June 2, 2008 / 10:00 AM / in 10 years

Oil-price supernova spurs search for alternatives

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A surge in the price of crude is threatening global growth for the first time in decades and spurring a desperate surge in interest in energy alternatives and new technology to keep conventional oil flowing.

How companies and governments navigate the treacherous energy landscape -- which some analysts liken to that of the 1970s and 1980s -- will shape the future of the global economy and potentially tilt the geopolitical balance, experts said.

“What happens ten years down the road will be determined by the decisions made on energy today,” said David Kirsch, analyst at PFC Energy in Washington. “Countries need to get serious about the underlying problem of demand for oil.”

Oil prices have doubled in a year to around $130 a barrel as rapid increases in consumption in China and other developing countries strain supplies, and some analysts have said crude could top $200 a barrel by 2010 as the market remains tight.

While the boom has helped big oil producer countries, particularly Russia and parts of the Middle East, there are signs the major consumers -- the United States and parts of Europe and Asia -- are starting to crack under the strain.

High prices are hitting motorists at the pumps, hobbling energy-intensive industries like airlines and freight and feeding broader inflation including prices hikes for food that have led to protests and even in extreme cases riots around the world.

“The oil price is unsustainable. I think we’ve reached the point now where we’re starting to see significant responses from consumers,” said Jim Hamilton, professor at the University of California in San Diego.

A SILVER LINING?

The silver lining could be in how the world fights back. Whereas in the 70s, governments looked mainly to conservation as a way to ease price woes, this era is looking to increased investment in alternative energies and better oil field technology to reach more resources.

“Our time is very definitely coming,” said Jeremy Leggett, chairman of British solar power company Solarcentury and former environmental campaigner. “The world is going to be beating a path to our doors... The oil crunch is coming soon.”

In a sign of the shifting mentality, legendary Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens -- who made billions betting on higher oil prices -- has gone green with a plan to spend $10 billion to build the world’s biggest wind farm.

Energy analyst and oil historian Daniel Yergin said earlier this month that record U.S. crude oil prices have reached a “break point” that will spur a shift away from an oil-centric transportation sector toward alternatives.

Alternative fuels have already made big inroads into energy markets, with ethanol making up some 7 percent of the U.S. gasoline pool thanks to government mandates and subsidies.

Americans have already tapped the brakes on their notoriously voracious road travel and are also starting buy more fuel efficient cars in a shift away from SUV‘s.

But the move isn’t all green.

Rising prices and the scarcity of conventional supplies have triggered an inflow of cash into development of nonconventional petroleum sources -- like the Alberta oil sands, gas shale in Colorado and technology to turn coal into motorfuel -- that could be harmful to the environment.

Companies have already poured $100 billion into the Alberta oil sands and hope to triple production by 2015.

“The signals that (record oil) could send are a little scary,” said Chris Walker, the North American director of The Climate Group, an international nonprofit organization.

In the meantime continued price hikes are darkening the clouds on the global economic horizon. Energy experts said a continued rise could worsen an economic slowdown in Europe and the United States, already hit by a housing slump and credit crisis and potentially trigger a decisive recession.

It’s also bad news for the developing Asian economies that fueled the spike, threatening to slow down their pace of growth.

“We’ll see growth slow globally,” said Jay Bryson, global economist at Wachovia Bank. “But the big losers are the oil importers of the world, including (South) Korea, Japan, China and a lot of other Asian economies in general.”

China has enjoyed double-digit economic growth despite a surge in the cost of oil and commodity inputs, but the expansion could slow if prices climb even higher, especially if Beijing rolls back fuel subsidies that shield consumers.

Already this month, Indonesia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have either raised regulated fuel prices or pledged that they will, forced into unpopular action by the unsustainable cost of subsidies.

Russia and the big oil exporters of the Middle East have the most to gain, analysts said.

“Obviously, the winners in this game are those who export oil,” said George Friedman, founder of intelligence group Stratfor.

“The victory is not only economic but political as well. The ability to control where exports go and where they don’t go transforms into political power.”

Reporting by Richard Valdmanis richard.valdmanis@thomsonreuters.com <mailto:richard.valdmanis@thomsonreuters.com>; +1 646 223 6056; Reuters Messaging: richard.valdmanis.reuters.com@reuters.net <mailto:richard.valdmanis.reuters.com@reuters.net>

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