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The peak oil crisis: a September recap

The release of the International Energy Agency's Oil Market Report for September is a good time to review the status of our ongoing crisis for the report updates the IEA's latest thinking on the prospects for global oil. The IEA reports that its preliminary estimate for world oil production in August was 89.1 million b/d despite the loss of 1.6 million b/d of Libyan production. The Agency, however, maintains that the demand for oil has been running ahead of global production since the second half 2010 when the demand for oil surged.

The difference between supply and demand, which for a while amounted to 1.4 million b/d, has been coming out of global stocks which have been slowly falling in recent months. It is this imbalance between supply and demand that is likely the root of our high oil and gas prices. World benchmark Brent crude has been over $100 a barrel since last spring and showing little sign of falling.

Growing concerns about the prospects for the global economy, however, have caused the Agency to trim back its forecasts for growth in the demand for oil during the remainder of this year and next. This year's growth in oil demand was cut by 200,000 b/d and 2012's by 400,000 b/d. Remember, however, that this is just a slowing in annual growth in the demand for oil, not an actual reduction in demand. The IEA now believes that demand for oil will increase only 1 million b/d this year and by 1.4 million in 2012.

The Agency recognizes, however, that even these reduced demand forecasts may be too optimistic given the mounting economic troubles. Back in June it pointed out in its Medium Term Oil and Gas Market Report that a major slump in the OECD economies could cut the growth in the demand for oil back to only an additional 700,000 b/d this year and 400,000 b/d next - in short the growth in demand would become virtually stagnant.


The future of Libyan oil production, however, is still up in the air despite the fall of Tripoli to the insurgents.

What is up is a three way race among OECD demand, which is large but falling by roughly 3-4 percent from last year; the non-OECD world where demand is rising at a rate of about 4 percent over last year; and global production which for now is rising slowly-provided there are no more geopolitical disruptions. An interesting number in all this is the production rate of 92 million b/d, for if a few of the better known peak oil analysts are correct, that could turn out to be the all-time peak of global oil production. If demand growth continues at its present or even somewhat reduced pace, demand should be pushing up against 92 million b/d by the end of next year. Any further increase in demand would come from stockpiles at much higher prices and probably much economic disruption.

There are a number of countries that will be critical to what happens in the next two or three years. The most important of these is China where demand is now approaching 10 million b/d and is forecast to grow at about 6 percent this year and next after surging to 11 percent in 2010. India which is consuming about 3.5 million b/d continues to increase its demand at about 4 percent per annum. Demand from the Middle Eastern oil producers is also an interesting story. Although Saudi oil production is now pushing 10 million b/d, much of the increase this summer is being burned domestically to produce the power and water necessary to keep the kingdom's inhabitants happy and is not being exported.

The loss of 1.6 million b/d of Libyan production has not been completely offset by the increased production from the Saudis, Kuwait and the UAE. Current OPEC production is estimated to be about 200,000 b/d below the pre-Libya crisis levels. The future of Libyan oil production, however, is still up in the air despite the fall of Tripoli to the insurgents. Restarting some 300,000 to 400,000 b/d in the next couple of months is underway, but this is not much above Libya's domestic consumption and the IEA believes it will be in 2013 before the pre-insurrection level of 1.3 million b/d of exports is restored.


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.

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