Already considered the Saudi Arabia of coal and of natural gas, the United States will soon become the Saudi Arabia of oil as well, meaning we might have to retire that particular cliché. The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2012 projects that the U.S. will become the world's biggest oil producer by 2020. It also predicts that the country will become a net exporter of oil by 2030, meaning that buzzphrase of energy independence will actually become, well, an actuality.
The backdrop to this shift is a global energy picture where we are basically refusing to leave fossil fuels behind. From the IEA:
Despite the growth in lowcarbon sources of energy, fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that amounted to US $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30 percent on 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables.
The report's central scenario projects a growth in global energy demand of more than one-third by 2035, with the obvious suspects—China, India, the Middle East—accounting for 60 percent of that growth.
There are some bright spots though, and some serious opportunities. Energy efficiency improvements remain largely untapped, in spite of widespread agreement at their potential. That big growth by 2035 could be cut in half with existing technology improvements in efficiency, with oil demand peaking before 2020. An investment of $11.8 trillion would be more than paid back, with a growth in cumulative economic output to 2035 of $18 trillion. Such efforts would also send energy-related carbon dioxide emissions downward after 2020, "with a decline thereafter consistent with a long-term temperature increase of 3°C."
Of course, the international scientific consensus is that 2°C should be the targeted maximum increase. The IEA report says that almost 80 percent of the emissions that would keep us to that target are already locked in; if no action to reduce emissions is taken by 2017, then all of the allowable emissions would be spoken for. Only a "rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies" can buy us some time, and even then only until 2022. If we burn more than one-third of the world's proven coal, oil, and gas supplies, we'll soar past two degrees without stopping to say hello.
In the IEA's primary scenario, renewables do continue to make some impressive gains. By 2035, as a group they will account for one-third of global electricity output, roughly equivalent to coal as the world's primary source. This picture will have to change as part of the drive for two degrees, as well as the drive toward universal access to electricity. Almost 1.3 billion people remain without access to power today, and the IEA projects that 1 billion will still lack electricity in 2030 without a $1 trillion cumulative investment.
There is a theme here, clearly: business as usual for the next 25 years or so means fossil fuels, and lots of them. We are running out of time, but hopefully one of these days the IEA won't conclude something like this: "Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path."
Image via Sarunas Burdulis