The IEA Says Peak Oil Is Dead. That’s Bad News for Climate Policy

A new report suggests that fresh sources of oil in North America will loosen the global oil market. Will we stay addicted to oil—and will it keep us from fighting climate change?

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Brett Gundlock / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Suncor base plant, in the Athabasca Oil Sands, near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on March 26, 2013.

No one—aside maybe from survivalists who’d stocked up on MREs and assault rifles—was really looking forward to a peak-oil world. Read this 2007 GQ piece by Benjamin Kunkel—while we’re discussing topics from the mid-2000s—that imagines what a world without oil would really be like. Think uncomfortable and violent. Oil is in nearly every modern product we use, and it’s still what gets us from point A to point B—especially if you need to get from A to B in a plane. If we were really to see the global oil supply peak and decline sharply, even as demand continued to go up, well, apocalyptic might not be too large a word. And for several years in the middle of the last decade, as oil prices climbed past $100 a barrel and analysts were betting it would break $200, that scenario seemed entirely plausible.

But there was an upside to peak oil. Crude oil was responsible for a significant chunk of global carbon emissions, second only to coal. Only the shock of being severed from the main fuel of modernity would be enough to make us get serious about tackling climate change and shifting to an economy powered by renewable energy and efficiency. We’d have to because we’d have no other choice, save a future that might look something like Mad Max. We’d lose oil but save the world.

Increasingly, though, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. New oil sources, many of them unlocked by new technology—the Canadian oil sands, tight oil in North Dakota and Texas, ultra-deepwater oil in the Atlantic—has helped keep the supply of oil growing, even as greater efficiency measures and other social shifts have helped blunt demand in rich countries like the U.S. Oil isn’t likely to be cheap—a barrel of Brent crude is $102—and getting it out of the ground isn’t going to get any easier. But it’s increasingly likely that we will have more than enough oil in the future to keep the global economy growing and stave off any Mel Gibson-esque apocalypses.

Indeed, a new assessment released yesterday by the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that the surge of supply from North America—most of it from new unconventional sources—will transform the global supply of oil and help ease tight markets. Between now and 2018, the IEA projects that global oil production capacity will grow by 8.4 million barrels a day—significantly faster than demand. Oil isn’t likely to peak any time soon.

And that’s bad news for climate policy.

(MORE: There Will Be Oil—and That’s the Problem)

First the inevitable caveats. The IEA projections—including one that new North American oil “will be as transformative to the market over the next five years as was the rise of Chinese demand over the last 15″—strike a lot of analysts as over the top. Here’s Liam Denning in the Wall Street Journal—the publication that coined the triumphalist term “Saudi America”:

In that decade-and-a-half, China’s demand increased by 5.6 million barrels a day, fully 36% of the world’s overall growth in oil consumption. Oil went to north of $100 a barrel from about $20.

It is a fairly safe bet that even if the shale and sands boom does even better than the IEA forecasts, the world isn’t going back to $20 oil.

The kind of unconventional wells that are buoying new production in the U.S. tend to go dry fast and require a lot of investment. There are also political issues to contend with—see the battle that’s brewed over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which supporters say is key to fully developing the vast Canadian oil sands resource. Production might slow down for economic or political reasons. And even if North American oil keeps booming, we’re not likely to see a return to the rock-bottom prices of the 1990s. Expect to keep paying $3.50 or more for a gallon of gas.

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Still, sort of expensive gasoline isn’t exactly the dystopia that peak-oil theorists predicted. So what does a world of fairly abundant oil mean for climate policy? Charles Mann explored just this question in a recent Atlantic cover story—and his answers are bracing:

For years, environmentalists have hoped that the imminent exhaustion of oil will, in effect, force us to undergo this virtuous transition; given a choice between no power and solar power, even the most shortsighted person would choose the latter. That hope seems likely to be denied. Cheap, abundant petroleum threw sand in the gears of solar power in the 1980s and stands ready to do it again. Plentiful natural gas, a geopolitical and economic boon, is a climatological shackle. To Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba environmental scientist, the notion that we can move so fast is naive, even preposterous. “Energy transitions are always slow,” he told me by e-mail. Modern energy infrastructures, assembled over decades, cannot be revamped overnight. Worse still, in his view, there is little public appetite for beginning the process, or even appreciating the magnitude of what lies ahead. “The world has been running into fossil fuels, not away from them.”

The energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins challenged Mann’s thesis in a post of his own after the story ran out, arguing that future oil supplies wouldn’t matter because increasingly cheap renewables and efficiency would crowd out oil all by themselves. Mann replied in his post. You can score it yourself, though I agree with Mann. Oil is so much better at what it does—containing easily portable energy—then any currently workable substitute that it’s difficult to see it the world voluntarily giving it up unless it becomes prohibitively expensive, or we see a real social shift that puts much greater value than we do now on preventing climate change. Looks like we’ll have to hope for—and work for—the latter.

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