IEA: USA to become world's biggest oil producer

What does this mean for American renewables?

The IEA has released the World Energy Outlook, its annual overview of the world's energy situation. There are a number of eye-catching findings contained within, including a conclusion that, even with the rapid growth of renewables, fossil fuels with still make up 75 per cent of the global energy mix by 2035.

But the headline finding for many is that the US is poised to become the largest produce of both oil and gas before this decade is out. Earlier I spoke to Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA's Chief Economist, about the findings  (more of our conversation will be published soon as part of the energy series the New Statesman runs with Shell):

When we look to the future we see three major challenges. One is on energy security. The second one is on climate change becoming more and more of a problem. And the third one is that today, 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity in the developing world.

So when I look at the US picture, I see that the US is set to become the largest oil producer of the world around 2017, and the largest gas producer of the world around 2015, overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia respectively. And as a result of those developments, the geopolitics of energy and the economics of energy will change significantly. In terms of the US, we expected the US oil imports will go down substantially, from the Middle East and elsewhere. But it is not only because of the growth in US oil production, but the US has successfully introduced fuel standards for their cars – finally, I should say, compared to Europe and Japan – in order to reduce their oil demand at home. 

So as a result of those, I would expect that the US in a few years of time will not need any oil from the middle east, or very close to zero. And therefore it will have implications, I think, for US energy policy, but also for foreign and defence policy.

For a number of years, one of the key drivers of research and investment into renewables has been a desire for energy independence. It has been an easy way to sell those new technologies to a public which isn't quite enthused about the importance of preventing climate change.

The discovery of ways to exploit shale gas and "tight, light oil", as well as increasing use of biofuels, has lessened America's motivation to develop low-carbon technologies. It remains to be seen how damaging this could be to the ongoing decarbonisation of the world, but while it is likely to be unambiguous good news geopolitically – lessening the global power of less-than-progressive nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia is a good thing – it could still be a double-edged sword in the long-term.

The IEA's Fatih Birol. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear