The IEA and OECD’s Spat is Really About Market Economies

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Source: Adobe Stock/kropman.

As we recently reported, the West’s energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency, faces a possible legal split from its parent body, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, following decades of friction and fresh disagreements over cooperation with China.

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A document seen by Reuters shows that the complexity of cooperation between China and Western organizations such as the OECD, which has a stated commitment to democracy and market economies, has created friction between the two organizations.

The IEA, whose role includes coordinated stocks releases to address global oil shortfalls, could leave the Paris-based OECD, which sent a letter to the IEA in April, proposing the split. The argument has everything to do with China and the difference between market economies and China’s planned one.

“The IEA started negotiating with China in 2016 to establish an IEA center in Beijing, without prior consultation with the OECD which, as the IEA was aware, was itself negotiating with China to create a policy center and a country office,” the document said.

Created in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade, the OECD originated from the Organization for European Economic Co-operation, set up in 1948 to help administer the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe with U.S. financial aid.

The IEA was established in 1974 at the proposal of then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to help industrialized nations deal with the oil crisis after the Arab embargo squeezed supplies and sent prices surging.

Since then, energy markets have changed radically. OPEC no longer has the same power and non-IEA China has overtaken the U.S. as the biggest energy user. The fight between the two organizations highlights the difficulty regulators face in attempting to work with China and account for its energy consumption using rules and regulations that were largely designed for market-based economies.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol made strengthening ties with emerging powers the agency’s top priority, choosing China for his first trip into the job and breaking with the practice of previous chiefs, who began their tenure by visiting an IEA country.

The OECD groups 34 of the world’s leading economies and has about 2,500 staff. The IEA has 240 employees and 29 member states, all of which are also OECD members.

Under its autonomous status, the IEA’s governing board consists of energy ministers of member countries, which contribute four fifths of its budget of around $30.74 million (27 million euros) with the rest generated from sales of publications.

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Even if OECD and IEA are able to work out their differences and continue to work together, the problem of trying to recognize China’s massive buying power while also regulating it the way that a market economy would be is one that won’t go away any time soon.

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