16 November 2010

The Age of Cheap Oil is Over

First published in New Statesman

We are now inhabiting a ‘post-peak’ world. That is the implication of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) new report, World Energy Outlook 2010, which in its 25-year ‘New Policies Scenario’ projects that it is most probable that conventional crude oil production “never regains its all-time peak of 70 million barrels per day reached in 2006.” In this scenario, crude oil production is most likely to stay on a plateau of around 68-69 million barrels per day.

The IEA blames a number of factors for this – a combination of supply constraints due to below-ground geological resource limits, and above-ground factors such as political obstacles to fully exploiting existing reserves (such as in Iraq), as well as international commitments to reducing fossil fuel emissions to meet climate targets.

So is this the end of industrial civilization as we know it? Not quite. Or perhaps, not yet. Despite the peak of conventional oil production, the IEA concludes that total growth in liquid fuels from other unconventional sources – such as tar sands, oil shale and natural gas liquids – will continue to make-up for the short-fall in crude until around 2035. But while this means there will be no imminent fuel shortages as such, it also means, in the words of IEA chief economist Fatih Birol, “The age of cheap oil is over.”

The problem is that unconventional sources of oil and gas are far more expensive to get out of the ground and process into usable petroleum, and environmentally problematic. This means that over the next decade, oil prices are likely to become more expensive. Driven largely by industrial growth in places like China and India demand is projected to grow by 36 per cent up to 2035 – at which point, the price of oil will rise beyond $200 a barrel. On the way, by around 2015, we could see price hikes above $100 a barrel.

Even if the ‘post-peak’ world by no means implies the End of the World, it will nevertheless be an extremely volatile one if business-as-usual continues. The convergence of food and financial crises we saw in 2008 was one of the first signs of a strained system. Oil price volatility due to peak oil was a major factor that induced the 2008 banking crash. The collapse of the mortgage house of cards was triggered by ‘post-peak’ oil price shocks, which escalated costs of living and led to a cascade of debt-defaults. A study by US economist James Hamilton for the US Congress Joint Economic Committee confirmed there would have been no recession without the oil price shocks.

The oil shocks also impacted on food prices. The global industrial food system is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, consuming ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy produced. As noted by Australian agricultural expert Julian Cribb in his book The Coming Famine (2010), the six-fold rise in food prices between 2003 and mid-2008 was triggered by escalating oil prices (among other factors), and impacted severely on “farmers’ fuel, fertilizer, pesticide, and transportation costs.” While “financial pain was high” in developed countries, in the less developed world – from where the developed countries import much of their food – “farmers simply could not afford to buy fertilizer, and crop yields began to slip.”

All this was exacerbated by a debt-dependent economic system that systematized the very kinds of dodgy derivatives trading which generated subprime mortgage blowback – with speculators throwing money into futures markets for oil and staple food commodities, rocketing prices even higher. The recession that such price hikes partially inflicted, leading consumption and production to drastically contract, allowed prices to drop. But as economies tentatively recover, as populations grow, as demand rises, the danger that we once again hit the ceiling of the world’s oil capacity limits will remain.

So if the IEA is anywhere near right, we are in for a rather rough ride. The volatility of the ‘post-peak’ world will be difficult to predict. It is a world not of easy abundance, but of declining – and increasingly expensive – carbon-based resources. If we are to develop sufficient resilience to the various price shocks and converging crises of the ‘post-peak’ world, we will need to recognize that they are symptomatic of an inevitable civilizational transition toward an emerging post-carbon age. There is no time for denial. Governments and communities need to start adapting now.

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