While the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook (WEO) is one of the most respected sources of insight into current trends affecting the global energy system and projections for the next twenty-five years, it is far from being perfect. The report’s authors themselves warn readers not to consider its forecasts as predictions. Energy markets, after all, can undergo dramatic change in periods as short as five years, as happened in the case of U.S. shale oil and gas between 2008 and 2013. Some even accuse the WEO of undermining national climate goals. Still, it is undeniable is that the WEO shapes global thinking about energy markets.
IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol delivered a succinct overview of the WEO 2017 in Istanbul on December 15, identifying four “large-scale upheavals in global energy” that “brighten the prospects for affordable, sustainable energy and require a reappraisal of approaches to energy security.” The United States and China, Birol maintained, are driving these upheavals, which many analysts have seen coming for some time: the two powers are becoming direct competitors in energy production, with Washington looking to buffet hydrocarbon resources and Beijing looking to usher in a renaissance in renewables.
Yet, by claiming that one of the upheavals is “the United States is turning into the undisputed global leader in oil and gas,” while at the same time stopping short of bestowing a similar accolade on China for its renewable drive, the WEO begs the question: how does one define a global leader in energy?
China: greening by the day
The other three upheavals singled out by the IEA are rather anodyne: (1) solar photovoltaic power will be the cheapest source of new electricity in many countries, (2) the future is electrifying thanks to advances in air conditioning, electrics vehicles, and digitalization, and (3) China’s drive “to make the skies blue again” is recasting its role in energy. Most casual observers have been aware of the first two trends for some time, while energy experts are likely aware that China is outpacing the world in renewable energy consumption, industry, and technology.
Indeed, China has been the top producer of hydropower since 2001 – before overtaking the world in other renewables last year. In 2015, Beijing invested $110.5 billion in clean energy, compared to only $56 billion in the United States and $58.5 billion in Europe. This trend will not slow down: China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, calls for the share of non-fossil fuels to rise to 15% in 2020 from its 2015 target of 11.4%. The country also planned to institute a national emissions-trading scheme in 2017, and, though these plans had been delayed, they were reinvigorated this month with the announcement that it would be implemented in 2018.
Under Birol’s leadership since 2015, the IEA has made a concerted and commendable effort to bring more non-European countries into the fold of the organization. Mexico was invited in November 2017 to be the agency’s 30th member and China, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Morocco, India, and Brazil have joined as Association countries, a new designation created in 2015 to enhance collaboration. This is a sensible move, as emerging markets are projected to play first fiddle in growing energy demand and shaping future energy markets. For example, in the next twenty years, China’s energy demand will add a chunk the size of the entire U.S. market, while India will add another European market. Given the investment levels and genuine interest in China for developing renewables to reduce emissions and the social, health, and economic costs of coal-induced pollution, it seems only natural to call Beijing a global leader.
Marketability before productivity
Not calling China a leader is only noteworthy because the United States, based on forecasts for the continued growth in shale oil and gas production in the 2020s and 2030s, was deemed one. The U.S. shale oil and gas boom has undoubtedly vaulted U.S. production to levels not seen since the 1970s. Moreover, after lifting its ban on exports of crude oil in 2016, this growing production would naturally permit higher levels of exports. It is not the intention here to question forecasts for the growth of U.S. production, but it is noteworthy that the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which publishes it own version of the WEO called the Annual Energy Outlook in 2015, forecast that U.S. shale production would plateau in the 2020s. Forecasts can shift quickly.
But it would be deeply misguided to think that production alone means global leadership: U.S. oil and gas production will remain more expensive than for its main rivals, Russia and Saudi Arabia, both of which enjoy far lower production costs thanks to rejuvenating brownfields. What’s more, a lower ruble in the former and natural geological advantages in the latter only compound the issue. These countries also have lower transportation costs due to their location between the two major consuming centers in Europe and the Far East. For the U.S. to gain a leading share in these markets, it will have to offer cheaper, not more abundant, supplies.
The major advantage of the U.S. shale boom is actually domestic: providing the United States itself with ample, low-cost supplies and freeing Washington from its decades-long foreign commitments in the Middle East and Central Asia. U.S. production has certainly prompted new levels of willingness in Washington to employ sanctions in recent years against hydrocarbon-producing countries, including Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. At the same time, much of the rise in U.S. oil exports has come from greater fuel-efficiency standards and support for renewable energies in the United States, a framework currently being dismantled by the Trump Administration. The IEA does say that these areas will continue to grow in the United States regardless of the policy environment, but this growth may be needed simply to meet growing domestic energy demand.
Past is prologue
Analysts have predicted that a wave of natural gas from the United States, Canada, and Australia, among others, would flood the market in coming years, which would have major implications for consumers, most notably in freeing Europe from reliance on pipeline gas from Russia and the Far East to consume more gas. Even if the wave develops, this leaves the question of oil.
The United States was the world’s largest oil producer from the 1870s to the 1970s, but Europe remained dependent in the 1950s and 1960s on oil resources from the Persian Gulf. It is unclear, then, how more U.S. production will change this imbalance. Leadership is an admittedly amorphous concept, but the WEO would be wise to explain more clearly how it defines leadership in energy and how production will shape future markets. The world wants to know.