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It's Official - The Era of Cheap Oil Is Over

Every summer, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy issues its International Energy Outlook (IEO)--a jam-packed compendium of data and analysis on the evolving world energy equation. For those with the background to interpret its key statistical findings, the release of the IEO can provide a unique opportunity to gauge important shifts in global energy trends, much as reports of routine Communist Party functions in the party journal Pravda once provided America's Kremlin watchers with insights into changes in the Soviet Union's top leadership circle.

As it happens, the recent release of the 2009 IEO has provided energy watchers with a feast of significant revelations. By far the most significant disclosure: the IEO predicts a sharp drop in projected future world oil output (compared to previous expectations) and a corresponding increase in reliance on what are called "unconventional fuels"--oil sands, ultra-deep oil, shale oil and biofuels.

So here's the headline for you: For the first time, the well-respected Energy Information Administration appears to be joining with those experts who have long argued that the era of cheap and plentiful oil is drawing to a close. Almost as notable, when it comes to news, the 2009 report highlights Asia's insatiable demand for energy and suggests that China is moving ever closer to the point at which it will overtake the United States as the world's number-one energy consumer. Clearly, a new era of cutthroat energy competition is upon us.

Peak Oil Becomes the New Norm

As recently as 2007, the IEO projected that the global production of conventional oil (the stuff that comes gushing out of the ground in liquid form) would reach 107.2 million barrels per day in 2030, a substantial increase from the 81.5 million barrels produced in 2006. Now, in 2009, the latest edition of the report has grimly dropped that projected 2030 figure to just 93.1 million barrels per day--in future-output terms, an eye-popping decline of 14.1 million expected barrels per day.

Even when you add in the 2009 report's projection of a larger increase than once expected in the output of unconventional fuels, you still end up with a net projected decline of 11.1 million barrels per day in the global supply of liquid fuels (when compared to the IEO's soaring 2007 projected figures). What does this decline signify--other than growing pessimism by energy experts when it comes to the international supply of petroleum liquids?

Very simply, it indicates that the usually optimistic analysts at the Department of Energy now believe global fuel supplies will simply not be able to keep pace with rising world energy demands. For years now, assorted petroleum geologists and other energy types have been warning that world oil output is approaching a maximum sustainable daily level--a peak--and will subsequently go into decline, possibly producing global economic chaos. Whatever the timing of the arrival of peak oil's actual peak, there is growing agreement that we have, at last, made it into peak-oil territory, if not yet to the moment of irreversible decline.

Until recently, Energy Information Administration officials scoffed at the notion that a peak in global oil output was imminent or that we should anticipate a contraction in the future availability of petroleum any time soon. "[We] expect conventional oil to peak closer to the middle than to the beginning of the 21st century," the 2004 IEO report stated emphatically.

Consistent with this view, the EIA reported one year later that global production would reach a staggering 122.2 million barrels per day in 2025, more than 50 percent above the 2002 level of 80.0 million barrels per day. This was about as close to an explicit rejection of peak oil that you could get from the EIA's experts.

Where Did All the Oil Go?

Now, let's turn back to the 2009 edition. In 2025, according to this new report, world liquids output, conventional and unconventional, will reach only a relatively dismal 101.1 million barrels per day. Worse yet, conventional oil output will be just 89.6 million barrels per day. In EIA terms, this is pure gloom and doom, about as deeply pessimistic when it comes to the world's future oil output capacity as you're likely to get.

The agency's experts claim, however, that this will not prove quite the challenge it might seem, because they have also revised downward their projections of future energy demand. Back in 2005, they were projecting world oil consumption in 2025 at 119.2 million barrels per day, just below anticipated output at that time. This year--and we should all theoretically breathe a deep sigh of relief--the report projects that 2025 figure at only 101.1 million barrels per day, conveniently just what the world is expected to produce at that time. If this actually proves the case, then oil prices will presumably remain within a manageable range.

In fact, however, the consumption part of this equation seems like the less reliable calculation, especially if economic growth continues at anything like its recent pace in China and India. Indeed, all evidence suggests that growth in these countries will resume its pre-crisis pace by the end of 2009 or early 2010. Under those circumstances, global oil demand will eventually outpace supply, driving up prices again and threatening recurring and potentially disastrous economic disorders--possibly on the scale of the present global economic meltdown.

To have the slightest chance of averting such disasters means seeing a sharp rise in unconventional fuel output. Such fuels include Canadian oil sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy oil, deep-offshore oil, Arctic oil, shale oil, liquids derived from coal (coal-to-liquids or CTL) and biofuels. At present, these cumulatively constitute only about 4 percent of the world's liquid fuel supply but are expected to reach nearly 13 percent by 2030. All told, according to estimates in the new IEO report, unconventional liquid production will reach an estimated 13.4 million barrels per day in 2030, up from a projected 9.7 million barrels in the 2008 edition.

But for an expansion on this scale to occur, whole new industries will have to be created to manufacture such fuels at a cost of several trillion dollars. This undertaking, in turn, is provoking a wide-ranging debate over the environmental consequences of producing such fuels.

For example, any significant increase in biofuels use--assuming such fuels were produced by chemical means rather than, as now, by cooking-- could substantially reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, actually slowing the tempo of future climate change. On the other hand, any increase in the production of Canadian oil sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy oil, and Rocky Mountain shale oil will entail energy-intensive activities at staggering levels, sure to emit vast amounts of CO2, which might more than cancel out any gains from the biofuels.

In addition, increased biofuels production risks the diversion of vast tracts of arable land from the crucial cultivation of basic food staples to the manufacture of transportation fuel. If, as is likely, oil prices continue to rise, expect it to be ever more attractive for farmers to grow more corn and other crops for eventual conversion to transportation fuels, which means rises in food costs that could price basics out of the range of the very poor, while stretching working families to the limit. As in May and June of 2008, when food riots spread across the planet in response to high food prices--caused, in part, by the diversion of vast amounts of corn acreage to biofuel production--this could well lead to mass unrest and mass starvation.    

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