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I was going over the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2013 and noticed a few things you might find interesting. Exactly what is their opinion on Peak Oil? Here, cut and pasted from the report.
Got that? The URR is great enough to delay any peak until after 2035. Here is one of their graphs that indicate how much they think is left, coal, gas and oil.
Okay 54 years of proven reserves. That puts the peak out to well past mid century. Likely well past 2100 if you count those remaining recoverable resources. And just who has all this oil?
2.2 trillion barrels of conventional crude oil resources. However only 1.7 trillion barrels of that has a 90% probability of being recoverable. Of this the Middle East has the lions share, 971 billion barrels of resources with a 90% probability of recovering 813 billion barrels of that.
The Middle East, of course, mostly OPEC. And if you count the four OPEC countries of Africa and the two in South America, the vast majority of the world’s oil reserves are in OPEC nations. In fact OPEC claims 81% of all the proven reserves in the world.
So with 81% of the world’s proven reserves what is the IEA expecting from OPEC in the future?
A word of explanation is needed here. New Policies Scenario: A scenario in the World Energy Outlook that takes account of broad policy commitments and plans that have been announced by countries, including national pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and plans to phase out fossil-energy subsidies, even if the measures to implement these commitments have yet to be identified or announced.
450 Scenario: A scenario presented in the World Energy Outlook that sets out an energy pathway consistent with the goal of limiting the global increase in temperature to 2°C by limiting concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to around 450 parts per million of CO2.
Current Policies is business as usual. Or, basically, we will keep on doing what we are doing. Which is of course exactly what will happen. However what the IEA sees as happening, above, is not exactly what will happen, far from it.
So, looking at Conventional Crude Oil Production in 2012, 2020 and 2035 we find this. All data on all charts below are in million barrels per day:
Well hell, OPEC production will be lower in 2020 than it is today. And non OPEC production will be lower in 2035 than it is today. But not to worry, total conventional crude production will be up 2.9 percent in the 23 years between 2012 and 2035.
But they are expecting Natural Gas Liquids to increase by almost 57 percent.
And let us not forget about Unconventionals. What are Unconventionals?
Unconventionals, Light Tight Oil and Oil Sands increase from 5 mb/d to 10.6 mb/d in 2020 to 17.1 mb/d in 2035. That is an increase of 242 percent in 23 years.
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Sunday, March 23, 2014
Peak Oil: Laherrère, Real Curves, and Official Curves
Global oil firms are about to cut exploration spending, pulling back from frontier areas and jeopardizing their future reserves, industry insiders say.
OSLO, Feb 17 (Reuters) – Global oil firms, hit by one of the worst years for discovery in two decades, are about to cut exploration spending, pulling back from frontier areas and jeopardising their future reserves, industry insiders say.
Notable exploration failures in high-profile places such as Africa’s west coast, from Angola all the way up to Sierra Leone, have pushed down valuations for exploration-focused firms and are now forcing oil majors to change tack.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult to find new oil and gas, and in particular new oil,” says Tim Dodson, the exploration chief of Statoil, the world’s top conventional explorer last year.
“The discoveries tend to be somewhat smaller, more complex, more remote, so it is very difficult to see a reversal of that trend,” Dodson told Reuters. “The industry at large will probably struggle going forward with reserve replacement.”
Although final numbers are not yet available, Dodson said 2013 may have been the industry’s worst year for oil exploration since 1995.
As a result, exploration will probably be cut, especially in the newest areas, said Lysle Brinker, the director of energy equity research at consultancy firm IHS.
“They’ll be scaling back on some exploration, like the Arctic or the deepest waters with limited infrastructure … So places like the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil will continue to see a lot of activity, but frontier regions will see some scaling back,” he said.
Oil majors, which have a large resource base to maintain, are suffering the most, as the world is running out of very large conventional oil fields, and access to acreage, particularly in the Middle East, is limited.
That is leaving them with an increasing number of gas projects.
“When you look at the mix of oil and gas of the majors, it is definitely moving towards gas – simply because they can’t access conventional oil, which ultimately I believe will have an impact on oil prices,” said Ashley Heppenstall, the CEO of Sweden’s Lundin Petroleum, which co-discovered Johan Sverdrup, the biggest North Sea oil field in decades.
Prices Down Then Up
Before oil prices rise from a lack of exploration, they are first expected to fall, squeezing margins and forcing further investment cutbacks.
The International Energy Agency sees oil prices down at $102 per barrel next year from the current $108 as several producers ramp up output.
“Oil prices need to remain at elevated levels because there is a risk that a fall in oil prices or a cutback in investments by companies will mean that production growth slows,” said Virendra Chauhan, an oil analyst at consultancy Energy Aspects.
Although world oil reserves increased by 1 percent in 2012, they equalled just 52.9 years of global consumption, down from 54.2 in 2011, energy firm BP has said previously. BP sees consumption up by 19 million barrels a day by 2035, which would represent a 21 percent increase on th U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) estimate for 2011.
Energy firms have already been shifting capital from conventional to shale production, and this trend could continue as the exploration risk is smaller, the lag from investment to cash-flow is shorter, and project sizes are more manageable.
This is weighing negatively on the shares of exploration-focused companies.
“Explorer stocks are trading at discovery value or a discount to it, so from an equity market perspective, there’s no interest in owning exploration stories. People are losing faith in exploration,” said Anish Kapadia, a research analyst at consultancy Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. International.
Shares in Europe’s explorers fell 20 percent over the past year, underperforming a 2-percent rise by the European oil index .
Tullow is down 39 percent in a year, while peers Cairn and Cobalt are down 33 percent, and OGX is down 92 percent.
The spending cutback also cut mergers and acquisitions activity by half last year, IHS data showed, and plans to boost shareholder returns could shift focus to cooperation rather than fully fledged takeovers.
“You will probably see more activity at the asset level more than at the corporate level … More joint ventures, swapping assets, buying and selling of assets,’ said Jeremy Bentham, Shell’s vice-president for business environment.
Insiders believe the cuts may not be reversed until capital tied up in projects like Chevron’s $54 billion Gorgon LNG or Conoco’s $25 billion Australia Pacific LNG start producing cash flow and return.
“There will be less investor pressure, then companies can get activity back up, so this may be a pause of a couple of years where companies scale back,” Brinker said.
LONDON, Feb 13 (Reuters) – Stronger-than-expected demand has drained oil inventories to the lowest level since 2008, tightening the market and defying predictions of a glut, the West’s energy watchdog said on Thursday.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said oil inventories in the developed world plummeted by 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in the last three months of 2013, the steepest quarterly decline since 1999.
The IEA, which advises most of the largest energy-consuming countries on energy policy, becomes the third major forecaster this week to predict higher oil use as economic growth picks up in Europe and the United States.
“Far from drowning in oil, markets have had to dig deeply into inventories to meet unexpectedly strong demand,” the IEA said in its monthly oil market report.
The IEA raised its forecast for global oil demand growth this year by 50,000 bpd to 1.3 million bpd.
That was boosted by a rebound in demand in North America and Europe after several years of declining consumption.
The Paris-based agency increased its estimate of the demand for oil from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) from last month’s report by 100,000 bpd to 29.6 million bpd .
“Demand has been stronger than expected, and we’re operating with low stock levels right now, which has been supportive for prices,” Antoine Halff, head of the IEA’s oil industry and markets division, told Reuters.
“Demand for OPEC crude looks stronger.”
Both OPEC and the U.S. Energy Information Administration raised their forecasts for 2014 demand in monthly reports this week.
Growing oil production in North America had led some to predict international crude prices would fall in 2014, after averaging around $110 a barrel in each of the past three years.
But robust demand and supply problems in a number of OPEC countries have kept prices supported, the IEA said.
While output from Libya recovered in January to 500,000 bpd, Iraqi output fell by 140,000 bpd to 2.99 million bpd, the IEA said, and warned that exports from Libya were likely to continue to be constrained by political unrest in the country.
Output in Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s largest producer, fell by 60,000 bpd in January to 9.76 million bpd, the IEA said.
Halff said demand for OPEC crude oil could be even stronger in the coming months as companies moved to rebuild oil inventories to a more comfortable level.
The IEA kept its estimate for supply growth from countries outside of OPEC unchanged from last month, forecasting an increase of 1.7 million bpd this year.
“We’re going into a period of lower demand as refineries start maintenance after the winter,” Halff said.
“We need to rebuild stocks.”
Benchmark Brent crude oil prices were down about 0.5 percent on Thursday at $108.24 a barrel, slipping after hitting a month-high of $109.75 at the start of the week.
(Reporting by Christopher Johnson and David Sheppard; editing by Jason Neely)
How long can economic growth continue in a finite world? This is the question the 1972 book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others sought to answer. The computer models that the team of researchers produced strongly suggested that the world economy would collapse sometime in the first half of the 21st century.
I have been researching what the real situation is with respect to resource limits since 2005. The conclusion I am reaching is that the team of 1972 researchers were indeed correct. In fact, the promised collapse is practically right around the corner, beginning in the next year or two. In fact, many aspects of the collapse appear already to be taking place, such as the 2008-2009 Great Recession and the collapse of the economies of smaller countries such as Greece and Spain. How could collapse be so close, with virtually no warning to the population?
To explain the situation, I will first explain why we are reaching Limits to Growth in the near term. I will then provide a list of nine reasons why the near-term crisis has been overlooked.
Why We are Reaching Limits to Growth in the Near Term
In simplest terms, our problem is that we as a people are no longer getting richer. Instead, we are getting poorer, as evidenced by the difficulty young people are now having getting good-paying jobs. As we get poorer, it becomes harder and harder to pay debt back with interest. It is the collision of the lack of economic growth in the real economy with the need for economic growth from the debt system that can be expected to lead to collapse.
The reason we are getting poorer is because hidden parts of our economy are now absorbing more and more resources, leaving fewer resources to produce the goods and services we are used to buying. These hidden parts of our economy are being affected by depletion. For example, it now takes more resources to extract oil. This is why oil prices have more than tripled since 2002. It also takes more resource for many other hidden processes, such as deeper wells or desalination to produce water, and more energy supplies to produce metals from low-grade ores.
The problem as we reach all of these limits is a shortage of physical investment capital, such as oil, copper, and rare earth minerals. While we can extract more of these, some, like oil, are used in many ways, to fix many depletion problems. We end up with too many demands on oil supply–there is not enough oil to both (1) offset the many depletion issues the world economy is hitting, plus (2) add new factories and extraction capability that is needed for the world economy to grow.
With too many demands on oil supply, “economic growth” is what tends to get shorted. Countries that obtain a large percentage of their energy supply from oil tend to be especially affected because high oil prices tend to make the products these countries produce unaffordable. Countries with a long-term decline in oil consumption, such as the US, European Union, and Japan, find themselves in recession or very slow growth.
Figure 1. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Unfortunately, the problem this appears eventually to lead to, is collapse. The problem is the connection with debt. Debt can be paid back with interest to a much greater extent in a growing economy than a contracting economy because we are effectively borrowing from the future–something that is a lot easier when tomorrow is assumed to be better than today, compared to when tomorrow is worse than today.
We could not operate our current economy without debt. Debt is what has allowed us to “pump up” economic growth. Consumers can buy cars, homes, and college educations that they have not saved up for. Businesses can set up factories and do mineral extraction, without having past profits to finance these operations. We can now operate with long supply chains, including many businesses that are dependent on debt financing. The ability to use debt allows vastly more investment than if potential investors could only the use of after-the-fact profits.
If we give up our debt-based economic system, we lose our ability to extract even the oil and other resources that appear to be easily available. We can have a simple, local economy, perhaps dependent on wood as it primary fuel source, without debt. But it seems unlikely that we can have a world economy that will provide food and shelter for 7.2 billion people.
The reason the situation is concerning is because the financial situation now seems to be near a crisis. Debt, other than government debt, has not been growing very rapidly since 2008. The government has tried to solve this problem by keeping interest rates very low using Quantitative Easing (QE). Now the government is cutting back in the amount of QE. If interest rates should rise very much, we will likely see recession again and many layoffs. If this should happen, debt defaults are likely to be a problem and credit availability will dry up as it did in late 2008. Without credit, prices of all commodities will drop, as they did in late 2008. Without the temporary magic of QE, new investment, even in oil, will drop way off. Government will need to shrink back in size and may even collapse.
In fact, we are already having a problem with oil prices that are too low to encourage oil production. (See my post, What’s Ahead? Lower Oil Prices, Despite Higher Extraction Costs.) Other commodities are also trading at flat to lower price levels. The concern is that these lower prices will lead to deflation. With deflation, debt is strongly discouraged because it raises the “inflation adjusted” cost of borrowing. If a deflationary debt cycle is started, there could be a huge drop in debt over a few years. This would be a different way to reach collapse.
Why couldn’t others see the problem that is now at our door step?
1. The story is a complicated, interdisciplinary story. Even trying to summarize it in a few paragraphs is not easy. Most people, if they have a background in oil issues, do not also have a background in financial issues, and vice versa.
2. Economists have missed key points. Economists have missed the key role of debt in extracting fossil fuels and in keeping the economy operating in general. They have also missed the fact that in a finite world, this debt cannot keep rising indefinitely, or it will grow to greatly exceed the physical resources that might be used to pay back the debt.
Economists have missed the fact that resource depletion acts in a way that is equivalent to a huge downward drag on productivity. Minerals need to be separated from more and more waste products, and energy sources need to be extracted in ever-more-difficult locations. High energy prices, whether for oil or for electricity, are a sign of economic inefficiency. If energy prices are high, they act as a drag on the economy.
Economists have missed the key role oil plays–a role that is not easily substituted away. Our transportation, farming and construction industries are all heavily dependent on oil. Many products are made with oil, from medicines to fabrics to asphalt.
Economists have assumed that wages can grow without energy inputs, but recent experience shows the economies with shrinking oil use are ones with shrinking job opportunities. Economists have built models claiming that prices will rise to handle shortages, either through substitution or demand destruction, but they have not stopped to consider how destructive this demand destruction can be for an economy that depends on oil use to manufacture and transport goods.
Economists have missed the point that globalization speeds up depletion of resources and increases CO2 emissions, because it adds a huge number of new consumers to the world market.
Economists have also missed the fact that wages are hugely important for keeping economies operating. If wages are cut, either because of competition with low-wage workers in warm countries (who don’t need as high a wages to maintain a standard of living, because they do not need sturdy homes or fuel to heat the homes) or because of automation, economic growth is likely to slow or fall. Corporate profits are not a substitute for wages.
3. Peak Oil advocates have missed key points. Peak oil advocates are a diverse group, so I cannot really claim all of them have the same views.
One common view is that just because oil, or coal, or natural gas seems to be available with current technology, it will in fact be extracted. This is closely related to the view that “Hubbert’s Peak” gives a reasonable model for future oil extraction. In this model, it is assumed that about 50% of extraction occurs after the peak in oil consumption takes place. Even Hubbert did not claim this–his charts always showed another fuel, such as nuclear, rising in great quantity before fossil fuels dropped in supply.
In the absence of a perfect substitute, the drop-off can be expected to be very steep. This happens because population rises as fossil fuel use grows. As fossil fuel use declines, citizens suddenly become much poorer. Government services must be cut way back, and government may even collapse. There is likely to be huge job loss, making it difficult to afford goods. There may be fighting over what limited supplies are available.What Hubbert’s curve shows is something like an upper limit for production, if the economy continues to function as it currently does, despite the disruption that loss of energy supplies would likely bring.
A closely related issue is the belief that high oil prices will allow some oil to be produced indefinitely. Salvation can therefore be guaranteed by using less oil. First of all, the belief that oil prices can rise high enough is being tested right now. The fact that oil prices aren’t high enough is causing oil companies to cut back on new projects, instead returning money to shareholders as dividends. If the economy starts shrinking because of lower oil extraction, a collapse in credit is likely to lead to even lower prices, and a major cutback in production.
4. Excessive faith in substitution. A common theme by everyone from economists to peak oilers to politicians is that substitution will save us.
There are several key points that advocates miss. One is that if a financial crash is immediately ahead, our ability to substitute disappears, practically overnight (or at least, within a few years).
Another is key point is that today’s real shortage is of investment capital, in the form of oil and other natural resources needed to manufacture the new natural gas powered cars and the fueling stations they need. A similar shortage of investment capital plagues plans to change to electric cars. Wage-earners of modest means cannot afford high-priced plug in vehicles, especially if the change-over is so fast that the value of their current vehicle drops to $0.
Another key point is that the alternatives we looking at are limited in supply as well. We use far more oil than natural gas; trying to substitute natural gas for oil will lead to a shortfall in natural gas supplies quickly. Ramping up electric cars, solar, and wind will lead to a shortage of the rare earth minerals and other minerals needed in their production. While more of these minerals can be accessed by using lower quality ore, doing so leads to precisely the investment capital shortfall that is our problem to begin with.
Another key point is that electricity does not substitute for oil, because of the huge need for investment capital (which is what is in short supply) to facilitate the change. There is also a timing issue.
Another key point is that intermittent electricity does not substitute for electricity whose supply can be easily regulated. What intermittent electricity substitutes for is thefossil fuel used to make electricity whose supply is more easily regulated. This substitution (in theory) extends the life of our fossil fuel supplies. This theory is only true if we believe that coal and natural gas extraction is only limited by the amount those materials in the ground, and the level of our technology. (This is the assumption underlying IEA and EIA estimates of future fossil use.)
If the limit on coal and natural gas extraction is really a limit on investment capital (including oil), and this investment capital limit may manifest itself as a debt limit, then the situation is different. In such a case, high investment in intermittent renewables can expected to drive economies that build them toward collapse more quickly, because of their high front-end investment capital requirements and low short-term returns.
5. Excessive faith in Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) or Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) analyses. Low EROI returns and poor LCA returns are part of our problem, but they are not the whole problem. They do not consider timing–something that is critical, if our problem is with inadequate investment capital availably, and the need for high returns quickly.
EROI analyses also make assumptions about substitutability–something that is generally not possible for oil, for reasons described above. While EROI and LCA studies can provide worthwhile insights, it is easy to assume that they have more predictive value than they really do. They are not designed to tell when Limits to Growth will hit, for example.
6. Governments funding leads to excessive research in the wrong directions and lack of research in the right direction. Governments are in denial that Limits to Growth, or even oil supply, might be a problem. Governments rely on economists who seem to be clueless regarding what is happening.
Researchers base their analyses on what prior researchers have done. They tend to “follow the research grant money,” working on whatever fad is likely to provide funding. None of this leads to research in areas where our real problems lie.
7. Individual citizens are easily misled by news stories claiming an abundance of oil. Citizens don’t realize that the reason oil is abundant is because oil prices are high, debt is widely available, and interest rates are low. Furthermore, part of the reason oil appears abundant is because low-wage citizens still cannot afford products made with oil, even at its current price level. Low employment and wages feed back in the form of low oil demand, which looks like excessive oil supply. What the economy really needs is low-priced oil, something that is not available.
Citizens also don’t realize that recent push to export crude oil doesn’t mean there is a surplus of crude oil. It means that refinery space for the type of oil in question is more available overseas.
The stories consumers read about growing oil supplies are made even more believable by forecasts showing that oil and other energy supply will rise for many years in the future. These forecasts are made possible by assuming the limit on the amount of oil extracted is the amount of oil in the ground. In fact, the limit is likely to be a financial (debt) limit that comes much sooner. See my post, Why EIA, IEA, and Randers’ 2052 Energy Forecasts are Wrong.
8. Unwillingness to believe the original Limits to Growth models. Recent studies, such as those by Hall and Day and by Turner, indicate that the world economy is, in fact, following a trajectory quite similar to that foretold by the base model of Limits to Growth. In my view, the main deficiencies of the 1972 Limits to Growth models are
(a) The researchers did not include the financial system to any extent. In particular, the models left out the role of debt. This omission tends to move the actual date of collapse sooner, and make it more severe.
(2) The original model did not look at individual resources, such as oil, separately. Thus, the models gave indications for average or total resource limits, even though oil limits, by themselves, could bring down the economy more quickly.
I have noticed comments in the literature indicating that the Limits to Growth study has been superseded by more recent analyses. For example, the article Entropy and Economics by Avery, when talking about the Limits to Growth study says, “ Today, the more accurate Hubbert Peak model is used instead to predict rate of use of a scarce resource as a function of time.” There is no reason to believe that the Hubbert Peak model is more accurate! The original study used actual resource flows to predict when we might expect a problem with investment capital. Hubbert Peak models overlook financial limits, such as lack of debt availability, so overstate likely future oil flows. Because of this, they are not appropriate for forecasts after the world peak is hit.
Another place I have seen similar wrong thinking is in the current World3 model, which has been used in recent Limits to Growth analyses, including possibly Jorgen Randers’2052. This model assumes a Hubbert Peak model for oil, gas, and coal. The World3 model also assumes maximum substitution among fuel types, something that seems impossible if we are facing a debt crisis in the near term.
9. Nearly everyone would like a happy story to tell. Every organization from Association for the Study of Peak Oil groups to sustainability groups to political groups would like to have a solution to go with the problem they are aware of. Business who might possibly have a chance of selling a “green” product would like to say, “Buy our product and your problems will be solved.” News media seem to tell only the stories that their advertisers would like to hear. This combination of folks who are trying to put the best possible “spin” on the story leads to little interest in researching and telling the true story.
Wrong thinking and wishful thinking seems to abound, when it comes to overlooking near term limits to growth. Part of this may be intentional, but part of this lies with the inherent difficulty of understanding such a complex problem.
There is a tendency to believe that newer analyses must be better. That is not necessarily the case. When it comes to determining when Limits to Growth will be reached, analyses need to be focused on the details that seemed to cause collapse in the 1972 study–slow economic growth caused by the many conflicting needs for investment capital. The question is: when do we reach the point that oil supply is growing too slowly to produce the level of economic growth needed to keep our current debt system from crashing?
It seems to me that we are already near such a point of collapse. Most people have not realized how vulnerable our economic system is to crashing in a time of low oil supply growth.
Australian Report Trumpeted By Coal Bosses Does Not Say What They Want You To Think It Says | DeSmogBlog
WHAT follows are some thoughts about coal from a report just published in Australia.
A longer-term concern relates to the environmental impacts of large-scale coal use, especially its climate consequences….
Coal is a carbon-intensive fuel and the environmental consequences of its use can be significant, especially if it is used inefficiently and without effective emissions and waste control technologies. Such environmental consequences include emissions of pollutants such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides, particulates, mercury, and carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Indeed coal-sourced pollution remains the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Hence most forecasts show a very wide range of future coal demand, based on differing degrees of environmental policy implementation.
Now who might have written that? An environmental campaigner? An anti-coal activist in a less bombastic mood? Maybe they’re the words of an advocate for action on climate change?
Actually, these are the views of Ian Cronshaw, a long-standing advisor to the International Energy Agency who was commissioned by the Energy Policy Institute of Australia to write a report about coal and its future economic outlook.
The Energy Policy Institute of Australia’s board includes a number of figures who have spent their careers in and around the fossil fuel industry.
The paper, The Current and Future Importance of Coal in the World Energy Economy, consists of just three pages, as well as a header page and a biography page at the back.
Most of the contents are drawn from the various reports put out by the International Energy Agency.
So how was this pamphlet greeted by Australia’s coal industry? The only media report of note came from The Australian newspaper, which ran the headline: “Coal will ‘dominate global power sector for decades‘” on its front page.
Here are the first two lines of that story, to give you a flavor.
COAL will dominate the power sector globally for decades to come, according to a paper that miners say undermines campaigns by green activists to “demonise” coal.
The paper – written by an International Energy Agency consultant and to be sent to Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane – says coal will remain the dominant power-sector fuel for at least the next quarter of a century despite efforts to diversify power sources and concerns about slower economic growth.
The report in The Australian does not mention Cronshaw’s observations about coal and climate change.
In fact, the words climate change or global warming don’t appear anywhere in the story, even though it takes up almost a third of the three pages of Cronshaw’s analysis. The Australian also chose to quote two coal industry representatives, who took the report’s publication as an opportunity to criticise environmental campaigners.
Graham Bradley, who amongst other things is the chairman of the advisory board for coal company Anglo American Australian, was reported as saying:
Much of the green polemic is not grounded in the fundamental reality that the world needs the lowest-cost energy and at the end of the day the economics will prevail and investment will follow.
Brendan Pearson, chief executive of the industry lobbyists the Minerals Council of Australia which recently subsumed the lobbying work of the Australian Coal Association, said:
Activist campaigns seeking to demonise Australian coal fail to acknowledge that it will be the principal global energy source for decades – transforming economies and helping eliminate poverty.
Both commentators also touted how the report predicted a rosy future for the coal industry in long term. The report does do this, but with a number of large caveats. It is far from the slam dunk which the media report and the quotes might have you believe. For example, there’s this from the Cronshaw report:
The current economic outlook remains very clouded, with many regions either stagnant or seeing slower economic growth. This will naturally impact heavily on global power use and coal consumption. However, most forecasters remain confident that, over the longer term, energy demand growth in non-OECD countries, the key determinant of coal demand growth, will be strong.
The report does map out the strong growth in the use of coal in non-OECD countries, including India and China, and predicts this is where much of the future demand will come from.
In two sentences, the report also points out the benefits of electricity — which, remember, can and is generated from renewable sources as well as polluting coal. The report says:
Such access to electricity is crucial to economic growth; it means food can be stored in refrigerators, children can do their homework, small businesses can function. And overwhelmingly, this electricity has come from coal.
Cronshaw also makes it clear that under the policies currently in place, coal has a strong future. But this is precisely why climate change campaigners are pushing back hard on the mining and the use of coal, because they see these policies as being far too weak.
One analysis of current climate pledges by governments around the world, released during the recent Warsaw UN climate talks, suggested that pledges on the table will currently deliver about 4C of global warming by the end of the century — a gaping chasm between stated ambitions and reality.
It is worth observing that the IEA’s Current Policies Scenario, essentially a business as usual scenario, has global levels of coal demand more than 20% above the central scenario, in which a range of climate policies are cautiously implemented. The power sector is clearly the key coal market, but this sector must also be the focus of any successful climate change mitigation efforts.
That last line is worth reading twice. The coal sector “must also be the focus of any successful climate change mitigation efforts.”
Cronshaw also says the industry could make early gains in cuts in emissions by improving efficiency, but says that, “In reality, the penetration of the most efficient coal-fired power generation technologies is constrained by technical considerations, additional costs and the absence of a global price on carbon.”
The Australian government is in the process of trying to repeal the country’s carbon price, which would have linked to the European emissions trading scheme.
But again, Cronshaw is clear that coal’s future does depend on environmental policy down the line.
Environmental policy will play a decisive role in future coal consumption. In some countries, coal use may be encouraged for economic, social or energy security reasons. If action were taken to provide electricity access by 2030 to the 1.3 billion people in the world without it today (almost all in non-OECD countries), coal could be expected to account for more than half of the fuel required to provide additional on-grid connections. In other countries, policies may encourage switching away from coal to more environmentally benign or lower carbon sources. While a global agreement on carbon pricing has been elusive, a growing number of countries are taking steps to put a price on carbon emissions, including in China where there are several pilot schemes underway, although current pricing levels seen for example in Europe, are too low to materially affect energy choices.
When Graham Bradley from Anglo American Australia says “at the end of the day the economics will prevail and investment will follow” he seems to be ignoring the view expressed in the report which he lauds, which says that in fact, “Environmental policy will play a decisive role in future coal consumption.”
The paper also has a few words to say about so-called “clean coal” technologies – known as Carbon Capture and Storage. The paper points out that while some progress has been made “CCS has yet to be demonstrated on a large scale in an integrated fashion in the power and industrial sectors, and so costs remain uncertain.”
Cronshaw adds that:
The success of governments globally in encouraging greater energy diversity, improved efficiency, and the development and deployment of clean coal technologies will have a profound bearing on the role of coal in the longer term.
This is an interesting observation, given that both the former and current Australian governments have continued to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from CCS programs.
Despite what you might read in The Australian or through the mouths of vested interests, the future of coal is far from certain.
Just ask the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, who earlier this weekencouraged governments and institutional investors to take their money out of fossil fuels. Or maybe try one group of philanthropists with $1.8 billion in their coffers, who also this week pledged to divest from fossil fuels.
Or how about the US Export-Import Bank – a government institution that approved more than $35 billion in investments in 2012 – which has said it won’t invest in coal projects abroad unless they are fitted with CCS (which as yet, doesn’t really exist commercially).
Clearly coal will continue to be burned for energy, but as even this report the industry cites explains, emissions need to come down, environmental policies will dictate how quickly and that carbon pricing will drive early efficiency gains.
You can of course see this report two ways, depending upon which side you butter your bread. One way is that the report shows how the current suite of policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions are either too few or are not up to the job — probably both.
Another option is to use the three-page pamphlet as a way to instill confidence in potential investors in coal and to convince politicians that it’s an industry worth supporting.
That second group of people just have to hope that policymakers either fail to actually read the report, or don’t take the risks of climate change anywhere near seriously enough.
What is correct way to model the future course of energy and the economy? There are clearly huge amounts of oil, coal, and natural gas in the ground. With different approaches, researchers can obtain vastly different indications. I will show that the real issue is most researchers are modeling the wrong limit.
Most researchers assume that the limit that they should be concerned with is the amount of oil, coal, and natural gas in the ground. This is the wrong limit. While in theory we will eventually hit this limit, because of the way fossil fuels are integrated into the rest of the economy, we hit financial limits much earlier. These financial limits include lack of investment capital, inability of governments to collect enough taxes to fund their programs, and widespread debt defaults.
One of the things I show in this post is that Economic Growth is a positive feedback loop that is enabled by cheap energy sources. (Economists have postulated that Economic Growth is permanent, and has no connection to energy sources.) Economic Growth turns to economic contraction as the cost of energy extraction (broadly defined) rises. It is the change in this feedback loop that leads to the financial problems mentioned above. These effects tend to lead to collapse over a period of years (perhaps 10 or 20, we really don’t know), rather than a slow decline which is easily mitigated.
If, indeed, most analysts are concerned about the wrong limit, this has huge implications for energy policy:
1. Climate change models include way too much CO2 from fossil fuels. Lack of investment capital will bring down production of all fossil fuels in only a few years. The amounts of fossil fuels included in climate change models are based on “Demand Model” and “Hubbert Peak Model” estimates of fossil fuel consumption (described in this post), both of which tend to be far too high. This is not to say that the climate isn’t changing, and won’t continue to change. It is just that excessive fossil fuel consumption needs to move much farther down our list of problems contributing to future climate change.
2. It becomes much less clear whether high-priced replacements for fossil fuels are worthwhile. In theory, they might allow a particular economy to have electricity for a while longer after collapse, if the whole system can be kept properly repaired. Offsetting this potential benefit are several drawbacks: (a) they make the economy with the high-priced replacements less competitive in the world marketplace, (b) they tend to run up debt, increase government spending, and decrease discretionary income of citizens, all limits we are reaching, and (c) they tend to push the economic cycle more quickly toward contraction for the country purchasing the high-priced renewables.
3. A large share of academic writing is premised on a wrong understanding of the real limits we are reaching. Since writers base their analyses on the wrong analyses of previous writers, this leads to a nearly endless supply of misleading or wrong academic papers.
This post is related to a recent post I wrote, The Real Oil Extraction Limit, and How It Affects the Downslope.
Types of Forecasting Models
There are three basic ways of making forecasts regarding future energy supply and related economic growth:
1. “Demand Based” Approaches. In this method, the analyst first decides what future GDP will be, and uses that estimate, together with past relationships, to “work backwards” to figure out how much energy supply will be needed in the future. The expected needed future energy supply is then divided up among various types of fuels, giving more of the growth to types that are favored, and less to other types. Very often, estimates of growth in energy efficiency, growth in “renewables,” and growth in the amount of GDP that can be generated with a given amount of energy supply are included in the model as well.
This method is by far the most common approach for forecasting expected future energy supply, especially at high levels of aggregation. One advantage of this method is that can provide almost any answer the analyst wants. Governments are paying for reports such as the EIA and IEA forecasts, and oil companies are paying for forecasts such as those by BP,Shell, and Exxon-Mobil. Both governments and oil companies prefer reports that say that everything will be fine for the foreseeable future. Demand Based approaches are good for producing such reports.
Another advantage of this approach is that the analysts don’t have to think about pesky details like where all of the investment capital will come from, or how large an improvement in the ratio of GDP to energy consumption can actually occur. They can simply make assumptions and point out that the forecast won’t come true if the assumptions don’t hold.
2. “Hubbert Peak Model”. This model is based on an interpretation of what M. King Hubbert wrote (for example, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, 1956) . The basic premise of this model is that future supply of oil, coal, or gas will tend to drop slowly after 50% (or somewhat more) of the fuel supply potentially available with current technology has been extracted.
In fact, we don’t really know how much oil or coal or natural gas will be extracted in the future–we just know how much looks like it might be extracted, if everything goes well–if there is plenty of investment capital, if the credit system works as planned, and if the government is able to collect enough tax revenue to fund all of its promises, including maintaining roads and offering benefits to the unemployed.
What most people miss is the fact that the world economy is a Complex Adaptive System, and energy supply is part of this system. If there are diminishing returns with respect to energy supply–evidenced by the rising cost of extraction and distribution–then this will affect the economy in many ways simultaneously. The limit we are reaching is not that oil (or coal or natural gas) extraction will run out; it is that economic system will at some point seize up, and rapidly contract. The Hubbert Peak Method shows how much fuel might be extracted in each future year if the economy doesn’t seize up because of financial problems. The estimate produced by the Hubbert Peak Method removes some of the upward bias of the Demand Model approach, but it still tends to give forecasts that are higher than we can really expect.
3. Modeling How the Economy Actually Works. This approach is much more labor-intensive than the other two approaches, but is the only one that can be expected to give an answer that is in the right ballpark of being correct with respect to future economic growth and energy consumption. Of course, observing signs of oncoming collapse can also give an indication that we are nearing collapse.
The only study to date modeling how long the economy can grow without seizing up is the one documented in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, by D. Meadows et al. This analysis has proven to be surprisingly predictive. Several analyses, including this one by Charles Hall and John Day, have shown that the world economy is fairly close to “on track” with the base scenario shown in that book (Figure 1). If the world economy continues to follow this course shown, collapse would appear to be not more than 10 or 20 years away, as can be seen from Figure 1, below.
Figure 1. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in “Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil”http://www.esf.edu/efb/hall/2009-05Hall0327.pdf
One of the findings of the 1972 Limits to Growth analysis is that lack of investment capital is expected to be a significant part of what brings the system down. (There are other issues as well, including excessive pollution and ultimately lack of food.) According to the book (p. 125):
The industrial capital stock grows to a level that requires an enormous input of resources. In the very process of that growth it depletes a large fraction of the resource reserves available. As resource prices rise and mines are depleted, more and more capital must be used for obtaining resources, leaving less to be invested for future growth. Finally investment cannot keep up with depreciation, and the industrial base collapses, taking with it the service and agricultural systems, which have become dependent on industrial inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, hospital laboratories, computers, and especially energy for mechanization).
Jorgen Randers’ 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years
In 2012, the same organization that sponsored the original Limits to Growth study sponsored a new study, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the original report. A person might expect that the new study would follow similar or updated methodology to the 1972 report, but the approach is in fact quite different. (See my post, Why I Don’t Believe Randers’ Limits to Growth Forecast to 2052.)
The model in Jorgen Randers’ 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Yearsappears to be a Demand Based approach that perhaps uses a Hubbert Peak Model on the fossil fuel portion of the analysis. One telling detail is the fact that Randers mentions in the Acknowledgements Section only one person who worked on the model (apart from himself). There he thanks “My old friend Ulrich Goluke, for creating the quantitative foundation (statistical data, spreadsheets, and other models) for this forecast.” Ulrich Goluke’s biography suggests that he is able to prepare a Demand Model spreadsheet. It would be hard to believe that he that he could have substituted for the team of 17 researchers who put together the original Limits to Growth analysis.
The Need to Add to the Original Limits to Growth Analysis
The original Limits to Growth analysis was primarily concerned with quantities of items such as resources, pollution, population, and food. It did not get into financial aspects to any significant extent, except where flows of resources indicated a problem–namely in providing investment capital. One thing the model did not include at all was debt.
In the sections that follow, I show a model of how some parts of the economy that weren’t specifically modeled in the 1972 study work. If the economy works in the way described, it gives some insights as to why collapse may be ahead.
Economic Growth Arises from a Favorable Feedback Loop
Economic growth seems to arise from a favorable feedback loop, as shown in Figure 2, below.
Figure 2. Author’s representation of how economic growth occurs in today’s economy.
This model above is intended to reflect the situation from, say, 1800 to 2000. The situation was somewhat different before the use of fossil fuels, when far less economic growth took place. Furthermore, as we will see later in this post, the model changes again to reflect the impact of diminishing returns as the cost of energy production increases in recent years and in the future.
The critical variables that allow economic growth to take place are (1) cheap energy available from the ground, such as coal, oil, or natural gas–if cheap renewables were available, these would work as well (2) technology that allows us to put this cheap energy to work to make goods and services, and (3) a way to pay for the new goods and services.
Debt. In this model, debt plays a significant role. This happens because fossil fuels allow a huge “step up” in the quality of goods and services, and debt provides a way to bridge this gap. For example, with fossil fuels, we have electric light bulbs, metal machines in factories, and farm machinery, all of which vastly improve efficiency. The ability to pay for the new fuel and the new devices using the fuel, is much greater after the new devices using the fuel are put in place. The way around this problem is simple: debt.
The use of debt becomes important at many points in the economy. Increased debt can theoretically help (a) the companies doing the energy extraction, (b) the companies building factories to create the new goods and services, and (c) the end consumers, since all of these benefit greatly from the services that cheap fossil fuels provide, and can better pay afterward than before.
Government debt, such as debt used to finance World War II, can also be used to start and maintain the cycle. John Maynard Keynes noticed this phenomenon, and recommended using an increase in government debt to stimulate the economy, if it was not growing adequately. The detail he was unaware of is the fact that the debt only works in the context of cheap energy supplies being available to make use of this debt, enabling growth.
How the Feedback Loop Works. The loop starts with the combination of a cheap-to-exploit energy resource, technology that would use this resource, and debt that allows those would like to gain access to the resources to have the benefit of them, before they are actually able to pay cash for them.
This combination allows goods to be produced which initially may not be very cheap. Over time, new methods are tried, allowing technology to improve. Consumers are able to buy increasing amounts of goods and services, both because of their own increased productivity (enabled by fossil fuels and new technology) tends to raise their wages, and because the improving technology lowers the cost of goods. Government services are expanded as tax revenue per capita increases. Infrastructure such as roads are expanded making the economy more efficient.
In this context, profits of companies grow, allowing reinvestment. Investment is also enabled by increasing debt. This allows the cycle to start over again, with better technology and more infrastructure in place. The economy tends to grow, and the standard of living tends to rise.
Overview. One way of explaining the tendency toward economic growth is that a cheap-to-extract fossil rule has an extremely high return on investment. This very high return enables benefits to all: workers receive higher wages; businesses receive higher profits; and governments receive both higher tax revenue and the ability to build new roads and other infrastructure cheaply.
Another way of describing the tendency toward economic growth is to say that the value to society of the (cheap) energy product is far greater than its cost of extraction. This difference provides a benefit which flows through to many parts of the economy. Economists do not recognize that this situation can happen, but it seems to be a major source of economic growth.
The Spoiler: Diminishing Returns
The problem with energy extraction is that we extract the inexpensive-to-extract energy sources first. Eventually these sources get depleted, and we need to move on to more expensive-to-extract energy sources. I illustrate this situation with a triangle that has a dotted line at the bottom.
Figure 3. Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.
Businesses start by extracting the cheapest to extract resources, found at the top of the triangle. As these resources deplete, they move on to the more expensive to extract resources, further down in the triangle. Looking downward, it always looks like there are more resources available–it is just that they are more expensive to extract. This is why reported reserves tend to increase over time, even as supplies are depleted. The limit is a financial limit, illustrated by a dotted line, which is why virtually no one can figure out when the limit will actually arrive.
One somewhat minor point: When I say, “Cheapest to extract resources,” I am referring to broadly defined costs. What businesses want is resources that produce goods and services most cheaply for the consumer. Thus, they are really concerned about cheapesttotal cost, considering the entire chain that goes all the way to the consumer, including refining and transportation. The costs would include energy used in extraction, labor costs, transportation costs, taxes, and the cost of debt. It probably should include the cost of mitigating pollution effects as well.
A major problem is that as the cost of energy extraction grows, the favorable gap between the cost of extraction and the benefit to society (as mentioned in the previous section) shrinks. There are many ways that this problem manifests itself in the economy. Figure 4 shows a list of such problem with respect to higher oil prices:
Figure 4. Image by author listing some of the problems created by rising oil prices.
One indirect impact of these issues is that there are more layoffs and fewer new job opportunities. If we calculate average wages by taking (total US wages) and dividing by (total US population), we see that during periods of high oil prices, wages tend not to grow, as they had in periods when oil prices were lower–just as we would expect (Figure 5, below).
Figure 5. Average US wages compared to oil price, both in 2012$. US Wages are from Bureau of Labor Statistics Table 2.1, adjusted to 2012 using CPI-Urban inflation. Oil prices are Brent equivalent in 2012$, from BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Another issue is that it is not just the price of oil that rises. The price of natural gas rises as well. We have not felt this in the United States, because demand has kept the price down below the price of shale gas extraction. The cost of coal, delivered to its destination, has risen because transport uses oil, and transport costs are a significant share of total costs. The cost of base metals has also risen since 2002, because oil is used in metal extraction. Food prices in general have tended to rise as well, because oil is used in production and transport of food. When wages are close to flat, and the cost of many goods are rising, workers find that their paychecks are increasingly squeezed.
While costs of making goods in the US are rising, and paychecks are stagnating, an increasing amount of goods are imported from areas around the world where energy costs and wage costs are lower. This helps keep the cost of consumer goods down, but it makes the problem of lack of jobs for US workers worse.
With all of these things happening, the government has more and more problems with its funding. Expenditures continue to rise, but taxes flatten, as the government tries to help the economy grow by not raising taxes to match expenditures (Figure 5, below).
Figure 6. Based on Table 2.1 and Table 3.1 of Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Government spending includes Federal, State, and Local programs.
Government expenditures can be thought of as expenditures out of the surpluses of the economy. As indicated previously, these are to a significant extent possible because of the favorable difference between the cost of extracting fossil fuels and the benefit those fossil fuels provide to the economy. As the use of fossil fuels has grown over the years, these government services have grown. In recent years, the presence of more unemployed workers has driven a need for more government services.
Since the early 2000s, government revenues have flattened. The lack of revenue, together with the ever-rising government spending, is what is driving continued big deficits. The danger is that this difference cannot be fixed, without huge cuts to programs that people are depending on, like unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare.
How the Economic Growth Loop Changes to Contraction
In my view, what causes a shift to contraction is a shift to higher energy costs. With higher energy costs, there is less surplus between the cost of extraction (broadly defined) and the benefit to society. Because of the smaller surplus, the parts of the economy that use this surplus, such as government spending, must shrink.
Figure 7. Higher energy cost leads to unfavorable feedback loop. (Illustration by author.)
We gradually find that all the great things we had learned to enjoy–inexpensive roads and other infrastructure, cheap goods, rising wages, and rising government serves–start going away. We increasingly find consumers maxed out on debt. We also find companies (especially energy companies) reporting lower profits, so they have more trouble investing in new energy extraction. The government cannot collect enough taxes for all of its services, so finds itself needing to keep raising its own debt levels.
The government can kind of “paper over” its difficulties with growing debt levels for a while, by using Quantitative Easing (QE). QE has the effect of making the interest the US must pay on its own debt lower. It makes the cost of business investment in new plants and equipment (including shale oil drilling) cheaper. It also helps stretch the incomes of increasingly impoverished workers by allowing monthly payments on homes and cars to be lower than they would otherwise would be.
The Party Ends With a Thud
Most readers can deduce that a shift from a growing economy to a shrinking economy is not a pleasant situation. It has all of the makings of collapse.
One of the big problems is debt defaults, as it becomes increasingly impossible to repay debt with interest. This creates conflict between borrowers and lenders. Debt defaults are also likely to cause huge problems for banks, insurance companies, and pension plans, because of the impact on their balance sheets. Some institutions may close.
To the extent new credit is cut off, the lack of credit cuts off new investment in energy extraction, in buying new cars and trucks, and in almost everything else. Such a cut-off in credit is likely to increase job layoffs and to lead to yet more defaults. Lack of investment in new energy extraction causes oil supply to fall quickly–far more quickly than standard “decline” models would suggest.
Businesses that in the past found that they could benefit from “economies of scale” as they grew find that fixed costs stay the same, even as sales shrink. This means that they either need to raise prices to cover their higher per-unit costs, or lose money.
Governments find that they need to cut government services to balance their budgets. Discontent grows among citizens as those who lose their benefits become very unhappy. Discord grows among political parties, because no one can agree how to cut programs equitably.
We don’t know how this will end, but we do know that the Former Soviet Union collapsed into its constituent parts when fossil fuel surpluses were reduced, prior to 1991. Egypt and Syria both have had civil unrest as their oil exports ended. Clearly very large government changes are possible, as surpluses disappear.
This list of potential impacts could be expanded endlessly, but I will spare readers from a more comprehensive list.
Long Live Peak Oil!
Among the big energy stories of 2013, “peak oil” — the once-popular notion that worldwide oil production would soon reach a maximum level and begin an irreversible decline — was thoroughly discredited. The explosive development of shale oil and other unconventional fuels in the United States helped put it in its grave.
As the year went on, the eulogies came in fast and furious. “Today, it is probably safe to say we have slayed ‘peak oil’ once and for all, thanks to the combination of new shale oil and gas production techniques,” declared Rob Wile, an energy and economics reporter for Business Insider. Similar comments from energy experts were commonplace, prompting an R.I.P. headline at Time.com announcing, “Peak Oil is Dead.”
Not so fast, though. The present round of eulogies brings to mind the Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Before obits for peak oil theory pile up too high, let’s take a careful look at these assertions. Fortunately, theInternational Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based research arm of the major industrialized powers, recently did just that — and the results were unexpected. While not exactly reinstalling peak oil on its throne, it did make clear that much of the talk of a perpetual gusher of American shale oil is greatly exaggerated. The exploitation of those shale reserves may delay the onset of peak oil for a year or so, the agency’s experts noted, but the long-term picture “has not changed much with the arrival of [shale oil].”
The IEA’s take on this subject is especially noteworthy because its assertion only a year earlier that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one oil producer sparked the “peak oil is dead” deluge in the first place. Writing in the 2012 edition of itsWorld Energy Outlook, the agency claimed not only that “the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer” by around 2020, but also that with U.S. shale production and Canadian tar sands coming online, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.”
That November 2012 report highlighted the use of advanced production technologies — notably horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — to extract oil and natural gas from once inaccessible rock, especially shale. It also covered the accelerating exploitation of Canada’s bitumen (tar sands or oil sands), another resource previously considered too forbidding to be economical to develop. With the output of these and other“unconventional” fuels set to explode in the years ahead, the report then suggested, the long awaited peak of world oil production could be pushed far into the future.
The release of the 2012 edition of World Energy Outlook triggered a global frenzy of speculative reporting, much of it announcing a new era of American energy abundance. “Saudi America” was the headline over one such hosanna in the Wall Street Journal. Citing the new IEA study, that paper heralded a coming “U.S. energy boom” driven by “technological innovation and risk-taking funded by private capital.” From then on, American energy analysts spoke rapturously of the capabilities of a set of new extractive technologies, especially fracking, to unlock oil and natural gas from hitherto inaccessible shale formations. “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal crowed.
But that was then. The most recent edition of World Energy Outlook, published this past November, was a lot more circumspect. Yes, shale oil, tar sands, and other unconventional fuels will add to global supplies in the years ahead, and, yes, technology will help prolong the life of petroleum. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that we are also witnessing the wholesale depletion of the world’s existing oil fields and so all these increases in shale output must be balanced against declines in conventional production. Under ideal circumstances — high levels of investment, continuing technological progress, adequate demand and prices — it might be possible to avert an imminent peak in worldwide production, but as the latest IEA report makes clear, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will occur.
Inching Toward the Peak
Before plunging deeper into the IEA’s assessment, let’s take a quick look at peak oil theory itself.
As developed in the 1950s by petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert, peak oil theory holdsthat any individual oil field (or oil-producing country) will experience a high rate of production growth during initial development, when drills are first inserted into a oil-bearing reservoir. Later, growth will slow, as the most readily accessible resources have been drained and a greater reliance has to be placed on less productive deposits. At this point — usually when about half the resources in the reservoir (or country) have been extracted — daily output reaches a maximum, or “peak,” level and then begins to subside. Of course, the field or fields will continue to produce even after peaking, but ever more effort and expense will be required to extract what remains. Eventually, the cost of production will exceed the proceeds from sales, and extraction will be terminated.
For Hubbert and his followers, the rise and decline of oil fields is an inevitable consequence of natural forces: oil exists in pressurized underground reservoirs and so will be forced up to the surface when a drill is inserted into the ground. However, once a significant share of the resources in that reservoir has been extracted, the field’s pressure will drop and artificial means — water, gas, or chemical insertion — will be needed to restore pressure and sustain production. Sooner or later, such means become prohibitively expensive.
Peak oil theory also holds that what is true of an individual field or set of fields is true of the world as a whole. Until about 2005, it did indeed appear that the globe was edging ever closer to a peak in daily oil output, as Hubbert’s followers had long predicted. (He died in 1989.) Several recent developments have, however, raised questions about the accuracy of the theory. In particular, major private oil companies have taken to employing advanced technologies to increase the output of the reservoirs under their control, extending the lifetime of existing fields through the use of what’s called “enhanced oil recovery,” or EOR. They’ve also used new methods to exploit fields once considered inaccessible in places like the Arctic and deep oceanic waters, thereby opening up the possibility of a most un-Hubbertian future.
In developing these new technologies, the privately owned “international oil companies” (IOCs) were seeking to overcome their principal handicap: most of the world’s “easy oil” — the stuff Hubbert focused on that comes gushing out of the ground whenever a drill is inserted — has already been consumed or is controlled by state-owned “national oil companies” (NOCs), including Saudi Aramco, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the Kuwait National Petroleum Company, among others. According to the IEA, such state companies control about 80 percent of the world’s known petroleum reserves, leaving relatively little for the IOCs to exploit.
To increase output from the limited reserves still under their control — mostly located in North America, the Arctic, and adjacent waters — the private firms have been working hard to develop techniques to exploit “tough oil.” In this, they have largely succeeded: they are now bringing new petroleum streams into the marketplace and, in doing so, have shaken the foundations of peak oil theory.
Those who say that “peak oil is dead” cite just this combination of factors. By extending the lifetime of existing fields through EOR and adding entire new sources of oil, the global supply can be expanded indefinitely. As a result, they claim, the world possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil (and natural gas). This, for instance, was the way Barry Smitherman of the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates that state’s oil industry)described the global situation at a recent meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.
In place of peak oil, then, we have a new theory that as yet has no name but might be called techno-dynamism. There is, this theory holds, no physical limit to the global supply of oil so long as the energy industry is prepared to, and allowed to, apply its technological wizardry to the task of finding and producing more of it. Daniel Yergin, author of the industry classics, The Prize and The Quest, is a key proponent of this theory. He recently summed upthe situation this way: “Advances in technology take resources that were not physically accessible and turn them into recoverable reserves.” As a result, he added, “estimates of the total global stock of oil keep growing.”
From this perspective, the world supply of petroleum is essentially boundless. In addition to “conventional” oil — the sort that comes gushing out of the ground — the IEA identifies six other potential streams of petroleum liquids: natural gas liquids; tar sands and extra-heavy oil; kerogen oil (petroleum solids derived from shale that must be melted to become usable); shale oil; coal-to-liquids (CTL); and gas-to-liquids (GTL). Together, these “unconventional” streams could theoretically add several trillion barrels of potentially recoverable petroleum to the global supply, conceivably extending the Oil Age hundreds of years into the future (and in the process, via climate change, turning the planet into an uninhabitable desert).
But just as peak oil had serious limitations, so, too, does techno-dynamism. At its core is a belief that rising world oil demand will continue to drive the increasingly costly investments in new technologies required to exploit the remaining hard-to-get petroleum resources. As suggested in the 2013 edition of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, however, this belief should be treated with considerable skepticism.
Among the principal challenges to the theory are these:
1. Increasing Technology Costs: While the costs of developing a resource normally decline over time as industry gains experience with the technologies involved, Hubbert’s law of depletion doesn’t go away. In other words, oil firms invariably develop the easiest “tough oil” resources first, leaving the toughest (and most costly) for later. For example, the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands began with the strip-mining of deposits close to the surface. Because those are becoming exhausted, however, energy firms are now going after deep-underground reserves using far costlier technologies. Likewise, many of the most abundant shale oil deposits in North Dakota have now been depleted, requiring anincreasing pace of drilling to maintain production levels. As a result, the IEA reports, the cost of developing new petroleum resources will continually increase: up to $80 per barrel for oil obtained using advanced EOR techniques, $90 per barrel for tar sands and extra-heavy oil, $100 or more for kerogen and Arctic oil, and $110 for CTL and GTL. The market may not, however, be able to sustain levels this high, putting such investments in doubt.
2. Growing Political and Environmental Risk: By definition, tough oil reserves are located in problematic areas. For example, an estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic, along with 30 percent of its untapped natural gas. The environmental risks associated with their exploitation under the worst of weather conditions imaginable will quickly become more evident — and so, faced with the rising potential for catastrophic spills in a melting Arctic, expect a commensurate increase in political opposition to such drilling. In fact, a recent increase has sparked protests in both Alaska and Russia, including the much-publicized September 2013 attempt by activists from Greenpeace toscale a Russian offshore oil platform — an action that led to their seizure and arrest by Russian commandos. Similarly, expanded fracking operations have provoked a steady increase in anti-fracking activism. In response to such protests and other factors, oil firms are being forced to adopt increasingly stringent environmental protections, pumping up the cost of production further.
3. Climate-Related Demand Reduction: The techno-optimist outlook assumes that oil demand will keep rising, prompting investors to provide the added funds needed to develop the technologies required. However, as the effects of rampant climate change accelerate, more and more polities are likely to try to impose curbs of one sort or another on oil consumption, suppressing demand — and so discouraging investment. This is already happening in the United States, where mandated increases in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards are expected to significantly reduce oil consumption. Future “demand destruction” of this sort is bound to impose a downward pressure on oil prices, diminishing the inclination of investors to finance costly new development projects.
Combine these three factors, and it is possible to conceive of a “technology peak” not unlike the peak in oil output originally envisioned by M. King Hubbert. Such a techno-peak is likely to occur when the “easy” sources of “tough” oil have been depleted, opponents of fracking and other objectionable forms of production have imposed strict (and costly) environmental regulations on drilling operations, and global demand has dropped below a level sufficient to justify investment in costly extractive operations. At that point, global oil production will decline even if supplies are “boundless” and technology is still capable of unlocking more oil every year.
Peak Oil Reconsidered
Peak oil theory, as originally conceived by Hubbert and his followers, was largely governed by natural forces. As we have seen, however, these can be overpowered by the application of increasingly sophisticated technology. Reservoirs of energy once considered inaccessible can be brought into production, and others once deemed exhausted can be returned to production; rather than being finite, the world’s petroleum base now appears virtually inexhaustible.
Does this mean that global oil output will continue rising, year after year, without ever reaching a peak? That appears unlikely. What seems far more probable is that we will see a slow tapering of output over the next decade or two as costs of production rise and climate change — along with opposition to the path chosen by the energy giants — gains momentum. Eventually, the forces tending to reduce supply will overpower those favoring higher output, and a peak in production will indeed result, even if not due to natural forces alone.
Such an outcome is, in fact, envisioned in one of three possible energy scenarios the IEA’s mainstream experts lay out in the latest edition of World Energy Outlook. The first assumes no change in government policies over the next 25 years and sees world oil supply rising from 87 to 110 million barrels per day by 2035; the second assumes some effort to curb carbon emissions and so projects output reaching “only” 101 million barrels per day by the end of the survey period.
It’s the third trajectory, the “450 Scenario,” that should raise eyebrows. It assumes that momentum develops for a global drive to keep greenhouse gas emissions below 450 parts per million — the maximum level at which it might be possible to prevent global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (and so cause catastrophic climate effects). As a result, it foresees a peak in global oil output occurring around 2020 at about 91 million barrels per day, with a decline to 78 million barrels by 2035.
It would be premature to suggest that the “450 Scenario” will be the immediate roadmap for humanity, since it’s clear enough that, for the moment, we are on a highway to hell that combines the IEA’s first two scenarios. Bear in mind, moreover, that many scientists believea global temperature increase of even 2 degrees Celsius would be enough to produce catastrophic climate effects. But as the effects of climate change become more pronounced in our lives, count on one thing: the clamor for government action will grow more intense, and so eventually we’re likely to see some variation of the 450 Scenario take shape. In the process, the world’s demand for oil will be sharply constricted, eliminating the incentive to invest in costly new production schemes.
The bottom line: Global peak oil remains in our future, even if not purely for the reasons given by Hubbert and his followers. With the gradual disappearance of “easy” oil, the major private firms are being forced to exploit increasingly tough, hard-to-reach reserves, thereby driving up the cost of production and potentially discouraging new investment at a time when climate change and environmental activism are on the rise.
Peak oil is dead! Long live peak oil!
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.
The EIA has finally published its International Energy Statistics. The last one had July data. This one is has two months updates, August and September. All the data I publish comes is Crude+Condensate from January 2000 through September 2013.
Again, all data is C+C in thousand barrels per day with the last data point September 2013.
As you can see from the chart World C+C production has leveled out in the last year and one half. September 2013 is slightly lower than February 2012.
There were a couple of major revisions in the July data. Canada was revised down by 269 kb/d while Non-OPEC was revised down by 228 kb/d. There were other small revisions upward. OPEC C+C had no revisions so that left World C+C for July revised down by 228 kb/d.
Both the USA and Canada are on a real tear, owing of course to Light Tight Oil and the Oil Sands. Their combined production is up about 1.9 mb/d since in one year, since last September.
But they are the only ones on a tear. Almost everyone else is flat to down with a few small producers up slightly.
World less USA and Canada is actually below where it was in June 2004 and is swiftly approaching the bottom it hit after the crash of 2008. The peak was in January 11 and they are down 2.65 mb/d since that point.
Actually only Light Tight Oil is keeping the world from declaring peak.
World less USA is down over 1.5 mb/d since the peak of January 2011.
Non-OPEC is up on the strength of the USA and Canada.
However the EIA has OPEC C+C down considerably.
Charts of all Non-OPEC producers are now up on the Non-OPEC Chartspage.
Also a new page has been added, World Crude Oil Production by Geographical Area
Fears of global oil crisis aired at Transatlantic Energy Security Dialogue. : Jeremy Leggett’s Triple Crunch Log
Jeremy Leggett column in Recharge magazine: “We are betting our entire national economic life on the hope — indeed the expectation — that the fracking boom will continue until well into the 2020s, and that, at a rate and cost we desire, significant amounts of ‘yet to be discovered’ oil will somehow be found to meet the demand.”
“If any of that proves incorrect, we have no plan, no alternative, and have given no thought to how we would respond in such a case.”The speaker is national-security expert Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, a veteran of four tours of duty with the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am not a military man, but I worry just as much about the energy security of my own country as he does about his. In the UK, the government, the civil service and most of the big energy companies seem perfectly content to replicate the grand gamble under way in the US.
On 10 December, Lt Col Davis and I convened video-linked gatherings in Washington and London of people who share our concerns about the risk of a global oil crisis. We also invited key people who don’t, but who were interested in probing beyond the propaganda that energy-policy discourse seems to attract these days. [Two powerpoints, and Agenda / Participants / Transcript of first half are appended below.]
Those joining us included retired military officers, security experts, senior executives from a wide spectrum of industry and politicians of all the main parties, including two former UK ministers.
We began with a presentation by Mark Lewis, a former head of energy research at Deutsche Bank. With this background, you might expect Lewis to be a disciple of the conventional narrative of plenty in oil markets. Many of his peers are. But he suggested that three big warning signs in the oil industry point to a counter-narrative of impending problems for supply: high decline rates, soaring capital expenditure and falling exports.
The decline rates of all conventional crude-oil fields producing today are spectacular; the International Energy Agency projects output falling from 69 million barrels per day (bpd) today to just 28 million bpd in 2035. Current total global production of all types of oil is some 91 million bpd.
Consider the spending needed to try to fill that gap.
Capex for oilfield development and exploration has nearly trebled in real terms since 2000: from $250bn to $700bn in 2012. The industry is spending ever more to prop up production, and its profitability is reflecting this trend, notwithstanding an enduringly high oil price. Meanwhile, consumption is soaring in Opec nations. As a result, global crude-oil exports have been declining since 2005. It is difficult to conflate this data and not see an oil crunch ahead, Lewis concludes.
What of the recent addition of two million bpd of new oil production from American shale: the boom that has even been cast as a “game-changer” and a route to “Saudi America” by industry cheerleaders?
Geological Survey of Canada veteran David Hughes, who has conducted the most detailed analysis of North American shale of anyone outside the oil and gas companies, offered some sobering views on this. His data shows that spectacularly high early decline rates in existing shale gas and shale oil (more correctly known as tight oil) wells means high levels of drilling are needed just to maintain production. This problem is compounded because “sweet spots” become exhausted early in field development.
As a result, shale-gas production is already dropping in several key drilling regions, and production of tight oil in the top two regions is likely to peak as early as 2016 or 2017. These two regions, in Texas and North Dakota, comprise 74% of total US tight-oil production.
Like Lewis, Hughes believes that the oil and gas industry is leading the world by the nose towards an energy crisis.
In my book The Energy of Nations, I describe how military think-tanks have tended to side with those, like Lewis and Hughes, who distrust the cornucopian narrative of the oil incumbency. One 2008 study, by the German army, puts it thus: “Psychological barriers cause indisputable facts to be blanked out and lead to almost instinctively refusing to look into this difficult subject in detail. Peak oil, however, is unavoidable.”
This blanking-out extends to the mainstream media, which has enthusiastically echoed the mantras of the oil companies, to the extent that the very words “peak oil” have been positioned as a badge of baseless scaremongering.
We should never forget that in the run-up to the credit crunch, the financial incumbency deployed exactly the same PR tactics against those warning about the fragility of mortgage-backed securities.