Science/IEA: World oil crunch looming? Not if we can find six Saudi Arabias!

Science magazine has a major “news focus” piece (subs. req’d) arguing the peak is nigh:

Even those who believe there’s plenty of oil left in the ground to meet rising demand are warning that the final crisis could come uncomfortably soon. Although price spikes and drops may recur for years, says [IEA] economist Fatih Birol, “we think the era of cheap oil is over.”

As noted earlier, the IEA report concludes Oil price to rebound to $100 when economy recovers, then soar to $200 by 2030.

It’s getting harder and harder to find an optimist” on the outlook for the world oil supply, says Beijing-based petroleum analyst Michael Rodgers of PFC Energy, a consulting company. Indeed, the IEA report as well as one coming from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA, confusingly enough) see hints that the world’s oil production could plateau sometime about 2030 if the demand for oil continues to rise. Unless oil-consuming countries enact crash programs to slash demand, analysts say, 2030 could bring on a permanent global oil crunch that will make the recent squeeze look like a picnic.

That’s right — the IEA report thinks we won’t peak/plateua for over two decades. Needless to say, the peakists are disappointed that even the now-alarmist IEA isn’t sufficiently alarmist.

In a recent memo to fellow peakists, Robert Hirsch wrote “Many may be tempted to directly challenge the recent IEA World Energy Outlook. I am among those who were very disappointed” (see “Robert Hirsch: Peak-a-Boo, I don’t see you?“). Given the realities of rapidly depleting fields around the world and that we haven’t seen much of supply growth in the last few years, I tend to agree with Hirsch (see “Peak Oil? Bring it on!“).

Even the IEA recognizes that we need to find the equivalent of six Saudi Arabias in the next 22 years just to stave off the peak until 2030:

Signs of strain may already be emerging. Outside OPEC, oil production has not risen since 2004, even as prices soared. IEA sees no recovery in this non-OPEC production from conventional oil fields. Moreover, it projects that the plateau in conventional oil will turn into a decrease beginning in the middle of the next decade, accelerating through to 2030. Only the growth of production from expensive unconventional sources, such as mining tarry sands in Canada, will keep total non-OPEC production from falling during the next 20 years, according to IEA.

“Non-OPEC conventional production is definitely at a peak or plateau,” says Rodgers. “That’s starting to make people nervous. It’s not what even pessimistic people anticipated.”

Only massive expansion of climate-destroying unconventional sources like the tar sands can stop a serious decline in non-OPEC oil. Makes one sleep better.

A big part of any problem with slaking the world’s thirst for oil, according to IEA’s report (, is the rapid decline of production from fields past their prime. Any new field produces increasing volumes of oil each year as more and more wells are drilled, but production eventually peaks and, in time, begins to decline. IEA studied 800 fields around the world that had already passed their peak production to see how fast they are declining–a rather rapid 6.7% decline per year, it turns out. And that rate could increase to 8.6% by 2030, IEA says, as the industry turns more and more from waning giant onshore fields to smaller fields and offshore fields, both of which decline faster after peaking.

The decline rate “is a major challenge in itself,” says Birol. “We have found that if we want to stand still–that is, continue producing 85 million barrels per day–for the next 22 years, we need new production of 45 million barrels per day to compensate for the decline. That means four Saudi Arabias.” Add on a demand increase of the sort seen the past couple of decades–equivalent to another two Saudi Arabias–and the world will have to work that much harder to meet rising demand, Birol says.

So why isn’t the IEA even more alarmist? My guess is that the once-bland international energy institute is suffering a bit from the alarmist fatigue, what with the IEA being quite clear that peak oil is not even being the biggest energy problem we face (see “Must-read IEA report explains what must be done to avoid 6°C warming“).

Aren’t you so glad that Climate Progress has yet to show major signs of suffering from such a condition? [Note to readers: Do not talk to my family about this, as they may propose a different diagnosis.]

In its first look ever beyond 2030, the U.S. EIA is finding even less support for a rosy oil scenario than IEA is. Its report is yet to be released, but EIA’s Glen Sweetnam of the Washington, D.C., offices outlined preliminary results at an EIA conference in April (….

Things look fine right through the rest of the century if, starting now, the whole world severely curbs its appetite for oil, the EIA analysis suggests. In this low-demand scenario, the lingering demand for oil could be met even if the nondemand factors were unfavorable.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has been blander and more cautious than the IEA for many years now. If they are becoming more pessimistic, it is time to start hoarding!

The energy agencies “have done a good job of describing the fix we’re in,” says energy analyst David Greene of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee. “They’re recognizing that the non-OPEC world won’t be able to increase production much if at all. The IEA correctly points out the massive investment required” to meet any increase in demand. In fact, it’s not clear to Greene or other analysts that OPEC has any intention of upping production to keep the price of oil relatively low, which would not be in its self-interest. Better to keep more oil in the ground, pinching supply, and sell that oil later at a higher price. And some OPEC countries, such as Iran and Iraq, may not be capable of making the required investment, even though they have the oil.

So where exactly are the six new Saudi Arabias going to come from?

The bottom line is we are going to peak/plateau before 2030.

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10 Responses to Science/IEA: World oil crunch looming? Not if we can find six Saudi Arabias!

  1. charlie says:

    Joe, the IEA is always behind the curve. $60 (or even $50) isn’t cheap, in historical terms, and given how bad the economic outlook is we could be looking at that price for 10 years. $60 oil also return pricing power to Gulf countries.

    $60 oil also makes sure we don’t invest in new oil projects (oil sands, offshore, etc). I can’t wait until the domestic oil companies come to DC asking for a bailout.

    Has much been written about electric trucks? I realize this is an urban bias, but whenever I see 20+ delivery trucks idling I wonder how much energy is being wasted. Even an APU would be enough. Or am I wrong in thinking that commercial transportation is a major user of gasoline?

  2. alex says:


    I’m confused. I thought you wanted to drastically cut CO2, yet here you are describing the IEA as ‘pessimistic’ for suggesting that peak oil is nigh. The worst possible outcome for climate change would be to find 6 new Saudis – it would drive down the price of oil and delay further the day of reckoning when we have to get serious about alternatives.

    The recent hijacking of the Sirius Star bring it home. The world burns through the equivalent of 40 of these vast tankers of oil every day.

  3. Joe says:


    You ARE confused. It is the EIA that has become more pessimistic recently. The IEA has been pessimistic (i.e. realistic) for some time now. But you and I are using the words differently I think. By pessimistic I mean a realistic. But let me cut to the chase if I wasn’t clear.

    There aren’t another six Saudi Arabias — except of course in our wasteful cars, buildings, factories, and lifestyles. Unless this global recession turns into a long-term depression, we will be going back $150 a barrel oil in a few years.

    Peak oil is indeed good for those who want action on warming — indeed, if you read Hansen’s analysis, he is essentially counting on peak oil.

  4. paulm says:

    How can oil production flat line from 2004 and people say that it has not now peaked?

    And by the way Saudi Arabia has much less oil than we think.

  5. Linda S says:

    An interesting article based on an interview with Matt Simmons can be found at

    To quote: In his typically analytical fashion, Simmons went hunting for data. He found it in the form of hundreds of technical papers submitted by Saudi oil geologists to the Society of Petroleum Engineers over the past 50 years. Simmons spent the month of August 2003 sitting on his porch in Maine and grinding his way through the minutiae of technical accounts of, for instance, reservoir pressure and water-cut percentages, trying to piece together the challenges that the Saudi geologists had encountered in managing their precious oilfields. In the end, his conclusion was clear. “I finished reading the last paper on a Sunday afternoon,” says Simmons, “and I sat back and I thought, Holy crap, this is unbelievable. I’ve just discovered the biggest energy illusion ever in the world. We’re in big trouble. I’m going to write a book.”

    And so he did. But writing the book didn’t exhaust his passion. Today he is more convinced than ever that we’ve reached peak oil. If he’s right, current world oil production- 86 million barrels a day- is about as high as we’re going to go. End quote.

    So maybe the Saudis aren’t upping production because they can’t, not because they’re waiting for higher prices. And the problem with peak oil being an antidote to global warming is that, as Joe has pointed out, “Only massive expansion of climate-destroying unconventional sources like the tar sands can stop a serious decline in non-OPEC oil.” Therefore, the problems of peak oil and global warming must be addressed as a single issue, not separately.

    Keep up the good work, Joe — someone has to tell it like it is!!

  6. paulm says:

    Tar sands are toast.

    Secret advice to politicians: oilsands emissions hard to scrub
    Briefing document is pessimistic on carbon storage and capture

    “…The Canadian and Alberta governments are spending about $2.5 billion on developing carbon capture and storage, and the oilsands generally come up as the first reason for spending the money…”

  7. paulm says:

    Here’s the real truth about stabilizing at 350 ppm – we aren’t going to do it with the current mind set…

    Coal’s return raises pollution threat
    Rising prices are spurring plans for a big increase in mining despite a threat to climate change goals

    Britain is poised to expand its coal mining industry, despite fears that the move will lead to a rise in climate change emissions and harm communities and the environment.

    Freedom of information requests and council records show that in the past 18 months 14 companies have applied to dig nearly 60 million tonnes of coal from 58 new or enlarged opencast mines. At least six coal-fired power stations are planned. If all the applications are approved, the fastest expansion of UK coal mining in 40 years could see southern Scotland and Northumberland become two of the most heavily mined regions in Europe.

  8. Scatter says:

    Joe you seen this report?

    It has an interesting analysis of future production from Chris Skrebowski and a response from Shell.

  9. David B. Benson says:

    paulm — Since we are now at 386 ppm, we sure arn’t going to stabilize at 350 ppm.

    Maybe 450 ppm, maybe 550 ppm. :-(

  10. paulm says:

    David, I was expecting it to fluctuate around 350 before settling :)