Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Oil: A Global Crisis

Oil: A Global Crisis

The Iraq War means oil costs three times more than it should, says a leading expert. How are our lives going to change as we struggle to cope with the $200 barrel?

By Geoffrey Lean

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The oil economist Dr Mamdouh Salameh, who advises both the World Bank and the UN Industrial Development Organisation (Unido), told The Independent on Sunday that the price of oil would now be no more than $40 a barrel, less than a third of the record $135 a barrel reached last week, if it had not been for the Iraq war.

He spoke after oil prices set a new record on 13 consecutive days over the past two weeks. They have now multiplied sixfold since 2002, compared with the fourfold increase of the 1973 and 1974 "oil shock" that ended the world's long postwar boom.

Goldman Sachs predicted last week that the price could rise to an unprecedented $200 a barrel over the next year, and the world is coming to terms with the idea that the age of cheap oil has ended, with far-reaching repercussions on their activities.

Dr Salameh, director of the UK-based Oil Market Consultancy Service, and an authority on Iraq's oil, said it is the only one of the world's biggest producing countries with enough reserves substantially to increase its flow.

Production in eight of the others – the US, Canada, Iran, Indonesia, Russia, Britain, Norway and Mexico – has peaked, he says, while China and Saudia Arabia, the remaining two, are nearing the point at of decline. Before the war, Saddam Hussein's regime pumped some 3.5 million barrels of oil a day, but this had now fallen to just two million barrels.

Dr Salameh told the all-party parliamentary group on peak oil last month that Iraq had offered the United States a deal, three years before the war, that would have opened up 10 new giant oil fields on "generous" terms in return for the lifting of sanctions. "This would certainly have prevented the steep rise of the oil price," he said. "But the US had a different idea. It planned to occupy Iraq and annex its oil."

Chris Skrebowski, the editor of Petroleum Review, said: "There are many ifs in the world oil market. This is a very big one, but there are others. If there had been a civil war in Iraq, even less oil would have been produced."

David Strahan: What happens next? The expert's view

At just under 86 million barrels per day, global oil production has, essentially, stagnated since 2005, despite soaring demand, suggesting that production has already reached its geological limits, or "peak oil".

Recession in the West may not provide relief on prices. There is increasing demand from countries such as China, Russia and the Opec countries, whose consumers are cushioned against rising prices by heavy subsidies. The future could unfold in a number of ways:

Oil price collapses

Fuel subsidies could suddenly be scrapped, dousing demand. Cost pressures have forced Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan to cut them, but China is hardly strapped for cash. Opec producers are under no pressure to abolish subsidies; as the oil price rises they get richer. Prospect: very unlikely.

Peace could break out in Iraq, the long-disputed oil law agreed, and international oil companies start work on the world's largest collection of untapped oil fields. Prospect: vanishingly unlikely.

Oil price stabilises or moderates

Deep recession in the West might cut oil consumption enough to offset growth in the developing world and Opec, or even engulf them too, softening prices. Prospect: unlikely in the short term.

Oil price soars

Russian oil output has gone into decline; Saudi Arabia has shelved plans to expand production capacity, and advisers to the Nigerian government predict its output will fall by 30 per cent by 2015. More news like this, expect oil at $200 a barrel. Prospect: likely.

Big oil producers will increasingly divert exports for home consumption. Opec, Russian and Mexican exports expected to fall, pushing oil to $200 by 2012. Prospect: highly likely.

The writer is author of 'The Last Oil Shock', John Murray, lastoilshock.com

Peak oil

After 150 years of growth, the oil age is beginning to come to an end. "Peak oil" is the common term for when production stops increasing and starts to decline. At that point what have been ever-expanding and cheap supplies of the resource on which all modern economies depend become scarcer and more expensive, with potentially devastating consequences.

Pessimists believe that production has passed its peak. Optimists say it may be 20 years or so away – which would give us some time to prepare – but are now muted. Last week the hitherto optimistic International Energy Agency admitted that it may have overestimated future capacity. Chris Skrebowski, editor of 'Petroleum Review' and once an optimist himself, believes that the world is now in "the foothills of peak oil". Prices may ease a bit over the next few years, but then the real crunch will come. The price then? "Pick a number!"

Travel

Oil provides 95 per cent of the energy used in transport, so this will be hit hard and soon. People are likely to go on using their cars, but airlines are expected to be the first to suffer. On Thursday, British Airways' chief executive Willie Walsh declared that the era of cheap flights was over, suggesting that those environmentalists who have made them their main target for combating climate change may have been wasting their breath.

At least three carriers have already gone bust this year. Last week, American Airlines said it was cutting routes, laying off staff, and charging US passengers $15 to check in a bag because of a $3bn rise in its fuel bills. Even Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, says the oil price is "really hurting". On Thursday, Credit Suisse analysts said his company would slip into the red if oil prices rose just a little more, to $140 a barrel.

Cars

The world's biggest oil well, it is said, lies beneath Detroit. US vehicles get an average of only 25 miles per gallon. Dramatically improving this would do more to ease the oil crunch than any likely new discovery. But new measures recently approved by Congress would increase the average only to the 35mpg already being achieved by China. Europe does better, if not well enough, at 44mpg.

Rising fuel prices are already beginning to drive change. Sales of 4x4s are plummeting in both the US and Britain, and those of hybrids – which do 60mpg are soaring. As the price climbs further, manufacturers will unlock long-prepared plans for much more efficient vehicles. "Plug-in" hybrids, charged up with electricity overnight, save another 45 per cent in petrol consumption. Further down the line is the "hypercar" – made of tough, light plastic – which could cross the US on a single tankful.

Houses

All new houses in Britain will have to be zero carbon – burning no fossil fuels such as oil – by 2016, the Government announced, and housebuilders are struggling to meet the target. At present the standard can be reached only at great expense, but the industry is confident of bringing the cost down as mass production kicks in. It is even more important to adapt existing homes.

The key step is to super-insulate the house to make it as energy-efficient as possible – and only then to provide renewable energy sources. Solar water heaters, ground source heat pumps and boilers powered by wood pellets are favourites. Rooftop windmills do not work well enough yet. Photovoltaic panels, which get electricity from the sun, are expensive but their price should come down. Britain has lagged behind other countries. Soaring energy prices should shake things up.

Shopping

Effectively, almost everything is partially made of oil, and so is going to get more expensive. About 10 calories of oil are burned to produce each calorie of food in the US, and farming a single cow and getting it to market uses as much as driving from New York to Los Angeles. Some 630g of fuel is used to produce every gram of microchips.

The cult of local, seasonal produce will enter the mainstream, as everyone learns about food miles and a modern-day Dig for Victory grips gardeners – bad news for the farm workers overseas who provide 95 per cent of our fruit and half our vegetables. Trips to out-of-town supermarkets will seem extravagant, heralding a high street renaissance and a new surge in online grocery shopping, and soon we'll all be eating our own potatoes.

Third World

Poor countries and their peoples will be hit by a devastating double whammy as both their fuel and food prices increase. Last year, when oil cost only about half as much, countries from Nepal to Nicaragua were hit by fuel shortages. At least 25 of the 44 sub-Saharan nations are facing crippling electricity shortages.

As oil is used in agriculture, its increased cost will also drive up the price of food, making more and more people go hungry. Worse, expensive petrol is bound to increase the drive towards biofuels made from maize and other crops, which then brings the world's poorest people into competition with affluent motorists for grain – a contest they cannot win. Just one fill-up of a 4x4's tank with ethanol uses enough grain to feed one person for a year.

Emerging economies

China and India and other developing countries will help to drive up demand for oil and compete for scarce supplies. This has already helped to raise prices: demand for oil from Western countries has actually fallen over the past two years, but the emerging economies have more than made up the slack. And they have the money to do so.

Chinese and Indian consumers have so far been insulated from the effects of the price increase by heavy government subsidies, and their industrial revolutions and rapid growth are largely fuelled by oil. There is little sign that the growth in demand will slacken These countries are also likely to follow the time-honoured Western tradition of making deals with oil-exporting countries – and backing unpleasant regimes – to try to secure supplies.

Conflict

Last week. the embattled Gordon Brown – "incredibly focused" on oil, according to his spin-doctors – began playing the blame game. "It is a scandal," he said, "that 40 per cent of the oil is controlled by Opec and that their decisions can restrict the supply of oil to the rest of the world."

Someone should tell him that he should be blaming geology – or God – and that, as oil production peaks, Opec countries simply will not be able to pump more. But he is not alone; four US senators warned Saudi Arabia that if it did not step up the flow, the US might withdraw its military support.

There will be much more of this as supplies tighten. Three years ago, a US army report predicted oil would soon peak, and security risks increase. Expect oil wars. But, of course, we have already had one – in Iraq.

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