First published in the Telegraph , 3 May 2008

Polishing the portholes on the Titanic hardly does it justice. This week saw ministers giving an uncanny impersonation of Corporal Jones urging calm over the Grangemouth refinery strike; lorry drivers protesting in Park Lane over a two pence rise in fuel duty; and much righteous indignation over the level of profits reported by Shell and BP. All of which entirely misses the point. These issues are trifling compared to global oil depletion, where there have been several distinct turns for the worse in the last month.

The idea that oil companies are somehow ‘to blame’ for record oil prices and rising fuel costs is seductive but absurd. For all their power and profits, the international oil companies are in fact in trouble. They may still be swimming in cash, but no longer in oil. Despite vast investment in exploration and production, these days they generally fail to replace the oil they produce each year with fresh discoveries, or even to maintain current levels of output. Shell’s oil production has been falling for six years, BP’s seems to have peaked 2005, and this week even the mighty Exxon was forced to admit its output dropped 10% in the first quarter of the year.

None of this should come as a surprise since all the evidence now suggests the world is rapidly approaching “peak oil”, the point when global oil production goes into terminal decline for fundamental geological reasons. Annual discovery of oil has been falling for over forty years, and now for every barrel we find we consume three. Oil production is already shrinking in 60 of the world’s 98 oil producing countries – including Britain, where output peaked in 1999 and has already plunged by more than half. When an individual country peaks it only matters for that country – Britain became a net importer of oil in 2006 – but when global supply starts to shrink the effects could be ruinous for everybody.

Analysts divide the oil producing world into two halves: OPEC and the rest. There is broad agreement that non-OPEC oil production will peak or at least plateau by about 2010. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson said last year that non-OPEC production growth would be all over in “two to three years”. That judgment now seems even more certain.

Since the turn of the century non-OPEC oil production has been sustained only by big increases in Russia, the world’s largest producer, as the oligarchs that control the industry invested billions refurbishing fields that had been allowed to deteriorate after the collapse of communism. But now the easy gains have gone and growth rates have slumped. This month Leonid Fedun , a senior executive with Lukoil, Russia’s second largest oil company, said the country’s output had peaked and would never exceed current levels “in his lifetime”.

So we now depend on OPEC as never before, and this explains the increasingly shrill pleas from Western officials for the cartel to raise production. But many suspect OPEC could not increase output even if it wanted to – at least not by much – and may also peak soon. There have long been doubts about the true size of OPEC’s claimed reserves, which seem to have been falsely – and massively – inflated during the 1980s when members were vying for larger shares in the new quota system. And now there are growing concerns about some of OPEC’s most significant producers.

Just last week Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, announced that all plans to expand oil production capacity beyond 2009 had been shelved. The oil minister justified the decision by claiming that, given the economic outlook, there would be no demand for the additional oil – which is arguable but unlikely. Even the mildly skeptical will suspect the move was not entirely voluntary.

In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, output has already fallen 20% because of repeated attacks by militants in the Niger delta. But now a recent report by the government’s energy advisers has concluded that even if investment is maintained at current levels “total oil and gas production will decline by 30 per cent from its current level by 2015”.

The one OPEC member which undoubtedly has large untapped oil resources is Iraq, but here the continuing butchery and failure to agree a new law governing oil and gas production makes any early increase highly unlikely.

In these circumstances it is no surprise that the oil price has soared to record levels – almost $120 earlier this week – nor that many now predict a further pole-vault to $200, including the EU’s Energy Commissioner, the President of OPEC, and city analysts <Goldman Sachs. What is surprising is the number of apparently intelligent people who cleave to fanciful explanations for the oil price rise, such as speculation and the weakness of the dollar.

No doubt these factors play a part, but the simple fact is that global oil production – including non-conventional sources, biofuels and the kitchen sink – has remained essentially flat since early 2005. For three years the oil supply has been a zero sum game in which if one country consumes more, another has to consume less. Since so much of the demand growth comes from the developing world or OPEC members themselves, oil demand will probably continue to grow despite the gathering recession in the West. It is shortage that makes oil futures so attractive to investors.

And yet the British government’s central forecast is that oil will cost $57 per barrel in 2010 and fall to $53 by 2020. This absurd prediction is incomprehensible until you consider the political realities: even more than climate change, peak oil demands that governments confront voters with uncomfortable truths that will impact living standards. In Whitehall, legs will remain crossed and buttocks clenched as politicians and officials pray it doesn’t happen in their term of office, or before they draw their inflation-linked pension.

So Gordon Brown’s website blithely proclaims “…the world’s oil and gas resources are sufficient to sustain economic growth for the foreseeable future”, despite all evidence to the contrary. Still, perhaps he can say this with some confidence; the way things are going, his foreseeable future is not all that long.

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