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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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