The world is heading for a catastrophic energy crunch that could cripple a global economic recovery because most of the major oil fields in the world have passed their peak production, a leading energy economist has warned.
Higher oil prices brought on by a rapid increase in demand and a stagnation, or even decline, in supply could blow any recovery off course, said Dr Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the respected International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, which is charged with the task of assessing future energy supplies by OECD countries.
In an interview with The Independent, Dr Birol said that the public and many governments appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years – at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated.
But the first detailed assessment of more than 800 oil fields in the world, covering three quarters of global reserves, has found that most of the biggest fields have already peaked and that the rate of decline in oil production is now running at nearly twice the pace as calculated just two years ago. On top of this, there is a problem of chronic under-investment by oil-producing countries, a feature that is set to result in an “oil crunch” within the next five years which will jeopardise any hope of a recovery from the present global economic recession, he said.
In a stark warning to Britain and the other Western powers, Dr Birol said that the market power of the very few oil-producing countries that hold substantial reserves of oil – mostly in the Middle East – would increase rapidly as the oil crisis begins to grip after 2010.
“One day we will run out of oil, it is not today or tomorrow, but one day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day,” Dr Birol said. “The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social system is based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money and we should take this issue very seriously,” he said.
“The market power of the very few oil-producing countries, mainly in the Middle East, will increase very quickly. They already have about 40 per cent share of the oil market and this will increase much more strongly in the future,” he said.
There is now a real risk of a crunch in the oil supply after next year when demand picks up because not enough is being done to build up new supplies of oil to compensate for the rapid decline in existing fields.
The IEA estimates that the decline in oil production in existing fields is now running at 6.7 per cent a year compared to the 3.7 per cent decline it had estimated in 2007, which it now acknowledges to be wrong.
“If we see a tightness of the markets, people in the street will see it in terms of higher prices, much higher than we see now. It will have an impact on the economy, definitely, especially if we see this tightness in the markets in the next few years,” Dr Birol said.
“It will be especially important because the global economy will still be very fragile, very vulnerable. Many people think there will be a recovery in a few years’ time but it will be a slow recovery and a fragile recovery and we will have the risk that the recovery will be strangled with higher oil prices,” he told The Independent.
In its first-ever assessment of the world’s major oil fields, the IEA concluded that the global energy system was at a crossroads and that consumption of oil was “patently unsustainable”, with expected demand far outstripping supply.
Oil production has already peaked in non-Opec countries and the era of cheap oil has come to an end, it warned.
In most fields, oil production has now peaked, which means that other sources of supply have to be found to meet existing demand.
Even if demand remained steady, the world would have to find the equivalent of four Saudi Arabias to maintain production, and six Saudi Arabias if it is to keep up with the expected increase in demand between now and 2030, Dr Birol said.
“It’s a big challenge in terms of the geology, in terms of the investment and in terms of the geopolitics. So this is a big risk and it’s mainly because of the rates of the declining oil fields,” he said.
“Many governments now are more and more aware that at least the day of cheap and easy oil is over… [however] I’m not very optimistic about governments being aware of the difficulties we may face in the oil supply,” he said.
Environmentalists fear that as supplies of conventional oil run out, governments will be forced to exploit even dirtier alternatives, such as the massive reserves of tar sands in Alberta, Canada, which would be immensely damaging to the environment because of the amount of energy needed to recover a barrel of tar-sand oil compared to the energy needed to collect the same amount of crude oil.
“Just because oil is running out faster than we have collectively assumed, does not mean the pressure is off on climate change,” said Jeremy Leggett, a former oil-industry consultant and now a green entrepreneur with Solar Century.
“Shell and others want to turn to tar, and extract oil from coal. But these are very carbon-intensive processes, and will deepen the climate problem,” Dr Leggett said.
“What we need to do is accelerate the mobilisation of renewables, energy efficiency and alternative transport.
“We have to do this for global warming reasons anyway, but the imminent energy crisis redoubles the imperative,” he said.
Oil: An unclear future
*Why is oil so important as an energy source?
Crude oil has been critical for economic development and the smooth functioning of almost every aspect of society. Agriculture and food production is heavily dependent on oil for fuel and fertilisers. In the US, for instance, it takes the direct and indirect use of about six barrels of oil to raise one beef steer. It is the basis of most transport systems. Oil is also crucial to the drugs and chemicals industries and is a strategic asset for the military.
*How are oil reserves estimated?
The amount of oil recoverable is always going to be an assessment subject to the vagaries of economics – which determines the price of the oil and whether it is worth the costs of pumping it out –and technology, which determines how easy it is to discover and recover. Probable reserves have a better than 50 per cent chance of getting oil out. Possible reserves have less than 50 per cent chance.
*Why is there such disagreement over oil reserves?
All numbers tend to be informed estimates. Different experts make different assumptions so it is under- standable that they can come to different conclusions. Some countries see the size of their oilfields as a national security issue and do not want to provide accurate information. Another problem concerns how fast oil production is declining in fields that are past their peak production. The rate of decline can vary from field to field and this affects calculations on the size of the reserves. A further factor is the expected size of future demand for oil.
*What is “peak oil” and when will it be reached?
This is the point when the maximum rate at which oil is extracted reaches a peak because of technical and geological constraints, with global production going into decline from then on. The UK Government, along with many other governments, has believed that peak oil will not occur until well into the 21st Century, at least not until after 2030. The International Energy Agency believes peak oil will come perhaps by 2020. But it also believes that we are heading for an even earlier “oil crunch” because demand after 2010 is likely to exceed dwindling supplies.
*With global warming, why should we be worried about peak oil?
There are large reserves of non-conventional oil, such as the tar sands of Canada. But this oil is dirty and will produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide which will make a nonsense of any climate change agreement. Another problem concerns how fast oil production is declining in fields that are past their peak production. The rate of decline can vary from field to field and this affects calculations on the size of the reserves. If we are not adequately prepared for peak oil, global warming could become far worse than expected.
than Saudi Arabia’sWhile today’s mainstream media reports on Peak Oil, all of a sudden… the oil sands in Alberta, Canada have become a veritable “black gold” mine. And Big Oil’s heavy hitters are wishing they acted sooner…
Just three years ago, when the average price of crude was $29.63 a barrel, producers didn’t find the profits to be worth the costs of processing the oil sands.
But improvements in mining technology have dramatically reduced the cost of extraction, rocketing bottom lines skyward. According to the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Alberta, it now costs an average of just $13.21 to process each of the 2.5 trillion barrels of oil embedded in the sands – a reserve 8 times bigger than Saudi Arabia’s… containing more oil than all OPEC nations combined.
Now, Big Oil companies that didn’t get in early can only sit by and watch as “savvy oil” laughs all the way to the bank. With crude selling for $60-plus, revenues at Albert’s premier oil sands producers are rocketing skyward.
On a sidenote, it is proved in the laboratory already a few years ago, that under enough pressure and heat, magma will produce a substantial amount of raw oil.
This means that the abiotic oil theory is a fact now.
Abiotic oil produced in the upper magma crust will seap through cracks up to the higher rocky crusts, and fill or refill existing spaces.
This was observed first in the undersea mountain cracks of the abandoned oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico, where researchers found new oil refilled in their supposedly exhausted oil wells.
The Russians have drilled already for years deep wells in the Siberian oil fields, and produced enough oil in economic amounts.
They first drilled for the Vietnamese government offshore in the “White Tiger” field, at a depth of more than 3 km, and produced a lot of oil in a subterranean region where all the mainstream oil experts said there could no oil exist.
It however did so.
Abiotic oil and the Alberta oil sands make the whole Peak Oil theory a farce.
Twice in the last week I’ve seen mention of a new “crisis” in energy markets. The crisis? We may have reached the peak in oil production, meaning that in future years, the amount of oil available will dwindle. This story is the lead story on today’s front page of USA Today. The headline:
Debate Brews: Has Oil Production Peaked?
The story begins:
Almost since the dawn of the oil age, people have worried about the
taps running dry. So far, the worrywarts have been wrong. Oil men from
John D. Rockefeller to T. Boone Pickens always manage to find new
But now, a vocal minority of experts says world oil production is at or
near its peak. Existing wells are tiring. New discoveries have
disappointed for a decade. And standard assessments of what remains in
the biggest reservoirs in the Middle East, they argue, are little more
The first expert is an investment banker:
“There isn’t a middle argument. It’s a finite resource. The only debate
should be over when we peak,” says Matthew Simmons, a Houston
investment banker and author of a new book that questions Saudi
Arabia’s oil reserves.
In case you think this is no big deal, think again:
If the “peak oil” advocates are correct,
however, today’s transient shortages and high prices will soon become a
permanent way of life. Just as individual oil fields inevitably reach a
point at which it gets harder and more expensive to extract the oil
before output declines, global oil production is about to crest, they
say. Since 2000, the cost of finding and developing new sources of oil
has risen about 15% annually, according to the John S. Herold
As global demand rises, American consumers will
find themselves in a bidding war with others around the world for
scarce oil supplies. That will send prices of gasoline, heating oil and
all petroleum-related products soaring.
“The least-bad scenario is a hard landing,
global recession worse than the 1930s,” says Kenneth Deffeyes, a
Princeton University professor emeritus of geosciences. “The worst-case
borrows from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine,
pestilence and death.”
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? War, famine, pestilence and death? They ought to put this quote in the next OED under “hyperbole.” And I thought this guy was trying to really scare us (Ht: Alan Nemes) but it turns out he’s a moderate.
This fear that we’re running out of oil or some other key resource is a steady feature of the worrying class. The worriers have a bad track record. I understand that just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean people aren’t chasing you and just because the worriers have always been wrong doesn’t mean this won’t be the time they get it right. But I still sleep well.
There’s nothing inherently worrisome about a peak in oil production. Such imagery preys on a quick emotional response–before the peak, we’re going up. After the peak, it’s all downhill. But there’s nothing significant about a world where we produce and consume less oil next year than this year. If that’s because remaining oil stocks are increasingly costly to bring up from the ground, that increases the incentive to economize on oil usage and find cheaper ways to get it out of the ground. That mitigates the harm.
The worriers like to say that we’ve had cheap oil in the past and now we’re going to have expensive oil in the future. They make it sound like it’s a geophysical relationship between production and prices. As long as we’re finding more oil, oil is cheap. When we’re past the peak, it’ll be expensive. Cheap oil means the good life. Expensive oil means misery. But prices aren’t high or low. They move around. They are high or low relative to other prices. If oil becomes increasingly scarce, we’ll do a thousand, (more like a billion) things to find other ways of doing what oil does.
If it happened tomorrow, if tomorrow, there were no gas in the pumps and this persisted forever, it would be a very unpleasant adjustment. It isn’t going to happen tomorrow. If it happens gradually over the next 30 or 50 or 100 years, it will have little or no impact on our overall well-being.
And wasn’t it supposed to be good not to rely on fossil fuels? Why all this new worrying? I think the worriers are trying to exploit the recent spike in gasoline prices to push public policy in directions that won’t happen otherwise.
Meanwhile, read Julian Simon. Remember that human creativity is the ultimate resource. Remember that the geophysicists don’t understand prices. Sleep well, despite the worriers’ desire to keep you tossing and turning. And if you hear the sound of hoofbeats in the still small spaces of the night, it’s probably just a horse.