Powering The Planet — Editor's Introduction
Senior Features Editor
It's all about energy, these days.
Investors, consumers, business and government are all looking for answers.
Energy has become the common denominator, the great equalizer, for the global economy. Ultimately, it may be the great unifier. After all, imagine a world — free or otherwise — without energy ... affordable energy.
This special report, "Powering The Planet", aims to inform and educate about the future of energy. Now and over the coming months, you'll find useful guides on energy sources and investments, a resource center with related links on a host of subjects, as well as an diverse library of videos from CNBC. Users will also be able to access a special collection of pod cast videos for downloading. And speaking of taking it with you, take our customized widget, please.
Five years ago, $100-a-barrel crude oil seemed unimaginable. Not today, not tomorrow and probably never again.
Goldman Sachs, which stunned the world in 2005 by predicting crude could spike to $105 a barrel, recently said $200 oil is conceivable in a final "super-spike" as producers fail to accommodate demand from China and other emerging economies.
The traditional supply-and-demand equation is being taxed like never before, and there’s growing concern about finding new reserves.
The peak oil theory, now more than 50-years old, seems more prescient than ever. Are we approaching that point in time when the maximum rate of global production is reached and then enters terminal decline?
Matthew Simmons, chairman of Simmons & Co. and author of "Twilight In The Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock And The World Economy" (2005)" says that day has come, positing that Saudi Arabia — the world's largest producer and exporter — is over-estimating its proven reserves.
"These oil fields are getting old," Simmons told CNBC. "There are some overly optimistic proponents."
Others say the peak is years if not decades away.
In the US, the supply-and-demand dynamic is ever more complicated. The potential for new domestic production is limited, if non-existent; potentially rich areas off shore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, for instance, are off limits to exploration and drilling, largely because of environmental concerns. The current energy spike has renewed fiery debate on the pros and cons. President Bush, citing the spike in gasoline prices, has called upon Congress to drop the quarter-century ban on offshore drilling.
At the moment, there is no quick fix. A new offshore oil field takes years from exploration to development, James Slutz, acting principal deputy assistant secretary at U.S. Department of Energy, told CNBC: "We need to really be looking long term at opening new areas up for exploration as well as enabling the industry to access the resources."
The energy infrastructure is both problem and solution. New refineries, pipelines, natural gas facilities and transmission lines are not being built, even as demand rises.
The US now consumes 21 million barrels of oil a day — more than half of that imported and a quarter of the global total of 85 million barrels. Even if we cut consumption, others would have what we don't want or need. China, for one, is up to 8 million barrels a day. There is no rainy day fund for crude oil.
For many, gasoline prices are the daily reminder that something has changed — irrevocably. Unlike 2005—when prices spiked to $3 a gallon after hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted Gulf of Mexico production, then drifted back down to about $2 a gallon—the move up to $3 a gallon was soon followed by $4 a gallon. Average US prices have gone up 144 percent in the past five years, according to the US Energy Information Administration. (States with the highest gasoline prices.)
It is a thirsty, mobile global economy. There are now 887 million vehicles in the world, versus 553 million vehicles 15 years ago, according to London-based Global Insight. The firm is forecasting 1 billion vehicles by 2012 and 3 billion by 2035, based on existing population and economic growth rates. In China alone, thousands of new cars hit the streets each week.
Changing Habits, Driving Change
Behavior is changing, but for how long?
In May, the Department of Transportation reported that Americans drove 11 billion less miles this March than a year ago, the largest annual decline on record.
In a recent survey, 44 percent of the professionals interviewed said higher gas prices have affected their commute, according to staffing services firm Robert Half International. More people are carpooling, telecommuting, driving more fuel-efficient vehicles. People are giving up on mini vans and SUVs. Pick-up sales are down, and drivers are taking a serious look at hybrids. The auto industry, of course, is hurting and responding.
So is the airline industry, which is slashing jobs and flights. As American Airlines' boss recently put it: "The airline industry as it is constituted today was not built to withstand oil prices at $125 a barrel," AMR Chairman and CEO Gerard Arpey said, “Our company and industry simply cannot afford to sit by hoping for industry and market conditions to improve."