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The IEA’s New Peak

Without missing a beat and without much explanation, the world’s leading compiler of everything about energy has gone from denying that conventional oil production will peak in our lifetime to saying it happened four years ago. Will wonders never cease! The Agency, of course, did not predict an immediate cataclysm, as it managed to conjure up enough undiscovered, undeveloped, lousy quality, and very-expensive-to produce oil to keep the world sort of growing for another 25 years. Needless to say the conjuring was met with much derision from those who believe they can discern the possible from the impossible.

Before getting into the implications of all this, it is well to remind ourselves that, in the case of this particular publication and set of forecasts, the IEA has a nearly impossible mission. Although in theory independent of the 28 national governments that support the Agency, in reality it has many political masters none of which are as yet ready to grapple with the myriad of problems that will occur when their peoples recognize that significant economic contraction is the only possible course ahead.

On the other side of the equation are a growing host of sophisticated IEA watchers who are ready to pounce on any inconsistencies and tear at the Agency’s credibility. Just last year, a whistleblower made headlines by asserting in the British press that the IEA understood that world conventional oil production had peaked, but were under pressure from the “Americans” not to say so.

Thus the new document is a blend of dodging and weaving, writing around issues, and having it both ways – oil has peaked, yet it will not peak for another 25 years. There is something – and nothing – for everybody. Kjell Aleklett, the President of ASPO-International, sees this year’s release as a cry for help. The Agency wants to tell the truth, but is constrained by its masters. The answer is to continue its tradition of predicting future demand for oil that permits some semblance of economic growth (although highly constrained) without really making the case that it will ever be possible to fulfill this demand.

Last year the Agency foresaw global oil production reaching 106 million b/d by 2030. This year it forecasts only 99 million b/d by 2035. Aleklett points out that we can interpret this drop as saying that global economic growth is no longer possible. Kenneth Deffeyes, one of the early writers to describe the peak oil phenomenon, points out that the IEA is trying to say “look, oil production peaked five years ago and nothing catastrophic happened” – that is if you ignore the worst global recession in 80 years which certainly was helped along by the $147 a barrel oil we had two years ago.

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