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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR