In a world dominated by self-censorship, only the brave speak out. But in a world running on cheap energy, with all the consequences that it brings, only those who value their integrity above their wallet are worth listening to.
Back in April one man, Iranian oil and energy analyst and expert Ali Bakhtiari did just that. He stood up and made a prediction that could have seen him ridiculed.
To make a prediction that takes in record high prices is one thing. To name the price is another altogether. But now, while OPEC, the major industrial nations and Saudi Arabia chant their mantra that there is “no problem”, Bakhtiari seems more vindicated than ever.
“That is what I said in April, that we would get to fifty dollars by the end of the year. And we have arrived three months early,” he says with a chuckle. “I think that was really quite a good prediction you know.”
Out of control
Trouble is, the rise of oil’s price range is an undoubted economic threat. Not to the super rich, the top 1% of global earners, or the super poor, the 50% of the world’s people who live on less than $2 a day, but to everyone else. Around three billion of us.
“I am afraid I think the price will go higher,” says Bakhtiari worryingly. “I had hoped it would stay in the $40 range. I think, at that level, economies could start to cope, but now the price of oil is out of anyone’s control.”
The argument goes that instead of planning a structure for using oil, it has been left to the market fundamentalists to determine the future of these valuable biological assets.
The collapse of oil pricing in the 1990s, as well as the weakness of the dollar, had meant that the real value of oil was incredibly low.
As a result no oil majors or producer nations were interested in spending billions of dollars in new investment, because there was no short-term profit.
No one was interested in spending billions on fuel efficiency because there was no short-term profit. Why no one was interested in spending billions in solar, wind or hydrogen energy is anybody’s guess.
The same train of thought says that as well as these factors, oil has been physically guzzled up like there is no tomorrow.
Ironically, it is that very appetite, growing at an exponential rate due to demand in the USA, China and India, that could exacerbate the problem.
Bakhtiari says, “I hope that we don’t move into a fifty-dollar range. The big economies, and by that I mean the US, the EU, China, India and Japan, are just starting to get used to the idea of $40 a barrel. We have passed that financial and psychological barrier, but if we moved straight into the $50 range, then that is not good at all.”
However, he does not see the forty-, or fifty-dollar, range as something that will last forever. Indeed not even for very long at all. Instead, he says the price is being driven by something far more fundamental.
Peak oil syndrome?
“No one can restrain the price any more. For example, everyone thought that it would be OPEC who could manage demand. But that is now in the past.
Now it is really peak oil that is behind the wheel of the car. Peak oil is driving the rise in price and demand is not the real question. We are entering a new era, but we are only at the very beginning of it.”
The idea behind “peak oil” is this. That, as the planet reaches the halfway point of consuming all its available oil, then a combination of bullish demand, slowing fields and insurmountable supply bottlenecks will create brutal price shocks. Almost certainly slicing the head clean off the world economy in the process.
This peak in oil supply will act as an economic guillotine. Yet the thread suspending the blade above our heads will be released without warning.
Politicians, producer countries, major oil companies and consumer states are not about to announce their own demise. It would not be good for business, or re-election, or both.
“If there was nothing to be worried about, then there would be no price increases,” explains Bakhtiari.
“If there is no reason to worry, because there is plenty of oil and OPEC or Yukos or whoever can simply pump some more, then there would be no problems and no rises in price. The market would not be worried at all.”
Whilst Bakhtiari admits predictions are fraught with danger, his own research, so far extremely accurate, says peak oil has yet to arrive. Like Hurricane Ivan blowing in from the ocean, we may only be experiencing the first stormy gusts.
“I think the peak will arrive around 2006, 2007. But, this is only 15 months away. That is all. At that point, no one can say what is going to happen. Except the price is going to go up. And no one will be able to stop it.”