Outside View: We can't cling to crude: we should leave oil before it leaves us

We are on the brink of a new energy order. Over the next few decades, our reserves of oil will start to run out and it is imperative that governments in both producing and consuming nations prepare now for that time. We should not cling to crude down to the last drop – we should leave oil before it leaves us. That means new approaches must be found soon.

Even now, we are seeing a shift in the balance of power away from publicly listed international oil companies. In areas such as the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, production is in decline. Mergers and acquisitions will allow "big oil" to replenish reserves for a while,and new technologies will let them stretch the lives of existing fields and dip into marginal and hard-to-reach pools. But this will not change the underlying problem. Oil production by public companies is reaching its peak. They will have to find new ways to conduct business.

Increasingly, output levels will be set by a very few countries in the Middle East. This does not necessarily mean an immediate return to the price shocks of the 1970s, because producing countries have learnt that stability is in their interests. Even so, it is not certain that they are ready to increase production to meet growing world demand. Building new capacity takes time.

On the demand side, we see two big transformations. Wherever possible, people have already switched from oil, particularly for industrial use, home heating and electricity generation. In future, oil will mainly be used in the transport sector, where we have no readily available alternatives.

The other transformation is that the bulk of demand growth is coming, and will come in the future, from China and India. Here again, car ownership is the main driver. By 2020, India will be the world's third-largest oil importer, and we expect China will be importing 13 million barrels in 2030, which means another US in the market. In terms of car sales, we estimate that by 2015 at the latest, more cars will be sold in China than in the US.

What will all this mean for the price of petrol? The indications are that if the producers don't bring a lot of oil to the markets, we may see very high prices – perhaps oil at $150 a barrel by 2030. If the governments do not act quickly, the wheels may fall off even sooner.

The developed, oil-consuming countries can do several things to ease the transition to the new energy order. One would be to boost vehicle efficiency. Another would be to make better use of biofuels, although to be helpful, these need to be produced cheaply in developing countries like Brazil, not by heavily subsidised farmers in the developed world.

High prices also make it profitable to produce fuel from unconventional sources such as tar sands. But to do this requires plenty of energy, mostly from natural gas, and the process emits lots of CO2. Tar sands are attractive, but like biofuels, they will never replace Middle East oil.

In the long term, we must come up with an alternative form of transport, possibly electric cars, with the electricity being provided by nuclear power stations. The really important thing is that even though we are not yet running out of oil, we are running out of time.

Dr Fatih Birol is chief economist at the International Energy Agency

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Experienced Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £40000 per annum + OTE + Incentives + Benefits: SThree: Established f...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40/45k + INCENTIVES + BENEFITS: SThree: The su...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 busi...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones