Fatih Birol on peak oil


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

In an interview with British journalist George Monbiot, Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency made the following predictions about when peak oil output for non-OPEC and OPEC states would be reached:

“In terms of non-OPEC [countries outside the big oil producers’ cartel]”, he replied, “we are expecting that in three, four years’ time the production of conventional oil will come to a plateau, and start to decline. … In terms of the global picture, assuming that OPEC will invest in a timely manner, global conventional oil can still continue, but we still expect that it will come around 2020 to a plateau as well, which is of course not good news from a global oil supply point of view.”

Coming from a representative of this particular organization, that is quite a surprising statement. Traditionally, the IEA has downplayed any suggestion that global oil output could peak before 2030. A peak in 2020 suggests that we have a lot less time than most firms and governments have been expecting to transition to a post-oil, post-gasoline, post-jet fuel future.

An early peak in oil output could have an enormous effect on both the development of the global economy and climate change. What effect it will have depends on many factors: three crucial ones being the timing of the peak, the severity of the drop-off in output afterwards, and the investment decisions made by states and firms. If we want to continue to produce enough energy to run a global industrialized society, and we also want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to ensure that renewables (and perhaps nuclear) are the energy sources of the future, and that efficient means of energy storage are developed for vehicles.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. December 17, 2008 at 9:08 am

Given the price of oil today, I am tempted to buy a few hundred barrels (or whatever I would need for the rest of my life) and put it into storage somewhere.

R.K. December 17, 2008 at 9:32 am

More seriously: a peak doesn’t mean ‘no gasoline,’ but rather ‘increasing price competition for what gasoline there is.’ Also, even running out of petroleum won’t cut us off completely from liquid fuels. They can be produced artificially from coal and/or biomass.

Tristan December 17, 2008 at 12:42 pm

The reserves in the gulf might be over-reported, we have no way to know. If the gulf has already peaked, then we are already past the peak.

Milan December 17, 2008 at 1:31 pm


The trickiest thing about estimating supplies in Saudi Arabia and similar states is that there are techniques (such as horizontal drilling) that temporarily boost the output of oilfields.

If such techniques are widely in use, actual medium-term potential output might be a lot lower than a naive examination of production statistics would suggest.

Tristan December 17, 2008 at 10:50 pm

In other words, the supply of inexpensively extractable oil might dry up more quickly than expected.

The cheap fuel prices right now seem like a death burp of inexpensive driving, one that can only be prolonged if the economic crisis is able to keep the new economies from continuing to grow. Since they produce the vast majority of the real products, it seems unlikely this would happen.

. April 14, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Cross Your Fingers and Carry On
Posted April 14, 2009

Why does the government refuse to make contingency plans for peak oil?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 14th April 2009

Here’s how the British government describes the risk of a smallpox outbreak. “We are currently at alert level 0. Smallpox remains eradicated. No credible threat of a smallpox release.”(1)

So, in response to this non-existent threat, it has published 122 pages of central plans(2,3). Each of the nine English regions maintains a Smallpox Diagnosis and Response Group, which in turn supports five Smallpox Management and Response Teams, one of which is on duty at all times. There are smallpox centres all over the country, and lists of doctors, nurses and support staff prepared to run them, laboratories ready to multiply vaccines and planning committees involving scores of different agencies.

The plans, in other words, must have cost millions. They use thousands of hours of specialist time every year. But step forward the man or woman who believes the government should abandon them.

. May 16, 2009 at 8:34 pm

Total’s 95 theory

The French energy giant thinks conventional oil production will top out in a decade at 95 million barrels and is keeping its eye squarely on the oil sands

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

May 15, 2009 at 7:43 PM EDT

PARIS — For Total SA, it’s all about 95. The French oil giant builds its business with 95 in mind, as if the figure were tattooed on its executives’ foreheads. The figure refers to Total’s belief, not shared by the majority of Big Oil players, that global production will top out at 95 million barrels a day after 2020. That’s only about 10 million more than current production.

Many oil gurus refer to the top-output theory as “peak” oil. Total prefers to call it “plateau” oil, a subtle variation on the theme that suggests production, having reached 95 million barrels a day, will remain at that level for some time in spite of every effort to squeeze more from Earth’s desiccated bowels (the peakists think production will fall relentlessly after reaching a peak, which may come well before 95 million).

Whether peak or plateau, the upshot is the same: Total thinks conventional oil production is approaching its practical limit. That’s why Canada and Venezuela figure so large in the company’s future. They hold the world’s biggest reserves of heavy crude (known as “oil sands” in Canada and “extra heavy oil” in Venezuela). As the easy-to-pump conventional reserves dry up, the thick goo from the frozen north and tropical south will have to fill the gap to forestall a precipitous drop in world production.

. August 3, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Chief energy economist says oil reserves are drying up more quickly than previously thought

By Mark Frauenfelder on Environment

Dr Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), says his agency’s recent study of 800 oil fields around the world (representing three quarter’s of the world’s oil reserves) reveal that we are facing a global energy catastrophe even sooner than researchers thought.

The IEA estimates that the decline in oil production in existing fields is now running at 6.7 per cent a year compared to the 3.7 per cent decline it had estimated in 2007, which it now acknowledges to be wrong.

This means the pressure will be on to start using enivonmentally-disastrous tar sands in Canada.

Catastrophic oil shortfalls threaten economic recovery, says world’s top energy economist

. November 9, 2011 at 8:53 pm
. July 9, 2015 at 6:59 pm

Fossil fuels are terrible investments, says top energy economist

“Any energy company in the world, whatever they do – oil, gas, renewables, efficiency, coal – climate policies will impact their business,” said Birol. “So in order not to make the wrong investment decisions, in terms of making the investment decisions which may not bring the right returns, or in terms of missing investment opportunities, businesses may need to take climate policies and the impact for their businesses more seriously. Without solving the carbon [emissions] in the energy sector, we have no chance to solve the climate change problem.”

. April 13, 2022 at 1:44 pm

“If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.” That is a direct quote from Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.


. December 1, 2022 at 2:49 pm

Giving up on 1.5C climate target would be gift to carbon boosters, says IEA head

Exclusive: Fatih Birol says claims that limit is dead are ‘factually incorrect and politically very wrong’


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