Oil at $110 a barrel. Gasoline at $3.35 (or more) per gallon. Diesel fuel at $4 per gallon. Independent truckers forced off the road. Home heating oil rising to unconscionable price levels. Jet fuel so expensive that three low-cost airlines stopped flying in the past few weeks. This is just a taste of the latest energy news, signaling a profound change in how all of us, in this country and around the world, are going to live -- trends that, so far as anyone can predict, will only become more pronounced as energy supplies dwindle and the global struggle over their allocation intensifies.
Energy of all sorts was once hugely abundant, making possible the worldwide economic expansion of the past six decades. This expansion benefited the United States above all -- along with its "first-world" allies in Europe and the Pacific. Recently, however, a select group of former "third-world" countries -- China and India in particular -- have sought to participate in this energy bonanza by industrializing their economies and selling a wide range of goods to international markets. This, in turn, has led to an unprecedented spurt in global energy consumption -- a 47 percent rise in the past 20 years alone, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
An increase of this sort would not be a matter of deep anxiety if the world's primary energy suppliers were capable of producing the needed additional fuels. Instead, we face a frightening reality: a marked slowdown in the expansion of global energy supplies just as demand rises precipitously. These supplies are not exactly disappearing -- though that will occur sooner or later -- but they are not growing fast enough to satisfy soaring global demand.
The combination of rising demand, the emergence of powerful new energy consumers and the contraction of the global energy supply is demolishing the energy-abundant world we are familiar with and creating in its place a new world order. Think of it as: rising powers/shrinking planet.
This new world order will be characterized by fierce international competition for dwindling stocks of oil, natural gas, coal and uranium, as well as by a tidal shift in power and wealth from energy-deficit states like China, Japan and the United States to energy-surplus states like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. In the process, the lives of everyone will be affected in one way or another -- with poor and middle-class consumers in the energy-deficit states experiencing the harshest effects. That's most of us and our children, in case you hadn't quite taken it in.
Here, in a nutshell, are five key forces in this new world order that will change our planet:
1. Intense competition between older and newer economic powers for available supplies of energy: Until very recently, the mature industrial powers of Europe, Asia and North America consumed the lion's share of energy and left the dregs for the developing world. As recently as 1990, the members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of the world's richest nations, consumed approximately 57 percent of world energy; the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact bloc, 14 percent; and only 29 percent was left to the developing world. But that ratio is changing: With strong economic growth in the developing countries, a greater proportion of the world's energy is being consumed by them. By 2010, the developing world's share of energy use is expected to reach 40 percent and, if current trends persist, 47 percent by 2030.
China plays a critical role in all this. The Chinese alone are projected to consume 17 percent of world energy by 2015 and 20 percent by 2025 -- by which time, if trend lines continue, it will have overtaken the United States as the world's leading energy consumer. India, which, in 2004, accounted for 3.4 percent of world energy use, is projected to reach 4.4 percent by 2025, while consumption in other rapidly industrializing nations like Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Turkey is expected to grow as well.
These rising economic dynamos will have to compete with the mature economic powers for access to remaining untapped reserves of exportable energy -- in many cases, bought up long ago by the private energy firms of the mature powers like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Total of France and Royal Dutch Shell. Of necessity, the new contenders have developed a potent strategy for competing with the Western "majors": they've created state-owned companies of their own and fashioned strategic alliances with the national oil companies that now control oil and gas reserves in many of the major energy-producing nations.
China's Sinopec, for example, has established a strategic alliance with Saudi Aramco, the nationalized giant once owned by Chevron and Exxon Mobil, to explore for natural gas in Saudi Arabia and market Saudi crude oil in China. Likewise, the China National Petroleum Corp. will collaborate with Gazprom, the massive state-controlled Russian natural gas monopoly, to build pipelines and deliver Russian gas to China. Several of these state-owned firms, including CNPC and India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp., are now set to collaborate with Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. in developing the extra-heavy crude of the Orinoco belt once controlled by Chevron. In this new stage of energy competition, the advantages long enjoyed by Western energy majors have been eroded by vigorous, state-backed upstarts from the developing world.
2. The insufficiency of primary energy supplies: The capacity of the global energy industry to satisfy demand is shrinking. By all accounts, the global supply of oil will expand for perhaps one half-decade before reaching a peak and beginning to decline, while supplies of natural gas, coal and uranium will probably grow for an additional decade or two before peaking and commencing their own inevitable declines. In the meantime, global supplies of these existing fuels will prove incapable of reaching the elevated levels demanded.
Take oil. The U.S. Department of Energy claims that world oil demand, expected to reach 117.6 million barrels per day in 2030, will be matched by a supply that -- miracle of miracles -- will hit exactly 117.7 million barrels (including petroleum liquids derived from allied substances like natural gas and Canadian tar sands) at the same time. Most energy professionals, however, consider this estimate highly unrealistic. "One hundred million barrels is now in my view an optimistic case," the CEO of Total, Christophe de Margerie, typically told a London oil conference in October 2007. "It is not my view; it is the industry view, or the view of those who like to speak clearly, honestly, and [are] not just trying to please people."
Similarly, the authors of the Medium-Term Oil Market Report, published in July 2007 by the International Energy Agency, an affiliate of the OECD, concluded that world oil output might hit 96 million barrels per day by 2012, but was unlikely to go much beyond that as a dearth of new discoveries made future growth impossible.
Daily business-page headlines point to a vortex of clashing trends: Worldwide demand will continue to grow as hundreds of millions of newly affluent Chinese and Indian consumers line up to purchase their first automobile (some selling for as little as $2,500); key older "elephant" oil fields like Ghawar in Saudi Arabia and Canterell in Mexico are already in decline or expected to be so soon; and the rate of new oil-field discoveries plunges year after year. So expect global energy shortages and high prices to be a constant source of hardship.
3. The painfully slow development of energy alternatives: It has long been evident to policymakers that new sources of energy are desperately needed to compensate for the eventual disappearance of existing fuels as well as to slow the buildup of climate-changing "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere. In fact, wind and solar power have gained significant footholds in some parts of the world. A number of other innovative energy solutions have already been developed and even tested out in university and corporate laboratories. But these alternatives, which now contribute only a tiny percentage of the world's net fuel supply, are simply not being developed fast enough to avert the multifaceted energy catastrophe that lies ahead.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, renewable fuels, including wind, solar and hydropower (along with "traditional" fuels like firewood and dung), supplied but 7.4 percent of global energy in 2004; biofuels added an additional 0.3 percent. Meanwhile, fossil fuels -- oil, coal and natural gas -- supplied 86 percent of world energy, nuclear power an additional 6 percent. Based on current rates of development and investment, the DOE offers the following dismal projection: In 2030, fossil fuels will still account for exactly the same share of world energy as in 2004. The expected increase in renewables and biofuels is so slight -- a mere 8.1 percent -- as to be virtually meaningless.
In global warming terms, the implications are nothing short of catastrophic: Rising reliance on coal (especially in China, India and the United States) means that global emissions of carbon dioxide are projected to rise by 59 percent over the next quarter-century, from 26.9 billion metric tons to 42.9 billion tons. The meaning of this is simple. If these figures hold, there is no hope of averting the worst effects of climate change.
When it comes to global energy supplies, the implications are nearly as dire. To meet soaring energy demand, we would need a massive influx of alternative fuels, which would mean equally massive investment -- in the trillions of dollars -- to ensure that the newest possibilities move rapidly from laboratory to full-scale commercial production; but that, sad to say, is not in the cards. Instead, the major energy firms (backed by lavish U.S. government subsidies and tax breaks) are putting their mega-windfall profits from rising energy prices into vastly expensive (and environmentally questionable) schemes to extract oil and gas from Alaska and the Arctic, or to drill in the deep and difficult waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The result? A few more barrels of oil or cubic feet of natural gas at exorbitant prices (with accompanying ecological damage), while nonpetroleum alternatives limp along pitifully.
4. A steady migration of power and wealth from energy-deficit to energy-surplus nations: There are few countries -- perhaps a dozen altogether -- with enough oil, gas, coal and uranium (or some combination thereof) to meet their own energy needs and provide significant surpluses for export. Not surprisingly, such states will be able to extract increasingly beneficial terms from the much wider pool of energy-deficit nations dependent on them for vital supplies of energy. These terms, primarily of a financial nature, will result in growing mountains of petrodollars being accumulated by the leading oil producers, but will also include political and military concessions.
In the case of oil and natural gas, the major energy-surplus states can be counted on two hands. Ten oil-rich states possess 82.2 percent of the world's proven reserves. In order of importance, they are: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Russia, Libya, Kazakhstan and Nigeria. The possession of natural gas is even more concentrated. Three countries -- Russia, Iran and Qatar -- harbor an astonishing 55.8 percent of the world supply. All of these countries are in an enviable position to cash in on the dramatic rise in global energy prices and to extract from potential customers whatever political concessions they deem important.
The transfer of wealth alone is already mind-boggling. The oil-exporting countries collected an estimated $970 billion from the importing countries in 2006, and the take for 2007, when finally calculated, is expected to be far higher. A substantial fraction of these dollars, yen and euros has been deposited in "sovereign-wealth funds" (SWFs), giant investment accounts owned by the oil states and deployed for the acquisition of valuable assets around the world. In recent months, the Persian Gulf SWFs have been taking advantage of the financial crisis in the United States to purchase large stakes in strategic sectors of its economy. In November 2007, for example, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority acquired a $7.5 billion stake in Citigroup, America's largest bank holding company; in January, Citigroup sold an even larger share, worth $12.5 billion, to the Kuwait Investment Authority and several other Middle Eastern investors, including Prince Walid bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. The managers of ADIA and KIA insist that they do not intend to use their newly acquired stakes in Citigroup and other U.S. banks and corporations to influence U.S. economic or foreign policy, but it is hard to imagine that a financial shift of this magnitude, which can only gain momentum in the decades ahead, will not translate into some form of political leverage.
In the case of Russia, which has risen from the ashes of the Soviet Union as the world's first energy superpower, it already has. Russia is now the world's leading supplier of natural gas, the second largest supplier of oil and a major producer of coal and uranium. Though many of these assets were briefly privatized during the reign of Boris Yeltsin, President Vladimir Putin has brought most of them back under state control -- in some cases, by exceedingly questionable legal means. He then used these assets in campaigns to bribe or coerce former Soviet republics on Russia's periphery reliant on it for the bulk of their oil and gas supplies. European Union countries have sometimes expressed dismay at Putin's tactics, but they, too, are dependent on Russian energy supplies, so have learned to mute their protests to accommodate growing Russian power in Eurasia. Consider Russia a model for the new energy world order.
5. A growing risk of conflict: Throughout history, major shifts in power have normally been accompanied by violence -- in some cases, protracted, tumultuous upheavals. Either states at the pinnacle of power have struggled to prevent the loss of their privileged status, or challengers have fought to topple those at the top of the heap. Will that happen now? Will energy-deficit states launch campaigns to wrest the oil and gas reserves of surplus states from their control -- the Bush administration's war in Iraq might already be thought of as one such attempt -- or to eliminate competitors among their deficit-state rivals?
The high costs and risks of modern warfare are well known, and there is a widespread perception that energy problems can best be solved through economic means, not military ones. Nevertheless, the major powers are employing military means in their efforts to gain advantage in the global struggle for energy, and no one should be deluded on the subject. These endeavors could easily enough lead to unintended escalation and conflict.
One conspicuous use of military means in the pursuit of energy is obviously the regular transfer of arms and military-support services by the major energy-importing states to their principal suppliers. Both the United States and China, for example, have stepped up their deliveries of arms and equipment to oil-producing states like Angola, Nigeria and Sudan in Africa and, in the Caspian Sea basin, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The United States has placed particular emphasis on suppressing the armed insurgency in the vital Niger Delta region of Nigeria, where most of the country's oil is produced; Beijing has emphasized arms aid to Sudan, where Chinese-led oil operations are threatened by insurgencies in both the South and Darfur.
Russia is also using arms transfers as an instrument in its efforts to gain influence in the major oil- and gas-producing regions of the Caspian Sea basin and the Persian Gulf. Its urge is not to procure energy for its own use but to dominate the flow of energy to others. In particular, Moscow seeks a monopoly on the transportation of Central Asian gas to Europe via Gazprom's vast pipeline network; it also wants to tap into Iran's mammoth gas fields, further cementing Russia's control over the trade in natural gas.
The danger, of course, is that such endeavors, multiplied over time, will provoke regional arms races, exacerbate regional tensions and increase the danger of great-power involvement in any local conflicts that erupt. History has all too many examples of such miscalculations leading to wars that spiral out of control. Think of the years leading up to World War I. In fact, Central Asia and the Caspian today, with their multiple ethnic disorders and great-power rivalries, bear more than a glancing resemblance to the Balkans in the years leading up to 1914.
What this adds up to is simple and sobering: the end of the world as you've known it. In the new, energy-centric world we have all now entered, the price of oil will dominate our lives and power will reside in the hands of those who control its global distribution.
In this new world order, energy will govern our lives in new ways and on a daily basis. It will determine when, and for what purposes, we use our cars; how high (or low) we turn our thermostats; when, where or even if we travel; increasingly, what foods we eat (given that the price of producing and distributing many meats and vegetables is profoundly affected by the cost of oil or the allure of growing corn for ethanol); for some of us, where to live; for others, what businesses we engage in; for all of us, when and under what circumstances we go to war or avoid foreign entanglements that could end in war.
This leads to a final observation: The most pressing decision facing the next U.S. president and Congress may be how best to accelerate the transition from a fossil-fuel-based energy system to a system based on climate-friendly energy alternatives.
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.