When will we reach the peak of global oil production? It’s a question of crucial importance as governments around the world prepare for a world of declining oil resources, in which we will be much more reliant on alternative sources of energy.
The body on which the UK and others rely heavily to make that assessment is the International Energy Agency (IEA) based in Paris and set up in the aftermath of the oil crisis between 1973 and 1974.
For years, IEA reports have been reiterating the conclusion that peak oil was not a problem. Behind the scenes however, it is now clear that senior staff thought otherwise.
It was only through the work of 22-year-old Lionel Badal, a politics student at Exeter University, that the truth about this cover-up finally emerged.
It started innocently enough, as Lionel, working on his undergraduate dissertation on peak oil, set about trying to arrange interviews with politicians and figures working inside and outside the oil industry.
He was surprised when the IEA agreed to allow him to interview one of their top officials.
In the end the first official pulled out of the interview but he was replaced by one of his colleagues, a senior economist at the organisation. The new interviewee turned out to be far more forthcoming than his superiors might have wanted.
Lionel met the official at the IEA’s Paris headquarters. His interviewee was initially a reluctant speaker.
‘He was very concerned about how I would quote him and where it would appear – just from this I knew the meeting could be interesting,’ says Lionel.
‘He then asked if he was the first person I had interviewed still working in the industry. I replied that yes he was (I had tried speaking to OPEC but had been told they did not do interviews). After hearing this he said this was a problem.
‘He didn’t say why but it was obvious he did not want to be the only one speaking out.’
Most of the interview was ‘interesting but nothing revelatory’, remembers Lionel, but that changed towards the end when the official was asked for his opinion on predictions for peak oil.
The IEA has repeatedly said oil output can increase until at least 2030 as long as 'adequate investments are made in exploration and development'. Other analysts, including those behind the UK Energy Research Centre report on peak oil, say this is 'wildly optimistic' and that the IEA does not have the evidence to back up this prediction.
Far from sticking to the IEA line, the official said he was actually very worried about peak oil and shared some of the more pessimistic concerns.
‘From that meeting I understood there was a problem,’ says Lionel, ‘as publicly the IEA did not say this type of thing.’
Over the next few months Lionel continued his research and met with politicians in France.
By early 2009 he had finished his research and contacted the IEA official to send him his dissertation. He also told him about the contact he had had so far with French MPs concerned about peak oil. The IEA official told him that he respected one of the politicians with whom Lionel had met and later agreed to testify to other politicians about the problem.
It was a pivotal moment - through his involvement in an undergraduate disseration, a key IEA official was prepared to go public about what his organisation really thought about peak oil.
By July, Lionel had managed to arrange a meeting between himself, the IEA official and the MEP Corrine Lepage, a former French environment minister and well-known figure in French politics. Clearly pleased to meet such a respected figure, the IEA official became much more open about the downplaying of peak oil concerns at the agency.
‘He told her reports had been modified and that there were pressures on the IEA from the US not to make too pessimistic predictions,' Lionel remembers. 'He said just as peak oil theorists claimed, there was a big problem with oil.’
By the end of the meeting the IEA official had agreed to write a briefing note for the MEP on the issue. But by then Lionel thought the issue needed to be made public.
‘I knew on her own the MEP could not do anything about the problem. But I also knew that some British journalists were writing a lot about the issue, so a few weeks later I asked the IEA official whether he would be willing to testify anonymously to journalists.
The official was initially sceptical, preferring to inform politicians in a discreet way. But a few weeks later, Lionel pressed him again on the issue and he agreed.
‘I think arranging the meeting with the French MP definitely helped. It gave me some credibility as she was well known. He was certainly not naïve about the whole process and understood that his career could be at risk.’
Having been given the green light, Lionel contacted two journalists at the Economist and the Independent.
The Independent was slow to respond and did not seem convinced by the story, remembers Lionel, but the Economist journalist agreed to meet the following month when he was in London. However, at the meeting he said he could not immediately write about the issue as he was working on other stories.
‘I also got the feeling his position was isolated at the Economist and that the magazine would not want to take a stance by running such a story on peak oil,’ says Lionel.
Soon after these first attempts to make the issue public, the respected NGO Global Witness released a report on peak oil, Heads in the Sand. Reading Guardian journalist Ashley Seager's article on this report, Lionel decided to contact him and sent information about his IEA whistleblower to both Seager and the paper’s environment columnist, George Monbiot.
Seager forwarded it onto the Guardian’s energy editor, Terry Macalister. By coincidence the IEA was preparing to publish its latest annual report on oil supply and demand in early November. With the launch scheduled to take place in London, the Guardian had the perfect opportunity to maximise exposure of the story.
Macalister spoke to Lionel’s IEA official, and on November 10th, 2009 - the same day that the IEA’s chief economist Dr Fatih Birol was launching the agency’s major annual report - the story appeared on the Guardian’s frontpage.
As expected, the reaction was huge. ‘Peak oil whistleblower’ stories were splashed across the media.
The IEA attempted to downplay the idea of a peak oil cover-up, arguing that their reports were peer-reviewed by international experts. But since the story broke, further reports from Uppsala University and the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security have been critical of IEA predictions.
Lionel himself says the allegations from the whistleblower and reports from Global Witness are too serious for governments to ignore. He is lobbying politicians to launch an independent inquiry into predictions being made by the IEA.
‘We have to know what is really going on behind the walls of the so-called global oil watchdog,' he says. ‘If the Agency deliberately covers up the seriousness of the situation and provides misleading information, then the consequences could be world-shaking.
‘By not knowing that peak oil will happen within 10 or even five years, governments and businesses around the world are not preparing adequately. And this could have dramatic effects for everyone in a not too distant future,’ he says.
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