I’ve been following the peak oil debate for a few years now, and one of the interesting things has been to see how forecasts have changed. The big energy agencies have consistently over-estimated global oil production, and as I’ve explained before, there are good reasons why they do that. You can only carry on with political rather than realistic predictions for so long however, and if you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if you mapped the forecasts over time, wonder no more.
Here’s the Energy Information Administration’s forecasts over the last decade or so, mapped by an IMF research project. In the early years of the millennium, the agency expects global oil production to rise to almost 120 million barrels a day by 2020. Five years later the estimate has dropped to 110 mbd, and then it dips below 100 by the end of the decade. Who knows where it goes next – wherever the US government would like it to go, presumably.
Of course, you could create a similar graph with the pessimistic forecasts of oil depletion researchers. The IMF paper compares three of Colin Campbell’s forecasts and he doesn’t fare much better than the EIA – see below.
Forecasting future oil production is obviously a tricky business, but it’s an important task. Oil forecasts are a big factor in energy and transport policy. If there’s lots of oil, then we can proceed with cars and road-building – see the British government’s announcement about the Highways Agency today. (Climate change is clearly invisible in Britain’s transport planning.) If oil is looking harder to come by, perhaps we might want to redirect our plans into public transport, rail and walkable neighbourhoods instead, which is what we should have been doing anyway for a whole pile of reasons.
We’re not being well served when it comes to working out what’s really going on with global oil production. Both sides are failing to communicate the realities of oil production. The big difference between the EIA’s failures and the peak oil writers is that the EIA are officially sanctioned, the myth of choice.
Perhaps as the years go by, the agency estimates will fall and the depletion graphs will rise, and we shall meet somewhere near the truth in the middle. Considering the mystery around stated reserves, I suspect we will only ever know in hindsight.