A Few Things Ill Considered

Monbiot interviews Fatih Birol

…interviews who??

Fatih Birol is the Chief Economist for the International Energy Authority, the agency that the whole world (or at least the “official” part of that world) relies on for forecasts about energy production and demand. This is the organization that governments around the world like to cite when dismissing as crackpots people warning about peak oil and the coming “oil shock”.

This makes him a remarkably important person in terms of influence on world affairs. What is more central to our modern civilization than energy sources and consumption?


Well, now this man and his agency, with all its well established incentives to paint the rosiest picture possible, is painting a decidedly non-rosy view of the world’s energy future. I highly recommend that you watch the interview here (12 minutes), it is very interesting. Monbiot is a little too combative for my tastes, I really prefer to just hear what the guy has to say rather than expose him on the spot for being so blasé about the importance of his work and the consequences of being so wrong. There is time later to analyze what he says. (Then again, I am not giving any priority to the realities of television…entertainment, sound bites and all that where Monbiot has to). Any way…

Two things stand out the most for me. The one is the frank and unashamed admission that key figures in the last report, (and presumably figures in all of them), are complete hand waves. Birol even called them “assumptions” and was unconcerned that no research went into making them! I am speaking specifically about his figure from the 2007 World Energy Outlook report [$] of an ongoing 3.7%/year decline in production from the world’s existing oil fields. Apparently they did the actual work this time and their new figure is 6.7%. That is a huge difference! And I have no doubt that the many factors and uncertainties going into this calculation are the rosiest of roses themselves. Matthew Simmons has a lot of interesting things to say about his estimations of decline rates for the future.

The other striking thing is the expectation that unconventional oil sources (eg Alberta’s tar sands) will eventually make up for these declines. Make no mistake about it, that is climate hari-kari. Emissions per unit energy from tar sands, oil shale and the like are much higher than those from burning oil. The abundance of these sources is not a cause for celebration! There are other compelling environmental reasons to avoid the tar sands too, not to mention human costs to the local natives.

Monbiot also has a companion article on this interview here. The take home point in there is that the best establishment minds told us decades ago that the world must begin radical preparations for peak oil 30 years before it comes and now the best establishment minds are telling us peak oil is going to be here in 12. Some of the best non-establishment minds think we are peaking now!

Maybe it is time to think about having a conference to set some guidelines on how to agree on establishing a framework for setting some alternative energy targets. Voluntary targets of course!

[Additional side note: interesting the different standards we apply to the required rigor of method between climate projections and energy projections.]