‘Peak oil’ could be on the horizon, but new fossil fuel projects are pushing ahead


Demand for fossil fuels is set to peak by the end of the decade, according to a new projection from the International Energy Agency — but it might not be enough to curb the worst impacts of climate change or outpace new fossil fuel projects.

An upcoming report by the agency, an intergovernmental organization that tracks global energy markets, estimates that demand for oil, gas and coal will begin dropping over the next few years, said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol in an email to NBC News.

Birol said the estimated decline starting in 2030 is being driven by vital growth in clean energy technology, as well as global economic shifts, such as China’s increasing investment in renewable energy and Europe’s move from natural gas following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Birol first announced the projection in an op-ed for the Financial Times.

The timeline for peak oil has been the subject of scrutiny by scientists and economists for decades. In 1956, American geologist M. King Hubbart predicted that oil production would follow a bell-shaped curve, rising sharply before hitting a peak and declining rapidly. According to Birol, that time has come. 

“Fossil fuels will be with us for many years to come, but looking at our numbers, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era,” Birol said in the statement. “This isn’t driven by any shortage of fossil fuel resources but by the spectacular rise of clean energy technologies.”

Birol added that the projected decline in global demand for fossil fuels is not enough to limit global warming below 1.5 C — a long-standing international goal defined by the 2015 Paris Agreement.

And without appropriate action from policymakers, some climate experts say the fossil fuel industries will see continued growth, despite a projected decline in fossil fuel demand and the rise of clean energy.

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In a recent report, researchers from the environmental nonprofit Oil Change International found that new fossil fuel projects could expand over the next few decades, particularly in the global north.

In the U.S., much of the projected growth was concentrated in fossil fuel hot spots such as the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, and along the Gulf Coast. The researchers found that the U.S. accounted for more than one-third of projected global oil and gas expansion through 2050, the most of any nation, followed by Canada and Russia.

“If renewables are being added on top of fossil fuels instead of replacing fossil fuels, we’re not actually solving the climate crisis,” Kelly Trout, research co-director at Oil Change International, said. “Every new fossil fuel project around the world is incompatible with a liveable future.”

Ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit next week, Trout said world leaders like President Joe Biden need to phase out fossil fuels to adequately address climate change. Thousands of climate activists plan to gather in New York City on Sunday for the March to End Fossil Fuels to call on Biden to stop approving new fossil fuel projects like the Willow Project, a massive oil drilling project in Alaska.

“We can’t claim to be leading on climate, as President Biden does, while continuing to facilitate the expansion of oil and gas extraction,” Trout said.



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