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Will the real International Energy Agency please stand up?

It was as if the International Energy Agency were appearing on the old American television game show To Tell the Truth last week as it offered a third contradictory forecast in the space of a year.

You may recall that on To Tell the Truth the host would begin by reading a statement from a person with an unusual story or profession. Then, a celebrity panel would question three contestants who claimed to be that person. Afterwards, the panelists would vote on whom they believed was the real person. Finally, the host would say, "Will the real [name of person] please stand up?" (Some episodes are still available here on YouTube.)

The difference is that the contestants on To Tell the Truth would try to tell similar, plausible stories so as to stump the panel. In the non-game-show world of energy forecasting, the IEA--a consortium of 28 countries, all net oil importers except for Canada and Norway--plays all three contestants and does not even attempt to be consistent. So, it's possible that the agency is just a collective mental case with multiple personality disorder.

However, one has to allow for the fact that the IEA is not just one person or one voice. Still, if the agency were a single person, what it has released over the last year as official pronouncements would likely have a psychiatrist reaching for the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition).

Last November in its 2012 World Energy Outlook (WEO), the agency noted rising U.S. oil production and even predicted that the United States would become energy self-sufficient by 2035 (a doubtful call, in my view). It also noted that growing oil demand in the Asia has more than outweighed declines in European and U.S. consumption, keeping upward pressure on prices. It said that growth in Iraq's oil exports was not a sure thing. While the 2012 WEO is really a rather optimistic document on supply, it did not paint an especially rosy picture, indicating that obtaining the supplies of oil necessary to meet projected demand was not a foregone conclusion.

Then, only six months later came the agency's so-called Medium-Term Oil Market Report which read like an ad for the North American oil and gas industry. The agency touted a "supply shock" in oil from American tight oil fields unleashed by a new kind of hydraulic fracturing--a shock that would send "ripples throughout the world." Unlike six months earlier, worldwide supply was supposed to take flight on the wings of fracking.

This enthusiasm didn't last long. In its latest report, the just-issued 2013 World Energy Outlook, the agency sounded like a group of Gloomy Guses noting that "Brent crude oil has averaged $110 per barrel in real terms since 2011, a sustained period of high oil prices that is without parallel in oil market history."

The report goes on to say, "The capacity of technologies to unlock new types of resources, such as light tight oil (LTO) and ultra-deepwater fields, and to improve recovery rates in existing fields is pushing up estimates of the amount of oil that remains to be produced. But this does not mean that the world is on the cusp of a new era of oil abundance." The most recent forecast calls for rising oil prices in real terms through 2035. This is in part because the agency expects that "no country replicates the level of success with LTO" that we are seeing in the United States today.

What's really happening here? Is the IEA getting better at seeing the future? Not really. What's happening is that the IEA is being asked to do something which it cannot possibly do: accurately predict oil supplies 22 years into the future. So, given this impossible task, the agency responds by following current trends (and industry hype) and then extrapolating them.

Now that the IEA has had a chance to re-examine the industry's claims in light of more experience with tight oil development, it is backing off its previous assessment in its Medium-Term Oil Market Report from May. Fatih Birol, chief economist for the IEA, told the Financial Times that he would now characterize rising oil production in the United States as "a surge, rather than a revolution." He expects OPEC to become dominant once again in oil markets early in the next decade. The Financial Times characterized the report as predicting an oil supply crunch.

But, will the IEA have a change of heart once again? It might, depending on what it hears from industry sources and what it chooses to believe. But, the takeaway from the last year of IEA projections is not that the agency is suffering some sort of breakdown, but that it has been given an impossible task that in the volatile world of oil supplies has it casting about for a coherent story. In short, it is trying to tell the truth without knowing the truth for the simple reason that in this case the truth cannot known. That has made it a poor contestant in its own real-life episode of To Tell the Truth stretched out over the past year.

It is a fool's errand to try to predict the future of world energy supplies. But, it is even more foolish to base our public policy, business and personal decisions on such predictions.

P. S. There is a minor acknowledgement that such forecasts are exercises in futility in a disclaimer at the end of the 2013 World Energy Outlook summary. The disclaimer reads: "The IEA makes no representation or warranty, express or implied, in respect of the publication’s contents (including its completeness or accuracy) and shall not be responsible for any use of, or reliance on, the publication." This is standard boilerplate, I know. But, it is not the kind of language that inspires confidence.

 

Editor: the thumbnail image, of course, is the logo from The Oil Drum website, whose work lives on.

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