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Reasons for our Energy Predicament – An Overview | Our Finite World

Reasons for our Energy Predicament – An Overview | Our Finite World.

Quiz: What will cause world oil supply to fall?

  1. Too little oil in the ground
  2. Oil prices are too low for oil producers
  3. Oil prices are too high for oil consumers leading to recession, debt defaults, and ultimately a cut back in credit availability and very low oil prices
  4. Oil exporters are subject to civil unrest and overthrow of governments, due to low prices and/or depleting reserves
  5. Lack of money (and physical resources that might be purchased with this money) to pull oil out of the ground.
  6. Pollution related issues–too much smog in China; too many problems with fracking; too many problems with CO2.
  7. The financial current system fails, and can only be replaced by one that allows much less debt. Oil prices remain too low under such a system.

In my view, any answer other that the first one is likely to be at least partially right. Ultimately, the issue is that to extract oil or any fossil fuel, we have to keep the financial and political systems together. These systems can be expected to fail, far before we run out of oil in the ground. Most oil in the ground (as well as most other fossil fuels in the ground) will be left in the ground, in my view.

Basing estimates of future oil production on oil reserves is likely to give far too high an indication with respect to actual future production. Even more absurd numbers come from using “resource” numbers (which are higher than reserve numbers) to make estimates of future oil production. Coal and natural gas production is likely to fall at exactly the same time as oil, because the problems are likely to be financial and political ones, not “resources in the ground” problems.

Direct Application of M. King Hubbert Theory is Incorrect

M. King Hubbert is known for his estimates of future oil production  (195619621976) based on reserve amounts. There are two things of importance to notice about his estimates:

(a) The oil reserve estimates used are of free flowing oil reserves of the type that geologists currently were looking at. Thus, they were restricted to “cheap to extract” reserves, and

(b) When Hubbert showed graphs of world oil production following a generally symmetric curve (so downslope looks like a mirror image of upslope), Hubbert showed some other source of energy supply (nuclear in his early papers, solar in later ones) rising to high levels, before world oil production ever dropped. He even talked about making liquid fuels using a huge amount of energy plus carbon dioxide and water–in other words, reversing combustion (1962). In order to ramp nuclear or solar up to these very high levels, they would need to be  extremely cheap.

The assumptions that M. King Hubbert makes are effectively ones that would allow the economy to continue to grow and the financial system to “hang together.” If a person looks at today’s situation, it is quite different. We do not have an alternate fuel supply that will  allow the economy to continue to grow, regardless of fossil fuel consumption. The published reserves include large amounts of oil in the ground that are not of the very cheap to extract type. Extracting such oil will be impossible if oil prices are very low, or if credit availability is lacking. It is tempting for observers to look at oil reserves and assume that all is well, but this is definitely not the case.

 

Basic issue: Future oil extraction and future substitution is uncertain 

One basic issue is the “iffiness” of the reported reserve and resource amounts:

There is lots of oil in the ground, if we can actually get it out. Getting it out requires a combination of a financial system that allows us to do this (high enough prices for producers, adequate credit availability for producers, equity investment available if credit is not available, buyers who can afford the products) and political system that allows this to happen (citizens in countries with oil extraction not rioting for lack of food; banks open in countries trying to import oil; adequate trade connections among countries).

Likewise, substitution is possible among energy products, if it is possible to overcome the many hurdles involved in doing this. There are two cost hurdles: the higher ongoing cost of the substitute and the transition cost. The transition cost gets to be very high if there are a lot of “sunk costs” that are lost–for example, if citizens  are forced to quickly change from gasoline powered cars to electric cars, so that the resale value of their gasoline powered cars drops precipitously. There is also a technology hurdle: we need to have the technology to enable using the different energy source.

If the cost of the substitute is higher than the cost of the original energy source, a change to the substitute will tend to make the economy shrink, because wages will “go less far”. If citizens need to pay a whole lot more for new cars, or if electricity is more expensive, citizens will cut back on discretionary expenditures. This cut-back on expenditures will lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors, and will make it more difficult for the government to collect enough tax revenue.

Another basic issue: Wages don’t rise as oil (or energy) prices rise

Economists would like us to believe that we just pay each other’s wages. Wages can rise arbitrarily high independently of actually creating goods and services using energy products.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be true in practice. Based on my research, in the US high oil prices are associated with flat wages, in inflation-adjusted terms. Wages do not rise as fast as oil prices. Instead, wages tend to rise when oil prices are low, making goods and service affordable.

Part of the problem with rising oil prices is that they radiate through the economy in many ways: in higher food prices, because oil is used to produce and transpire food; in higher metal prices, because oil used in metal production; and in higher finished products, such as automobiles and new homes, because they use oil in their production. With wages not rising sufficiently, as oil prices rise, workers find they need to cutback on discretionary goods. The result is recession and job layoffs. I document this issue in the article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, published in journal Energyin 2012.

The flip side of this issue is that without wages rising as fast as the cost of oil extraction, it is hard for the selling price of oil to rise high enough to provide an adequate profit margin for oil producers. It is inadequate oil prices for oil producers that seem to be the current problem. I talk about this issue in two recent posts: What’s Ahead? Lower Oil Prices, Despite Higher Extraction Costs and Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.

Economists don’t think that prices can remain too low for oil producers. It can happen, because their model of supply and demand is not correct in a world with energy limits. Even if prices temporarily rise again, recession hits again, and we are back to low prices again.

Another basic issue: Diminishing returns

Diminishing returns occurs when it takes more and more energy or other resources to produce the same amount of goods. In the case of oil supply, we reach diminishing returns because companies extract the easy-to-extract oil first. Thus, the price of oil rises because the oil that can be produced cheaply is mostly gone. If we want to obtain more oil, we need to extract the more expensive to extract oil.

One way to see what diminishing returns does is to think about an economy producing two kinds of goods and services:

  1. The goods and services the consumer really wants–such as food, fresh water, transportation that takes the consumer from door to door, electronic goods, and housing that meets the person’s needs.
  2. All of the intermediate “stuff” that goes into making the end products in (1).

What happens with diminishing returns is more and more of society’s physical labor and its resources go into intermediate products, leaving less and less to produce end products, and less to actually “grow” the economy. In some sense, it is as if we are becoming less and less efficient at producing final goods and services. In my view, this is a major reason why wages stop rising as oil prices rise, and as other energy prices rise.

Another basic issue: The rate of growth in energy supply is closely tied to the rate of GDP growth

We use energy to make goods and services, so it stands to reason that using more energy would lead to more GDP growth. Economists don’t necessarily agree. They are sometimes of the view that the connection has only to do with “Demand”–in other words, when the economy is growing rapidly it needs more oil and energy products to support it its growth. I discuss Steve Kopits’ talk on this subject in Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.

Something that is perhaps not obvious is the fact that cheap energy supply tends to easier to ramp up than expensive energy supply. Cheap energy supply requires relatively less investment. Goods created using cheap energy supply tend to be inexpensive, making them easier to sell to consumers and more competitive in the world market. I talk about these issues in Oil Limits Reduce GDP Growth; Unwinding QE a Problem.  

Another basic issue: The role of debt

Long term debt plays an extremely important role in the economy, because it allows consumers to buy expensive goods like houses and automobiles that they could not otherwise afford, and because it allows businesses to invest in projects before they have saved up sufficient profits from past projects to fund the new projects. It also allows governments to spend more money than they have in tax dollars. All of this purchasing power tends to prop up the price of commodities such as oil and metals, making it feasible to extract them.

We had a chance to see how important a role debt plays in 2008, during the debt crisis in the second half of the year. During that period, the price of oil dropped from briefly hitting $147 barrel to the low $30s range. Major banks needed to be bailed out, and the insurance company AIG was taken over by the US government because of problems with derivatives.

Figure 1. Average weekly West Texas Intermediate "spot" oil price, based on EIA data.

Figure 1. Average weekly West Texas Intermediate “spot” oil price, based on EIA data.

The big drop in oil price in 2008 was due to a drop in oil demand because of lack of credit availability. I wrote an article in 2008  about the huge impact this decrease in credit availability had on energy prices of all kinds, even uranium.

A related concern relates to the fact that “borrowing from the future” — which is what we do with long-term debt, is a great deal more feasible in a growing economy than it is in a shrinking economy. There are a lot more defaults in the latter case, because people keep losing their jobs and businesses keep closing.

Figure 2. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

Figure 2. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

The concern I have is that as economic growth slows, we will reach a point where long term debt becomes very hard to obtain. The lack of credit in 2008 has not been fully fixed. It was only with the help of Quantitative Easing (QE), which added more demand to the marketplace because of very low interest rates, that oil prices have been able to rise again after the drop in 2008. With the very slow economic growth we have been experiencing recently, it has been necessary to use QE to keep interest rates low enough that people can still afford to buy homes and cars.

If the economy shifts from adding debt to subtracting debt, we are likely to see a huge drop in oil prices, perhaps similar to the drop in oil prices in 2008 to the low $30′s range. If this should happen again, it is not clear that the Federal Reserve would be able to find a way to make the price rise again because is already using a huge amount of stimulus, and thus has fewer options left.

If oil prices drop to a low level and stay down, a large share of oil production will be discontinued. Very little new drilling will be done. Similar effects are likely to happen for other fossil fuels and for mining for metals as well. Such a drop in oil production is likely to be steep–at least as steep as when the Former Soviet Union collapsed. Oil production dropped by about 10% per year, and other energy use dropped rapidly as well. Customers such as the Ukraine and North Korea saw even steeper declines in their oil imports.

Another basic issue: Government funding

Governments are only possible because of the surpluses of an economy. Greater surpluses allow more government employees and more services. Mario Giampietro (2009) is one researcher who writes specifically about this issue. Furthermore, as an economy grows, rising tax revenue makes it is easy to add more programs and services.

As an economy reaches diminishing returns, studies of past economies show that inadequate government funding is one of the major bottlenecks. This occurs because falling resources per capita leads to increasing disparity of wages, with new workers finding it difficult to find good-paying jobs. Governments are called on to provide more programs at precisely the time when their ability to raise sufficient funds to pay for these programs is lacking. A major factor leading to collapse is the inability of governments to collect sufficient taxes from increasingly impoverished citizens.

The Two Way Escalator Problem

As I see it, the economy as it is currently constructed only gives us two options: up and down. The markers of the “up escalator” are

  1. Cheap energy
  2. Growing energy supply
  3. GDP growth
  4. Wage growth
  5.  Debt growth
  6. Growing government programs

The markers of the “down escalator” are

  1.  Expensive to produce energy supply
  2. Energy supply grows slowly
  3. GDP Growth lags or declines
  4. Wages lag
  5. Outstanding debt tends to shrink
  6. Increasing inability to fund government programs

The two deal-killers with respect to these two escalators are

  • Moving from debt supply growth to debt supply shrinkage. This is like moving from Keynesian economics to the opposite. Or from getting a credit card with a large available balance, to having to pay back old credit card debt without adding new debt.
  • Increasing inability to fund government programs

The above two reasons are why I expect financial and governmental problems to lead to the end of our current system. Diminishing returns is already leading to higher oil prices, and thus moving us from the up escalator to the down escalator.

I am doubtful we can reestablish very widespread use of long-term debt after a collapse because by that time, the economy will clearly be shrinking. A person often hears people talk about getting rid of the fractional reserve banking system because it requires growth to maintain, but in fact, having such a system has been very helpful in enabling extraction of fossil fuels and allowing the economy to use metals and concrete in quantity. The availability of bonds for financing has been helpful as well.

One essential part of today’s economy is very long supply lines. These allow very complex products to be made, using supplies from all over the world. What we found in the 2008 credit crisis is that many businesses (both large and small) in these supply chains were hit hard by lack of credit availability. I see this issue as being very difficult to solve. If it cannot be solved, we will be faced with making goods locally using smaller companies and very much shorter supply lines. It would be a different system than we have today, and would likely support a smaller world population.

A lot of “peak oilers” would like to think that somehow it is possible to “get off at the mezzanine,” and have a viable economy similar to today’s with a small amount of expensive renewables, plus a continuing supply of fossil fuels. I have a hard time seeing this actually happen. One problem is the likelihood that fossil fuel supply will decline quickly because of low price. Another potential problem is a major cutback in credit availability making transactions difficult; a third issue is governmental problems, as taxes fall short of what is needed to fund programs.

We could in theory get back on the up escalator if we find alternative fuels that meet all of the required specifications–very cheap; available in huge quantity, expanding year by year; can be transformed to a liquid fuel similar to oil; and non-polluting. This seems unlikely right now.

Otherwise, what we do have is all the “stuff” we have today, for as long as it lasts. The economy won’t stop on a dime. We also have the ability to recycle things that we can no longer use, that might be more helpful in another place. Solar panels that people currently own will continue to function for a while (especially off-grid), and the grid will probably continue for a while. We know that many people lived in local economies, before we had fossil fuels, and it is likely to be possible again. We certainly live in interesting times.

Reasons for our Energy Predicament – An Overview | Our Finite World

Reasons for our Energy Predicament – An Overview | Our Finite World.

Quiz: What will cause world oil supply to fall?

  1. Too little oil in the ground
  2. Oil prices are too low for oil producers
  3. Oil prices are too high for oil consumers leading to recession, debt defaults, and ultimately a cut back in credit availability and very low oil prices
  4. Oil exporters are subject to civil unrest and overthrow of governments, due to low prices and/or depleting reserves
  5. Lack of money (and physical resources that might be purchased with this money) to pull oil out of the ground.
  6. Pollution related issues–too much smog in China; too many problems with fracking; too many problems with CO2.
  7. The financial current system fails, and can only be replaced by one that allows much less debt. Oil prices remain too low under such a system.

In my view, any answer other that the first one is likely to be at least partially right. Ultimately, the issue is that to extract oil or any fossil fuel, we have to keep the financial and political systems together. These systems can be expected to fail, far before we run out of oil in the ground. Most oil in the ground (as well as most other fossil fuels in the ground) will be left in the ground, in my view.

Basing estimates of future oil production on oil reserves is likely to give far too high an indication with respect to actual future production. Even more absurd numbers come from using “resource” numbers (which are higher than reserve numbers) to make estimates of future oil production. Coal and natural gas production is likely to fall at exactly the same time as oil, because the problems are likely to be financial and political ones, not “resources in the ground” problems.

Direct Application of M. King Hubbert Theory is Incorrect

M. King Hubbert is known for his estimates of future oil production  (195619621976) based on reserve amounts. There are two things of importance to notice about his estimates:

(a) The oil reserve estimates used are of free flowing oil reserves of the type that geologists currently were looking at. Thus, they were restricted to “cheap to extract” reserves, and

(b) When Hubbert showed graphs of world oil production following a generally symmetric curve (so downslope looks like a mirror image of upslope), Hubbert showed some other source of energy supply (nuclear in his early papers, solar in later ones) rising to high levels, before world oil production ever dropped. He even talked about making liquid fuels using a huge amount of energy plus carbon dioxide and water–in other words, reversing combustion (1962). In order to ramp nuclear or solar up to these very high levels, they would need to be  extremely cheap.

The assumptions that M. King Hubbert makes are effectively ones that would allow the economy to continue to grow and the financial system to “hang together.” If a person looks at today’s situation, it is quite different. We do not have an alternate fuel supply that will  allow the economy to continue to grow, regardless of fossil fuel consumption. The published reserves include large amounts of oil in the ground that are not of the very cheap to extract type. Extracting such oil will be impossible if oil prices are very low, or if credit availability is lacking. It is tempting for observers to look at oil reserves and assume that all is well, but this is definitely not the case.

 

Basic issue: Future oil extraction and future substitution is uncertain 

One basic issue is the “iffiness” of the reported reserve and resource amounts:

There is lots of oil in the ground, if we can actually get it out. Getting it out requires a combination of a financial system that allows us to do this (high enough prices for producers, adequate credit availability for producers, equity investment available if credit is not available, buyers who can afford the products) and political system that allows this to happen (citizens in countries with oil extraction not rioting for lack of food; banks open in countries trying to import oil; adequate trade connections among countries).

Likewise, substitution is possible among energy products, if it is possible to overcome the many hurdles involved in doing this. There are two cost hurdles: the higher ongoing cost of the substitute and the transition cost. The transition cost gets to be very high if there are a lot of “sunk costs” that are lost–for example, if citizens  are forced to quickly change from gasoline powered cars to electric cars, so that the resale value of their gasoline powered cars drops precipitously. There is also a technology hurdle: we need to have the technology to enable using the different energy source.

If the cost of the substitute is higher than the cost of the original energy source, a change to the substitute will tend to make the economy shrink, because wages will “go less far”. If citizens need to pay a whole lot more for new cars, or if electricity is more expensive, citizens will cut back on discretionary expenditures. This cut-back on expenditures will lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors, and will make it more difficult for the government to collect enough tax revenue.

Another basic issue: Wages don’t rise as oil (or energy) prices rise

Economists would like us to believe that we just pay each other’s wages. Wages can rise arbitrarily high independently of actually creating goods and services using energy products.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be true in practice. Based on my research, in the US high oil prices are associated with flat wages, in inflation-adjusted terms. Wages do not rise as fast as oil prices. Instead, wages tend to rise when oil prices are low, making goods and service affordable.

Part of the problem with rising oil prices is that they radiate through the economy in many ways: in higher food prices, because oil is used to produce and transpire food; in higher metal prices, because oil used in metal production; and in higher finished products, such as automobiles and new homes, because they use oil in their production. With wages not rising sufficiently, as oil prices rise, workers find they need to cutback on discretionary goods. The result is recession and job layoffs. I document this issue in the article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, published in journal Energyin 2012.

The flip side of this issue is that without wages rising as fast as the cost of oil extraction, it is hard for the selling price of oil to rise high enough to provide an adequate profit margin for oil producers. It is inadequate oil prices for oil producers that seem to be the current problem. I talk about this issue in two recent posts: What’s Ahead? Lower Oil Prices, Despite Higher Extraction Costs and Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.

Economists don’t think that prices can remain too low for oil producers. It can happen, because their model of supply and demand is not correct in a world with energy limits. Even if prices temporarily rise again, recession hits again, and we are back to low prices again.

Another basic issue: Diminishing returns

Diminishing returns occurs when it takes more and more energy or other resources to produce the same amount of goods. In the case of oil supply, we reach diminishing returns because companies extract the easy-to-extract oil first. Thus, the price of oil rises because the oil that can be produced cheaply is mostly gone. If we want to obtain more oil, we need to extract the more expensive to extract oil.

One way to see what diminishing returns does is to think about an economy producing two kinds of goods and services:

  1. The goods and services the consumer really wants–such as food, fresh water, transportation that takes the consumer from door to door, electronic goods, and housing that meets the person’s needs.
  2. All of the intermediate “stuff” that goes into making the end products in (1).

What happens with diminishing returns is more and more of society’s physical labor and its resources go into intermediate products, leaving less and less to produce end products, and less to actually “grow” the economy. In some sense, it is as if we are becoming less and less efficient at producing final goods and services. In my view, this is a major reason why wages stop rising as oil prices rise, and as other energy prices rise.

Another basic issue: The rate of growth in energy supply is closely tied to the rate of GDP growth

We use energy to make goods and services, so it stands to reason that using more energy would lead to more GDP growth. Economists don’t necessarily agree. They are sometimes of the view that the connection has only to do with “Demand”–in other words, when the economy is growing rapidly it needs more oil and energy products to support it its growth. I discuss Steve Kopits’ talk on this subject in Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.

Something that is perhaps not obvious is the fact that cheap energy supply tends to easier to ramp up than expensive energy supply. Cheap energy supply requires relatively less investment. Goods created using cheap energy supply tend to be inexpensive, making them easier to sell to consumers and more competitive in the world market. I talk about these issues in Oil Limits Reduce GDP Growth; Unwinding QE a Problem.  

Another basic issue: The role of debt

Long term debt plays an extremely important role in the economy, because it allows consumers to buy expensive goods like houses and automobiles that they could not otherwise afford, and because it allows businesses to invest in projects before they have saved up sufficient profits from past projects to fund the new projects. It also allows governments to spend more money than they have in tax dollars. All of this purchasing power tends to prop up the price of commodities such as oil and metals, making it feasible to extract them.

We had a chance to see how important a role debt plays in 2008, during the debt crisis in the second half of the year. During that period, the price of oil dropped from briefly hitting $147 barrel to the low $30s range. Major banks needed to be bailed out, and the insurance company AIG was taken over by the US government because of problems with derivatives.

Figure 1. Average weekly West Texas Intermediate "spot" oil price, based on EIA data.

Figure 1. Average weekly West Texas Intermediate “spot” oil price, based on EIA data.

The big drop in oil price in 2008 was due to a drop in oil demand because of lack of credit availability. I wrote an article in 2008  about the huge impact this decrease in credit availability had on energy prices of all kinds, even uranium.

A related concern relates to the fact that “borrowing from the future” — which is what we do with long-term debt, is a great deal more feasible in a growing economy than it is in a shrinking economy. There are a lot more defaults in the latter case, because people keep losing their jobs and businesses keep closing.

Figure 2. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

Figure 2. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

The concern I have is that as economic growth slows, we will reach a point where long term debt becomes very hard to obtain. The lack of credit in 2008 has not been fully fixed. It was only with the help of Quantitative Easing (QE), which added more demand to the marketplace because of very low interest rates, that oil prices have been able to rise again after the drop in 2008. With the very slow economic growth we have been experiencing recently, it has been necessary to use QE to keep interest rates low enough that people can still afford to buy homes and cars.

If the economy shifts from adding debt to subtracting debt, we are likely to see a huge drop in oil prices, perhaps similar to the drop in oil prices in 2008 to the low $30′s range. If this should happen again, it is not clear that the Federal Reserve would be able to find a way to make the price rise again because is already using a huge amount of stimulus, and thus has fewer options left.

If oil prices drop to a low level and stay down, a large share of oil production will be discontinued. Very little new drilling will be done. Similar effects are likely to happen for other fossil fuels and for mining for metals as well. Such a drop in oil production is likely to be steep–at least as steep as when the Former Soviet Union collapsed. Oil production dropped by about 10% per year, and other energy use dropped rapidly as well. Customers such as the Ukraine and North Korea saw even steeper declines in their oil imports.

Another basic issue: Government funding

Governments are only possible because of the surpluses of an economy. Greater surpluses allow more government employees and more services. Mario Giampietro (2009) is one researcher who writes specifically about this issue. Furthermore, as an economy grows, rising tax revenue makes it is easy to add more programs and services.

As an economy reaches diminishing returns, studies of past economies show that inadequate government funding is one of the major bottlenecks. This occurs because falling resources per capita leads to increasing disparity of wages, with new workers finding it difficult to find good-paying jobs. Governments are called on to provide more programs at precisely the time when their ability to raise sufficient funds to pay for these programs is lacking. A major factor leading to collapse is the inability of governments to collect sufficient taxes from increasingly impoverished citizens.

The Two Way Escalator Problem

As I see it, the economy as it is currently constructed only gives us two options: up and down. The markers of the “up escalator” are

  1. Cheap energy
  2. Growing energy supply
  3. GDP growth
  4. Wage growth
  5.  Debt growth
  6. Growing government programs

The markers of the “down escalator” are

  1.  Expensive to produce energy supply
  2. Energy supply grows slowly
  3. GDP Growth lags or declines
  4. Wages lag
  5. Outstanding debt tends to shrink
  6. Increasing inability to fund government programs

The two deal-killers with respect to these two escalators are

  • Moving from debt supply growth to debt supply shrinkage. This is like moving from Keynesian economics to the opposite. Or from getting a credit card with a large available balance, to having to pay back old credit card debt without adding new debt.
  • Increasing inability to fund government programs

The above two reasons are why I expect financial and governmental problems to lead to the end of our current system. Diminishing returns is already leading to higher oil prices, and thus moving us from the up escalator to the down escalator.

I am doubtful we can reestablish very widespread use of long-term debt after a collapse because by that time, the economy will clearly be shrinking. A person often hears people talk about getting rid of the fractional reserve banking system because it requires growth to maintain, but in fact, having such a system has been very helpful in enabling extraction of fossil fuels and allowing the economy to use metals and concrete in quantity. The availability of bonds for financing has been helpful as well.

One essential part of today’s economy is very long supply lines. These allow very complex products to be made, using supplies from all over the world. What we found in the 2008 credit crisis is that many businesses (both large and small) in these supply chains were hit hard by lack of credit availability. I see this issue as being very difficult to solve. If it cannot be solved, we will be faced with making goods locally using smaller companies and very much shorter supply lines. It would be a different system than we have today, and would likely support a smaller world population.

A lot of “peak oilers” would like to think that somehow it is possible to “get off at the mezzanine,” and have a viable economy similar to today’s with a small amount of expensive renewables, plus a continuing supply of fossil fuels. I have a hard time seeing this actually happen. One problem is the likelihood that fossil fuel supply will decline quickly because of low price. Another potential problem is a major cutback in credit availability making transactions difficult; a third issue is governmental problems, as taxes fall short of what is needed to fund programs.

We could in theory get back on the up escalator if we find alternative fuels that meet all of the required specifications–very cheap; available in huge quantity, expanding year by year; can be transformed to a liquid fuel similar to oil; and non-polluting. This seems unlikely right now.

Otherwise, what we do have is all the “stuff” we have today, for as long as it lasts. The economy won’t stop on a dime. We also have the ability to recycle things that we can no longer use, that might be more helpful in another place. Solar panels that people currently own will continue to function for a while (especially off-grid), and the grid will probably continue for a while. We know that many people lived in local economies, before we had fossil fuels, and it is likely to be possible again. We certainly live in interesting times.

The well is running dry for big oil – Jeff Reeves's Strength in Numbers – MarketWatch

The well is running dry for big oil – Jeff Reeves’s Strength in Numbers – MarketWatch.

JEFF REEVES’S STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Archives | Email alerts

March 3, 2014, 6:00 a.m. EST

The well is running dry for big oil

Opinion: Supply, efficiency and demand concerns weigh

By Jeff Reeves


Bloomberg

Last week, I mused on the death of cars and big-picture factors working against the auto industry, including urbanization and declining driving rates in younger Americans.

Now, I’ll trot out my crystal ball again and offer you another prediction: This is the beginning of the end for Big Oil, too.

Now before you jump down my throat for trolling you again with hyperbole, I will state up front that I don’t expect Exxon Mobil XOM -0.31%  , BP BP -1.82%  and ChevronCVX +0.29%   to disappear tomorrow any more than I expect I-95 to start sprouting daisies.

But as with the decline of automobile ownership — and in part because of it — we may also be witnessing a protracted decline in major energy stocks and fossil fuel demand.

That’s bad for big oil, and bad for investors in these stocks.

Efficiency and alternatives sap demand

The first big reason big oil is in trouble: Oil demand keeps dropping.

Technology continues to help us do more with less and implement cleaner alternatives to crude oil.

Consider that U.S. oil demand fell to a 16-year low in 2012 despite energy-hungrygadgets and the addition of some 40 million people to the total population.


U.S. Energy Information Administration

Also consider that fuel oil demand was the lowest on record in 2013 and has been steadily declining since the 1970s as the energy source has fallen out of favor for cleaner, greener options.

It’s not just the U.S., either. Even with a bullish outlook for the global economy fueling oil demand this year, the IEA has boosted consumption targets a meager 1.3% as efficiencies in the West offset faster-growing demand in emerging markets.

However you slice it, global crude oil appetites simply aren’t what they used to be. Even energy-hungry emerging markets aren’t making up for the weak demand in the developed world.

The easy supply is gone

I don’t pretend to know when supplies in the ground will run out, or whether we are truly living after the era of “peak oil.”

But one thing is clear: Oil production is getting much more costly as easy-to-access fields are drilled dry, and new production is reliant on more difficult and costly extraction for the fossil fuel.

Take the shale oil boom. Margins are lower thanks to the cost of production. The story is the same for oil sands production , same for offshore drilling, same for oil in Africa as opposed to oil in Canada.

The well is running dry for big oil – Jeff Reeves’s Strength in Numbers – MarketWatch

The well is running dry for big oil – Jeff Reeves’s Strength in Numbers – MarketWatch.

JEFF REEVES’S STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Archives | Email alerts

March 3, 2014, 6:00 a.m. EST

The well is running dry for big oil

Opinion: Supply, efficiency and demand concerns weigh

By Jeff Reeves


Bloomberg

Last week, I mused on the death of cars and big-picture factors working against the auto industry, including urbanization and declining driving rates in younger Americans.

Now, I’ll trot out my crystal ball again and offer you another prediction: This is the beginning of the end for Big Oil, too.

Now before you jump down my throat for trolling you again with hyperbole, I will state up front that I don’t expect Exxon Mobil XOM -0.31%  , BP BP -1.82%  and ChevronCVX +0.29%   to disappear tomorrow any more than I expect I-95 to start sprouting daisies.

But as with the decline of automobile ownership — and in part because of it — we may also be witnessing a protracted decline in major energy stocks and fossil fuel demand.

That’s bad for big oil, and bad for investors in these stocks.

Efficiency and alternatives sap demand

The first big reason big oil is in trouble: Oil demand keeps dropping.

Technology continues to help us do more with less and implement cleaner alternatives to crude oil.

Consider that U.S. oil demand fell to a 16-year low in 2012 despite energy-hungrygadgets and the addition of some 40 million people to the total population.


U.S. Energy Information Administration

Also consider that fuel oil demand was the lowest on record in 2013 and has been steadily declining since the 1970s as the energy source has fallen out of favor for cleaner, greener options.

It’s not just the U.S., either. Even with a bullish outlook for the global economy fueling oil demand this year, the IEA has boosted consumption targets a meager 1.3% as efficiencies in the West offset faster-growing demand in emerging markets.

However you slice it, global crude oil appetites simply aren’t what they used to be. Even energy-hungry emerging markets aren’t making up for the weak demand in the developed world.

The easy supply is gone

I don’t pretend to know when supplies in the ground will run out, or whether we are truly living after the era of “peak oil.”

But one thing is clear: Oil production is getting much more costly as easy-to-access fields are drilled dry, and new production is reliant on more difficult and costly extraction for the fossil fuel.

Take the shale oil boom. Margins are lower thanks to the cost of production. The story is the same for oil sands production , same for offshore drilling, same for oil in Africa as opposed to oil in Canada.

Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending | Our Finite World

Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending | Our Finite World.

Steve Kopits recently gave a presentation explaining our current predicament: the cost of oil extraction has been rising rapidly (10.9% per year) but oil prices have been flat. Major oil companies are finding their profits squeezed, and have recently announced plans to sell off part of their assets in order to have funds to pay their dividends. Such an approach is likely to lead to an eventual drop in oil production. I have talked about similar points previously (here and here), but Kopits adds some additional perspectives which he has given me permission to share with my readers. I encourage readers to watch the original hour-long presentation at Columbia University, if they have the time.

Controversy: Does Oil Extraction Depend on “Supply Growth” or “Demand Growth”?

The first section of the presentation is devoted the connection of GDP Growth to Oil Supply Growth vs Oil Demand Growth. I omit a considerable part of this discussion in this write-up.

Economists and oil companies, when making their projections, nearly always make their projections depend on “Demand Growth”–the amount people and businesses want. This demand growth is seen to be rising indefinitely in the future. It has nothing to do with affordability or with whether the potential consumers actually have jobs to purchase the oil products.

Kopits presents the following list of assumptions of demand constrained forecasting. (IOC’s are “Independent Oil Companies” like Shell and Exxon Mobil, as contrasted with government owned companies that are prevalent among oil exporters.)

Kopits 10 Assumptions of Demand Constrained ForecastingThus, it is the demand constrained view of forecasting that gives rise to the view that OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Nations) has enormous leverage. The assumption is made that OPEC can add or subtract as much supply as much as it chooses. Kopits provides evidence that in fact the Demand view is no longer applicable today, so this whole story is wrong.

One piece of evidence that the Demand Model is wrong is the fact that world crude oil (including lease condensate) production has been nearly flat since 2004, in a period when China and other growing Eastern economies have been trying to motorize. In comparison, there was a rise of 2.7% per year, when the West, with a similar population, was trying to motorize.

Kopits 20 Motorization and Oil in Historical Context

Kopits points out that China’s big source of oil supply has been US main street: China bids oil supply away from United States, to satisfy its needs. This is the way that markets have made oil available to China, when world supply is not rising much. It is part of the reason that oil prices have risen.

Another piece of evidence that the Demand Model is wrong relates to the assumption that social tastes have simply changed, leading to a drop in US oil consumption. Kopits shows the following chart, indicating that the major reason that young people don’t have cars is because they don’t have full-time jobs.

Kopits 35 Driving and Employment

Kopits makes a comparison of the role of oil in GDP growth to the role of water in plant growth in the desert. Without oil, there is less GDP growth, just as without water, a desert is starved for the element it needs for plant growth. Lack of oil can considered a binding constraint on GDP growth. (Labor availability might be a constraint, but it wouldn’t be a binding constraint, because there are plenty of unemployed people who might work if demand ramped up.) When more oil is available at a slightly lower price, it is quickly absorbed by markets.

“Supply Growth” is the limiting factor in recent years, because the amount of extraction is rising only slowly due to geological constraints and the number of users has risen to the point that there is a shortage.

Experience of Major Oil Producing Companies

Kopits presents data showing how badly the big, publicly traded oil companies are doing. He looks at two pieces of information:

  • “Capex” – “Capital expenditures” – How much companies are spending on things like exploration, drilling, and making of new offshore oil platforms
  • “Crude oil production” –

A person would normally expect that crude oil production would rise as Capex rises, but Kopits shows that in fact since 2006, Capex has continued to rise, but crude oil production has fallen.

Kopits 40 Oil majors capex and production

The above information is worldwide, not just for the US.  At some point a person might expect companies to start getting frustrated–they are spending more and more, but not getting very far in extracting oil.

Kopits then shows another version of Capex history plus a forecast. (This time the amounts are labeled “Upstream,” so the expenditures are clearly on the exploration and drilling side, rather than related to refineries or pipelines.)

Kopits 41 Upstream Spend continues Strong

The amounts this time are for the industry as a whole, including “NOCs” which are government owned (national) oil companies as well as IOCs (Independent Oil Companies), both large and small. Kopits remarks that the forecasts shown were made only six months ago. When talking about the above slide Koptis says,

People in the industry thought, “Capex has been going up and up. It will continue to do very well. We have been on this trajectory forever, and we are just going to get more and more money out of this.”

Now why is that? The reason is that in a Demand constrained model for those of you who took economics–price equals marginal cost. Right? So if my costs are going up, the price will also go up. Right? That is a Demand constrained model. So if it costs me more to get oil, it is no big deal, the market will recognize that at some point, in a Demand constrained model.

Not in a Supply constrained model! In a Supply constrained model, the price goes up to a price that is very similar to the monopoly price, after which you really can’t raise it, because that marginal consumer would rather do with less than pay more. They will not recognize [pay] your marginal cost. In that model, you get to a price, and after that price, there is significant resistance from the consumer to moving up off of that price. That is the “Supply Constrained Price.” If your costs continue to come up underneath you, the consumer won’t recognize it.

The rapidly growing Capex forecast is implicitly a Demand constrained forecast. It says, sure Capex can go up to a trillion dollars a year. We can spend a trillion dollars a year looking for oil and gas. The global economy will accept that.

I quote this because I am not sure I have explained the situation exactly that way. I perhaps have said that demand had to be connected to what consumers could afford. Wages don’t magically go up by themselves (even though economists think they can).

According to Koptis, the cost of oil extraction has in recent years been rising at 10.9% per year since 1999. (CAGR means “compound annual growth rate”).

Kopits 43 Costs are Rising Fast

Oil prices have been flat at the same time. On the above chart, “E&P Capex per barrel” is pretty much the same type of expenses as shown on the previous two charts. E&P means Exploration and Production.

Kopits explains that the industry needs prices of over $100 barrel.

Kopits 45 Industry needs oil prices over 100

The version of the chart I have up is too small to read the names of individual companies.  If you would like a chart with bigger names, you can download the original presentation.

Historically, oil companies have used a discounted cash flow approach to figure out whether over the long term, pricing for a particular field will be profitable. Unfortunately, this “standard” approach has not been working well recently. Expenses have been escalating too rapidly, and there have been too many new drilling sites producing below expectation. What Kopits shows on the above slide is the prices that companies need on different basis–a “cash flow” basis–so that each year companies have enough money to pay today’s capital expenditures, plus today’s expenses, plus today’sdividends.

The reason for using the cash flow approach is because companies have found themselves coming up short: they find that after they have paid capital expenditures and other expenditures such as taxes, they don’t have enough money left to pay dividends, unless they borrow money or sell off assets. Oil companies need to pay dividends because pension plans and other buyers of oil company stocks expect to receive regular dividends in payment for their equity investment. The dividends are important to pension plans.

In the last bullet point on the slide, Kopits is telling us that on this basis, most US oil companies need a price of $130 barrel or more. I noticed that Brazil’s Petrobas needs  a price of over $150 barrel. (OSX, Brazil’s number two oil company, recently went bankrupt.)

In the slide below, Kopits shows how Shell oil is responding to the poor cash flow situation of the major oil companies, based on recent announcements.

Kopits 46 The Majors Respond

Basically, Shell is cutting back. It no longer is going to tell investors how much it plans to produce in the future. Instead, it will focus on generating cash flow, at least partly by selling off existing programs.

In fact, Kopits reports that all of the major oil companies are reporting divestment programs. Does selling assets really solve the oil companies’ problems? What the oil companies would really like to do is raise their prices, but they can’t do that, because they don’t set prices, the market does–and the prices aren’t high enough. And the oil companies really can’t cut costs. So instead, they sell assets to pay dividends, or perhaps just to get out of the business. But is this sustainable?

Kopits 48 conventional oil production

The above slide shows that conventional oil production peaked in 2005. The top line is total conventional oil  production (calculated as world oil production, less natural gas liquids, and less US shale and other unconventional, and less Canadian oil sands). To get his estimate of “Crude Oil Normal Decline,” Kopits uses the mirror image of the rise in conventional oil production prior to 2005. He also shows a separate item for the rise in oil production from Iraq since 2005. The yellow portion called “crude production forward” is then the top line, less the other two items. It has taken $2.5 trillion to add this new yellow block. Now this strategy has run its course (based on the bad results companies are reporting from recent drilling), so what will oil companies do now?

Kopits 49 -Oil Majors Cut Capital Expenditures

Above, Kopits shows evidence that many companies in recent months have been cutting back budgets. These are big reductions–billions and billions of dollars.

Kopits 50 Majors Capex

On the above chart, Kopits tries to estimate the shape of the downslope in capital expenditures. This chart isn’t for all companies. It excludes the smaller companies, and it excludes the National oil companies, so it is about one-third of the market. The gray horizontal line at the top is the industry consensus back in October. The other lines represent more recent estimates of how Capex is declining. The steepest decline is the forecast based on Hess’s announcement. The next steepest (the dotted gray line) is the forecast based on Shell’s cutback.  The cutback for the part of the market not shown in the chart is likely to be different.

Oil and Economic Growth

Kopits offers his view of how much efficiency can be gained in a given year, in the slide below:

Koptis 54 Oil Efficiency and GDP GrowthIn his view, the maximum sustainable increase in efficiency is 2.5% in non-recessions, but a more normal increase is 1% per year. At current oil supply growth levels, OECD GDP growth is capped at 1% to 2%. The effect of constrained oil supply is reducing OECD GDP growth by 1% to 2%.

Conclusions

Kopits 59 ConclusionsWhile demand constrained models dominate thinking, in fact, a supply constrained model is more appropriate in recent years.

We seem to be short of oil. Whenever there is extra oil on the market, it is quickly soaked up. Oil prices have not collapsed. No one is nervous about a price collapse.

China recently has been putting little price pressure on the market–its demand is recently less high. Kopits thinks China will eventually return to the market, and put price pressure on oil prices. Thus, oil price pressures are likely to return at some point.

Gail’s Observations

An obvious point, which I thought I heard when I listened to the presentation the first time, but didn’t hear the second time is, “Who will buy all of these assets on the market, and at what price?” China would seem to be a likely buyer, if one is to be found. But when several companies want to sell assets at the same time, a person wonders what prices will be available.

The new strategy is, in effect, maintaining dividends by returning part of capital. It is clearly not a very sustainable strategy.

It will take a while for these cut-backs in Capex expenditures to find their way through to oil output, but it could very well start in a year or two. This is disturbing.

What we are seeing now is a cutback in what companies consider “economically extractable oil”–something that isn’t exactly reported by companies. I expect that what is being sold off is mostly not “proven reserves.”

In this talk, it looks like lack of sufficient investment is poised to bring the system down.  That is basically the expected limit under Limits to Growth.

In theory, if an expansion of China’s oil demand does bring oil prices up again, it could in theory encourage an increase in drilling activity. But it is doubtful that economies could withstand the high prices–they are already having problems at current price levels, considering the continued need for Quantitative Easing to keep interest rates low.

A recent news item was titled, G20 Finance Ministers Agree to Lift Global Growth Target. According to that article,

Mr Hockey said reaching the goal would require increasing investment but that it could create “tens of millions of new jobs”.

The cutback in investment by oil companies is working precisely in the wrong direction. If these cutbacks act to cut future oil extraction, it will bring down growth further.

Oil Supply and Demand Forecasting

Oil Supply and Demand Forecasting 

Guest blog: A 10-year oil supply retrospective shows unwarranted optimism « The Barrel Blog

Guest blog: A 10-year oil supply retrospective shows unwarranted optimism « The Barrel Blog.

By Steve Andrews | February 19, 2014 12:01 AM 

Our guest blog today comes from Steve Andrews, who is  a retired energy consultant and contributor to the Peak Oil Review, reachable at sbandrews@att.net. We reached out to CERA to determine its interest in providing a response, but did not hear back.

“False optimism leads to very poor investment decisions.”: Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and Chief Investment Strategist, GMO

Ten years ago this month the Oil & Gas Journal published a story from CERAWeek—an annual elite conference for the oil industry put on by Cambridge Energy Research Associates—that bears revisiting.

Why go back? Three reasons. First, CERA arguably has maintained the highest profile of any oil industry analytical shop since at least the turn of the century, thanks in large part to founder Daniel Yergin’s reputation. Every time there is a surprise in world oil supply, he’s the media’s go-to guru. When the National Petroleum Council convenes a world oil study, you can bet the ranch that CERA will play a lead role. When the US Senate or House convenes a committee hearing on oil, CERA often sits on the panel; they also deliver some of their key research papers free of charge to all US lawmakers. Their policy-oriented footprint is large and their strategic media outreach effective.

Second, at the time CERA’s 2004 forecast of seven years of history-breaking sustained growth in world oil production capacity struck many players as being an unreasonably if not outrageously optimistic headline. How does it look 10 years later? Way off base.

Third, if CERA’s oil forecast was that off base a decade ago, should we believe the current abundant-oil storyline that CERA jumpstarted in the fall of 2011 and that has been embraced by the press and policy makers alike? So let’s look back.

On CERA’s lead panel in February 2004, Robert W. Esser, senior consultant and director on global oil resources, predicted global oil production capacity would expand by 20 million barrels/day from 2004 through 2010. (CERA doesn’t forecast production. It forecasts production capacity, which is essentially unverifiable.) That’s nearly 3 million b/d of capacity growth every year for seven straight years from 2004 onward. It didn’t happen.

Per data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, actual production of global petroleum liquids grew by 5.7 million b/d during that period. Then consider the 4 million b/d of spare OPEC capacity that the US EIA shows for 2010. But there were also at least 2 million b/d of spare OPEC capacity in January 2004, at the start of the forecast period. So net, CERA missed their forecast by well over two thirds.

Note that by CERA’s definition production capacity “…eliminates economic or political factors and temporary interruptions such as weather or labor strikes.” Note too that unused productive capacity is never intentionally present among non-OPEC nations, and unused and undamaged production capacity among OPEC nations was primarily limited to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates during 2010.

Why did CERA stumble so badly?

First and foremost, CERA underestimated decline rates from existing oil fields. About the time of its 2004 conference, an oil industry analyst who knew Daniel Yergin asked him, during an elevator discussion, what decline rate for producing fields CERA used when calculating growth in world oil supply in their major studies. Mr. Yergin replied that it would be in the 1% to 2% range.

Chalk that up as a fatal flaw. Over seven years, a decline rate of 1.5% would mean having to replace only 8+ mbd of production capacity. It’s ironic that by late 2007, in what CERA called a groundbreaking study, they calculated the actual decline rate from 811 of the world’s major oil fields at 4.5% per year. Over those same 7 years, using their 4.5% decline rate would require 23 million b/d of capacity just to keep production flat. IEA estimates for decline rates rank even higher than CERA’s.

On the production side, CERA spoke optimistically about projected gains from the Gulf of Mexico, West Africa, Brazil, the Caspian area, Canada, Venezuela, Iraq, Nigeria, Algeria, Ecuador, Sudan and Russia. Indeed, production increased in 11 of those 13 nations for a net gain of 6.7 million b/d. But on the bad news front, the rest of the world lost 1 million b/d of oil production during CERA’s forecast period, hence the 5.7 million b/d net gain. Declines badly undercut forecast gains.

On the demand side, CERA actually worried that “should this spurt in output exceed projections of a very large increase in world oil demand this decade, then persistent downward pressure on oil prices might result.” For the record, when CERA made that comment, oil prices were upward of $30. But while nearly everyone was wrong about oil prices a decade ago, CERA was also wrong about the key demand driver: China. CERA forecast that China’s demand growth for oil would slow to 5% in 2004, compared to what eventually occurred: record-breaking growth of nearly 17%. And while CERA talked about volatility in Chinese demand going forward, China’s record-setting growth rate for oil demand continued throughout CERA’s 2004-10 forecast period.

If this was a personal forecast which I had blown this badly (and I’ve blown a couple), no one would notice. But this enormously flawed vision was widely circulated. CERA gets press coverage, but the press isn’t checking CERA’s track record, and this 2004 prediction is just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2005, CERA dialed back their optimism only slightly. They projected world oil supply capacity still growing 16.4 mbd from 2004 through 2010—a reduction of 3.6 mbd from their original forecast. They projected world demand in 2010 at 94 million b/d, leaving 7.5 million b/d of idle capacity. Note this comment about related impacts on prices: “We generally expect supply to further outpace demand growth in the next few years, which could result in oil price weakness around 2007-08 or thereafter.”

In 2006, CERA projected potential world oil capacity growth of 21.3 million b/d—from 88.7 million b/d in 2006 to 110 million b/d in 2015. We’re less than two years away from year-end 2015, yet total petroleum liquids production will likely run in the 90 million b/d range. Clearly, CERA’s was an exceedingly pollyanish view, rather like a best case in a perfect world.

Now square CERA’s long-standing optimism bias on future world oil supplies with the recent spate of sobering news from Wall Street on the financial travails of the large investor-owned super-majors. Mark Lewis has done a nice job highlighting the near tripling of oil and gas capacity expansion costs since 2000—from $250 vs. $700 billion; three quarters of that was spent on oil, yet oil supply rose only a modest 15% (BP data). Increasingly blunt reports from analyst shops like Sanford Bernstein add to the growing contrarian chatter. Solid coverage in the UK of Richard Miller’s recent paper “The Future of World Oil Production” opened a few eyes about limits. But those voices still have a steep hill to climb.

That’s in part because, starting in September 2011, CERA went on the offensive as chief cheerleader of an overly optimistic, US-led oil abundance storyline. It features the US’s record-breaking shale oil bonanza—an amazingly successful yet term-limited reality. Viewed at the global level, for the last few years the brouhaha about our shale oil bonanza has been the tail wagging the world oil supply dialogue.

CERA’s oil supply predictions should have earned deep skepticism from the press and policy makers. That hasn’t happened yet. It’s overdue.

But please keep the larger backdrop in mind: Without a serious revisiting of the questionable optimism that dominates any dialogue related to longer-term world oil supplies, without a harshly realistic scrub of the facts, we face unnecessarily large energy policy risks.

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