THREE summers ago, the world’s supertankers were racing across the oceans as fast as they could to deliver oil to markets growing increasingly thirsty for energy. Americans were grumbling about paying as much as $4 a gallon for gasoline, as the price of crude oil leapt to $147 a barrel. Natural gas prices were vaulting too, sending home electricity bills soaring.
A book making the rounds at the time, “Twilight in the Desert,” by Matthew R. Simmons, seemed to sum up the conventional wisdom: the age of cheap, plentiful oil and gas was over. “Sooner or later, the worldwide use of oil must peak,” the book concluded, “because oil, like the other two fossil fuels, coal and natural gas, is nonrenewable.”
But no sooner did the demand-and-supply equation shift out of kilter than it swung back into something more palatable and familiar. Just as it seemed that the world was running on fumes, giant oil fields were discovered off the coasts of Brazil and Africa, and Canadian oil sands projects expanded so fast, they now provide North America with more oil than Saudi Arabia. In addition, the United States has increased domestic oil production for the first time in a generation.
Meanwhile, another wave of natural gas drilling has taken off in shale rock fields across the United States, and more shale gas drilling is just beginning in Europe and Asia. Add to that an increase in liquefied natural gas export terminals around the world that connected gas, which once had to be flared off, to the world market, and gas prices have plummeted.
Energy experts now predict decades of residential and commercial power at reasonable prices. Simply put, the world of energy has once again been turned upside down.
“Oil and gas will continue to be pillars for global energy supply for decades to come,” said James Burkhard, a managing director of IHS CERA, an energy consulting firm. “The competitiveness of oil and gas and the scale at which they are produced mean that there are no readily available substitutes in either one year or 20 years.”
Some unpleasant though predictable consequences are likely, of course, as the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico this spring demonstrated. Some environmentalists say that gas from shale depends on drilling techniques and chemicals that may jeopardize groundwater supplies, and that a growing dependence on Canadian oil sands is more dangerous for the climate than most conventional oils because mining and processing of the sands require so much energy and a loss of forests.
And while moderately priced oil and gas bring economic relief, they also make renewable sources of energy like wind and solar relatively expensive and less attractive to investors unless governments impose a price on carbon emissions.
“When wind guys talk to each other,” said Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Energy Partners, a developer of transmission lines for renewable energy, “they say, ‘Damn, what are we going to do about the price of natural gas?’ ”
Oil and gas executives say they provide a necessary energy bridge; that because both oil and gas have a fraction of the carbon-burning intensity of coal, it makes sense to use them until wind, solar, geothermal and the rest become commercially viable.
“We should celebrate the fact that we have enough oil and gas to carry us forward until a new energy technology can take their place,” said Robert N. Ryan Jr., Chevron’s vice president for global exploration.
Mr. Skelly and other renewable energy entrepreneurs counter that without a government policy fixing a price on carbon emissions through a tax or cap and trade, the hydrocarbon bridge could go on and on without end.
So what happened to shift the energy world so drastically the last few years? Is the shift reversible once the economy picks up?
The recession throttled the world’s demand for energy, particularly in the United States and Europe, but that tells only part of the story. Periodic jolts, like the Arab oil embargoes in the 1960s and 1970s, are likely to recur in a world with unpredictable actors like Iran. Access to oil and gas may always be limited by geopolitics, especially in places like the Middle East. Just in the last few days, the decline in the dollar spurred a new spike in oil prices, along with those of other commodities.
Yet, the outlook, based on long-term trends barely visible five years ago, now appears to promise large supplies of oil and gas from multiple new sources for decades into the future.
The same high prices that inspired dire fear in the first place helped to resolve them. High oil and gas prices produced a wave of investment and drilling, and technological innovation has unlocked oceans of new resources. Oil and gas from ocean bottoms, the Arctic and shale rock fields are quickly replacing tired fields in places like Mexico, Alaska and the North Sea.
Much depends, of course, on government policies in the coming decades. The International Energy Agency, the Paris-based organization that advises industrialized countries, projected this month that global energy demand would increase by an astounding 36 percent between 2008 and 2035, assuming the broad policy commitments already announced by governments were exercised. Oil demand is projected to grow to 99 million barrels a day in 2035, from 84 million barrels a day in 2009.