“Peak oil” hits mainstream

As we noted yesterday, reportage on the oil market jittters sparked by the Iran elections included a quote from one analyst predicting an imminent rise to $100 a barrel. This ominous figure is being heard more and more. The Wall Street Journal on June 22 ran an overview of predictions concerning the oil market and its impact on the world economy that quoted Tom Petrie, an “oil bull” who runs his own energy investment bank and research operation out of Denver. Petrie puts the chances that oil will rise to $80 to $100 a barrel in the next couple of years at greater than 50 percent.

Al-Jazeera April 21 noted a report prepared by energy economists at the French investment bank Ixis-CIB warning that crude oil prices could touch $380 a barrel by 2015. Some excerpts: “If one takes into account the level of previous oil shocks such as in the 1970’s, we don’t think a price level of $380 per barrel is out of the question… We have taken into account every new oil discovery and potential source …as well as this we note the continuing situation of a fall in new field discoveries.” Meanwhile, China will contribute greatly to the world’s rising energy needs: “Rapid movements of people from the Chinese countryside into the cities would increase the demand for housing, cars and general transportation. All of this will fuel energy consumption,” the report said.

On May 4, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) ran a story on a Palm Springs lecture by legendary independent oil magnate T. Boone Pickens in which he predicted $60 a barrel by the end of the year. He would be vindicated in less than two months. Boone on what is driving the spike: “Global oil [production] is 84 million barrels [a day]. I don’t believe you can get it any more than 84 million barrels. I don’t care what [Saudi Crown Prince] Abdullah, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or anybody else says about oil reserves or production. I think they are on decline in the biggest oil fields in the world today and I know what’s it like once you turn the corner and start declining, it’s a tread mill that you just can’t keep up with.”

On May 25, the UK Guardian reported from the ASPO annual meeting at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, where delegates accused OPEC of articifially inflating its reserve estimates:

From quiet beginnings three years ago, Aspo is no longer just “bubbling under” in being taken seriously. Delegates had to squeeze past no fewer than 10 documentary crews, a nest of television cameras and a phalanx of reporters just to grab their seat in the packed auditorium.

Rather than talking about when oil could “run out”, Aspo prefers to predict that global production may be at, or approaching, its height. The world is using more oil than it finds, and discoveries of oil fields peaked in the 1960s. Despite technological advances since then, new field discoveries are at an all-time low. This, said delegates, has led to the current lack of any “cushion” between supply and demand, and to the consequent high prices. The outcome for the world, if Aspo is correct, is catastrophic.

Central to the organisation is the work of Colin Campbell, a geologist and former executive vice-president of oil giant Total. Making the meeting’s keynote speech, Campbell talked about the “dawn of the end of the age of oil” and the “end of economics”.

Underpinning all of Campbell’s, and Aspo’s, work is the lack of transparency in the world’s oil data. Campbell drew attention to the way in which members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) “revised” their reserve figures in the 1980s, and said that it is incredible that this “flawed data” is still being used today. He highlighted the example of Kuwait, which scrubbed its previous figures in 1985. Overnight, its reserves went from 64bn barrels to 92bn barrels. As Opec allows production quotas tied to stated reserves, this allowed Kuwait to pump more oil and immediately make a lot more money.

Campbell showed how, two years later, the other countries in Opec, outflanked by Kuwait’s sudden action, followed suit. The United Arab Emirates went from 31bn barrels to 92bn barrels. “Then came Iran,” said Campbell. It declared its reserves had increased, but went one better, going from 47bn barrels to 93bn. “And what of Iraq?” added Campbell. “Saddam, as we all know, had some pretty strong views on things, so he decided to come in at a round 100.” Its previously stated reserves were 47bn barrels.

Some 18 to 20 years later, these numbers remain unchanged. This despite the United Arab Emirates, for instance, pumping millions of barrels every week since the day it flipped its figures.

Campbell asserts that Opec members, and others such as Russia, are stating the total amount ever found, not the amount left for us to use. But such claims are not the preserve only of Aspo. This year, the International Energy Agency, the International Monetary Fund and G7 members all demanded that Opec, and other producer nations, open their fields to audit. Without knowing how much oil is left to pump, decisions about any energy transitions – the move away from oil as a predominant fuel – remain impossible.

If these people are right, the obvious conclusion is that the Bush administration (filled with oil industry bigwigs and having access to CIA data) is on to them, revealing the Iraq campaign as a strategic gamble for control of the world’s most important oil reserves in the Persian Gulf, as leverage to assure US global dominance in the coming century. A group of anthropology students at UC Berkeley have assembled an online reader arguing this point, entitled Crude Geopolitics: “A collection of readings for citizens concerned about what’s fueling U.S. foreign policy.”