Energy supply and demand: why is it such a divisive issue? The problem is that it is not just about individual consumption; oil and gas supply and demand is a central issue not only to the health of the global economy, but the global ecosystem as well. It’s not surprising that the rhetoric surrounding energy consumption often mentions the fate of the planet and the survival of humanity.
The United Nations (U.N.) has estimated that the world’s population would reach 7.2 billion by early 2014 and that 82 million people would be added each year, with 25 percent of this growth occurring in the least developed countries. At current rates, the total population of the planet will reach 8.1 billion in 2025 and 9.6 billion in 2050, according to the UN.
All of these people will require affordable energy options—especially those in the underdeveloped countries. The U.N. also estimates that 40 percent of the world’s population depends on traditional biomass fuels for indoor cooking and heating, fuels which are comprised of animal dung, firewood, charcoal, and crop residue. This commonplace practice accounts for 2.7 percent of the world’s total disease burden, killing roughly 4 million people each year and worsening global deforestation and soil erosion. This practice also causes increased greenhouse gas emissions.
More than 20 percent of the world’s population–1.3 billion people–lack electricity, and millions more have access to electricity but are unable to pay for it. Those deprived of affordable energy also lack running water, basic sanitation, food, medicine preservation, and protection from the elements. At the same time, a vast new middle class is emerging in the developed world, with total population expected to grow by more than 250 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD).
It’s easy to see that meeting the world’s energy needs in the 21st century looms as one of the most complex, overarching issues of our time. This challenge is compounded when intertwined with sensitive environmental controversies and geopolitical strife. And yet, somehow, the energy sector must meet these challenges in ways that:
- Are cost-effective for consumers yet allow a decent return for producers
- Help support global energy security without undermining global trade—or the economies of nations critical to the world’s energy supply stability
- Optimize environmental stewardship to balance energy affordability with environmental impacts
Historical events that shaped today’s market
Meeting the growing energy demand and managing the resulting consequences that flow from that effort are not new or simple challenges. More than a century ago, the demand for better illumination nearly drove several species of whales to extinction before petroleum products provided a better alternative. The 1911 decision by Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, to switch British warships from coal to oil sowed the seeds of future conflict over Middle Eastern oil. In 1954, the Suez Crisis demonstrated the first modern example of Middle Eastern nationalism as a threat to Western oil supplies.
The Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1978–79 sent shock waves through the world’s economies, underscoring how critical oil was to sustaining the economic health and well-being of all consuming nations. Before 1973, almost all of the global supply of oil outside the Communist bloc was in the hands of the private sector, almost exclusively European companies and US. After the 1970s oil crises, two-thirds of that private oil ownership moved to state oil companies, mainly in the Middle East.
The rise of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and energy nationalism also changed the dynamics between oil suppliers and oil consumers. Instead of being governed solely by market forces, the world’s most critical supply of energy was now subject to the political and economic circumstances of the suppliers. Consequently, the real price of oil today is more than fourfold what it was in 1972.
Changing consumer perceptions
The only way to change negative and divisive perceptions on today’s energy market is the development of a realistic, measured energy strategy—one that recognizes the challenges for all energy sources yet eschews the rhetoric and political posturing by focusing on economics and environmental impacts. The oil and natural gas industry will play a pivotal role in helping the world develop solutions to these seemingly conflicting energy, economic, and environmental goals.
A decade ago, the widespread expectation was that oil and gas resources were entering into a permanent period of scarcity. But advances in technology, know-how, and best practices for the North American petroleum industry have turned the global energy picture on its head. This has been achieved by rendering vast, hitherto intractable, “unconventional” oil and gas resources economically recoverable. In less than a decade, scarcity has turned to plenty. Discovery risk has been reduced essentially to zero. And now the unconventional oil and gas revolution is on the brink of being exported to other countries with similar untapped unconventional resources.
The scope of these resources has dramatically altered the oil and gas landscape. Some analysts believe that the center of world energy is shifting to North America and away from the conflagrations of the Middle East. And consumers’ confidence in the industry may be bolstered by the belief that prices will ultimately fall and conflicts will ultimately ease.
Yet there remain enormous challenges for oil and gas companies. These new commercial resources are extremely expensive to develop, and costs continue to grow with respect to regulatory compliance, taxes, equipment, services, and labor. Additionally, the industry is facing a shift change, in the form of aging industry veterans handing the reins to tech-savvy but green youngsters in the absence of a bridging generation—the “lost generation” that fled or avoided the oil and gas industry from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.