The U.S. Energy Information Administration angered environmentalists Wednesday with its latest international energy projections because they didn’t account for the historic Paris climate agreement, the U.S.’s Clean Power Plan or any future policy changes.
EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski warned that the numbers his agency provides are possibilities for certain scenarios, not actual predictions. He admitted that EIA doesn’t “have a huge amount of confidence what those endpoint numbers are.”
The report projected a 33.9 percent increase in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from 2012 to 2040, including a 5.2 percent increase in the United States. Those predictions exist even though almost 200 countries have committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That group includes the United States, which has pledged to cut 26 percent to 28 percent of its emissions from 2005 to 2025.
The report shows U.S. natural gas use rising 16.5 percent from 2012 to 2040 and worldwide natural gas use rising 69.7 percent during the same period. Coal use, which is decreasing in the United States, is projected to rise 9.8 percent here and 8.9 percent globally.
Renewables, meanwhile, are projected to increase 46.8 percent domestically and 106 percent across the globe. That’s not nearly enough to achieve the Paris goals.
The report is intended to show what would happen energy-wise by 2040 if nothing unexpected happened in the world. The numbers can be valuable if people understand that it’s not a forecast.
“We’re going to have the wrong economic numbers,” Sieminski said today at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on the report’s release. “We’re not going to get the climate policies thing right. The technology — something is going to happen with batteries in the year 2030 that we didn’t expect, that we didn’t build into this. Something is going to happen in Iraq.”
This is particularly difficult in international projections, Sieminski said, because the policies, geopolitics and economics are so hard to predict, especially in developing countries. It takes several years to gather reliable historic data from all of those countries, which is why the report’s baseline year is 2012, he added.
Sieminski said that when he first started working at EIA in 2012, all these variables gave him qualms about doing long-term projections. But he has come to the conclusion that long-term reports such as this one still have value because EIA offers projections for different scenarios.
The main projections assume no changes in the current outlook, but the report includes alternatives for high or low oil prices and high or low economic growth, Sieminski said. Those alternative projections, however, aren’t calculated for every variable. For example, there is only one projection for carbon dioxide emissions in this year’s report.
“There’s probably a lot of flex in these numbers,” Sieminski said. “So does that mean that we are wasting taxpayer dollars doing it? I mean, that’s a fair question. And the answer, I think the answer is no.”
Environmental advocates have a less forgiving view. The EIA uses its projections in testimony to Congress, and some lawmakers will inevitably use these numbers to argue that the world needs a substantial amount of coal and natural gas for the foreseeable future, said David Turnbull, campaigns director for Oil Change International.
Turnbull told Morning Consult he would like to see President Obama use an executive order to require EIA to include projections for energy use if countries meet their Paris goals.
“The problem becomes where politicians and policymakers point to EIA’s reference case as a prediction that we will need more oil in the future, or that prices will be at a given level, in order to justify production in U.S. or allowing new infrastructure,” Turnbull said. “It’s a misunderstanding of what EIA is doing with these outlooks, but that confusion allows politicians to see oil use continue into the foreseeable future.”
EIA’s American Energy Outlook, which focuses solely on U.S. energy production and consumption, will offer a useful comparison to Wednesday’s international report when it’s published in early June. That report, unlike the international energy outlook, will include the projected effects of the Clean Power Plan, Sieminski said.
This isn’t the first time EIA has been criticized for lowballing renewables in its projections. The agency released a paper in March responding to criticism that it had consistently missed the mark on wind and solar projections, defending its work but also acknowledging that its American Energy Outlook doesn’t account for international policies that lower the price of solar power.
The agency’s international projections also have shifted as renewables have outperformed its expectations. For example, the agency’s 2010 report projected that the world would need 99.8 quadrillion BTUs (British Thermal Units) of hydropower and other renewables in 2035. Its 2013 report projected 108.3 quadrillion BTUs. This year’s report projected 119.5 quadrillion BTUs in 2035 — a 19.7 percent increase in EIA’s projection for the same year over the course of six years of measuring.