Following is a non-exclusive list of research interests which I would like to pursue as soon as time permits:
- What is transparency, actually? We all talk like we know what it means. Yet as a signifier in the global development debate the phrase is only a decade old. A lot of hopes are pinned on it, and EITI as its only current instance in the EI sector, as they would be the first to tell you. There are some interesting discussions of how transparency emerged as a norm and whether it can do all we would like it to. But beyond that there’s a need to get back to first principles. Transparency so far seems to be a static paradigm relating to disclosing “content”, yet we know that the model for who should use this content, civil society, is flawed in the EITI context, and could be described, often at least, as a benign myth. We need to see if it is possible to build clear and falsifiable definitions of transparency that can be applied to EITI, and to the energy sector as a whole, which could inform capacity building in the field.
- OPEC production and subsidies: Jeff Rubin points out in his great book Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller that (plus Russia plus Mexico) OPEC oil consumption has rocketed to 13 million barrels of oil per day, and continues to rise fast in both absolute terms and in per capita use because of domestic subsidies. These subsidies are at the very least economically disastrous, regressive, and often open the door to rampant corruption. Some work is being done to advocate fuel subsidy reductions, but mostly driven by IFI neo-liberal orthodoxy (“free markets good, subsidies bad”) and on a single-country level. It would be interesting to research the potential for framing the arguments and benefits to different actors in terms of energy security (as much as three million barrels a day could be freed up for world markets), and through group mechanisms, perhaps even OPEC itself. Interest in this will intensify through 2010-11 as Iran moves towards abolishing all fuel subsidies, presenting a dramatic case study in the heart of OPEC.
- Transparency Outliers: According to the IMF, Egypt publishes all contracts with extractive industry companies. Norway’s Statoil and Canada’s Talisman have published disaggregated reports of payments to governments right around the world. There may be other cases of transparency outliers. Two questions present themselves: first, how do the outliers affect mainstream arguments about transparency and its limits within commercial bounds? Second, what results has such transparency had?
- Iran’s Dividend Policy: Iran is in the last stages of following the US state of Alaska by introducing a significant blanket payment of oil dividends to all citizens. Hamid Tabatabai has produced a thoughtful paper concluding the Islamic Republic basically got there by accident and without any ideological axe to grind. Nevertheless, Iran or not, this is a landmark in natural resource governance and deserves to be studied close up, by talking to people in Tehran and across the country. How do the various political constituencies view the dividend, what does it mean for political actors, and will it work in its main goal to remove fuel subsidies of up to $100 billion a year?
- Institutional investors and oil: Current discussions of socially progressive policies in the energy sector revolve around what might be called Capitalism Classic, the host government and the implementing IOCs. Yet institutional investors are the fastest growing sector of those interested in corporate governance around the energy sector. What does the landscape look like across the OECD countries? What is the interplay of investments in energy production and use, and how does the evolution of the smart grid, for example, enable business models that could present ethical oil as a valid consumer option?
- Taking Strategic Reserves to a new level: Since the oil shocks of the 1970s, OECD governments have built global strategic reserves of 4 billion barrels of oil. That still only amounts to eight weeks cover in terms of current global crude consumption, maybe twice that in market-traded oil, and the Chinese have only just begun to catch up. But are we missing a trick? Gal Luft memorably proposed ANWR be turned into a live strategic reserve – can that work in industry terms? Could Europe multiply its strategic reserves through similar designation of North Sea fields currently in production or development? How would such “organic reserves” be structured within existing licensing rounds?
- Politically enhanced oil recovery: Field by field, advanced technologies such as gas or microbial injection or thermal methods can effectively double extraction rates of the oil-in-place from 25% to 50% and above. Yet to get the hydrocarbons we need before the brave new post-carbon age arrives we need to think globally, beyond the specific delineated and proven “assets” that concern individual companies and consortia. A large part of the answer to the question “Where will the Last Oil come from?” is political and can be improved by the right policies. Block allocation and joint venture infrastructures such as Brae and the Independence Hub are just two areas where thought needs to be givent o how practices, common in OECD basins such as the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, can be ported to the “edge of oil“. And beyond all that, there is a need to put the geologists out front and convert them, as Silicon Valley did with software engineers, into leaders and initiators rather than technical experts whose scope is already determined by widgeting managers.
- What can be done about Sudan? Sudan and its Islamist military regime got oil in the mid-1990s when the Canadian firm Talisman developed the fields in the south of the country. A high profile divestment campaign in the USA, focused on Darfur, scared Western companies out of the sector… and NOCs from China, Malaysia and India moved in. Are we approaching a world with two oil industries? Sweden’s crown prosecution is considering whether Lundin Petroleum can be prosecuted for war crimes simply because it built a road to the oilfields that it should have known, according to the allegation, that the Sudanese army would subsequently use for military purposes. Meanwhile, ONGV and CNPC are discussing new production, both offshore, in the east (Kassala, another conflict zone, albeit low-intensity) and in Darfur itself. And a referendum vote due for 2011 in the South threatens to add to the millions of dead with another civil war, fought largely for control over the oil. Is there any scope to work with Chinese companies on Resource Curse issues?
- Emerging market shareholder rights: Is the transparency movement missing a trick by focusing only on constituencies interested in greater transparency for progressive political goals? Saudi Arabia may have no civil society ready to take up the cause, and may be about EITI’s worst prospect. But it has hundreds of thousands of shareholders on the local stock market. And while Aramco retains its monopoly on all upstream operations, the country’s petrochemicals sector is drawing in major investment and runs second in the Tadawul exchange – relying on Aramco as sole supplier. Similar situations abound across the Middle East where support service industries of all kinds have local private investment. Are there any channels to this very different constituency, and how would they be engaged?