might not retake pole position immediately. But it certainly will by 2030, when the second phase of the project – the North Field South (NFS) – is slated to start production. This would raise Qatar’s installed capacity to 126 mmtpa, cementing its lead further still, with Qatar Petroleum also stating that it is ‘evaluating further LNG capacity expansions’ beyond that ceiling. If it does, then it should be more big leaps, since this tiny country tends to do things in giant steps, rather than small jumps.
Will there be enough buyers for LNG at the time, though? With all the conversation about sustainability and carbon neutrality, does natural gas still have a role to play? Predicting the future is always difficult, but the short answer, based on current trends, it is a simple yes.
Supermajors such as Shell, BP and Total have set carbon neutral targets for their operations by 2050. Under the Paris Agreement, many countries are also aiming to reduce their carbon emissions significantly as well; even the USA, under the new Biden administration, has rejoined the accord. But carbon neutral does not mean zero carbon. It means that the net carbon emissions of a company or of a country is zero. Emissions from one part of the pie can be offset by other parts of the pie, with the challenge being to excise the most polluting portions to make the overall goal of balancing emissions around the target easier. That, in energy terms, means moving away from dirtier power sources such as coal and oil, towards renewables such as solar and wind, as well as offsets such as carbon capture technology or carbon trading/pricing. Natural gas and LNG sit right in the middle of that spectrum: cleaner than conventional coal and oil, but still ubiquitous enough to be commercially viable.
So even in a carbon neutral world, there is a role for LNG to play. And crucially, demand is expected to continue rising. If ‘peak oil’ is now expected to be somewhere in the 2020s, then ‘peak gas’ is much further, post-2040s. In 2010, only 23 countries had access to LNG import facilities, led by Japan. In 2019, 43 countries now import LNG and that number will continue to rise as increased supply liquidity, cheaper pricing and infrastructural improvements take place. China will overtake Japan as the world’s largest LNG importer soon, while India just installed another 5 mmtpa import terminal in Hazira. More densely populated countries are hopping on the LNG bandwagon soon, the Philippines (108 million people), Vietnam (96 million people), to ensure a growing demand base for the fuel. Qatar’s central position in the world, sitting just between Europe and Asia, is a perfect base to service this growing demand.
There is competition, of course. Russia is increasingly moving to LNG as well, alongside its dominant position in piped natural gas. And there is the USA. By 2025, the USA should have 107 mmtpa of LNG capacity from currently sanctioned projects. That will be enough to make the USA the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, overtaking Australia. With a higher potential ceiling, the USA could also overtake Qatar eventually, since its capacity is driven by private enterprise rather than the controlled, centralised approach by Qatar Petroleum. The appearance of US LNG on the market has been a gamechanger; with lower costs, American LNG is highly competitive, having gone as far as Poland and China in a few short years. But while the average US LNG breakeven cost is estimated at around US$6.50-7.50/mmBtu, Qatar’s is even lower at US$4/mmBtu. Advantage: Qatar.
But there is still room for everyone in this growing LNG market. By 2030, global LNG demand is expected to grow to 580 million tons per annum, from a current 360 mmtpa. More LNG from Qatar is not just an opportunity, it is a necessity. Traditional LNG producers such as Malaysia and Indonesia are seeing waning volumes due to field maturity, but there is plenty of new capacity planned: in the USA, in Canada, in Egypt, in Israel, in Mozambique, and, of course, in Qatar. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter which country holds the crown of the world’s largest exporter, because LNG demand is a rising tide, and a rising tide lifts all 😊