comments_image Comments

It's Official: We're Just a Few Years from Peak Oil

Until this year's report, the International Energy Agency mocked people who said that oil supplies might peak. Now they've changed their tune.

Can you think of a major threat for which the British government does not prepare? It employs an army of civil servants, spooks and consultants to assess the chances of terrorist attacks, financial collapse, floods, epidemics, even asteroid strikes, and to work out what it should do if they happen. But there is one hazard about which it appears intensely relaxed. It has never conducted its own assessment of the state of global oil supplies and the possibility that one day they might peak and then go into decline.

If you ask, it always produces the same response: "global oil resources are adequate for the foreseeable future." It knows this, it says, because of the assessments made by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its World Energy Outlook reports. In the 2007 report, the IEA does appear to support the government's view. "World oil resources," it states, "are judged to be sufficient to meet the projected growth in demand to 2030;" though it says nothing about what happens at that point, or whether they will continue to be sufficient after 2030. But this, as far as Whitehall is concerned, is the end of the matter. Like most of the rich world's governments, the United Kingdom treats the IEA's projections as gospel. Earlier this year, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the UK's Department for Business, asking what contingency plans the government has made for global supplies of oil peaking by 2020. The answer was as follows: "the Government does not feel the need to hold contingency plans specifically for the eventuality of crude oil supplies peaking between now and 2020."

So the IEA had better bloody well be right. In the report on peak oil commissioned by the US Department of Energy, the oil analyst Robert L.Hirsch concluded that "without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs" of world oil supplies peaking "will be unprecedented." He went on to explain what "timely mitigation" meant. Even a worldwide emergency response "10 years before world oil peaking", he wrote, would leave "a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked." To avoid global economic collapse, we need to begin "a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking." If Hirsch is right and if oil supplies peak before 2028, we're in deep doodah.

So burn this into your mind: between 2007 and 2008 the IEA radically changed its assessment. Until this year's report, the agency mocked people who said that oil supplies might peak. In the foreword to a book it published in 2005, its executive director, Claude Mandil, dismissed those who warned of this event as "doomsayers". "The IEA has long maintained that none of this is a cause for concern," he wrote. "Hydrocarbon resources around the world are abundant and will easily fuel the world through its transition to a sustainable energy future." In its 2007 World Energy Outlook, the IEA predicted a rate of decline in output from the world's existing oilfields of 3.7 percent a year. This, it said, presented a short-term challenge, with the possibility of a temporary supply crunch in 2015, but with sufficient investment any shortfall could be covered. But the new report, published last month, carried a very different message: a projected rate of decline of 6.7 percent, which means a much greater gap to fill.

More importantly, in the 2008 report the IEA suggests for the first time that world petroleum supplies might hit the buffers. "Although global oil production in total is not expected to peak before 2030, production of conventional oil … is projected to level off towards the end of the projection period." These bland words reveal a major shift. Never before has one of the IEA's energy outlooks forecast the peaking or plateauing of the world's conventional oil production (which is what we mean when we talk about peak oil).

See more stories tagged with: