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Beginning of the end for oil?

David Teather

Readinch

Greenpeace and others see the industry approaching a tipping point, thanks to price declines, technological advances and climate policies. Controversial investments in Canadian tar sands may be doomed. David Teather reports.

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A long-term decline in the demand for oil could undermine the huge investments in Canadian tar sands, which have been heavily opposed by environmentalists, according to a recently published report, Shifting Sands. The report, by Greenpeace, will make uncomfortable reading for the companies that are investing tens of billions of dollars to exploit the hard-to-extract oil in the belief that demand and the price would climb inexorably as countries such as China and India industrialise.

Citing projections from the oil producers’ cartel OPEC -- the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- and the International Energy Agency (IEA), as well as various oil experts, the report casts doubt on the conventional assumption that consumption and prices will begin gathering pace once the world pulls itself out of recession.

It argues that alongside the cyclical fall in the oil price there are more fundamental structural changes taking place. These are driven by advances in energy efficiency and alternative energy, cleaner vehicles, government policies on climate change and concerns over energy security. Greenpeace posted the report to 200 shareholders in Shell and BP, including pension funds, in an effort to put pressure on the companies to think again.

Lorne Stockman, the author of the report, said: “A peak in oil demand was barely discussed even a year ago, but now it is a viable idea. When it happens, I wouldn’t want to guess, but it will happen sooner than we thought. There has been lots of talk about a supply peak, but it is good to start talking about a demand peak, and that has huge implications for these companies.

“All of the international oil companies, as you look beyond 2020, need a high oil price to be profitable, because they are increasingly being pushed to develop expensive resources in not just the tar sands, but in deep water and offshore Arctic sites.”

“But there is something more structural going on,” he added. “Governments are beginning to act, and not just the Obama administration. In the EU, the policy driver is climate change, and in China and the US, it is about energy security and the vulnerability of the economy to volatility in the oil price.”

The rush to exploit the tar sands in Canada has been described as a modern-day gold rush that has led to a huge boom in once sleepy towns in the province of Alberta. The oil was once considered too difficult and expensive to extract as it is a mixture of clay, water and bitumen.

Many of the projects have been deferred indefinitely until the oil price recovers. It has fallen from a peak of US$147 a barrel and is currently at about US$64. Merrill Lynch estimates that the price would need to settle at about US$80 to make further investment viable. Critics argue that tar sands extraction is disastrous to the environment, causing deforestation, requiring huge amounts of water and greenhouse emissions three to five times greater than conventional crude.

The report notes that OPEC and the IEA have been revising projections for oil demand downwards since 2006, with by far the sharpest revision this year. OPEC has revised its 2025 oil forecast down by 12% within the past four years.

Peter Hughes, who spent much of his career at BP and BG, and is now director for global energy at the consultancy firm Arthur D Little, recently wrote a report titled The Beginning of the End for Oil? He supports the Greenpeace view and said the correlation between oil demand and GDP growth has been weakened.

“It is widely accepted that demand in OECD countries has plateaued and is going into decline but it has also been thought that would be massively outweighed by growth in China,” according to Hughes. “But the Chinese think long-term and identified some time ago that the biggest threat to their economic growth was an increasing dependency on imported energy, which is anathema to them. The conclusion is clear – to reduce the reliance on hydrocarbons through energy efficiency and fundamental technology change. I think we will reach peak oil demand in the middle of the next decade.

About 50% of oil demand in the United States fuels cars and the report takes hope from the Obama administration having tied recent bailouts for the industry to the development of cleaner vehicles. But it notes the United States is far behind China, where government mandates mean new Chinese cars are 56% more fuel-efficient than those built in Detroit, the traditional automotive centre. Fuel-efficient cars in China attract 1% sales tax and sports utility vehicles, 40%.

Greenpeace also contends that a high oil price is simply unsustainable. It cites research from Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), which suggests that economies become constrained when the price moves into a band between US$100 and US$120 a barrel, causing the price to fall back. Another report from energy business analysts Douglas Westwood puts the “recession threshold” even lower, at US$80 a barrel.

Shell, which has delayed a number of tar sands projects, argues that energy supply will struggle to keep up with the demands of a growing global population and that in the long term there will be upward pressures on energy prices that justify investing in the Canadian tar sands. “Our first oil sands operation, the Athabasca Oil Sands Project [60% Shell share] was built between 1999 and 2003, when the oil price was considerably lower,” a spokeswoman said. Shell has the highest exposure of the major oil companies to the tar sands and is most at risk from a decline in demand. There are contrary views. The Saudi oil minister, Ali Al-Naimi, warned in May that the world could be facing another oil shock, with prices above US$150 within two to three years through a lack of investment in new capacity. The International Monetary Fund has expressed similar concerns. Even Greenpeace does not suggest that there will not be temporary squeezes on demand and price spikes. But it believes that the world might fast be approaching a tipping point.


www.guardian.co.uk

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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还很遥远

也许在未来石油的重要性会下降,但从目前的情况出发,替代能源技术,不管是风能、生物能,还是太阳能,技术不成熟使其都尚未大规模地推广开来;在气候谈判上,各国政府能否达成一致也是个未知数。对于一个工业国家来说,石油资源的短缺会造成致命的打击,石油时代的终结还很遥远。

Still it’s a long way

Maybe importance of oil will decrease in the future, but as from present situation, technology for alternative energy resources, no matter if it’s wind power, bio energy or solar energy it’s not prepared to be popularized in a large scope; as for climate negotiations, it’s also unknown if every countries’ government can reach an identical stand. Regarding industrialized countries, shortage of oil resources will cause destructive blows, but the end of oil times is still a long way to go.

Translated by Katarzyna Wachowska


支持休斯

休斯的论点很有说服力,中国等新兴经济体国家的政府已经制定了提高能效的政策,开始改变以环境为代价来换取GDP的做法。但是,在技术研发上,这些后起国家还需要投入很多。

Supporting Arthur D Little

Arthur D Little’s arguments are very persuasive. Government in China and in other developing countries established increase effectiveness policy, firstly by changing environment from cost to a way of rising GDP. However, at the process of researching and developing technology, rising countries still have to invest a lot.

Translated by Katarzyna Wachowska


新能源

石油作为不可再生资源,它的储量肯定会越来越少。对于石油公司来说,石油终结的预言简直就是一个噩梦,它们不愿意听到这样的话。

中国、印度这些新兴国家不会再重蹈西方的老路,已经认识到新能源的重要性。现在,各国都在争先恐后地发展新能源,这表明可再生能源才是人类未来发展的希望所在。

New Energy

Oil is not a renewable resource, so its reserves will certainly decrease. The prediction of the end for oil is a nightmare for the oil companies. They don't want to hear that kind of talk

Being aware of how important the new energy is, the emerging economies like China and India will not follow the same path that the Western countries have taken. Right now all the countries are striving to outdo the rest in developing renewable energies, which shows that renewable energies are the future for the development of humanity.


(Translated by Yina)


沥青砂

经济危机之下,石油价格走低,石油巨头们对沥青砂的开发也慢了下来。现在,随着市场对经济复苏的信心开始上升,油价升到了70美元一桶。按照这个趋势,也许,艾伯塔省不久又会热起来了。

Tar sands

During the global economic crisis, the oil price dropped and oil giants slowed their exploitation of the tar sands. Now, thanks to the market's confidence in the ecnomic recovery, the price of oil has risento $70 per barrel. In accordance with this trend, economic in Alberta might soon be active again.

Translated by Tian Liang


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