Thanks to "fracking," the United States is reaching the top spot among world oil producers sooner than expected, and is "well on its way to realizing the American dream" of energy independence, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said Tuesday.
"But this does not mean that the world is on the cusp of a new era of oil abundance," the IEA warned in its closely watched annual World Energy Outlook. Instead, the agency predicted that no other country will replicate the United States' success with hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional technologies that have led to the North American boom in oil and natural gas production. (See related "Interactive: Breaking Fuel From Rock," "The Great Shale Gas Rush," and "The New Oil Landscape.")
And by the mid-2020s, the Middle East—the world's only source of low-cost oil—will again be unchallenged as the most important and influential source of oil supply on the globe.
The Paris-based IEA was established after the oil crisis of the early 1970s in a move by oil-consuming nations to keep better track of trends and improve energy security. Its annual World Energy Outlook, with hundreds of pages of analysis and charts, is considered the industry bible. Here's a rundown of key trends IEA identified as shaping the world outlook this year:
1. U.S. energy boom is unique, has risks.
A year ago, IEA upended global conventional wisdom by declaring that the United States, thanks to unconventional technologies like fracking, would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer of oil by 2017. IEA now projects the United States will reach the top spot two years earlier, by 2015, producing 11 billion barrels of oil a day. (See related blog post, "U.S. Edges Saudi Arabia, Russia in Oil and Gas.") But the agency says U.S. production will peak at nearly 12 million barrels a day by 2025 and then start to slowly decline.
IEA notes that there is a steep decline rate for shale oil and natural gas wells tapped by hydraulic fracturing, the unconventional technology that has been key to U.S. success. Maintaining high output will require continuous investment in drilling new wells to compensate for declines at existing ones, the agency said. (See related, "Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees U.S. Future Shaped by Fracking.")
IEA notes that many nations hope to replicate U.S. success in fracking, and areas of Argentina, Russia, China, and the Middle East seem promising. But "good geology alone is not sufficient to replicate the U.S. experience," the agency said. Outside of the United States, there's neither the legal environment nor the oil services industry capacity to make shale oil and gas development worth the cost. More than 6,000 wells were drilled for unconventional oil in the United States and Canada in 2012, and only 100 outside of North America.
2. Fossil fuels will still dominate the scene.
IEA expects renewable energy generation to double by 2035 under existing policies. But solar, wind, and hydropower are not on track to catch up with oil or coal, and world primary energy demand is on track to increase 43 percent.
Today's share of fossil fuels in the world energy mix—82 percent—is the same as it was 25 years ago. And by 2035, the IEA forecasts that fossil fuels will barely give up ground, providing 75 percent of global energy. (See related interactive: "The Global Electricity Mix.")
Governments around the world subsidized consumption of fossil fuel to the tune of $544 billion last year—more than five times greater than supports for renewable energy, which totaled $101 billion in 2012. IEA expects subsidies for renewables to more than double to $220 billion by 2035, but they will still be overshadowed by government supports for fossil fuels without reform. (See related "Global Energy Subisides Map," and "Quiz: What You Don't Know About Energy Subsidies" and "Pictures: Eleven Nations With Large Fossil Fuel Subsidies.")
Unsurprisingly, given the expected energy mix, carbon dioxide emissions from energy are expected to continue their upward movement, jumping 20 percent by 2035. This leaves the world on a trajectory consistent with a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6°C (6.5°F), far above the internationally agreed 2°C (3.6°F) target. (See related "Quiz: What You Don't Know About Climate Change Science.")
3. India will edge China as "engine" of energy demand.
Meanwhile, the world's thirst for oil is not slacking. Under the energy and climate policies that nations currently have in place, the IEA expects demand for oil to increase 27 percent between 2012 and 2035, to 111 million barrels a day. Fully two-thirds of that growth will come from Asia, with China in the lead. (See related "Pictures: A Rare Look Inside China's Energy Machine.")
China will remain Asia's biggest market, but "the volumetric growth in Indian demand (between 2020 and 2035) is larger than that of China," the IEA said. "India will be the engine of global demand growth," said the IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol. (See related, "India Power Outage Spotlights Energy Planning Failure.")
Demand will also accelerate greatly in the Middle East, which will account for 10 percent of growth in energy demand through 2035. By 2035, Middle Eastern countries will be gobbling down nearly 10 million barrels of oil a day, or about the same amount that China is consuming today.
Demand in developed countries like the United States and much of Europe will actually decrease between now and 2035, largely because of improved energy efficiencies, particularly tougher automotive fuel standards.
4. Move over, automobiles. The age of trucks is here.
Transportation and petrochemicals are the two sectors that are clearly driving future energy demand, Birol said. But trucks, not cars, are behind the growing consumption of oil. One-third of the volume of growth is caused by truck traffic, and the IEA expects diesel demand to grow three times faster than demand for gasoline.
The growing demand for oil from the petrochemical industry is due to plastics for industrial and consumer goods, and packaging—everything from smartphones to water bottles.
Another big factor in demand is fossil fuel subsidies, which the agency estimates totaled $544 billion last year. Oil was the most heavily subsidized fuel, accounting for 51 percent of the total. Consumption subsidies were largely centered in net energy-exporting countries, or 75 percent of the total.
5. Renewable energy giant Brazil set to be major oil exporter.
IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven noted that "major changes were emerging in the energy world," and one of the transformations is happening in Brazil, due to the massive deepwater oil resources unearthed by new seismic technologies. More super-giant fields, most of them offshore, have been discovered in Brazil over the past decade than anywhere else in the world. The IEA predicts Brazil's oil production will triple to 6 million barrels per day by 2035, accounting for one-third of the net growth in global oil production and making the South American nation the world's sixth-largest oil producer.
But Brazil is expected to maintain a green energy mix for its own needs. (See related, "Power Quest: Brazil Works to Wipe "Blackout" From the Lexicon.") Thanks to its huge hydropower stations and its government-driven drive to promote domestically produced sugarcane ethanol, almost 45 percent of the country's primary energy demand is met by renewable energy, making Brazil's energy sector one of the least carbon-intensive in the world. And by 2035, it will rely on fossil fuels for less than 20 percent of its own energy needs, the IEA projects. (See related: "Pictures: A River People Await an Amazon Dam.")
6. Reliance on costly imports means long-term hurt for Europe.
The burden of costly fossil fuel imports will fall heavily on the European Union in the years ahead, the IEA projects. EU annual spending on foreign oil and natural gas, already more than $500 billion a year, is expected to grow nearly 10 percent and will sap 2.3 percent of GDP by 2035, says the IEA. (See related, "No Freeze on Winter Energy Prices, Despite U.S. Gas Boom.") In contrast, the United States will see its already much-lower spending on fossil fuel imports (closer to $300 billion a year) fall some 50 percent, so that it will be sending only 0.5 percent of GDP overseas for fossil fuels by 2035.
The price of natural gas in the EU is now triple the price in the United States; Japan is paying nearly five times as much. That leaves energy-intensive industries like iron, steel, petrochemicals, and concrete in the EU and Japan at a huge competitive disadvantage. The IEA reckons that the United States' share of the global market for energy-intensive goods will grow by one percent, while the European Union's will drop by 10 percent, and Japan's by 3 percent. "This is a structural issue for these countries," Birol said. "This sector is crucial," accounting for, on average, 25 percent of industrial employment.
The IEA notes that these energy trends, along with political concerns about the potential loss of economic competitiveness, could well erode international efforts to tackle both trade barriers and climate change in the years ahead.