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For years, the International Energy Agency (IEA) were side commentators on energy markets driven by supply and demand and geopolitical forces. More recently, with the energy transition movement, the IEA added “visionary” to its commentator duties. In doing so, it lays bare how the real mechanics of energy transition (i.e., facts) are often ignored in favour of aspirational statements. 

These statements lead the public to believe in an impossible future – one unencumbered by real technical and economic limitations. A self-harming magic show where the audience believes the assistant really was sawn in half.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Or so The Lovin’ Spoonful (TLS) asked in their hit song from 1965. The IEA is hoping you do. On May 18, the IEA’s executive director told the Guardian “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year”. 

While ‘bold’, a moratorium on gas projects starting in 2021 would impede both the phase out of coal and heavy fuel oil in favour of cleaner burning natural gas, and the use of natural gas methane molecules for hydrogen production. That would not help CO2 reduction. Neither would a massive increase in natural gas prices owed to significantly decreased global supply. A moratorium would put the value of a clean transition out of reach for most nations. 

In its self-styled ‘visionary’ statement, the IEA was sawing the assistant in half for its public image in a magic show. Just 3 weeks later, the IEA did it again when it asked OPEC to boost oil production, “OPEC+ needs to open the taps to keep the world oil markets adequately supplied”. 

Huh? The IEA is encouraging more hydrocarbon production to keep prices low, while simultaneously calling for a ban on new oil and gas investment? How do those things fit together? If the IEA were worried that high oil and gas prices would impoverish developing nations, then why would it not also be worried about impoverishing nations that are trying to use natural gas to meet emissions targets?

If you look carefully, these questions explain the magic trick – the assistant was never actually sawn in half to begin with. It is one grand illusion. But why does the IEA need to engage in the hypocrisy (new word: Hypocrazy?) of the magic show? 

It is a deep question for our age; one that goes far beyond the IEA. Can the public tell the magic trick from reality anymore? Can we tell the magician from the audience anymore? Has the audience implicitly agreed with the magician to just Believe in Magic?

Public Projection vs. Reality – Milosz’s Ketman

Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel laureate, was one of the greatest writers of the last century. As Polish nationalist, Milosz survived both Nazi and Stalinist occupations. This experience led to his authorship of A Captive Mind, a book that describes the effects of any political system that maintains power by requiring public adherence to a dogma (or “magic tricks”, as you might call them). While the book concentrates on post-war communism, it describes any social or political system that perpetuates its influence by demanding the adherence to a ‘common narrative’.  

Milosz called this process Ketman: a phrase meaning the payment of lip service to a dogma while concealing everything else – the truth, the facts, personal beliefs, etc. 

The IEA and Ketman

We are truly living in an age of Ketman, and the IEA is no exception. The IEA is caught in a Ketman loop, one where dogma dictates that natural gas will play no material role in reducing global C02 emissions.  The counterpoints to that dogma do not matter, no matter how practical and realistic, because they cannot matter. To recognize their existence is to subvert the political system requiring the dogma. I will leave the conspiratorialists in the crowd to decide what and who that political system represents exactly.

In the meantime, none of this is good news for the decarbonization agenda. Effective CO2 reduction would use natural gas as the key swing commodity for gas-to-power and gas-to-hydrogen, until the science of renewables and/or power storage permitted a scaled, economic and realistic deployment of renewable tech. If that looks like a real plan for decarbonization, it is because that was the plan backed by most nations to the Paris Accord just 5 years ago.

But the use of that plan would require the explanation of the magic trick – and reveal the secret. The IEA simply cannot go there. So, the IEA will continue its run of magic shows while potentially standing in the way of real change, until credibility eventually catches up with it.