The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com
Here’s the good news about energy: thanks to rising oil prices and deteriorating economic conditions worldwide, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that global oil demand will not grow this year as much as once assumed, which may provide some temporary price relief at the gas pump. In its May Oil Market Report, the IEA reduced its 2011 estimate for global oil consumption by 190,000 barrels per day, pegging it at 89.2 million barrels daily. As a result, retail prices may not reach the stratospheric levels predicted earlier this year, though they will undoubtedly remain higher than at any time since the peak months of 2008, just before the global economic meltdown. Keep in mind that this is the good news.
As for the bad news: the world faces an array of intractable energy problems that, if anything, have only worsened in recent weeks. These problems are multiplying on either side of energy’s key geological divide: below ground, once-abundant reserves of easy-to-get “conventional” oil, natural gas, and coal are drying up; above ground, human miscalculation and geopolitics are limiting the production and availability of specific energy supplies. With troubles mounting in both arenas, our energy prospects are only growing dimmer.
Here’s one simple fact without which our deepening energy crisis makes no sense: the world economy is structured in such a way that standing still in energy production is not an option. In order to satisfy the staggering needs of older industrial powers like the United States along with the voracious thirst of rising powers like China, global energy must grow substantially every year. According to the projections of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), world energy output, based on 2007 levels, must rise 29% to 640 quadrillion British thermal units by 2025 to meet anticipated demand. Even if usage grows somewhat more slowly than projected, any failure to satisfy the world’s requirements produces a perception of scarcity, which also means rising fuel prices. These are precisely the conditions we see today and should expect for the indefinite future.
It is against this backdrop that three crucial developments of 2011 are changing the way we are likely to live on this planet for the foreseeable future.
The first and still most momentous of the year’s energy shocks was the series of events precipitated by the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions and the ensuing “Arab Spring” in the greater Middle East. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt was, in fact, a major oil producer, but the political shockwaves these insurrections unleashed has spread to other countries in the region that are, including Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. At this point, the Saudi and Omani leaderships appear to be keeping a tight lid on protests, but Libyan production, normally averaging approximately 1.7 million barrels per day, has fallen to near zero.
When it comes to the future availability of oil, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this spring’s events in the Middle East, which continue to thoroughly rattle the energy markets. According to all projections of global petroleum output, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states are slated to supply an ever-increasing share of the world’s total oil supply as production in key regions elsewhere declines. Achieving this production increase is essential, but it will not happen unless the rulers of those countries invest colossal sums in the development of new petroleum reserves—especially the heavy, “tough oil” variety that requires far more costly infrastructure than existing “easy oil” deposits.