This Oil and Gas Road Map Could Lead Planners Astray

The International Energy Agency’s closely watched World Energy Outlook confirms what the world is starting to feel in its bones: The coming energy transition could be painful and expensive.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, in a statement accompanying the report lamented the failure to invest enough to meet future energy needs, saying the situation is “setting the stage for a volatile period ahead.”

Worth noting in the report, which was released Wednesday, is that the agency for the first time forecasts an eventual decline in oil demand in all three of its scenarios—from the most status quo assumption to the most ambitiously green (net-zero emissions by 2050). Under its most conservative “stated policies scenario,” which is based on climate policies that are already in place and those that are under development, the IEA expects oil demand to peak in the mid-2030s at roughly 104 million barrels a day from almost 100 million today, with a slow decline through 2050.

That is quite a different picture compared with that painted by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which in its World Oil Outlook last month predicted that oil demand will continue to rise until at least 2045. The IEA’s most ambitious scenario—net zero by 2050—sees oil demand shrinking to a quarter of today’s levels.

Differences of opinion are natural, but the IEA’s report last year stopped including a forecast for a “current policies scenario,” which excludes goals that governments have announced but aren’t enforcing. The agency had said back in 2020 that this was because it is “difficult to imagine this ‘business-as-usual’ approach prevailing in today’s circumstances.”

That is troubling on a number of levels, but mainly because it rules out a real possibility that governments might not meet those targets. Its latest “stated policies scenario,” for example, includes some distant targets in the U.S. such as 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050 in at least 20 states, as well as California’s goal for all new passenger cars and light trucks sold to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

The risk is that the IEA’s forecast becomes more of a wish list than a clear-eyed look. That becomes a problem if its forecasts are used by governments and companies to judge how much investment must still be made in fossil fuels to ensure a smooth transition. Bob McNally, founder of energy consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group, argues that a premature peak consensus wouldn’t only be wrong but also dangerous.

Today’s energy-price spikes might not be due to energy-transition efforts, as the IEA notes. But they illustrate the volatility and shortages that can ensue if the transition isn’t planned out properly. The IEA’s warning signs about climate risks must be heeded. Its blinkers, though, should serve as their own warning.

Write to Jinjoo Lee at

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8