Senior figures from industry, military and politics explore risks of financial chaos, oil depletion and climate catastrophe
An oil refinery in Canada
An oil refinery in Canada. Has cheap oil gone forever? Photograph: Dave Reede/All Canada Photos/Corbis
A conference sponsored by a US military official convened experts in Washington DC and London warning that continued dependence on fossil fuels puts the world at risk of an unprecedented energy crunch that could inflame financial crisis and exacerbate dangerous climate change.
The 'Transatlantic Energy Security Dialogue', which took place on 10th December last year, was co-organised by a US Army official, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis, operating in a private capacity, in association with former petroleum geologist Jeremy Leggett, chairman of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Gas.
Participants, who addressed one another via video link, consisted of retired military officers, security experts, senior industry executives, and politicians from the main parties - including two former UK ministers. According to US Army colonel Daniel Davis, a veteran of four tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and regular contributor to the Armed Forces Journal:
"We put the event together because the prevailing idea that we have a bright future of increasing oil and gas production that can sustain our current way of life indefinitely is based on a selective appraisal of the data. We brought together experts from across the spectrum, and with a wide range of opinions, to have a comprehensive look at all the relevant data. When you only look at certain things, like the very real resurgence of US oil and gas production, the picture looks fine. But when you dig deeper into the data, it becomes clear that this is only part of the picture. And the big picture proves that our current course cannot continue without significant risks."
The dialogue opened with a presentation by Mark C. Lewis, former head of energy research at Deutsche Bank's commodities unit, who highlighted three interlinked problems facing the global energy system: "very high decline rates" in global production; "soaring" investment requirements "to find new oil"; and since 2005, "falling exports of crude oil globally."
Lewis told participants that the International Energy Agency's (IEA) own "comprehensive" analysis in its World Energy Outlook of the 1,600 fields providing 70% of today's global oil supply, show "an observed decline rate of 6.2%" - double the IEA's stated estimate of future decline rate out to 2035 of about 3%.
The IEA report also shows that despite oil industry investment trebling in real terms since 2000 (an increase of around 200-300%), this has translated into an oil supply increase of just 12%. Lewis said:
"That is a very striking number and one I think that should be ringing alarm bells. It indicates to me that something has fundamentally changed in the economics of the oil industry and that you're having to invest more and more for diminishing incremental production."
Lewis also referred to US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data showing that although global crude oil exports increased "year on year from 2001 to 2005", they "peaked in 2005 and have been trending down since 2009." Lewis attributed this trend to rapidly rising populations in the Middle East which has led to escalating domestic oil consumption, effectively eating into the quantity of oil available to export onto world markets.
OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) populations since 2000 have increased at twice the rate of the world as a whole. This has driven them to increase their oil consumption four times faster, or by 56%, relative to the rest of the world.
Such increases in domestic consumption, curtailing global exports, have been enabled by a corresponding increase in domestic subsidies, said Lewis. Fossil fuel subsidies have increased to $544 billion, nearly half of which amounted to oil subsidies dominated by Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Against this consistent trend of rapidly declining oil exports, Lewis questioned the IEA's projection of an increase in global crude oil exports and imports from 35 to 38 million barrels a day out to 2035. He pointed out that if such domestic subsidies are removed by OPEC to facilitate increased exports, this would increase "the risk of greater domestic stress and social disorder", as already seen since the 'Arab spring'.
Lewis' presentation was complimented by geoscientist David Hughes, formerly of the Geological Survey of Canada, who cited a wealth of official data demonstrating that shale oil production is likely to peak around 2016-17. Similarly, US shale gas production has sustained a plateau for the last year that is unlikely to retain long-term sustainability due to spectacularly high decline rates, and because the vast majority of production comes from just two or three plays.
The upshot is that continued dependence on fossil fuels is becoming increasingly expensive, with oil prices continuing to rise for the foreseeable future, impinging evermore on global economic growth. At worst, declining global exports point to a risk of an oil crunch that could, in turn, trigger another financial crash.
Co-convener of the conference Leggett, author of the new book, The Energy of Nations, said:
"It should not be forgotten that only a very few people warned that the financial incumbency had their particular comforting narrative catastrophically wrong, until the proof came along in the shape of the financial crash." According to Leggett, a global energy crisis is unlikely to "erupt fully until 2015 at the earliest."
According to Lt. Col. Davis, scepticism of the oil industry's bullishness about future production is growing amongst senior Pentagon officials:
"A lot of high-ranking officials are starting to ask exactly these hard questions about the sustainability of the current energy system. You've got to remember that for the military, it doesn't matter what you want to do. What matters is what you can do, and it's our top priority to make sure we understand potential limits to our operational capability. Even the EIA is forecasting that we could see a peak of shale production by 2018 followed by a plateau and decline, and the Pentagon knows this. But our transport infrastructure is totally dependent on liquid fuels. How are we going to sustain that infrastructure with these decline rates? That's why serious questions are being asked by high level US military officials as to what exactly the Army, as well as American society in general, is going to do to address this challenge."
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed