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Goodbye to Cheap Oil

It's official—the era of cheap oil is over.

| Thu Jun. 11, 2009 11:31 AM EDT

A Heavy Energy Footprint on the Planet

The geopolitical implications of this transformation could well be striking. Among other developments, the global clout of Canada, Venezuela, and Brazil—all key producers of unconventional fuels—is bound to be strengthened.

Canada is becoming increasingly important as the world's leading producer of oil sands, or bitumen—a thick, gooey, viscous material that must be dug out of the ground and treated in various energy-intensive ways before it can be converted into synthetic petroleum fuel (synfuel). According to the IEO report, oil sands production, now at 1.3 million barrels a day and barely profitable, could hit the 4.4 million barrel mark (or even, according to the most optimistic scenarios, 6.5 million barrels) by 2030.

Given the IEA's new projections, this would represent an extraordinary addition to global energy supplies just when key sources of conventional oil in places like Mexico and the North Sea are expected to suffer severe declines. The extraction of oil sands, however, could prove a pollution disaster of the first order. For one thing, remarkable infusions of old-style energy are needed to extract this new energy, huge forest tracts would have to be cleared, and vast quantities of water used for the steam necessary to dislodge the buried goo (just as the equivalent of "peak water" may be arriving).

What this means is that the accelerated production of oil sands is sure to be linked to environmental despoliation, pollution, and global warming. There is considerable doubt that Canadian officials and the general public will, in the end, be willing to pay the economic and environmental price involved. In other words, whatever the IEA may project now, no one can know whether synfuels will really be available in the necessary quantities 15 or 20 years down the road.

Venezuela has long been an important source of crude oil for the United States, generating much of the revenue used by President Hugo Chávez to sustain his social experiments at home and an ambitious anti-American political agenda abroad. In the coming years, however, its production of conventional petroleum is expected to fall, leaving the country increasingly reliant on the exploitation of large deposits of bitumen in the eastern Orinoco River basin. Just to develop these "extra-heavy oil" deposits will require significant financial and energy investments and, as with Canadian oil sands, the environmental impact could be devastating. Nevertheless, successful development of these deposits could prove an economic bonanza for Venezuela.

The big winner in these grim energy sweepstakes, however, is likely to be Brazil. Already a major producer of ethanol, it is expected to see a huge increase in unconventional oil output once its new ultra-deep fields in the "subsalt" Campos and Santos basins come on-line. These are massive offshore oil deposits buried beneath thick layers of salt some 100 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro and several miles beneath the ocean's surface.

When the substantial technical challenges to exploiting these undersea fields are overcome, Brazil's output could soar by as much as three million barrels per day. By 2030, Brazil should be a major player in the world energy equation, having succeeded Venezuela as South America's leading petroleum producer.

New Powers, New Problems

The IEO report hints at other geopolitical changes occurring in the global energy landscape, especially an expected stunning increase in the share of the global energy supply consumed in Asia and a corresponding decline by the United States, Japan, and other "First World" powers. In 1990, the developing nations of Asia and the Middle East accounted for only 17% of world energy consumption; by 2030, that number, the report suggests, should reach 41%, matching that of the major First World powers.

All recent editions of the report have predicted that China would eventually overtake the United States as number one energy consumer. What's notable is how quickly the 2009 edition expects that to happen. The 2006 report had China assuming the leadership position in a 2026-2030 timeframe; in 2007, it was 2021-2024; in 2008, it was 2016-2020. This year, the EIA is projecting that China will overtake the United States between 2010 and 2014.

It's easy enough to overlook these shifting estimates, since the reports don't emphasize how they have changed from year to year. What they suggest, however, is that the United States will face ever fiercer competition from China in the global struggle to secure adequate supplies of energy to meet national needs.

Given what we have learned about the dwindling prospects for adequate future oil supplies, we are sure to face increased geopolitical competition and strife between the two countries in those few areas that are capable of producing additional quantities of oil (and undoubtedly genuine desperation among many other countries with far less resources and power).

And much else follows: As the world's leading energy consumer, Beijing will undoubtedly play a far more critical role in setting international energy policies and prices, undercutting the pivotal role long played by Washington. It is not hard to imagine, then, that major oil producers in the Middle East and Africa will see it as in their interest to deepen political and economic ties with China at the expense of the United States. China can also be expected to maintain close ties with oil providers like Iran and Sudan, no matter how this clashes with American foreign policy objectives.

At first glance, the International Energy Outlook for 2009 hardly looks different from previous editions: a tedious compendium of tables and text on global energy trends. Looked at another way, however, it trumpets the headlines of the future—and their news is not comforting.

The global energy equation is changing rapidly, and with it is likely to come great power competition, economic peril, rising starvation, growing unrest, environmental disaster, and shrinking energy supplies, no matter what steps are taken. No doubt the 2010 edition of the report and those that follow will reveal far more, but the new trends in energy on the planet are already increasingly evident—and unsettling.

Michael T. Klare is the author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy

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