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Last month the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its annual long-term forecast, the World Energy Outlook (WEO). Its projection that US oil output would exceed that of Saudi Arabia within five years was featured in numerous headlines, although some of the report's other findings look equally consequential. That includes the continued strong growth of energy demand in China, India and other Asian countries, and the linkages between that growth and a dramatic expansion of Iraqi oil production. The agency also set a cautionary tone concerning the increase in global greenhouse gas emissions accompanying all this growth.

In the IEA's primary "New Policies" scenario, the US overtakes Saudi Arabia in oil production by 2017, adding 4 million barrels per day (MBD) of unconventional output, mainly from shale (tight oil) deposits such as the Bakken in North Dakota. US oil imports decline significantly, due in roughly equal measure to higher production and the implementation of strict vehicle fuel economy regulations. As a consequence, the need for imports from the Middle East approaches zero within 10 years. When this change is combined with the growth in oil demand in Asia, where China alone accounts for half the forecasted global growth in oil consumption in this period, the IEA envisions Asia becoming the recipient of 90% of Middle East oil exports by 2035.

The detailed assumptions behind the IEA's conclusions weren't provided in the public release. These include crucial questions such as the assumed status of US rules barring most crude oil exports. As noted in a Reuters op-ed at the time, maximizing the potential of US unconventional resources may depend on allowing higher quality unconventional oil to seek global markets, while continuing to import oil from Latin America and the Middle East into Gulf Coast refineries geared to these heavier, higher-sulfur feedstocks. The op-ed's author also reminded us that the natural gas liquids included in the headline comparison with Saudi production are useful but quite different from crude oil, yielding little gasoline and diesel fuel.

The expected growth of energy demand in China remains extraordinary, even with the country's economic growth slowing from the levels seen a few years ago. To put this in context, when Dr. Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the IEA, presented the new WEO to the media in London on November 12th, he suggested that China's electricity demand would grow by the equivalent of "one US and one Japan of today" by 2035. Much of that additional electricity generation is projected to come from renewables, nuclear power and domestic gas. Nevertheless, and in spite of significant increases in China's unconventional gas production, the IEA forecasts that import dependence will grow from about 15% for gas and 50% for oil today, to 40% for gas and over 80% for oil by 2035. That increase in imports would equate to additional hundreds of millions of dollars per year of outflows for energy.

In the view of the IEA, much of the extra oil demanded in Asia will be supplied by Iraq, which they project will increase its output from around 3 MBD today to 6.1 MBD in 2020 and 8.3 MBD in 2035, in the process becoming the world's second-largest oil exporter, after Russia. Since the reserves to support that growth have already been identified, with much lower production costs than many other basins, the uncertainties involved are mainly political and structural. Resolution of the current standoff with Iran over its nuclear program would provide even more Middle East oil for Asian markets.

As in its earlier "Golden Age of Gas" scenario, the IEA expects large increases in global natural gas consumption. Unconventional sources, mainly in the US, China and Australia, would contribute around half the additional production required to meet expanded demand. However, at the launch presentation in London Dr. Birol also stressed that unconventional oil and gas are still at an early stage, with significant uncertainties about the eventual magnitude of their resources. This seemed to be a particular issue for the agency's post-2020 forecast of oil production in the US and gas production in China.

Despite the rigorous analysis and level of detail involved in producing the IEA's World Energy Outlook, long-term energy forecasting should always be taken with a grain of salt. Yet whether or not the highlighted trends mature precisely in line with these projections, the shifts that the IEA identified are significant and already becoming evident in current data for energy production, consumption and trade. Even if North America failed to become a net oil exporter--which many equate with energy independence--by 2030, the movement of the center of gravity of global energy trade towards Asia is essentially pre-determined: baked in by differences in economic growth rates and resource opportunities. The economic, geopolitical and environmental consequences of that shift are just starting to take shape.

A slightly different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.

Image: Eastward Shift via Shutterstock