A Bittersweet Meeting in "The City of Light"
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A Bittersweet Meeting in “The City of Light”

by | published November 15th, 2019

On Monday, Marina and I are flying out to one of our favorite cities: Paris.

Paris is one of our main locations to relax and recharge. This year, in particular, it is also part of a multi-month series of trips celebrating our thirtieth wedding anniversary.

Now, there are a couple of traditions on how Paris obtained the urban epithet “City of Light(s).” One comes from the seventeenth century and reflected the city’s central position in the rise of The Enlightenment.

Another emerges from the early eighteenth century and a police request that citizens put a lighted candle or oil lamp in the window to provide more illumination on the streets outside, and thereby contribute to a reduction in the crime rate.

But I have always favored a third.

It not only nicely provides the image conveyed by the city’s title, but also is an appropriate segue to our main interest here in Oil & Energy Investor: energy.

It begins with an engineer named Philippe Lebon…

The “City of Lights” Lives Up to its Name

In 1820, Paris introduced a public gas lighting system created by the engineer Philippe Lebon; he never lived to see his creation at work.

Lebon had been assassinated 16 years earlier on the eve of the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte. It had been for that occasion that his “thermolampe” had been invented. Lebon’s curious murder remains a favorite subject for French crime aficionados (punctuated by a bottle of wine or two).

Now, Paris was not the first to introduce a citywide system of streetlamps. London had gained that distinction earlier in the century with a coal gas system following a decree from Parliament.

But the unusually beautiful way Lebon’s invention lit up Paris streets (providing unusual city landscapes that quickly became labeled “streetscapes”) resulted in what commentators considered the greatest urban view of the age.

Today, there are some 300 landmarks within the city limits of Paris decked out each evening in panoramic lights, augmented by spokes of streetlamps connecting them and all parts of the city. Anybody flying into Paris at night is presented with a striking image that is certainly not easily forgotten:

I am looking forward to seeing this view when Marina and I fly in for the latest set of meetings.

Now, I’ve often said that geopolitics impacts energy investments. It appears (once again) that I’m being thrust right into the center of it.

The going this time around may become quite difficult.

Times and Allegiances Have Changed

I have sessions with colleagues at the International Energy Agency (IEA), representatives of a group of large international private investors and financial houses, and a meeting that will bring back bittersweet memories from almost half a century ago.

This last meeting is with officials from Petrovietnam (PVN), the Vietnamese state oil and natural gas production company.

The last time I was involved in Vietnam was forty-eight years ago. At the time, I was a counterintelligence officer in the Mekong River region of the country and was there fighting a war.

These days, in a testimony to how much geopolitics has changed the terrain, the U.S. and Vietnam are main allies in an increasingly acerbic conflict with China over control of the South China Sea.

A main component of that disagreement centers about two elements having direct bearing on the energy market: (1) offshore oil and natural gas development; and (2) major energy and shipping transit routes effecting a number of countries in the region.

When ongoing diplomatic or strategic interests touch upon energy (or other commercial) dimensions, the U.S. Departments of State (DOS) and Commerce (DOC) will usually pass those aspects on to private sector individuals having experience in handling such matters. Usually, the position obliges that you have also held the requisite security clearances.

That is how I become a part of such activities.

Assuming an agreement can be reached on the specific dimensions of my responsibilities, this will be the ninth time I have accepted such an assignment. In effect, I advise a foreign ministry or state entity on market or project aspects while DOS or DOC handle the “official” policy considerations.

But personally, this meeting in Paris will bring back some painful memories.

And that will occasion that I separate the next week into two very different parts.

Meeting with PVN Will Be A Very Delicate Matter

Over the past several years, Paris has become a primary site for my meetings with financial and energy trend setters in an increasingly challenging market environment. So, it will be again this time.

And once again, I will find my stay divided. It has become an ongoing personal “tale of two cities.”

Upon each arrival, Paris contains what I expect and what has been necessitated by very recent changes in the energy terrain. As veteran Oil & Energy Investor readers well know, revisions altering what I can expect upon landing somewhere in the world have occasionally unfolded while Marina and I are in the air.

And it appears that will happen again.

I have been reviewing briefings and analyses in advance of all my Paris meetings. However, the PVN session will need to be handled very carefully. I must walk a tightrope between what the Vietnamese are looking for (a commitment for American support) and the fact that I am neither an official representative of U.S. policynor a DOS spokesman.

In what I am seeing from the hundreds of pages in background documents I will need to digest before landing at Charles de Gaulle, the Chinese are about to put renewed pressure on South China Sea littoral states, primarily Vietnam and the Philippines. The renewed crisis will make the PVN meeting both more immediate and significantly more troublesome

My life these days seems not to have a dull moment. Stay tuned for my next installment, coming to you next week from Paris.

Sincerely,

Kent

P.S. The South China Sea has been a point of contention between the Chinese and other countries for years, thanks to China’s assertion that they have territorial rights to most of the area. And trespassers will be shot. That’s exactly what China has in mind, except they’re not aiming your run-of-the-mill weapons at U.S. ships in the area. They’re aiming what could be the most powerful missiles ever developed. Click here to learn more about this volatile situation and what U.S. defense contractors are doing to beat China at its own game.

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