If there is one thing energy leaders and analysts agreed on at the Energy Information Agency (EIA) conference this year in Washington DC, it is that global energy trends predictions have become all but unpredictable. The steady stream of tweets from the annual gathering of energy industry, government and academic leaders tells the story of a nearly constant reversal of fortunes in the energy business:
•$220 billion less spent on #oil capex in 2015 as compared to 2014, a record cut.
•#Natgas falls through 2021. #natgas and #renewables surpass #coal in #electric generation by 2030.
•#Coal continues to face downward pressure in #electricity generation even without #CleanPowerPlan implementation.
Many of the conference seminars dwelled on the current "Boom to Gloom" mood in the fossil fuel industry. "Lower oil prices are affecting investment and production decisions across the industry, which could create capacity constraints in the midterm," according to the EIA, the energy research arm of the US government. "Geopolitical forces further complicate the timing of investment decisions and market prices."
An increasingly multipolar market
Analysts at the conference warned that the global oil industry currently is not close to the capital investment expenditure levels and discoveries needed to support a steady industry. "Nineteen of the top 30 non-OPEC nations delivered above expected production in 2015 by postponing maintenance and boosting production," the EIA reported.
Jamie Webster, adjunct research scholar at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, told the conference, "The oil market is becoming multi-polar for near term balancing." He said, “shale production is now above any measure of OPEC spare capacity." But Webster cautioned, "Even in the fastest growth years, it took shale 3 years to gain enough volume to equal assessed spare capacity - faster than conventional, but too slow to keep the market steady." Using shale to replace OPEC as a "swing supplier/market balance …makes a complex market adjustment too simple," according to Webster. Shale’s key role is serving as "the bridge between fast-moving storage and long-term projects," in Webster’s view.
Gas and coal remain, but renewables make progress
On the LNG front, the world market oversupply is likely to last until the mid 2020s, predicted Ernie Meggison of Meggison & Associates Inc.
Coal will continue to take strong hits around the world, according to the experts assembled at the conference. The EIA expects coal to "to face downward pressure in electricity generation, event without" the implementation of President Obama’s stricter emissions limits under his Clean Power Plan. But buried beneath the gloomy fossil fuel outlooks were positive reports of the international move to renewables, spurred by growing investor and stockholder concerns over the current and future impacts of climate change. The solar industry in the United States now employs 209,000 workers, more than double the number in 2010, according to the EIA. "Many states are finding that reducing emissions is lower cost and less difficult than they originally thought," said Michael Tubman of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Use of natural gas and renewables will surpass coal in electric generation in the US by 2030, according to EIA projections.. In China, non-coal fuels and technologies are growing rapidly, supported by environmental and climate polices, according to Xizhou Zhou of IHS Energy. However, the company expects coal consumption growth in China to gradually recover from current economic slowdowns, reaching a national peak by the mid-2020s. And Dr. John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told participants that China will remain a key energy player for years to come: "In 2005, the U.S. was still using 1/3 more energy than China. By 2014, the reverse was true."