The world's largest exporter of crude oil, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, recently announced a plan for its post-oil future. If a country almost synonymous with the oil economy can see the need for such a plan, how can the rest of the world, particularly the United States, the world's largest consumer of petroleum, not see the necessity of such foresight?
The kingdom's plan includes sale of part of Saudi Aramco, the world largest oil company and currently wholly-owned by the Saudi government. The company controls all oil development in Saudi Arabia. That the Saudis want to sell part of the most valuable company in the world means they have a different view about the future of oil than those who will be buying. Commentators often report that markets rise because investors are optimistic or fall because they are pessimistic. But this is complete nonsense because for every buyer there is always a seller. Each side of a trade believes in a different future for the investment being traded.
Certainly, there are many reasons for selling a minority stake in Saudi Aramco. But one of them can't be that the rulers of the kingdom have an unalloyed bullishness about Saudi capabilities and oil resources.
As recently as 2007 the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) believed Saudi Arabia would be supplying the world with 16.4 million barrels per day (mbpd) of oil by 2030. (And, that was down from 23.8 mbpd projected for 2025 in a 2003 report.) In 2008 the Saudi king appeared to embrace a policy of 12.5 mbpd and no more.
Since then long-term projections for Saudi production have come down with a range of 10.2 mbpd to 15.5 mbpd for 2040 (in a 2013 EIA report) depending on which of three scenarios you choose. No explicit range has been included in subsequent EIA reports.
With the release of a new independent report on world oil reserves by a former BP insider, a report that suggests that conventional reserves are half what is being claimed, the issue of limits on oil production has resurfaced. (The report implies that Saudi reserves have been inflated as well.)
By including Canadian tar sands and Venezuelan heavy oil, world oil reserves increase back to about 75 percent of what is typically reported. But that number makes no adjustment for the much greater difficulty and expense of getting these unconventional resources out of the ground and then turning them into something we call oil. The financial debacle taking place in the tar sands under the current low-price regime is clear evidence that those resources cannot be sustained without high prices.
The temporary glut we are experiencing now, however, does not disprove limits. It only shows that we can still have market cycles in oil just as we did in 2008 when oil fell from $147 per barrel to around $35 in six months. By 2011 oil was back above $100, where it stayed with only brief forays under that price, until the end of 2014. This period has so far given us the highest inflated-adjusted average daily prices for oil ever.
For those who believe the United States does seem to have energy policies relevant to a post-oil world, I would answer that this is not the result of some grand design, but rather due to a hodge-podge of programs, many of which are conflicting. Even as the U.S. tax code continues to provide substantial subsidies for oil and natural gas production, it also provides substantial subsidies for renewable energy such as solar and wind. But these renewables subsidies are really about producing electricity.
Subsidies for liquid fuels, the kind that replace fuels from oil, have been reduced. The federal subsidy for ethanol ended in 2012. Subsidies for biodiesel and other biofuels continue.
While ethanol was always really an energy carrier and not an energy source--it takes about as much energy to produce corn ethanol as it yields--biodiesel is believed to have a positive energy balance. Even so, converting the U.S. vehicle fleet to biodiesel isn't in the cards, and doing so would require so much farmland to grow the necessary oil crops that we might be able to drive, but probably not eat--an absurdity of the first order.
Now granted, a post-oil society doesn't necessarily mean a no-oil society. Oil supplies may decline gradually after a future peak in production. We won't, as the critics say, "run out." That's just a canard meant to prevent people from understanding the serious implications, not of running out, but of having less each year.
There is the option of moving to electrified transportation which I support. But most people think of this as a move toward electric cars. The entire car fleet in the United States currently takes about 14 years to turn over. But, of course, we'd only get replacement of all vehicles with electrics over this period if we started selling 100 percent electric-only vehicles now. Moreover, certain types of transport--emergency services, farm equipment and rural transport--will likely require liquid fuels for a long time to come.
Because we are only very gradually increasing the number of electric-only cars available for purchase, it would likely take two to three decades for a complete transition away from oil-fueled vehicles. It would be much wiser to electrify and vastly expand public transportation, something that isn't on the policy radar in the United States.
There are certainly local efforts to expand bicycle lanes and pedestrian areas to reduce dependency on motorized transportation. But those efforts can hardly be called coordinated and rapid.
If we had absolute clarity on future oil supplies, we'd know how quickly we must make the transition away from oil. But we don't have anything approaching that. Instead, we have competing estimates and timelines, and--here's the important part--we Americans have chosen to embrace the optimistic forecasts without understanding the risks because doing so takes the pressure off of us to make the necessary changes. (And, we do this in spite of the fact that supposedly ample U.S. production is now once again in decline.)
The Saudi move toward a post-oil economy ought to be one of the strongest messages ever that the world is moving closer to a peak and decline in world oil production. The kingdom's actions are telling us that the world's largest crude oil exporter feels it must start today to plan and implement a post-oil economy.
Will we Americans (and others who haven't yet) take the hint seriously?
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.