It’s a bit like Christmas time for energy geeks, and Halloween for environmentalists.
Every summer, bp, née British Petroleum, releases its Statistical Review of World Energy, a big fat pile of data detailing the world’s energy production, consumption and trade. Energy geeks revel in it. Nowhere else can one find so much up-to-date information in such an easy to peruse package. Yet the data are also terrifying. They reveal that with each passing year, more and more fossil fuels are dug and sucked from the earth and then burned up in cars and power plants and homes, spewing out greenhouse gases and other pollutants. For those concerned with the fate of the planet, the Statistical Review is the quantification of imminent doom.
True, squint hard enough and you can pick out a few glimmers of hope from the document. The U.S., for example, is using 10 percent less oil than it did just eight years ago. Some of this is due to the economic collapse, but at least as much credit goes to high oil prices, a phenomenon that’s not likely to go away (for reasons we’ll get into). And we’re also using some 20 percent less coal than we did a decade ago. Again, a bad economy contributed, but so have the promise of stricter emissions rules and cheap natural gas (more than half of the decrease in coal consumption has been offset by an increase in natural gas consumption domestically). Even better, we’ve increased our consumption of renewable energy by 170 percent. The world’s fattest energy hog finally may be easing up on the fossil fuel trough.
But it’s not nearly enough. The Statistical Review reminds us over and over again that when it comes to energy use and its impacts, we can’t be isolationists: We’re in this with the rest of the globe. That can be disturbing. Over the last decade, the planet’s teeming masses have collectively increased energy consumption at a startling rate. China and India have led the feeding frenzy, along with a host of developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. This is not, despite what some U.S. greens might want you to believe, the result of exploding populations. It’s just that larger portions of those populations are getting access to energy -- China’s primary energy use jumped 150 percent even as the population grew by only five percent -- thereby improving their quality of life. But it comes at a cost. A bulk of that new energy is coming not from wind turbines or solar panels, but fossil fuels. Over the last decade:
• global oil consumption increased by 14 percent;
• natural gas consumption shot up by 31 percent; and,
• the world’s coal consumption increased by 54 percent(!).
Carbon emissions have shot up accordingly, further exacerbating climate change everywhere, while in parts of China pollution from coal-burning has reduced life expectancy by as much as energy access may have increased it. And even though the so-called War on Coal may be making headway here at home, it hasn’t even been felt on a global level. Even relatively green Germany is burning more coal these days.
And don’t expect energy consumption or fossil fuel use to level out anytime soon. While China, India and most of Africa will never guzzle as much energy as the U.S. on a per capita basis -- there’s simply not enough fuel to support such gluttony -- we can’t blame them for, nor should we try to stop them from, reaching a level of per capita energy consumption on par with, say, Japan, or Germany (about half of the U.S. level). Yet even getting there will mean a doubling of overall energy use for China, and a tripling for India. Some of this will surely come from cleaner sources: The globe has tripled its renewable energy use over the last decade, and the trend is likely to continue, but the contribution is limited by the fact that renewables still make up less than 5 percent of the global energy mix. Nuclear, though it emits no carbon, is faltering on a global level -- consumption is off about 12 percent from 2006 levels -- and the U.S.’s abundantly cheap, slightly cleaner-burning-than-coal natural gas is still pretty much confined to North America. That leaves coal and oil as the popular fuels for the next decade, at least.
And that brings us back to the U.S., and the West. Poring over the Statistical Review, one can’t help but feel a certain tension in the global energy world between the burgeoning demand from far-flung parts of the globe and the abundance of supply in the U.S. Asia and Europe are eying the coal from Montana and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, and are surely even more covetous of our cheap natural gas. It seems only a matter of time before our coal and natural gas flow across the world as freely as oil does now, shaking up both the domestic and international energy market.
Indeed, it’s oil’s status as a purely global commodity that has kept prices here sky-high, even as demand has dropped and drilling in North Dakota has gone wild -- global demand simply overwhelms domestic market forces. And despite all the talk of the current oil-bearing shale bonanza leading to oil independence, we’re nowhere close to ending our need for oil imports. We pump about 9 million barrels of oil from domestic wells each day. Yet we and our cars and trucks and planes guzzle 18.6 million barrels per day, making us the world's biggest oil guzzler by far.
Now that’s a scary set of numbers.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.