Friday, November 14, 2014

Signs of stress must not be ignored, IEA warns in its new World Energy Outlook

Energy sector must tackle longer-term pressure points before they reach breaking point

Events of the last year have increased many of the long-term uncertainties facing the global energy sector, says the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2014 (WEO-2014). It warns against the risk that current events distract decision makers from recognising and tackling the longer-term signs of stress that are emerging in the energy system.

In the central scenario of WEO-2014, world primary energy demand is 37% higher in 2040, putting more pressure on the global energy system. But this pressure would be even greater if not for efficiency measures that play a vital role in holding back global demand growth. The scenario shows that world demand for two out of the three fossil fuels – coal and oil – essentially reaches a plateau by 2040, although, for both fuels, this global outcome is a result of very different trends across countries. At the same time, renewable energy technologies gain ground rapidly, helped by falling costs and subsidies (estimated at $120 billion in 2013). By 2040, world energy supply is divided into four almost equal parts: low-carbon sources (nuclear and renewables), oil, natural gas and coal.

In an in-depth focus on nuclear power, WEO-2014 sees installed capacity grow by 60% to 2040 in the central scenario, with the increase concentrated heavily in just four countries (China, India, Korea and Russia). Despite this, the share of nuclear power in the global power mix remains well below its historic peak. Nuclear power plays an important strategic role in enhancing energy security for some countries. It also avoids almost four years’ worth of global energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2040. However, nuclear power faces major challenges in competitive markets where there are significant market and regulatory risks, and public acceptance remains a critical issue worldwide. Many countries must also make important decisions regarding the almost 200 nuclear reactors due to be retired by 2040, and how to manage the growing volumes of spent nuclear fuel in the absence of permanent disposal facilities.

“As our global energy system grows and transforms, signs of stress continue to emerge,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “But renewables are expected to go from strength to strength, and it is incredible that we can now see a point where they become the world’s number one source of electricity generation.”

The report sees a positive outlook for renewables, as they are expected to account for nearly half of the global increase in power generation to 2040, and overtake coal as the leading source of electricity. Wind power accounts for the largest share of growth in renewables-based generation, followed by hydropower and solar technologies. However, as the share of wind and solar PV in the world’s power mix quadruples, their integration becomes more challenging both from a technical and market perspective.

World oil supply rises to 104 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2040, but hinges critically on investments in the Middle East. As tight oil output in the United States levels off, and non-OPEC supply falls back in the 2020s, the Middle East becomes the major source of supply growth. Growth in world oil demand slows to a near halt by 2040: demand in many of today’s largest consumers either already being in long-term decline by 2040 (the United States, European Union and Japan) or having essentially reached a plateau (China, Russia and Brazil). China overtakes the United States as the largest oil consumer around 2030 but, as its demand growth slows, India emerges as a key driver of growth, as do sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

“A well-supplied oil market in the short-term should not disguise the challenges that lie ahead, as the world is set to rely more heavily on a relatively small number of producing countries,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol. “The apparent breathing space provided by rising output in the Americas over the next decade provides little reassurance, given the long lead times of new upstream projects.”

Demand for gas is more than 50% higher in 2040, and it is the only fossil fuel still growing significantly at that time. The United States remains the largest global gas producer, although production levels off in the late-2030s as shale gas output starts to recede. East Africa emerges alongside Qatar, Australia, North America and others as an important source of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is an increasingly important tool for gas security. A key uncertainty for gas outside of North America is whether it can be made available at prices that are low enough to be attractive for consumers and yet high enough to incentivise large investments in supply.

While coal is abundant and its supply relatively secure, its future use is constrained by measures to improve efficiency, tackle local pollution and reduce CO2 emissions. Coal demand is 15% higher in 2040 but growth slows to a near halt in the 2020s. Regional trends vary, with demand reaching a peak in China, dropping by one-third in the United States, but continuing to grow in India.

The global energy system continues to face a major energy poverty crisis. In sub-Saharan Africa (the regional focus of WEO-2014), two out of every three people do not have access to electricity, and this is acting as a severe constraint on economic and social development. Meanwhile, costly fossil-fuel consumption subsidies (estimated at $550 billion in 2013) are often intended to help increase energy access, but fail to help those that need it most and discourage investment in efficiency and renewables.

A critical “sign of stress” is the failure to transform the energy system quickly enough to stem the rise in energy-related CO2 emissions (which grow by one-fifth to 2040) and put the world on a path consistent with a long-term global temperature increase of 2°C. In the central scenario, the entire carbon budget allowed under a 2°C climate trajectory is consumed by 2040, highlighting the need for a comprehensive and ambitious agreement at the COP21 meeting in Paris in 2015.

The World Energy Outlook is for sale at the IEA bookshop. Journalists who would like more information should contact ieapressoffice@iea.org.

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About the IEA

The International Energy Agency is an autonomous organisation that works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for its 29 member countries and beyond. Founded in response to the 1973/4 oil crisis, the IEA’s initial role was to help countries co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in oil supply. While this remains a key aspect of its work, the IEA has evolved and expanded. It is at the heart of global dialogue on energy, providing authoritative research, statistics, analysis and recommendations.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Russia, China Sign Second Mega-Gas Deal: Beijing Becomes Largest Buyer Of Russian Gas

As we previewed on Friday, when we reported that "Russia Nears Completion Of Second "Holy Grail" Gas Deal With China", moments ago during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum taking place this weekend in Beijing, Russia and China signed 17 documents Sunday, greenlighting a second "mega" Russian natural gas to China via the so-called "western" or "Altay" route, which as previously reported, would supply 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year to China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping

Among the documents signed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping were the memorandum on the delivery of Russian natural gas to China via the western route, the framework agreement on gas supplies between Russia's Gazprom and China's CNPC and the memorandum of understanding between the Russian energy giant and the Chinese state-owned oil and gas corporation.

"We have reached an understanding in principle concerning the opening of the western route," Putin said. "We have already agreed on many technical and commercial aspects of this project, laying a good basis for reaching final arrangements."

RIA adds, citing Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, that the documents signed by Russia and China on Sunday define the western route as a priority project for the gas cooperation between the two countries.

"First of all these documents stipulate that the "western route" is becoming a priority project for our gas cooperation," Miller said, adding that the documents provide for the export of 30 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to China annually for a 30-year period.

Miller noted that with the increase of deliveries via the western route, the total volume of Russian gas deliveries to China may exceed the current levels of export to Europe in the medium-term perspective. In other words, China has now eclipsed Europe as Russia's biggest, and most strategic natural gas client. More:

Miller, who heads Russia's state-run energy giant, told reporters that "taking into account the increase in deliveries via 'western route,' the volume of supplied [natural gas] to China could exceed European exports in the mid-term perspective."

This came after Russian and Chinese energy executives signed on Sunday a package of 17 documents, including a framework deal between Gazprom and China's energy giant CNPC to deliver gas to China via the western route pipeline.

Miller said Gazprom and CNPC were in talks on a memorandum of understanding that would see Russia bring gas to China through the western route pipeline, as well as a framework agreement between the two state-owned companies to carry out the deliveries.

The western route will connect fields in western Siberia with northwest China through the Altai Republic. Second and third sections may be added to the pipeline at a later date, bringing its capacity up to 100 billion cubic meters a year.

The facts and figures of the Altay deal are broken down in the following map courtesy of RT

Also of note, among the business issues discussed by Putin and Xi at their fifth meeting this year was the possibility of payment in Chinese yuan, including for defense deals military, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by RIA Novosti. More from RIA:

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping have discussed the possibility of using the yuan in mutual transactions in different fields of cooperation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sunday.

"Much attention has been paid to the topic of mutual payments in diverse fields ... in yuans which will help to strengthen the yuan as the region's reserve currency," Peskov said commenting on the meeting held between Putin and Xi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.

On October 13, Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev announced that Russia was considering Chinese market to partially substitute access to the financial resources of the European Union and the United States.

The European Union and the United States have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia over its alleged involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, a claim Moscow has repeatedly denied. The restrictions prohibit major Russian companies from seeking financing on western capital markets.

Meanwhile, as China and Russia keep forging ahead in a world in which the two becomes tied ever closer in a symtiotic, dollar-free relationship, this is how the US is faring at the same meeting: "China, U.S. Parry Over Preferred Trade Pacts at APEC: Little Progress Made on Separate Trade Deals at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum."

The U.S. blocked China’s initiatives because it worried that launching FTAAP talks would impede progress on a separate trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The ministers’ statement said that any FTAAP deal would build on "ongoing regional undertakings"—a reference to TPP and other regional trade deals.

"The Chinese got all they could expect—a reaffirmation that we all share in the vision of having a regional integrated model" for trade, said U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Myron Brilliant.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that negotiating the TPP "is a battle that we absolutely must win." Ministers from the 12 TPP nations met Saturday afternoon to try to narrow differences, including disputes between the U.S. and Japan over agriculture and auto trade. On Monday, the leaders of the TPP nations are again scheduled to discuss the trade deal, although no breakthrough is expected.

The U.S. is trying to tie an ITA deal to progress on other trade deals with China, as a way to increase its leverage with Beijing. "How the ITA negotiations proceed is an important and useful data point" on China’s ability to negotiate an investment treaty with the U.S., Mr. Froman said.

Trade analysts say the U.S. also hopes to use China’s desire to have the Beijing conference produce concrete results as leverage. This is the first major international summit held in China since Xi Jinping took over as Communist Party chief in 2012, and the government wants to use the session to affirm China’s greater role in the world.

Good luck trying to "increase US leverage with Beijing" using a trade conference being held in Beijing as the venue.

In other words instead of actual trade agreements, the US merely jawboned and "shared visions."

Then again, as noted here since 2010, in a world in which one can merely "print one's way to prosperity", what is the need for actual trade? Surely, which China and Russia are expanding their commercial ties at the expense of Europe, the US can continue to pretend it is the world's only superpower and has no need for either Russia or China. After all, Mr. Chairmanwoman can always go back to work and print some more of that "world reserve currency." More



 

 

 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reducing European Dependence on Russian Gas

Executive Summary

The main finding of this paper is that there is limited scope for significantly reducing overall European dependence on Russian gas before the mid-2020s.

However, countries in the Baltic region and south-eastern Europe which are highly dependent on Russian gas, and hence extremely vulnerable to interruptions, could substantially reduce and even eliminate imports of Russian gas by the early 2020s, by a combination of LNG supplies and pipeline gas from Azerbaijan. Similar measures could reduce (but not eliminate) the dependence of central Europe and Turkey on Russian gas. In the majority of countries, there is limited scope to reduce gas with oil products, and to the extent that it is replaced by coal in power generation carbon emissions will increase significantly.

Up to the mid-2020s, European companies are contractually obliged to import at least 115 bcm/year of Russian gas (approximately 75 per cent of the 2013 import level), a figure which reduces to around 65 bcm by 2030. Even if long-term contracts disappear, our modelling shows a requirement of at least 100 bcm/year of Russian gas up to 2030, and in some scenarios up to twice that volume. The main additional source of non-Russian gas for Europe up to 2030 will be LNG; pipeline gas imports from domestic and other imported sources are not envisaged to increase substantially and may decline. Russian gas deliveries to Europe will be highly competitive with all other pipeline gas and LNG (including US LNG) supplies throughout the period to 2030, and Gazprom's market power to impact European hub prices may be considerable.

Countries with strong geopolitical fears related to Russian gas dependence will need to either terminate, or not renew on expiry, their long-term contracts with Gazprom. This will result in substantial additional infrastructure costs for LNG import terminals and pipeline connections, or investments in alternative energy sources, energy conservation, and efficiency measures.

Whatever the political relationship between Russia, the European Union, and individual European countries, a continued natural gas relationship will be necessary and needs to be carefully managed. The most immediate problems are: a resolution of the Ukrainian transit situation, and a successful conclusion of the EU's regulatory treatment of the South Stream pipeline. Once the immediate crisis has passed, both sides need to discuss the future role of gas in EU energy balances, together with its potential contribution to the EU's ambitious carbon reduction targets. Download PDF

 

 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

World on the brink of oil war as Opec bickers over price

Oil prices ended last week in freefall as the world’s largest group of producers from petro-states in the Middle East dithered over whether to cut output.

A secretive group of the world’s most powerful oil ministers will soon gather in Vienna to take arguably one of the most important decisions that could affect the still fragile world economy: whether to cut production of crude to defend prices at $100 per barrel, or keep open the spigots as winter looms among the biggest energy-consuming nations?

A sudden slump in the price of crude has exposed deep divisions within the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) ahead of its final scheduled meeting of the year next month to decide on how much oil to pump.

Some members, led by Iran, have called for immediate action to stem the drop in oil prices, while the Arab sheikhdoms of the Gulf have so far argued that it could be another three months before it becomes clear whether the group should cut production for the first time since December 2008.

Whatever they decide, oil remains the lifeblood of the global economic system due to its direct impact on inflation and input prices. Brent crude – a global benchmark of oil drawn from 15 fields in the North Sea, dipped last week to multi-year lows below $92 per barrel as a perfect storm of a strong US dollar, oversupply in the system and declining demand shattered confidence in the market. Brent has tumbled 20pc in the last three months after touching $115 per barrel in June.

In the US – the world’s biggest consumer – crude for November delivery at one point last week dropped below the psychologically important $90 pricing level, raising fears that a prolonged slump could put many of America’s shale drillers out of business. Shale oil, which can cost up to $80 per barrel to produce, has spurred an energy revolution in the US, which has started to threaten the dominance of producers in the Middle East.

However, at current price levels many of these new so called “tight oil” wells are approaching the point when they will soon become unprofitable.

Like the situation in the US, falling oil prices are also a double-edged sword for Britain’s economy and investors. Although George Osborne, the Chancellor, is less reliant on tax revenues from the North Sea than some of his predecessors, prices are approaching the point when many of the developments planned offshore west of Shetland by international oil companies could be placed on ice.

A sharp drop-off in domestic oil production and associated tax receipts from the North Sea would give Mr Osborne an unwelcome hole to fill in the government’s public finances heading into next year’s general election. However, falling oil prices will help to keep inflation low.

For Britain’s motorists the current declines have been good news that has trickled through to the price of petrol on forecourts. A litre of unleaded petrol in the UK has fallen a few pence over the past month to an average of around 127.21p on average, a figure last seen in 2011, just before Mr Osborne raised the value added tax on fuel to 20pc, from 17.5pc.

All eyes are now firmly focused on the next move by Opec, which controls 60pc of the world’s oil reserves and about a third of daily physical supply. The group has been branded an unaccountable “cartel” by free-market critics in North America who claim its system of limiting production by setting an output ceiling and quotas is tantamount to price rigging.

Although this is an accusation that the group’s secretariat which is based in Vienna strongly denies, its mostly unelected group of policymaking oil ministers undeniably pull the strings of the global energy industry in the same way that central bankers can control currencies.

Opec states have largely managed to maintain cohesion over the last decade as prices over $100 per barrel have enriched their economies and encouraged adherence to quotas. This consensus is now starting to break down, creating more uncertainty in the market and a potentially destabilising situation for the global economy.

Next month’s meeting promises to be the most tense held since the onset of the Arab Spring in 2010, with the Shi’ite Muslim faction of Iran and Iraq already appearing to line up against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has placed his cards on the table early by calling for Opec to urgently cut output to stem the sharp recent decline in prices, which threatens the Islamic Republic’s fragile economy after years of restrictive sanctions.

According to research from Deutsche Bank, Iran has the highest fiscal break-even price for its budget at over $130 per barrel of Brent, compared with the UAE at around $70 per barrel and Saudi Arabia at about $90. More

 

 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Solar power could be world's top electricity source by 2050

Solar energy could be the top source of electricity by 2050, aided by plummeting costs of the equipment to generate it, a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the West’s energy watchdog, said on Monday.

IEA Reports said solar photovoltaic (PV) systems could generate up to 16% of the world’s electricity by 2050, while solar thermal electricity (STE) - from “concentrating” solar power plants - could provide a further 11%.

“The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels constitute the fastest-growing renewable energy technology in the world since 2000, although solar is still less than 1% of energy capacity worldwide.

The IEA said PV expansion would be led by China, followed by the United States, while STE could also grow in the United States along with Africa, India and the Middle East. More


 

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Peak Oil Crisis: It‘s All Around Us

Ten years ago peak oil was assumed to be a rather straight forward, transparent process. What was then thought of as "oil" production was going to stop growing around the middle of the last decade.


Shortages were going to occur; prices were going to rise; demand was going to drop; economies would falter; and eventually a major economic depression was going to occur. Fortunately or not, depending on your point of view, the last ten years have turned out to a lot more complicated than expected. Production of what is now known as "conventional" oil did indeed peak back around 2005, and many of the phenomena that were expected to result did occur and continue to this day.

Oil prices have climbed several-fold from where they were in the early years of the last decade – surging upwards from $20 a barrel to circa $100. This rapid jump in energy costs did slow many nations’ economies, cut oil consumption, and with some other factors set off a "great" recession. Real economic hardships have not yet occurred

What is so interesting about all this is that a temporary surge in what was heretofore a little known source of oil in the U.S. is masking the larger story of what is taking place in the global oil situation

Much of this is due to the reaction that set in from high oil prices and increased government intervention into the economy. In the case of the U.S., Washington turned on the modern day equivalent of the printing presses and began handing out money that was used to develop expensive sources of oil and gas. The high selling price per barrel, coupled with cheap money led to a boom in U.S. oil production where fortuitous geological conditions in North Dakota and South Texas allowed the production of shale oil at money-making prices provided oil prices stay high.

U.S. unconventional oil production soared by some 3.3 million barrels a day (b/d) in the last four years, and, if the US Energy Information Administration is correct, is due to climb by another million b/d or so in 2015. While this jump in production was unexpected by most, it was just another phenomenon resulting from unprecedentedly high oil prices, which in turn resulted from the lack of adequate "conventional" oil production. As is well known, economic development can have major reactions and feedbacks

What is so interesting about all this is that a temporary surge in what was heretofore a little known source of oil in the U.S. is masking the larger story of what is taking place in the global oil situation. The simple answer is that except for the U.S. shale oil surge almost no increase in oil production is taking place around the world. No other country as yet has gotten significant amounts of shale oil or gas into production. Russia’s conventional oil production seems to be peaking at present, and its Arctic oil production is still many years, or perhaps even decades, away. Brazilian production is going nowhere at the minute, deepwater production in the Gulf of Mexico is stagnating and the Middle East is busy killing itself. On top of all this, global demand for oil continues to increase by some million b/d each year – most of which is going to Asia.

If we step back and acknowledge that the shale oil phenomenon will be over in a couple of years and that oil production is dropping in the rest of the world, then we have to expect that the remainder of the peak oil story will play out shortly. The impact of shrinking global oil production, which is been on hold for nearly a decade, will appear. Prices will go much higher, this time with lowered expectations that more oil will be produced as prices go higher. The great recession, which has never really gone away for most, will return with renewed vigor and all that it implies.

An additional factor which has grown considerably worse in the last ten years is climate change, largely brought about by the combustion of fossil fuels. We are already seeing global weather anomalies with record high and low temperatures and record floods as well as droughts. This too will take its toll on economic development as mitigating this change will soon become enormously expensive. We are already seeing migrations of restive peoples. Thousands are dying in efforts to get from the Middle East and Africa into the EU. Millions are already homeless across the Middle East and recent developments foretell hundreds of thousands if not millions more being added to ranks of refugees as decades and even centuries-old political arrangements collapse.

All this is telling us that the peak oil crisis we have been watching for the last ten years has not gone away, but is turning out to be a more prolonged event than previous believed. Many do not believe that peak oil is really happening as they read daily of surging oil production and falling oil prices. Rarely do they hear that another shoe has yet to drop and that much worse in terms of oil shortages, higher prices and interrupted economic growth is just ahead.

We are sitting in the eye of the peak oil crisis and few recognize it. Five years from now, it should be apparent to all. More

 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why Peak Oil Refuses To Die

Perhaps you’ve seen one of the recent barrage of articles claiming that fears of an imminent peak and decline in world oil production have either been dispelled (because we actually have plenty of oil) or are misplaced (because climate change is the only environmental problem we should be concerned with). I’m not buying either argument.

Richard Heinberg

Why? Let’s start with the common assertion that oil supplies are sufficiently abundant so that a peak in production is many years or decades away. Everyone agrees that planet Earth still holds plenty of petroleum or petroleum-like resources: that’s the kernel of truth at the heart of most attempted peak-oil debunkery. However, extracting and delivering those resources at an affordable price is becoming a bigger challenge year by year. For the oil industry, costs of production have rocketed; they’re currently soaring at a rate of about 10 percent annually. Producers need very high oil prices to justify going after the resources that remain—tight oil from source rocks, Arctic oil, ultra-deepwater oil, and bitumen. But oil prices have already risen to the point where many users of petroleum just can’t afford to pay more. The US economyhas a habit of responding to oil price hikes by swooning into recession, and during the shift from $20 per barrel oil to $100 per barrel oil (which occurred between 2002 and 2011), the economies of most industrialized countries began to shudder and stall. What would be their response to a sustained oil price of $150 or $200? We may never know: it remains to be seen whether the world can afford to pay what will be required for oil producers to continue wresting liquid hydrocarbons from the ground at current rates. While industry apologists who choose to focus only on the abundance of remaining petroleum resources claim that peak oil is rubbish, the market is telling Houston we have a problem.

Meanwhile some environmentalists have abandoned the subject of peak oil because they believe it’s just not relevant. For them, climate change is the only thing that matters. Society must deal with its collective carbon habit by going cold turkey on all fossil fuels. We can make the needed energy transition through the strategies of substitution and efficiency. Develop low-carbon energy sources (solar and wind, possibly nuclear), and use energy smarter! Electrify transport with battery-powered cars! Get with the program and stop wasting time on side issues!

Like the abundant-resource argument, this line of thinking proceeds from an unassailable premise. Anthropogenic climate change is indeed the nastiest, gnarliest environmental issue humanity has ever faced. The potential consequences stretch centuries or millennia into the future and imperil not just humanity, but thousands or millions of other species. But peak oil won’t go away just because it’s an inconvenient distraction from addressing that gargantuan issue. In fact, the two problems are closely linked and society will need to address both by way of a realistic, comprehensive strategy. I’ll get back to that point toward the end of this essay.

Is the necessary transition to renewable energy a simple matter of politics and regulation, as many climate campaigners seem to suggest? Hardly. Transitioning the electricity sector is a huge task in itself (the variability of wind and solar power implies soaring costs for energy storage, capacity redundancy, and grid upgrades once these sources start to provide a substantial portion of total electrical energy consumed). But liquid fuels pose an even bigger hurdle. Even the most advanced batteries do a poor job of storing energy when compared to oil; that’s why we’re unlikely ever to see electric airplanes, tractors, ships, 18-wheel trucks, or bulldozers. Some energy pundits tout compressed natural gas as a viable bridge fuel for transport, but that assumes sufficient availability and continued affordability of fracked shale gas—a prospect that seems highly unlikely in view of the results of Post Carbon Institute’s ongoing research into possible shale gas drilling locations and per-well production profiles. Hydrogen could be a niche fuel in some instances, but conversion from other energy sources (electricity or natural gas) to hydrogen implies energy losses, as does hydrogen storage. Further, if we were to make lots of H2 from water, using electricity, in order to fuel much of the transport sector, this would place an enormous extra burden on solar and wind, which already face a daunting job replacing coal and natural gas in the power generation sector.

How about energy efficiency? Good idea! We need to cut energy waste, and the folks at Rocky Mountain Institute have proposed many good ways of doing that. But, at the end of the day, efficiency is subject to the law of diminishing returns; so, while the tie between energy consumption and economic output is somewhat elastic, it cannot be severed. Specifically regarding oil: yes, many nations have reduced petroleum consumption in the last few years as a way of adapting to higher prices. But the fact that their economies have weakened suggests that efficiency gains have tended to lag behind oil price increases. Average vehicle fuel economy has improved, but not fast enough—so our main “efficiency” strategy has in reality simply been to travel less, and then deal with the withdrawal of economic benefits that cheap transport formerly provided.

None of this is trivial: oil is essential to the functioning of the modern industrial world. We use it for just about all transportation, which is key to trade. It’s also the fuel for construction, resource extraction (mining, fishing, forestry), and agriculture. Together, these sectors form the backbone of the real, physical economy of industrialized nations.

Again: the costs of oil production are rising and oil is stubbornly hard to substitute. As I argued in a recent book, this effectively spells the end of the historic period of rapid economic growth that began shortly after World War II. There is no way out; inevitably, society will become less mobile and—this should be cause for much greater concern—it will either produce less food or produce it in more labor-intensive ways.

Of course, peak oil and climate change aren’t the only looming challenges we should be concerned about. Economists rightly worry that the world is mired in far too much debt. Ecologists warn us about biodiversity loss, pervasive chemical pollution, and human overpopulation. Food system analysts try (usually in vain) to direct public attention toward the predicaments of topsoil degradation and depletion of aquifers from over-irrigation. Public health professionals caution us about the specter of pandemics as antibiotics lose effectiveness due to rapid microbial evolution. For city managers, the crumbling of water, sewerage, bridge, gas, and electricity grid infrastructure implies countless disasters just waiting to happen. I could go on. It’s all so overwhelming! Perhaps the only way to avoid crisis fatigue these days is simply to stop paying attention. But amid all these priorities and problems, peak oil refuses to die.

Those of us who insist on paying attention sooner or later get around to doing a form of mental triage. What are the worst crises that humanity faces over the long run? Which are the worst in the short term? What are the deeper issues, of which many problems are mere symptoms? This sorting process has led many systems thinkers to the conclusion that our species, in essence, faces an ecological dilemma of overpopulation, resource depletion, and environmental degradation resulting from a relatively brief period of rapid expansion enabled by a huge but temporary energy subsidy in the form of fossil fuels. We discovered buried treasure and went on a spending binge, adopting a way of life that cannot be supported long-term. Peak oil, climate change, mineral depletion, soil degradation, species loss, and the rest are justwords that blind men use to describe an elephant.

What we must do now is treat symptoms while keeping in mind the root disease, seeing why and how various crises are related. I have a couple of suggestions in this regard. One is that we begin to speak of peak oil and climate change as two sides of the same coin. The coin itself represents our reliance on fossil fuels and their unique energetic benefits. Both side-problems (the declining economic value of fossil fuels as they deplete, on one side, and the increasing environmental cost of burning them, on the other) demand that we reduce our fossil fuel dependency as rapidly as possible, even though that means sacrificing benefits we have come to depend on. If we maintain this holistic view of the situation, we’re more likely to understand that there is no way to keep eating our cake while having it too, either by continuing to burn fossil fuels of declining quality or by relying on new technology to fix what is actually an ecological problem. We can’t frack our way back to economic prosperity; nor can we unplug a coal plant, plug in a solar panel, and go on expanding population and consumption. We will have to adapt to the quantities and qualities of energy that are actually available from renewable sources alone, and that will mean changing the way we do just about everything.

Which brings me to the second, related suggestion. The constellation of challenges before us ensures that economic growth, as we have known it, is over, finished, kaput. That’s a terrible thing, in that the end of growth will almost certainly entail financial and political turbulence with real human casualties. But from the standpoint of diagnosis and treatment, it simplifies everything marvelously. If our impending crises stem from fossil-fueled expansion of population and consumption, their resolution surely starts with a coordinated, planned, and managed program of decarbonization and degrowth. We must reduce population and energy consumption from fossil fuels, while minimizing the human and environmental impacts of both past growth and the process of contraction. Easily said, not so easily done. But if civilization is to maintain itself in any recognizable form, this is what’s necessary. It would really help if those of us working at treating the various symptoms of the global meta-crisistogether acknowledged that growth is a core part of the underlying problem, not a solution, and that it is effectively over in any case.

Ignore peak oil (this could equally be said of climate change), and our view of the global problem-set immediately becomes distorted. We grasp at apparent solutions that turn out to be a useless waste of effort, or worse. Peak oil helps us understand what we’re faced with, and what we must do. It’s a gift wrapped in a curse. And it refuses to go away no matter how often it is pronounced dead.

By. Richard Heinberg