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20 Early Warning Signs That We Are Approaching A Global Economic Meltdown

20 Early Warning Signs That We Are Approaching A Global Economic Meltdown.

Earth From SpaceHave you been paying attention to what has been happening in Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Ukraine, Turkey and China?  If you are like most Americans, you have not been.  Most Americans don’t seem to really care too much about what is happening in the rest of the world, but they should.  In major cities all over the globe right now, there is looting, violence, shortages of basic supplies, and runs on the banks.  We are not at a “global crisis” stage yet, but things are getting worse with each passing day.  For a while, I have felt that 2014 would turn out to be a major “turning point” for the global economy, and so far that is exactly what it is turning out to be.  The following are 20 early warning signs that we are rapidly approaching a global economic meltdown…

#1 The looting, violence and economic chaos that is happening in Argentina right now is a perfect example of what can happen when you print too much money

For Dominga Kanaza, it wasn’t just the soaring inflation or the weeklong blackouts or even the looting that frayed her nerves.

It was all of them combined.

At one point last month, the 37-year-old shop owner refused to open the metal shutters protecting her corner grocery in downtown Buenos Aires more than a few inches — just enough to sell soda to passersby on a sweltering summer day.

#2 The value of the Argentine Peso is absolutely collapsing.

#3 Widespread shortages, looting and accelerating inflation are also causing huge problems in Venezuela

Economic mismanagement in Venezuela has reached such a level that it risks inciting a violent popular reaction. Venezuela is experiencing declining export revenues, accelerating inflation and widespread shortages of basic consumer goods. At the same time, the Maduro administration has foreclosed peaceful options for Venezuelans to bring about a change in its current policies.

President Maduro, who came to power in a highly-contested election last April, has reacted to the economic crisis with interventionist and increasingly authoritarian measures. His recent orders to slash prices of goods sold in private businesses resulted in episodes of looting, which suggests a latent potential for violence. He has put the armed forces on the street to enforce his economic decrees, exposing them to popular discontent.

#4 In a stunning decision, the Venezuelan government has just announced that it has devalued the Bolivar by more than 40 percent.

#5 Brazilian stocks declined sharply on Thursday.  There is a tremendous amount of concern that the economic meltdown that is happening in Argentina is going to spill over into Brazil.

#6 Ukraine is rapidly coming apart at the seams

A tense ceasefire was announced in Kiev on the fifth day of violence, with radical protesters and riot police holding their position. Opposition leaders are negotiating with the government, but doubts remain that they will be able to stop the rioters.

#7 It appears that a bank run has begun in China

As China’s CNR reports, depositors in some of Yancheng City’s largest farmers’ co-operative mutual fund societies (“banks”) have been unable to withdraw “hundreds of millions” in deposits in the last few weeks. “Everyone wants to borrow and no one wants to save,” warned one ‘salesperson’, “and loan repayments are difficult to recover.” There is “no money” and the doors are locked.

#8 Art Cashin of UBS is warning that credit markets in China “may be broken“.  For much more on this, please see my recent article entitled “The $23 Trillion Credit Bubble In China Is Starting To Collapse – Global Financial Crisis Next?

#9 News that China’s manufacturing sector is contracting shook up financial markets on Thursday…

Wall Street was rattled by a key reading on China’s manufacturing which dropped below the key 50 level in January, according to HSBC. A reading below 50 on the HSBC flash manufacturing PMI suggests economic contraction.

#10 Japanese stocks experienced their biggest drop in 7 months on Thursday.

#11 The value of the Turkish Lira is absolutely collapsing.

#12 The unemployment rate in France has risen for 9 quarters in a row and recently soared to a new 16 year high.

#13 In Italy, the unemployment rate has soared to a brand new all-time record high of 12.7 percent.

#14 The unemployment rate in Spain is sitting at an all-time record high of 26.7 percent.

#15 This year, the Baltic Dry Index experienced the largest two week post-holiday decline that we have ever seen.

#16 Chipmaker Intel recently announced that it plans to eliminate5,000 jobs over the coming year.

#17 CNBC is reporting that U.S. retailers just experienced “the worst holiday season since 2008“.

#18 A recent CNBC article stated that U.S. consumers should expect a “tsunami” of store closings in the retail industry…

Get ready for the next era in retail—one that will be characterized by far fewer shops and smaller stores.

On Tuesday, Sears said that it will shutter its flagship store in downtown Chicago in April. It’s the latest of about 300 store closures in the U.S. that Sears has made since 2010. The news follows announcements earlier this month of multiple store closings from major department stores J.C. Penney and Macy’s.

Further signs of cuts in the industry came Wednesday, when Target said that it will eliminate 475 jobs worldwide, including some at its Minnesota headquarters, and not fill 700 empty positions.

#19 The U.S. Congress is facing another deadline to raise the debt ceiling in February.

#20 The Dow fell by more than 170 points on Thursday.  It is becoming increasingly likely that “the peak of the market” is now in the rear view mirror.

And I have not even mentioned the extreme drought that has caused the U.S. cattle herd to drop to a 61 year low or the nuclear radiation from Fukushima that is washing up on the west coast.

In light of everything above, is there anyone out there that still wants to claim that “everything is going to be okay” for the global economy?

Sadly, most Americans are not even aware of most of these things.

All over the country today, the number one news headline is about Justin Bieber.  The mainstream media is absolutely obsessed with celebrity scandals, and so is a very large percentage of the U.S. population.

A great economic storm is rapidly approaching, and most people don’t even seem to notice the storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon.

In the end, perhaps we will get what we deserve as a nation.

Oxfam: 85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world | Business | theguardian.com

Oxfam: 85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world | Business | theguardian.com.

The InterContinental Davos luxury hotel in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos

The InterContinental Davos luxury hotel in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos. Oxfam report found people in countries around the world believe that the rich have too much influence over the direction their country is heading. Photograph: Arnd Wiegmann/REUTERS

The world’s wealthiest people aren’t known for travelling by bus, but if they fancied a change of scene then the richest 85 people on the globe – who between them control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together – could squeeze onto a single double-decker.

The extent to which so much global wealth has become corralled by a virtual handful of the so-called ‘global elite’ is exposed in a new report from Oxfam on Monday. It warned that those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of £1tn, as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world’s population.

Working for the Few - Oxfam reportSource: F. Alvaredo, A. B. Atkinson, T. Piketty and E. Saez, (2013) ‘The World Top Incomes Database’, http://topincomes.g-mond.parisschoolofeconomics.eu/ Only includes countries with data in 1980 and later than 2008. Photograph: OxfamThe wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world, added the development charity, which fears this concentration of economic resources is threatening political stability and driving up social tensions.

It’s a chilling reminder of the depths of wealth inequality as political leaders and top business people head to the snowy peaks of Davos for this week’s World Economic Forum. Few, if any, will be arriving on anything as common as a bus, with private jets and helicoptors pressed into service as many of the world’s most powerful people convene to discuss the state of the global economy over four hectic days of meetings, seminars and parties in the exclusive ski resort.

Winnie Byanyima, the Oxfam executive director who will attend the Davos meetings, said: “It is staggering that in the 21st Century, half of the world’s population – that’s three and a half billion people – own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus.”

Oxfam also argues that this is no accident either, saying growing inequality has been driven by a “power grab” by wealthy elites, who have co-opted the political process to rig the rules of the economic system in their favour.

In the report, entitled Working For The Few (summary here), Oxfam warned that the fight against poverty cannot be won until wealth inequality has been tackled.

“Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table,” Byanyima said.

Oxfam called on attendees at this week’s World Economic Forum to take a personal pledge to tackle the problem by refraining from dodging taxes or using their wealth to seek political favours.

As well as being morally dubious, economic inequality can also exacerbate other social problems such as gender inequality, Oxfam warned. Davos itself is also struggling in this area, with the number of female delegates actually dropping from 17% in 2013 to 15% this year.

How richest use their wealth to capture opportunites

Polling for Oxfam’s report found people in countries around the world – including two-thirds of those questioned in Britain – believe that the rich have too much influence over the direction their country is heading.

Byanyima explained:

“In developed and developing countries alike we are increasingly living in a world where the lowest tax rates, the best health and education and the opportunity to influence are being given not just to the rich but also to their children.

“Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations. We will soon live in a world where equality of opportunity is just a dream. In too many countries economic growth already amounts to little more than a ‘winner takes all’ windfall for the richest.”

Working for the Few - Oxfam reportSource: F. Alvaredo, A. B. Atkinson, T. Piketty and E. Saez, (2013) ‘The World Top Incomes Database’, http://topincomes.g-mond.parisschoolofeconomics.eu/ Only includes countries with data in 1980 and later than 2008. Photograph: OxfamThe Oxfam report found that over the past few decades, the rich have successfully wielded political influence to skew policies in their favour on issues ranging from financial deregulation, tax havens, anti-competitive business practices to lower tax rates on high incomes and cuts in public services for the majority. Since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 out of 30 countries for which data are available, said the report.

This “capture of opportunities” by the rich at the expense of the poor and middle classes has led to a situation where 70% of the world’s population live in countries where inequality has increased since the 1980s and 1% of families own 46% of global wealth – almost £70tn.

Opinion polls in Spain, Brazil, India, South Africa, the US, UK and Netherlands found that a majority in each country believe that wealthy people exert too much influence. Concern was strongest in Spain, followed by Brazil and India and least marked in the Netherlands.

In the UK, some 67% agreed that “the rich have too much influence over where this country is headed” – 37% saying that they agreed “strongly” with the statement – against just 10% who disagreed, 2% of them strongly.

The WEF’s own Global Risks report recently identified widening income disparities as one of the biggest threats to the world community.

Oxfam is calling on those gathered at WEF to pledge: to support progressive taxation and not dodge their own taxes; refrain from using their wealth to seek political favours that undermine the democratic will of their fellow citizens; make public all investments in companies and trusts for which they are the ultimate beneficial owners; challenge governments to use tax revenue to provide universal healthcare, education and social protection; demand a living wage in all companies they own or control; and challenge other members of the economic elite to join them in these pledges.

• Research Now questioned 1,166 adults in the UK for Oxfam between October 1 and 14 2013.

Senator Bernie Sanders Asks NSA If It Spies On Congress | Zero Hedge

Senator Bernie Sanders Asks NSA If It Spies On Congress | Zero Hedge.

The real life magic-mushroom, banana dictatorship envisioned by George Orwell just went full retard.

From VT Senator Bernie Sanders:

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today asked the National Security Agency director whether the agency has monitored the phone calls, emails and Internet traffic of members of Congress and other elected officials.


Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?” Sanders asked in a letter to Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director. “Spying” would include gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or emails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business?”


Sanders said he was “deeply concerned” by revelations that American intelligence agencies harvested records of phone calls, emails and web activity by millions of innocent Americans without any reason to even suspect involvement in illegal activities. He also cited reports that the United States eavesdropped on the leaders of Germany, Mexico, Brazil and other allies.


Sanders emphasized that the United States “must be vigilant and aggressive in protecting the American people from the very real danger of terrorist attacks,” but he cited U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s recent ruling that indiscriminate dragnets by the NSA were probably unconstitutional and “almost Orwellian.”


Sanders has introduced legislation to put strict limits on sweeping powers used by the National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation to secretly track telephone calls by millions of innocent Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.


The measure would put limits on records that may be searched. Authorities would be required to establish a reasonable suspicion, based on specific information, in order to secure court approval to monitor business records related to a specific terrorism suspect. Sanders’ bill also would put an end to open-ended court orders that have resulted in wholesale data mining by the NSA and FBI. Instead, the government would be required to provide reasonable suspicion to justify searches for each record or document that it wants to examine.

Uhm… yes?


Brazil floods, mudslides kill 41 – World – CBC News

Brazil floods, mudslides kill 41 – World – CBC News.

People collect discarded food drenched in mud and rain, outside a supermarket in the municipality of Itaguacu, Espirito Santo state, Brazil, on Dec. 25, 2013. People collect discarded food drenched in mud and rain, outside a supermarket in the municipality of Itaguacu, Espirito Santo state, Brazil, on Dec. 25, 2013. (Vitor Jubino, A Gazeta/Associated Press)
Brazilian officials say floods and mudslides have killed 41 people and driven close to 70,000 from their homes in two southeastern states.

The civil defence department in the state of Minas Gerais says the floods and mudslides caused by more than 10 days of heavy downpours left 18 people dead and forced 9,420 to flee their homes.

In Espirito Santo state, officials place the death toll at 23 and say that more than 60,000 were forced to seek shelter in public buildings or the homes of friends and relatives.

Troops are helping distribute food, water and medicine in Espirito Santo and Army engineers have been called in to help repair highways, roads and bridges damaged by the floods.


If Mexico is the next Brazil in oil production, brace for disappointment

If Mexico is the next Brazil in oil production, brace for disappointment.

by Kurt Cobb, originally published by Resource Insights  | DEC 22, 2013

Recent reforms that would open oil exploration and development in Mexico to major oil companies for the first time in decades has the media all atwitter about the prospects of a reversal in declining Mexican oil output and a possible doubling of production. The reforms have brought out comparisons with Brazil which has a similar arrangement in which the country’s state-owned oil company works with major international oil giants to develop Brazil’s petroleum resources. Adding to the frothy atmosphere, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silvaproposed a partnership between Mexico and Brazil to develop oil resources in both countries.

Mexico regional map http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mexico_regional_map.pngIn a world with daily average oil prices hovering near record levels, such news might be welcome if only we could actually count on the accompanying optimistic production forecasts. But, it’s instructive to look at what actually happened in Brazil since the time its potential as a major new oil producer was touted several years ago.

Brazil had discovered large oil deposits in ultradeep (30,000 feet down) reservoirs far offshore. In 2009, Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras), Brazil’s state-owned oil company, announced that it would invest approxmately $175 billion in oil exploration over several years to boost Brazilian liquid fuel production from 2.4 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2008 of oil, biofuels and other liquids to 4.6 mbpd in 2015, a move that would make the country a major oil exporter.

Let’s see what kind of progress Brazil has made so far. In 2012 the country produced 2.65 mbpd of liquid fuels, making hardly any progress toward the goal announced for 2015. (The figures for oil proper, that is crude oil plus lease condensate which is the definition of oil, were 1.81 mbpd in 2008 and 2.06 mbpd in 2012.) In fact, instead of contributing to the worldwide supply of exports, Brazil remains a net importer of oil according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and those imports grew from 36,470 barrels per day in 2011 to 155,040 barrels per day in 2012.

The large Brazilian oil company OGX Petróleo e Gas Participações SA filed for bankruptcy recently “after disappointing output from offshore OGX wells set off a crisis of investor confidence,” according to Reuters. It’s no surprise that state-owned Petrobras is also finding it far more difficult to exploit its deep sea oil resources than originally anticipated. Admittedly, there are other problems at Petrobras. It has become a tool of economic policy for keeping unemployment low, saddling it with investments that it might not otherwise have made as a private company. But that doesn’t change the fact that exploiting oil far offshore at extreme depths is difficult.

Mexico’s state-run oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), has seen its production drop from 3.45 mbpd of crude oil proper in 2004 to just 2.59 mbpd in 2012 according the EIA. Reforms that will give international oil companies new access to Mexican oil fields are supposed to change that trend. It’s one thing to let private companies drill previously monopolized fields. It’s another to raise overall nationwide production significantly as a result. Just ask the Brazilians. The easy-to-get oil has already been harvested in Mexico and Brazil. The hard-to-get oil comes next, and well…it’s proving hard to get.

Will Mexico fare better than Brazil? Art Berman, a petroleum geologist and consultant who accurately forecast the bust for shale gas investors, offered this analysis in a recent email:

 I have worked in Mexico since the early 1990s inside Pemex. There is a reason that no significant discoveries have been made since the 1970s–no reservoirs.

 The Campeche Sound [in the Bay of Campeche] has reservoirs thanks to the biggest frack job ever, the Chicxulub meteor impact. The Golden Lane reef trend, discovered much earlier, has been fully explored with no new discoveries. Beyond that, almost nada.

 The Eagle Ford Shale play [in Texas] extends into Mexico and, so far, all tests have yielded [natural] gas. There is a potential oil play in theTampico area from the El Abra Shale that sourced the Golden Lane. The Chicontepec tight calcarenite play contains huge oil [resources] that no one has figured out how to exploit commercially as recently as in the last few years. The deep-water Gulf of Mexico has serious reservoir problems in Mexico.

 Add it all up and we are left with the same sense that there should be huge remaining undiscovered reserves in Mexico that an awful lot of smart foreign companies (Amoco, BP, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, etc.) have been unable to discover working closely [through service contracts] with Pemex since the 1980s.

 As far as the Citi [Citigroup Inc.] estimates go [projecting a doubling of Mexican production which is mentioned and linked above], mucho ruido, pocos nueces (much ado about nothing; literally, lots of noise, no nuts).

Jeffrey Brown, an independent petroleum geologist best known for his Export Land Model weighed in as well on Mexico’s oil future. Brown’s model, first released publicly in 2006, correctly forecast shrinking global net exports of oil in recent years. He believes that any effect of the Mexican reforms will be relatively small and delayed several years. He related his views in a recent email:

 Regarding their [Mexico’s] offshore potential, it’s going to take a long time to work out the agreements, drill some wells and put the wells on line. I wouldn’t expect to see any meaningful contributions from joint venture offshore projects until some time after 2020. Regarding onshore, [that] production could come on line sooner, but the agreements have to be made, and the per-well production rates are vastly lower than offshore. Also, I suspect that the production sharing agreements are going to be something more or less equivalent to a 50% royalty (or worse), versus much more favorable terms in Texas [which would make investment in Texas more attractive to major oil companies versus investment in Mexico].

Brown, who manages a joint venture exploration program based in Ft. Worth, also noted that “Mexico is on track to approach zero net oil exports in about six years (around 2019).” He continually reminds those making rosy predictions about oil exports for any exporting country that those countries tend to grow as oil revenues increase which means their thirst for oil also grows. That can leave less and less oil available over time for export. If the country’s production is in decline, as has been the case with Mexico, exports decrease much faster than production on a percentage basis if domestic consumption grows in the face of declining production–a sort of pincer movement on oil exports.

It’s possible that Mexico’s production may grow somewhat as a result of the country’s reforms. But, it is foolish to expect too much given what we’ve seen in Brazil to date. And, it is important to remember that production from currently producing Mexican wells is declining continuously making it necessary to drill a lot of wells just to maintain current production let alone increase it.

Anyone looking for oil exports or production from Mexico to reach their previous high marks would be wise to plan for a less than salutary result.


The Real Oil Extraction Limit, and How It Affects the Downslope | Our Finite World

The Real Oil Extraction Limit, and How It Affects the Downslope | Our Finite World.

There is a lot of confusion about which limit we are reaching with respect to oil supply. There seems to be a huge amount of “reserves,” and oil production seems to be increasing right now, so people can’t imagine that there might be a near term problem. There are at least three different views regarding the nature of the limit:

  1. Climate Change. There is no limit on oil production within the foreseeable future. Oil prices can be expected to keep rising. With higher prices, alternative fuels and higher cost extraction techniques will become available. The main concern is climate change. The only reason that oil production would drop is because we have found a way to use less oil because of  climate change concerns, and choose not to extract oil that seems to be available.
  2. Limit Based on Geology (“Peak Oil”). In each oil field, production tends to rise for a time and then fall. Therefore, in total, world oil production will most likely begin to fall at some point, because of technological limits on extraction. In fact, this limit seems quite close at hand. High oil prices may play a role as well.
  3. Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough. We need high oil prices to keep oil extraction up, but as we reach diminishing returns with respect to oil extraction, oil prices don’t rise high enough to keep extraction at the required level. If oil prices do rise very high, there are feedback loops that lead to more recession and job layoffs and less “demand for oil” (really, oil affordability) among potential purchasers of oil. One major cut-off on oil supply is inadequate funds for reinvestment, because of low oil prices.

Why “Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough” Is the Real Limit

In my view, our real concern should be the third item above, “Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough.” The problem is caused by a mismatch between wages (which are not growing very quickly) and the cost of oil extraction (which is growing quickly). If oil prices rose as fast as extraction costs, they would leave workers with a smaller and smaller percentage of their wages to spend on food, clothing, and other necessities–something that doesn’t work for very long. Let me explain what happens.

Because of diminishing returns, the cost of oil extraction keeps rising. It is hard for oil prices to increase enough to provide an adequate profit for producers, because if they did, workers would get poorer and poorer. In fact, oil prices already seem to be too low. In years past, oil companies found that the price they sold oil for was sufficient (a) to cover the complete costs of extraction, (b) to pay dividends to stockholders, (c) to pay required governmental taxes, and (d) to provide enough funds for investment in new wells, in order to  keep production level, or even increase it.  Now, because of the rapidly rising cost of new extraction, oil companies are finding that they are coming up short in this process.

Oil companies have begun returning money to stockholders in increased dividends, rather than investing in projects which are likely to be unprofitable at current oil prices. See Oil companies rein in spending to save cash for dividends. If our need for investment dollars is escalating because of diminishing returns in oil extraction, but oil companies are reining in spending for investments because they don’t think they can make an adequate return at current oil prices, this does not bode well for future oil extraction.

A related problem is debt limits for oil companies. If cash flow does not provide sufficient funds for investment, increased debt can be used to make up the difference. The problem is that credit limits are soon reached, leading to a need to cut back on new projects. This is particularly a concern where high cost investment is concerned, such as oil from shale formations. A rise in interest rates would also be a problem, because it would raise costs, leading to a higher required oil price for profitability. The debt problem affects high priced oil investments in other countries as well.  OGX, the second largest oil company in Brazil, recently filed for bankruptcy, after it ran up too much debt.

National oil companies don’t explain that they are finding it hard to generate enough cash flow for further investment. They also don’t explain that they are having a hard time finding sites to drill that will be profitable at current prices.  Instead, we are seeing more countries with national oil companies looking for outside investors, including Brazil andMexico. Brazil received only one bid, and that for the minimum amount, indicating that oil companies making the bids do not have high confidence that investment will be profitable, either. Meanwhile, newspapers spin the story in a totally misleading way, such as, Mexico Gears Up for an Oil Boom of Its Own.

US natural gas is another product with a similar problem: the price is not high enough to justify new production, especially for shale gas producers. The huge resource that some say is there is simply too expensive to extract at current prices. Would-be natural gas producers cannot tell us this. Instead, we find a recent quote in the Wall Street Journal saying:

“We are not dealing with an era of scarcity, we are dealing with a situation of abundance,” Ken Cohen, Exxon’s vice president of public and government affairs, said in an interview. “We need to rethink the regulatory scheme and the statutory scheme on the books.”

Cohen could explain that without natural gas exports, there is no way the natural gas price will rise high enough for Exxon-Mobil to extract the resource at a profit. Without exports, Exxon Mobil will lose money on the extraction, or more likely, will have to leave the natural gas in the ground. With low prices, the huge resource that Obama has talked about is simply a myth–the prices need to be higher. Of course, no one tells us the real story–it seems better to let people think that the issue is too much natural gas, not that it can’t be extracted at the current price. The stories offered to the news media are simply ways to convince us that exports make sense. Readers are not aware how much stories can be “spun” to make the current situation sound quite different from what it really is.

What Goes Wrong with “Climate Change” and “Limit Based on Geology” Views

The Illusion of Reserves. Oil and gas reserves may seem to be “be there,” but a lot of conditions need to be in place for them to actually be extracted. Clearly, the price needs to be high enough, both for current extraction and to fund new investment. Other conditions need to be in place as well: Debt needs to be available, and it needs to be available at a sufficiently low rate of interest to keep costs down. There needs to be political stability in the country in question. Something as simple as a continuation of the uprisings associated with the Arab Spring of 2010 could lead to the inability to extract reserves that seem to be present. Other requirements include availability of water for fracking and the availability of skilled workers and drilling rigs.

In the past, we have been far enough away from limits that issues such as these have not been a big problem. But as we get closer to limits and stretch our capabilities, these become more of a problem. Right now, availability of debt at low interest rates is a particularly important issue, as is the need for adequate oil company profitability–things that are easy to overlook.

Wrong Economic Views Leading to Wrong Oil Views. Economists have put together economic models based on a world without limits. A world without limits is the easy approach, because mathematical relationships are much simpler in a world without limits: a relationship which held in 1800 is expected to hold in 1970 or in 2050.  A world without limits never offends politicians, because growth always seems to be possible, meaning a never-ending supply of jobs and of goods and services for constituents. A model without limits produces the simple relationships that we are accustomed to, such as “Inadequate supply will lead to a rise in price, and this in turn will tend to create greater supply or substitutes.” Unfortunately, these models omit many important variables and thus are inadequate representations of the world we live in today.

In a world with limits, there are feedback loops that cause high oil prices to lead to lower wages and more unemployment in oil importing countries. Thus “demand” can’t keep rising, because workers can’t afford the higher oil prices. Oil prices stagnate at a level that is too low to maintain adequate investment. High oil prices also feed back into slower economic growth and a need for ultra-low interest rates to raise demand for high-priced goods such as cars and homes.

When prices remain in the $100 barrel range, they are still high enough to damage the economy. Businesses are not much damaged, because they have ways they can work around higher oil prices, especially if interest rates are low.  Most of the ways businesses can work around high oil prices involve reducing wages to US workers–for example, outsourcing production to a lower cost country, or cutting the pay of workers, or laying off workers to match lower demand for goods. (Lower demand for goods tends to occur when oil prices rise, and businesses raise their prices to reflect the higher oil costs.)

Workers are still affected by costs in the $100 barrel range, and so are governments. Governments must pay out higher benefits than in the past, to keep the economy afloat. They must also keep interest rates very low, to try to keep demand for homes and cars as high as possible. The situation becomes very unstable, however, because very low interest rates depend on Quantitative Easing, and it does not appear to be possible to continue Quantitative Easing forever. Thus, interest rates will need to rise. Such a rise in interest rates is likely to push the country back into recession, because taxes will need to be higher (to cover the government’s higher debt costs) and because monthly payments on homes and new car purchases will tend to rise. The limit on oil production then becomes something very remote from geology–something like, “How long can interest rates remain low?” or “How long can we make our current economy function?”

The Interconnected Nature of the Economy. In my last post, I talked about the economy being a complex adaptive system. It is built from many parts (many businesses, laws, consumers, traditions, built infrastructure). It can operate within a range of conditions, but beyond that range it is subject to collapse. An ecosystem is a complex adaptive system. So is a human being, or any other kind of animal. Animals die when their complex adaptive system moves out of its range.

It is this interconnectedness of the economy that leads to the strange situation where something very remote from the real problem (oil limits) can lead to a collapse. Thus, it can be a rise in interest rates or a political collapse that ultimately brings the system down. The path of the downslope can be very different from what a person might expect, based on the naive view that the problems will simply relate to reduced supply of oil.

A Case Study of the Collapse of the Former Soviet Union 

The Soviet Union was major oil exporter and a military rival of the United States in the 1950s through 1980s. It also was the center of a huge economic system, involving many other countries. One thing that bound the countries together was the use of communism as its method of government; another was trade among countries. In effect, the group of communist countries had their own complex adaptive system. Things seemed to go fine for many years, but then in December 1991, the central government of the Soviet Union was dissolved, leaving the individual republics that made up the Former Soviet Union (FSU) on their own.

While there are many theories as to what all caused the collapse, it seems to me that low prices of oil played a major role. The reason why low oil prices are important is because in an oil exporting country, such as the FSU, oil export revenues represent a major part of government funding. If oil prices drop too low, there is a double problem: (1) it becomes unprofitable to drill new wells, so production drops and, (2) the revenue that is collected on existing wells drops too low. The problem is then a huge financial problem–not too different from the financial problem the US and many of the big oil importing countries are experiencing today.

Figure 1. Oil production and price of the Former Soviet Union, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

Figure 1. Oil production and price of the Former Soviet Union, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

In this particular situation, oil prices (in inflation adjusted prices) hit a peak in 1980. Once oil prices hit a peak, FSU oil production very much flattened. There was a continued small rise until 1983, but without the very high prices available until 1980, aggressive investment in new oil extraction dropped back.

Not only did FSU oil production flatten, but FSU oil consumption also flattened, not long after oil production stopped rising (Figure 2). This flattening helped maintain exports and the taxes that could be collected on these exports.

Figure 2. Former Soviet Union Oil Production and Consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2013.

Figure 2. Former Soviet Union Oil Production and Consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2013.

Even though total exports were close to flat in the 1980s (difference between consumption and production), there were some countries where exports that were rising–for example North Korea, shown in Figure 4. This mean that oil exports for some allies needed to be cut back as early as 1981. Figure 3 shows the trend in oil consumption for some of FSU’s allies.

Figure 3. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1980 consumption for Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, based on EIA data.

Figure 3. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1980 consumption for Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, based on EIA data.

A person can see that oil consumption dropped off slowly at first, and increased around 1990. All of these countries saw their oil consumption drop by at least 40% by 2000. Bulgaria saw is oil consumption drop by 65% to 70%.

The FSU exported oil to other countries as well.  Two countries that we often hear about, Cuba and North Korea, were not affected in the 1980s (Figure 4). In fact, Cuba’s oil consumption never seems to have been severely affected. (It is possible that exports of manufactured goods from the FSU dropped, however.) Cuba’s drop-off in oil consumption since 2005 may be price-related.

Figure 4. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1980 oil consumption for Cuba and North Korea, based on EIA data.

Figure 4. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1980 oil consumption for Cuba and North Korea, based on EIA data.

North Korea’s oil consumption continued growing until 1991. Its drop-off was then very severe–a total of an 83% reduction between 1991 and 2010. In most of the countries where oil consumption dropped, consumption of other fossil fuels dropped as well, but generally not by as large percentages. North Korea experienced nearly a 50% drop in other fuel (mostly coal) consumption by 1998, but this has since somewhat reversed.

By 1991, the FSU was in poor financial condition, partly because of the low oil prices, and partly because its oil exports had started dropping. FSU’s oil production left its plateau and started dropping about 1988 (Figure 2).  The actual drop in FSU oil production meant that oil consumption for the FSU needed to drop as well–a big problem because industry depended upon this oil. The break-up of the FSU was a solution to these problems because (1) it eliminated the cost of the extra layer of government and (2) it made it easier to shift oil consumption among the member republics, so that those republics that produced more oil could keep it for their own use, rather than sending it to republics which did not produce oil. This shortchanged non-oil producing republics, such as the Ukraine and Belarus.

If we look at oil consumption for a few of the republics that were previously part of the FSU, we see that oil consumption was fairly flat, then dropped off quickly, after 1991.

Figure 5. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1985 oil production for Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

Figure 5. Oil consumption as a percentage of 1985 oil production for Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

By 1996 (only 5 years after 1991), oil consumption had dropped by 78% for the Ukraine, by 61%  for Belarus, and by “only” 47% for Russia, which is an oil-producing state. At least part of the reason for the fast drop off was the fact that in the years immediately after 1991, oil production for the FSU dropped by about 10% per year, necessitating a quick drop off in consumption, especially if the country was to continue to make some money from exports. The 10% drop-off in oil production suggests that the decline in oil production was more than would be expected from geological decline alone. If the decline were for geological reasons only, without new drilling, one might the expect the drop off to be in the 4% to 6% range.

When oil consumption dropped greatly, population tended to decline (Figure 6). The decline started earliest in the countries where the oil consumption drop was earliest (Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria). The steepest drop-offs in population occur in the Ukraine and Bulgaria–the  countries with the largest percentage drops in oil consumption.

Figure 6. Population as percent of 1985 population, for selected countries, based on EIA data.

Figure 6. Population as percent of 1985 population, for selected countries, based on EIA data.

Some of the population drop is from emigration. Some of it is from poorer health conditions. For example, Russia used to provide potable water for its citizens, but it no longer does. Some is from conditions such as alcoholism. I haven’t shown the population change for North Korea. It actually continued to increase, but at a much lower rate of growth than previously. Cuba’s population has begun to fall since 2005.

GDP growth for the countries shown has tended to lag behind world economic growth (Figure 7).

Figure 7. GDP compared to world GDP - Change since 1985, based on USDA Real GDP data.

Figure 7. GDP compared to world GDP – Change since 1985, based on USDA Real GDP data.

Nearly all of the countries listed above have had financial problems, at different times.

Belarus’s GDP seems to be doing better than the rest on Figure 7. Belarus, like the Ukraine, is a pipeline transit country for Russia. In Belarus, natural gas consumption has increased, even as oil consumption has decreased. This increase is likely helping the  country industrialize. Inflation occurred at the rate of 51.9% in 2012 according to the CIA World Fact Book. This high inflation rate may be distorting indications.


We can’t know exactly what path our economy will follow in the future. I expect, though, that the path of the FSU and its trading partners is closer to the path we will be following than most forecasts we hear today. Most of us haven’t followed the FSU story closely, because we wrote off most of their problems to deficiencies of communism, without realizing that there was a major oil component as well.

The FSU situation may, in fact, be better that what the Industrialized West is facing in the next few years. The FSU had the rest of the world to support it, offering investment capital and new models for development. Oil production for Russia was able to rebound when oil prices rose again in the early 2000s. As situations around the world decline, it will be harder to “bootstrap.”

One of the things that hampered the recovery of the FSU was the fact that the communist economic model proved not to be competitive with the capitalistic model. In a way, the situation we are facing today is not all that different, except that our challenge this time is competition from Asian economies that we have not had to compete with until the early 2000s.

Asian economies have several cost advantages relative to the Industrialized West:

(1) Asian competitor countries are generally warmer than the industrialized West. Because of this, Asian workers can live more comfortably in flimsy homes. They also don’t need much salary to cover heating and can more easily commute by bicycle. It is often possible to produce two crops a year, making productivity of land and of farmers higher than it otherwise would be. In other words, Asian competitor countries have an energy subsidy from the sun that the Industrialized West does not.

(2) Asian competitors are often willing to ignore pollution problems, reducing their costs relative to the West.

(3) Asian competitors generally depend on coal to a greater extent than we do, keeping their costs down, relative to countries that use higher-priced fuels.

(4) Asian competitors are less generous with employee benefits such as health care and pensions, also holding costs down.

Economists, through their wholehearted endorsement of globalization, have pushed industrialized countries into a competitive situation which we are certain to lose. While oil prices tend to push wages down, competition with Asian countries makes the downward push on wages even greater. These lower wages are part of what are pushing us toward collapse.

To solve our problems, economists have proposed a shift toward renewable energy and the implementation of carbon taxes. Unless these changes are done in a way that actually reduces costs, these “solutions” are likely to make us even less competitive with low-cost competitors such as those in Asia. Thus, they are likely to push us toward collapse more quickly.

To support this position, economists point to climate change models based on the view that the burning of fossil fuels will increase greatly in the decades again. In fact, if collapse occurs in the next few years in the Industrialized West, carbon emissions are likely to fall quickly. Because of the interconnectedness of the world system, the rest of the world will likely also encounter collapse in not many more years, and their carbon emissions are likely to fall quickly, as well. Even the “Peak Oil” emissions that are used in climate change models are way too high, relative to what seems likely to be the case.

If I am right about collapse being a possibility for the Industrialized West, then our problem will be that we as nations become so poor that we can no longer find goods to trade with Asian countries. Most of our goods will not be competitive as exports, and we won’t be able to simply add more debt to rectify the situation. Thus, we will become unable to buy many goods we depend on, including computers and replacement parts for wind turbines.

Breakups of many types are possible. The European Union may cease to operate in the way it does today. The International Monetary Fund is likely to cease operating in the way it does today, because of the collapse of many of its members who provide funding. The US will be subject to strains of the type that lead to break up. If nothing else, oil producing states will want to withdraw, so that they are not, in effect, subsidizing the rest of the US economy.

It is unfortunate that economists are tied to their hopelessly out-of-date economic models.  Part of the problem is that the story of “collapse around the corner” doesn’t sell well. The alternate story economists have come up with really isn’t right, but it is pleasing to the many who benefit from subsidies for renewables, and it makes politicians look like they are doing something. The specter of climate change in the distance gives an excuse to cut back oil use, among other things, so has at least some theoretical benefit.

It is unfortunate, however, that we cannot look at the real problem. Unless we can understand the problem as it really is, it is impossible to find solutions that might actually be helpful.


John Baird: Edward Snowden Should Surrender To U.S.

John Baird: Edward Snowden Should Surrender To U.S..

OTTAWA – National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden should abandon his bid for asylum in Brazil and surrender himself to the United States, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Wednesday.

Baird told The Canadian Press that Snowden’s actions have compromised global security.

“I think I probably agree with the Obama administration on this one,” Baird said. “I think he’s done significant damage to national security, of the free world.”

The U.S. wants to prosecute Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia. The move angered the Obama administration and has chilled relations between Moscow and Washington.

“The United States has a free and fair justice system,” Baird said, when asked about Snowden’s outreach to the Brazilian government this week.

“I think he should go back to the United States and face the consequences of his actions.”

Snowden’s cache of documents also suggests that Communications Security Establishment Canada once monitored Brazil’s mines and energy department and helped the U.S. and Britain spy on participants at the London G20 summit in 2009.

In an open letter earlier this week, Snowden praised the Brazilian government for standing up to the U.S. for spying on the country. He also said he could help Brazil dig deeper into the NSA activities, but that he would need to come to the country and be granted political asylum.

Snowden’s temporary asylum in Russia is to expire in August.

Snowden’s documents showed that Brazil was a prime target of the NSA in Latin America.

Reporting by the Guardian and Washington Post based on his leaked documents, detailed U.S. spying in Brazil, including the monitoring of President Dilma Rousseff’s cellphone, which led her to cancel a planned visit to Washington two months ago.

The Brazilian government appears to have no immediate plan to accommodate Snowden.

Amnesty International has called on Brazil to seriously consider Snowden’s asylum request.

Amnesty defended Snowden’s actions, saying he exposed the unlawful surveillance of private communications by the U.S. and that he might need refugee status.

“U.S. statements labelling Snowden a ‘traitor’ are prejudicial to his right to seek asylum and to his right to a fair trial,” Amnesty’s Brazil director Atila Roque said in a statement this week.

“The information he released was in the public interest and shows the remarkably invasive extent of surveillance conducted by the United States.”

Baird was dismissive, in general, of Amnesty in the Wednesday interview, suggesting the rights watchdog has lost legitimacy.

Amnesty International Canada also released a report Wednesday condemning Canada for giving short shrift to a recent United Nations review of its human rights record.

“It reflects a growing tendency to dismiss and disengage from the UN and ignore some of Canada’s international human rights obligations,” said Alex Neve, Amnesty’s Canadian secretary general.

Baird said he hadn’t read the report and wasn’t concerned about its contents, calling Canada “a beacon for the world” on human rights.

“It’s an organization that is not as strong as it used to be,” Baird said of Amnesty.

“Because they thought the government of Canada should arrest President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. That’s silly.”

Neve called on Canada to detain and investigate Bush during an October 2011 visit to British Columbia because he admitted in his memoirs to authorizing the use of torture against terror suspects.

As for Cheney, various groups have called for him to be arrested during visits to Canada in 2011 and 2013, but Amnesty has never issued such a statement.


Unease among Brazil’s farmers as Congress votes on GM terminator seeds | Global development | theguardian.com

Unease among Brazil’s farmers as Congress votes on GM terminator seeds | Global development | theguardian.com.

Unease among Brazil’s farmers as Congress votes on GM terminator seeds

Environmentalists warn approval could shatter global agreement not to use technology, with devastating repercussions
Brazil national congress

Brazil’s national Congress is under pressure from landowning groups to green light GM ‘terminator’ seeds. Photograph: Ruy Barbosa Pinto/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Brazil is set to break a global moratorium on genetically-modified “terminator” seeds, which are said to threaten the livelihoods of millions of small farmers around the world.

The sterile or “suicide” seeds are produced by means of genetic use restriction technology, which makes crops die off after one harvest without producing offspring. As a result, farmers have to buy new seeds for each planting, which reduces their self-sufficiency and makes them dependent on major seed and chemical companies.

Environmentalists fear that any such move by Brazil – one of the biggest agricultural producers on the planet – could produce a domino effect that would result in the worldwide adoption of the controversial technology.

Major seed and chemical companies, which together own more than 60% of the global seed market, all have patents on terminator seed technologies. However, in the 1990s they agreed not to employ the technique after a global outcry by small farmers, indigenous groups and civil society groups.

In 2000, 193 countries signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which recommended a de facto moratorium on this technology.

The moratorium is under growing pressure in Brazil, where powerful landowning groups have been pushing Congress to allow the technology to be used for the controlled propogation of certain plants used for medicines and eucalyptus trees, which provide pulp for paper mills.

The landowning groups want to plant large areas with fast growing GMtrees and other non-food GM crops that could theoretically spread seeds over wide areas. The technology, they argue, would be a safeguard, ensuring that no second generation pollution of GM traits takes place. They insist that terminator seeds would only be used for non-food crops.

Their efforts to force a bill to this effect through Congress, ongoing since 2007, have been slowed due to resistance from environmentalists.

The proposed measure has been approved by the legislature’s agricultural commission, rejected by the environmental commission, and now sits in the justice and citizenship commission. It is likely to go to a full Congressional vote, where it could be passed as early as next Tuesday, or soon after the Christmas recess.

Environment groups say there would be global consequences. “Brazil is the frontline. If the agro-industry breaks the moratorium here, they’ll break it everywhere,” said Maria José Guazzelli, of Centro Ecológico, which represents a coalition of Brazilian NGOs.

This week they presented a protest letter signed by 34,000 people to thwart the latest effort to move the proposed legislation forward. “If this bill goes through, it would be a disaster. Farmers would no longer be able to produce their own seeds. That’s the ultimate aim of the agro-industry,” she said.

The international technology watchdog ETC, which was among the earliest proponents of a ban on terminator technology in the 1990s, fears this is part of a strategy to crack the international consensus.

“If the bill is passed, [we expect] the Brazilian government to take a series of steps that will orchestrate the collapse of the 193-country consensus moratorium when the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meets for its biennial conference in Korea in October 2014,” said executive director Pat Mooney.

But Eduardo Sciarra, Social Democratic party leader in the Brazilian Congress, said the proposed measure did not threaten farmers because it was intended only to set controlled guidelines for the research and development of “bioreactor” plants for medicine.

“Gene use restriction technology has its benefits. This bill allows the use of this technology only where it is good for humanity,” he said.

The technology was developed by the US Department of Agriculture and the world’s largest seed and agrochemical firms. Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Dow, Monsanto and DuPont together control more than 60% of the global commercial seed market and 76% of the agrochemical market. All are believed to hold patents on the technology, but none are thought to have developed the seeds for commercial use.

Massive protests in the 1990s by Indian, Latin American and south-east Asian peasant farmers, indigenous groups and their supporters put the companies on the back foot, and they were reluctantly forced to shelve the technology after the UN called for a de-facto moratorium in 2000.

Now, while denying that they intend to use terminator seeds, the companies argue that the urgent need to combat climate change makes it imperative to use the technology. In addition, they say that the technology could protect conventional and organic farmers by stopping GM plants spreading their genes to wild relatives – an increasing problem in the US, Argentina and other countries where GM crops are grown on a large scale.

A Monsanto spokesman in Brazil said the company was unaware of the developments and stood by a commitment made in 1999 not to pursue terminator technology. “I’m not aware of so-called terminator seeds having been developed by any organisation, and Monsanto stands firmly by our commitment and has no plans or research relating to this,” said Tom Helscher.

On its website, however, the company’s commitment only appears to relate to “food crops”, which does not encompass the tree and medicinal products under consideration in Brazil.

• Additional research by Anna Kaiser

Background to a controversy

Ever since GM companies were found to be patenting “gene-use restriction” or “terminator” technologies in the 1990s, they have been accused of threatening biodiversity and seeking to make farmers dependent on big industry for their livelihoods.

In many developing countries, where up to 80% of farmers each year choose their best plants and save their own seed, terminator technology is a byword for all genetic modification, raising fears that sterile GM strains could contaminate wild plants and regular crops – with devastating consequences.

The GM companies, which claimed in the 1990s that they wanted to introduce the seeds only to stop farmers stealing their products, were forced to shelve the technology in the face of massive protests in India, Latin Amercia and south-east Asia.

In the face of growing international alarm, the 193 countries signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity unanimously agreed in 2000 that there should be a de facto international moratorium. This was strengthened at the Conference of the Parties in 2006, under the presidency of Brazil.

Since then, the moratorium has held firm. But the GM companies have shifted their arguments, saying that gene-use restriction technologies now allow seeds to reproduce, but could “switch off” the GM traits. This, they argue, would reduce the possibility of the seeds spreading sterility. In addition, they say the technology could protect organic and conventional farmers from the spread of transgenes to wild relatives and weeds, which plagues GM farmers in the US and elsewhere.

The fear now is that the global moratorium could quickly unravel if Brazil, one of the most important agricultural countries in the world, overturns its national law to ban terminator technology. Other countries, pressed strongly by the powerful GM lobby, would probably follow, leading inevitably to more protests.


Canada-NSA Spying Allegations Called ‘Misinformation’ By Watchdog

Canada-NSA Spying Allegations Called ‘Misinformation’ By Watchdog.

OTTAWA – The watchdog over the national eavesdropping agency says many recent leaks about the Five Eyes intelligence network are being taken out of context by the media.

Jean-Pierre Plouffe, who keeps an eye on Communications Security Establishment Canada, or CSEC, says the leaked tidbits often then become misinformation.

Plouffe told senators on the national security and defence committee that he aims to clarify such information so that it is no longer promoted as myth.

Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency, CSEC’s American counterpart, is making almost daily headlines with a cache of leaked documents.

Material disclosed by Snowden suggests Canada helped the United States and Britain spy on participants at the London G20 summit in 2009.

Other documents indicate CSEC once monitored Brazil’s department of mines and energy.

In the House of Commons recently, Opposition leader Tom Mulcair pressed the government on whether CSEC or anyone else in the Canadian government authorized the U.S. NSA to spy on Canadian soil.

However, Plouffe, who assumed the watchdog’s post in October, seemed to play down such allegations.

“The information provided by Mr. Snowden made the news, often very sensational in the media,” he told senators.

“Unfortunately, this information is often taken out of context, which as a result becomes misinformation. So one of the key objectives of my office is to help to clarify this information and to correct it if necessary so that it is no longer propagated as a myth.”

CSEC has a budget of over $400 million and a staff of more than 2,000, including skilled mathematicians, codebreakers, linguists and programming experts. It is a key player in the Five Eyes surveillance network along with the U.S., Britain, Australian and New Zealand.

The federal government has consistently said that CSEC obeys the law and respects the privacy of Canadians.

But it has been put on the defensive by the torrent of information from Snowden.

Conservative Sen. Vern White expressed concern about the Snowden leaks, asking whether CSEC was taking steps to prevent similar unauthorized disclosures from its Ottawa headquarters.

Bill Galbraith, executive director of the watchdog’s office, replied that it was a question for CSEC itself to answer.

White said he was looking for assurances that there won’t be major intelligence leaks in Canada.

“I have to be honest, I don’t feel any comfort or confidence at this point.”


Notorious Foreign Spy Cases


What Happens When The Oil Runs Out? | CollapseNet

What Happens When The Oil Runs Out? | CollapseNet.7-31-2013-king-hubbert

Summary of a lecture by Professor Chris Rhodes to the Conway Hall Ethical Society, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. 11.00 am, Sunday July 28th, 2013.

The world supply of crude oil isn’t going to run out any time soon, and we will be producing oil for decades to come. However, what we won’t be doing is producing crude oil – petroleum – at the present rate of around 30 billion barrels per year. For a global civilization that is based almost entirely on a plentiful supply of cheap, crude oil, this is going to present some considerable challenges. If we look over a 40 year period, from 1965 to 2005, we see that by the end of it, humanity was using two and a half times as much oil, twice as much coal and three times as much natural gas, as at the start, and overall, around three times as much energy: this for a population that had “only” doubled. Hence our individual average carbon footprint had increased substantially – not, of course, that this increase in the use of energy, and all else, was by any means equally distributed across the globe.

 From the latest document that I can find – the B.P. Statistical Review – we see that the majority form of energy used by humans on earth is crude oil, accounting for 33% of our total, closely followed by coal at 30%: a figure that is rapidly catching up with oil, as coal is the principal and increasing source of energy in developing nations such as China and India. Natural gas follows in a close third place, at 24%; nuclear and hydroelectric power at 5-6% each; and the tiny fraction of our overall energy that comes from “renewables”, is just 1.6%. Thus, we are dependent on the fossil fuels for 87% of our energy. Now, such a comparison is almost misleading and naïve, because it tacitly presumes that if our oil supply becomes compromised, we can make a simple substitution for it using some other energy source.

However, this is not so readily done in practice, because oil is a particular and unique substance, having both a high energy content, and that it is readily refined into liquid fuels – effectively by distillation – to provide the petrol and diesel that runs practically all of the world’s transportation. Moreover, everything we depend upon – literally everything: food, materials, clothes, computers, mobile phones, pharmaceuticals etc. – for our daily existence is underpinned by a plentiful supply of cheap crude oil. So, the loss of this provision is going to have a profound, and shattering effect on human civilization.

In the “good old days”, e.g. the Humphrey Jones “Giant Gusher” drilled in Texas in 1922, it was necessary only to drill a hole in the ground to get oil. An oil well contains not only oil, but gas at high pressure, meaning that once the cap-rock that holds it all in place is broken, the oil is forced out in that familiar jet of black gold. The good old days indeed, because then it was necessary only to expend an amount of energy equal to that contained in one barrel of oil to recover a hundred barrels, which is like investing a pound and getting a return of a hundred pounds – a very good net profit. In 2013, the return is maybe twenty pounds or just three for extra-heavy oil, or for “oil” derived from tar sands, once it has been upgraded into liquid fuel.

Of greatest concern is how much oil is remaining. As noted, we currently use 30 billion barrels a year – 84 million barrels a day, or a thousand barrels every second. When it is trumpeted about some new and huge find of oil, e.g. the Tupi field off Brazil, thought to contain 8 billion barrels, in reality this is only enough to run the world for three months. Context should not be lost in these matters. The quality of the oil is also at issue. For example, much of the remaining oil is of the “heavy”, “sour” kind, meaning that it is not necessarily liquid at all, but bitumen, and contains relatively high levels of sulphur, necessitating complex and energy-intensive processing to get the sulphur out – which would otherwise be corrosive toward the steel used in the refinery – and to crack the heavier material into lighter fractions that can be used as fuel, or as feedstocks for industry.

So, it’s not just that we have got through much of our original bestowal of oil, but that what remains is of poorer quality – in other words, we have used-up most of the “good stuff”! Oil shale is not oil at all, but contains a material called “kerogen” which is a solid and needs to be heated to five hundred degrees Centigrade to break it down into a liquid form that in any way resembles what we normally think of as “oil”. So, when it is claimed that there are “three trillion barrels” of oil under America, really this is only to encourage voters and investors, because the actual Energy return on Energy Invested (EROEI) is so poor that there has been no serious commercial exploitation of oil shale to date, and probably there never will be.

Not only are we entirely dependent on crude oil for all our fuel and materials, but without cheap crude oil, and natural gas to make nitrogen fertilizers, we could grow no food. If we look at a field of soya beans being harvested in Brazil, we see a number of features. For one, those beans are not consumed at source, but are transported around Brazil and around the world. So, oil-derived fuels are necessary not only to run the tractors and combine harvesters, but the trucks, ships and planes to move the crop onto the world markets. In addition, we see the vast clouds of dust being thrown up behind the marching array of mighty machines – combine harvesters – which represents the loss of top-soil.

Even if we could solve all our energy problems, we are consuming the living and fragile portion of the earth’s surface that is our soil, and upon which we are utterly dependent to grow any food at all. We have “lost” around one third of our soil in the past half century – much of this through unsound and unsustainable agricultural practices – which does not bode well for the survival of a burgeoning human population. Another feature is that this land was once rain forest, which has been cleared to use the land for farming.

This is done either simply by setting fire to the forest, or by more exquisite means, such as taking a ship’s anchor chain, four hundred feet long – and if it is two inches in diameter, weighing five tonnes – then stringing it between two one hundred tonne tractors and simply driving over the terrain, so that the chain rips through everything that is there, tearing the trees out by their roots and destroying the structure of the soil in the process. The upshot is that the soil becomes unproductive within only a few years and so it is necessary to move on and do the same thing elsewhere.

In Britain we import about 40% of what we eat, and we use around 7 million tonnes of crude oil each year to fuel our food-chain. It can be said that we literally “eat oil”.

The concept of “Peak Oil” is due to Marion King Hubbert, a petroleum geologist working for the Shell Development Company in Texas, who predicted that oil production in America would peak in 1970. At that time, Texas was “awash” with oil – America being the world’s major oil-exporting nation then – and so no one took him seriously: but when in 1970, he was proved correct, Hubbert’s Peak entered the realm both of hard science and folklore. According to Hubbert, there is a 40 year lag between the year of peak discovery and that of peak production. If we apply this to the world situation, where global oil discovery peaked in 1965, we expect a global production in 2005. Indeed world production of oil has been on a flat line since 2005, and it is thought that we are at the production limit.

The price of oil has quadrupled in the past 10 years, reflecting the more strenuous efforts that are necessary to maintain production: deepwater drilling, fracking, tar sands, all of which have much lower energy returns than for conventional crude oil. Indeed, oil that is recovered from fracking costs about $105 a barrel to produce which until recently was more than it could be sold for. However, the price of oil is creeping up, and the industry is prepared to bear the loss for now, because it knows that the price of a barrel of oil will shortly rocket, and having cornered this “new” portion of the industry, will make big profits. Oil companies are not charities, after all. I emphasis the word “new” because fracking – properly called hydraulic fracturing – has been around since 1947: what is new is the combination of this technique with horizontal drilling, meaning that porous but impermeable rocks can be drilled-out laterally, then “fracked” to break them open thus releasing the oil or gas that they contain.

Fracking is a controversial matter, and there are grave concerns about groundwater contamination from the process. It is not only the fear that the chemicals that were originally present in the fracking fluid might migrate upward into the water table, but that other toxic materials, e.g. radon, that were confined safely within the natural prevailing geology, might be exhumed too. The Royal Society (U.K. equivalent of a national academy of sciences) has concluded that the procedure is safe, so long as it is strictly regulated, but how can this be guaranteed, when profits are the order of the day, and if the technology is to be employed across the world?

What too will become of the millions of gallons of contaminated water, injected under great pressure into the wells to fracture the rock, that remains? Will this be disposed of safely or simply left behind, potentially to leak into and contaminate the groundwater and the soil? This would be a tragic and cruel legacy for future generations.

Analyses made by both the International Energy Administration (IEA; effectively part of the U.S. Department of Energy) and its counterpart organisation, the Paris-based Energy Information Agency (EIA), concur that we will have lost around half our production of conventional crude oil by 2030. This is equivalent to four times the present output of Saudi Arabia, and it seems highly unlikely that this gap in supply can be filled from unconventional sources. Since we are entirely dependent on crude oil to fuel the world’s transportation, and looking at the amount of oil we are likely to be left with, we may conclude that it will be necessary to curb transportation by about 70% over the next 20 years.

This means the loss mainly of personalized transport and it is unfeasible that there will be 34 million electric cars in the U.K. (the current number of oil-fuelled cars) any time soon, and in reality, never. The only sensible means to move people around using electric power is by light rail and tramways, i.e. mass-transit systems.

If we can’t address the problem from the supply side we have to curb our demand. In the absence of cheap and widely accessible transport we will need to produce far more of our food and materials at the local level. Such a metamorphosis of human civilization from the global to the local, will be underpinned by building strong, resilient communities in which people share their skills and knowledge, to provide as much as possible at the local, grass-roots level. This is the underpinning philosophy of the growing network of Transition Towns. Frightening though all of this is, we may evolve into a happier and more fulfilling state of living than a perceived status quo, that in truth is all too rapidly running through our fingers.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes


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