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12 November 2012

IEA: USA to become world’s biggest oil producer

What does this mean for American renewables?

By Alex Hern

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.

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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.