Cheap gas today, but 'peak oil' crisis near
By Dan Gardner
In Greek mythology, the enchanting songs of the Sirens lured unwary sailors to shipwreck and death. Today's Sirens are the roadside signs singing sweetly, "Cheap gas! Drink deeply and be at ease, weary traveller!"
After suffering record-high oil and gas prices earlier this year, it's understandable that we see cheap gas as anything but a danger. We're in a recession.
But before we drink deeply and relax, let's look through the telescope at what lies ahead.
In November, the International Energy Agency -- an intergovernmental organization that advises 28 member countries -- released its latest forecast. Between 2006 and 2030, the IEA predicts, worldwide energy consumption will grow 45 per cent.
"Current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable," said Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA. "Rising imports of oil and gas into OECD regions and developing Asia, together with the growing concentration of production in a small number of countries, would increase our susceptibility to supply disruptions and sharp price hikes. At the same time, greenhouse-gas emissions would be driven up inexorably, putting the world on track for an eventual global temperature increase of up to 6 C."
Think 1973. That year, an oil embargo imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries hammered the developed world.
Oil shocks will become more common and more severe. The triggers could be anything. A terrorist attack in the Strait of Hormuz, maybe. A coup in Saudi Arabia. The collapse of Nigeria. Whatever it is, it will cause oil prices to explode and economies to fall to their knees.
Canada and every other developed nation runs on oil. It is the foundation of our economy. But with most of the world's oil coming from unstable regions far away -- and the proportion that comes from places such as the Middle East is growing rapidly -- that foundation is not reliable.
In preparation for its 2008 report, the IEA conducted a detailed study of depletion rates in 800 of the world's largest oil fields. Nobody had ever done such work before and what the IEA found caused the agency to revise its understanding of the world's energy future in a profound way.
The change has to do with "peak oil" -- the point at which global oil production can no longer keep up with global oil demand. It's actually a nightmare scenario: Imagine the oil shock of 1973 as a permanent reality.
The IEA always insisted peak oil was decades off. But then the IEA conducted its survey of oil fields and got spooked. "Although global oil production in total is not expected to peak before 2030," the IEA's 2008 report states, "production of conventional oil ... is projected to level off towards the end of the projection period."
British journalist George Monbiot asked the IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol, to elaborate. The really bad news lies in oil-producing countries that are not OPEC members, Birol said. "We are expecting that in three, four years' time the production of conventional oil will come to a plateau, and start to decline."
And worldwide? "In terms of the global picture, assuming that OPEC will invest in a timely manner, global conventional oil can still continue, but we still expect that it will come around 2020 to a plateau as well, which is of course not good news from a global oil supply point of view."
That's the nightmare scenario of peak oil. And it starts in 2020, 11 years from now.
As Monbiot notes, the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a report by oil analyst Robert L. Hirsch. He concluded that even a worldwide emergency response launched 10 years before the crisis hit would still result in "a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked."
In order to avoid this disaster, Hirsch advised, a massive mitigation program must begin at least 20 years before peak.
If a chill didn't run up your spine, you need to read that again.
Fortunately, one of the few politicians who seems to understand the urgency of the situation is the president-elect of the United States.
In announcing his energy team, Barack Obama noted that presidents since Richard Nixon have recognized that oil addiction is a dangerous vulnerability but have failed to make real change. "This time we cannot fail," he said. "Nor can we be lulled into complacency just because, for now, the price of gas has fallen below $4 a gallon."
Obama backed his rhetoric with a daring choice for energy secretary, Steven Chu, a physicist and Nobel laureate who has been leading research into cutting-edge energy technology.
We must have a "global energy revolution," Birol told Monbiot. "I think time is not on our side here."
Don't listen to the Sirens, weary travellers.