Published a few months ago “The changing world of energy and the geopolitical challenges”, the new work by Samuele Furfari, takes its rightful place as a reference work for the energy sector. It is an imposing work in two volumes, comprising more than 1250 pages, with 437 diagrams and maps, in which the author has summarized his findings over his 39 years working in the energy sector. Each volume is composed of 12 chapters. European Scientist had the opportunity to interview the professor who also a civil servant at the European Commission.
ES: Why such a massive work? Who is the target readership for this body of knowledge? Industry experts?
SF: At the Université Libre de Bruxelles [Free University of Brussels] I teach a course on “Politics and geopolitics of energy”. So, it’s primarily a book I use for my students. They are my first readers. To reshape their beliefs gleaned from industry tittle tattle I want to show them that energy policies, and the geopolitics of energy are determined, or at least conditioned, by trends in energy technology. But it is not at all a “technical book”. It’s accessible for anyone, including non-specialists. Because energy policy can’t ignore technology, I thought it was essential to approach geopolitics by way of factual reality, that is, the facts about technology; my teaching experience has persuaded me that this is necessary for a solid understanding of the energy sector and its geopolitical dimensions.
ES: Can you give us an example of the impact of technology on geopolitics?
SF: If we do not understand how shale gas is produced we can easily fall into traps set by its opponents. On the other hand, if we understand the basics – even in outline – we can understand why this cannot lead to groundwater pollution and why it has changed the entire energy policy of the US during the presidency – even despite himself – of President Obama.
As the title suggests, the world of energy technology has changed dramatically in recent years and this has triggered geopolitical changes. So I have condensed my 39 years of experience in the energy sector into a volume of over 1,250 pages. I cover topics as varied as the fundamentals of physics, the link between energy and sustainable development, fossil fuel reserves, the Middle East, the current situation, “Biofuels, a subsidised reality”, smart cities, and also Rosatom to mention just a few examples. The idea is to provide the reader with beacons in a landscape of shifting sands.
ES: So, it’s technology that determines geopolitics and not the other way around, can you expand on that?
SF: The book is split in two large sections. First of all, “Understanding energy developments” then “Shifting sands: the geopolitics of energy”. The main lessons I draw from it are firstly that oil is still king at the moment. But alongside this, we can forecast that over the next 40 years, gas – “blue gold” – will grow to play a major role in supplying global energy, including natural gas used as fuel for land and sea transport, a sector where there is nothing left to prove other than in the application. What I am trying to demonstrate is that technology is evolving and that geopolitics adapt in turn to these changes. Many people think that policies lead to technological change. In my opinion, it’s the other way round. It is geologists and engineers who have led, for example, to a new era of abundant fossil fuels, which in turn has completely reshaped the geopolitics of energy. This thesis serves as a central theme for the entire book and I illustrate it with many case studies. For example, how do you explain the price of crude oil collapsing in October 2014 in the midst of conflicts in the Middle East? Why did the barrel price not rocket up as it had done before? The reason is simple; oil exploration has made such technological leaps that it has allowed the development of new fields in many countries, lowered production costs and improved transport. Realising that we have gone through a paradigm shift, OPEC has had to adapt to this new reality and lower its production quotas. It is obvious that the exploitation of oil and shale gas made possible by technological progress has completely changed the global energy balance by, in a surprising development, offering energy independence for the USA in just a few years.
ES: You seem to have a cautious point of view on renewable energies.
SF: Renewable energy production is a reality and it will continue not least due to technological progress in this field. But our expectations must remain modest. When in 1987 the Brundtland Sustainability Report was published, fossil fuels accounted for 81% of global energy demand. Today fossil fuels still represent 81% and the latest report of the International Energy Agency forecasts that it will still be 81% in 2040. The difference is that as the absolute value of energy demand increases, the production of renewable energy is increasing as well. But it will not replace fossil fuels for a long time yet. Renewable energy sources are growing and they are meeting some of the growth in total energy demand. And then we need to face the facts: these renewable energies are deployed because there is a “political mandate” and public funding for them. There has been undeniable progress in the field of renewable energies, but this enthusiasm should not hide the fact that other energy technologies in the less popular areas continue to develop and thus maintain or even increase the cost differential between the sources of energy.
ES: Are you equally cautious about energy efficiency?
SF: Few people know this, but the concept goes back to 1924 when we first started to worry about “the end of oil”. Since then under various names energy efficiency has become increasingly important. My position on energy efficiency is that, although it seems natural and is very rightly promoted politically, it will not be enough to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in many parts of the world. Our energy savings in Europe are not going to meet Africa’s energy needs.
ES: You believe the European public is not sufficiently well informed?
SF: Yes. As always a lot of imagination goes into public and media representation and we prefer to believe nice things rather than the harsh reality. If we take the case of coal, for example, it will continue to play a major role in the world in the coming years. European public opinion is miles away from this reality. Why? Certain NGOs are responsible for its bad reputation. However, thanks to new technologies, clean coal is available as an energy source, as the cheapest way to generate electricity, and in large quantities, without geopolitical implications. That’s why what I call “the inevitable coal” provides 41% of the world’s electricity, far ahead of natural gas which produces half as much as coal. The same goes for nuclear power. It would be unfortunate if, because of the iron grip of anti-nuclear NGOs, this energy source was only to be found in the hands of Russia, China, Korea or Japan, who have not abandoned either coal or nuclear power.
ES: For you the past determines the future?
SF: In my opinion the historical context is essential. Without understanding the past it is impossible to grasp the future. So the energy crises of the 1970’s are a major influence on what is happening today. The history of the oil industry is extremely important, and essential to understanding how global and European energy policy has developed from the First World War to today.
ES: Your book is very comprehensive.
SF: I have compiled exhaustive chapters to describe the EU’s energy transition policy, but also about Russia as a “historic energy partner”, Turkey and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. I have also written chapter sections on Saudi Arabia – “the oil giant” – and Iran – “the gas giant” – for example. Canada, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Africa and, of course, the United States also have their own analysis; even Trinidad and Tobago because it is a good case study to assess Venezuela’s failure.
ES: Is “Save the Planet” irreconcilable with the market economy, as you claim?
This is a capital error that some people tend to commit. It is imperative to have a free market. While it was once controlled by oil companies, it is now in the hands of policy makers and electricity companies with their own interests. And then there are subsidies that have a catastrophic impact on energy efficiency! I have demonstrated with several specific cases in Europe and worldwide that the more we subsidise energy, the more it is wasted, and consequently the more we pollute. We need more confidence in the market, especially with regard to fair prices. That doesn’t mean that we are against legislation, particularly surrounding the prevention of air pollution. The ideologues who want to put the planet before humanity are wrong; history shows that it is technological progress that favours energy consumption, which enhances quality of life and leads to environmental protection. Paradoxically, places which consume a lot of energy pollute less; just compare New York and Calcutta … I hope my book will help open readers’ minds to these exciting topics.
About Samuele Furfari
Samuele Furfari has a PhD in Applied Sciences and a chemical engineer at the Université libre de Bruxelles He has devoted his life to energy issues and more specifically to energy policy. He is a senior European civil servant at the European Commission where he has worked for 35 years in this field. He has also been teaching the geopolitics of energy for 15 years at the Université libre de Bruxelles. He has published nine other books, some of which have been translated into Spanish and Portuguese.
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