NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Energy Forecasts Were Proven Wrong

June 25, 1999

Just two decades ago, every environmental organization and many energy experts predicted a bleak future by the late 1990s. They said that an inevitable and rapid decline in the availability of fossil fuels would create soaring energy prices with attendant economic and social disruption. Numerous studies, policy forums, and conferences devoted to the looming problem of limited resources (especially fossil fuels) and limited economic growth sprang from these dismal forecasts, including current prescriptions for human-induced global warming.

Two things were clear to those experts twenty years ago: oil was disappearing, and electric demand would stabilize. However confident those experts were in their predictions, the data gathered in the past two decades suggests that they were totally wrong.

  • In 1981, conservative estimates projected oil prices at $80 a barrel, even after peace was restored in the Persian Gulf; oil prices today remain near the 100-year-long average price of $17 a barrel.
  • Renewable sources, excluding large-scale hydro power, only account for under one percent of the U.S. energy supply.
  • Demand for electricity, contrary to the 1980 forecast by the Union of Concerned Scientists of flat growth, has actually soared 70 percent since 1980.
  • In the two decades since the estimates, gross domestic product grew 75 percent, and traditional fossil fuels supplied 65 percent of all net new energy, with nuclear power accounting for virtually all the balance.

Today, environmentalists and energy experts still predict the same dismal fate for the environment and economy. The reason for the past and current failure of environmental energy forecasters stems from their inability or unwillingness to understand technological progress in general, and more broadly perhaps, a lack of imagination flavored by a deep inherent pessimism regarding the technology innovations of industry.

Source: Mark P. Mills, "Getting it Wrong: Energy Forecasts and the End-of-Technology Mindset," Environmental Studies Program, May 1999, Competitive Enterprise Institute, 1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 1250, Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 331-1010.


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