2019: World Economy Is Reaching Growth Limits; Expect Low Oil Prices, Financial Turbulence

10 01 2019

Posted on January 9, 2019 by Gail Tverberg

Another incisive self explanatory article by Gail Tverberg explaining the recent volatility and what outcomes we can expect from that this coming year (and next) MUST READ.

Financial markets have been behaving in a very turbulent manner in the last couple of months. The issue, as I see it, is that the world economy is gradually changing from a growth mode to a mode of shrinkage. This is something like a ship changing course, from going in one direction to going in reverse. The system acts as if the brakes are being very forcefully applied, and reaction of the economy is to almost shake.

What seems to be happening is that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as predicted in the computer simulations modeled in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth. In fact, the base model of that set of simulations indicated that peak industrial output per capita might be reached right about now. Peak food per capita might be reached about the same time. I have added a dotted line to the forecast from this model, indicating where the economy seems to be in 2019, relative to the base model.

Figure 1. Base scenario from The Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil with dotted line at 2019 added by author. The 2019 line is drawn based on where the world economy seems to be now, rather than on precisely where the base model would put the year 2019.

The economy is a self-organizing structure that operates under the laws of physics. Many people have thought that when the world economy reaches limits, the limits would be of the form of high prices and “running out” of oil. This represents an overly simple understanding of how the system works. What we should really expect, and in fact, what we are now beginning to see, is production cuts in finished goods made by the industrial system, such as cell phones and automobiles, because of affordability issues. Indirectly, these affordability issues lead to low commodity prices and low profitability for commodity producers. For example:

  • The sale of Chinese private passenger vehicles for the year of 2018 through November is down by 2.8%, with November sales off by 16.1%. Most analysts are forecasting this trend of contracting sales to continue into 2019. Lower sales seem to reflect affordability issues.
  • Saudi Arabia plans to cut oil production by 800,000 barrels per day from the November 2018 level, to try to raise oil prices. Profits are too low at current prices.
  • Coal is reported not to have an economic future in Australia, partly because of competition from subsidized renewables and partly because China and India want to prop up the prices of coal from their own coal mines.

The Significance of Trump’s Tariffs

If a person looks at history, it becomes clear that tariffs are a standard response to a problem of shrinking food or industrial output per capita. Tariffs were put in place in the 1920s in the time leading up to the Great Depression, and were investigated after the Panic of 1857, which seems to have indirectly led to the US Civil War.

Whenever an economy produces less industrial or food output per capita there is an allocation problem: who gets cut off from buying output similar to the amount that they previously purchased? Tariffs are a standard way that a relatively strong economy tries to gain an advantage over weaker economies. Tariffs are intended to help the citizens of the strong economy maintain their previous quantity of goods and services, even as other economies are forced to get along with less.

I see Trump’s trade policies primarily as evidence of an underlying problem, namely, the falling affordability of goods and services for a major segment of the population. Thus, Trump’s tariffs are one of the pieces of evidence that lead me to believe that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth.

The Nature of World Economic Growth

Economic growth seems to require growth in three dimensions (a) Complexity, (b) Debt Bubble, and (c) Use of Resources. Today, the world economy seems to be reaching limits in all three of these dimensions (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Complexity involves adding more technology, more international trade and more specialization. Its downside is that it indirectly tends to reduce affordability of finished end products because of growing wage disparity; many non-elite workers have wages that are too low to afford very much of the output of the economy. As more complexity is added, wage disparity tends to increase. International wage competition makes the situation worse.

growing debt bubble can help keep commodity prices up because a rising amount of debt can indirectly provide more demand for goods and services. For example, if there is growing debt, it can be used to buy homes, cars, and vacation travel, all of which require oil and other energy consumption.

If debt levels become too high, or if regulators decide to raise short-term interest rates as a method of slowing the economy, the debt bubble is in danger of collapsing. A collapsing debt bubble tends to lead to recession and falling commodity prices. Commodity prices fell dramatically in the second half of 2008. Prices now seem to be headed downward again, starting in October 2018.

Figure 3. Brent oil prices with what appear to be debt bubble collapses marked.

Figure 4. Three-month treasury secondary market rates compared to 10-year treasuries from FRED, with points where short term interest rates exceed long term rates marked by author with arrows.

Even the relatively slow recent rise in short-term interest rates (Figure 4) seems to be producing a decrease in oil prices (Figure 3) in a way that a person might expect from a debt bubble collapse. The sale of US Quantitative Easing assets at the same time that interest rates have been rising no doubt adds to the problem of falling oil prices and volatile stock markets. The gray bars in Figure 4 indicate recessions.

Growing use of resources becomes increasingly problematic for two reasons. One is population growth. As population rises, the economy needs more food to feed the growing population. This leads to the need for more complexity (irrigation, better seed, fertilizer, world trade) to feed the growing world population.

The other problem with growing use of resources is diminishing returns, leading to the rising cost of extracting commodities over time. Diminishing returns occur because producers tend to extract the cheapest to extract commodities first, leaving in place the commodities requiring deeper wells or more processing. Even water has this difficulty. At times, desalination, at very high cost, is needed to obtain sufficient fresh water for a growing population.

Why Inadequate Energy Supplies Lead to Low Oil Prices Rather than High

In the last section, I discussed the cost of producing commodities of many kinds rising because of diminishing returns. Higher costs should lead to higher prices, shouldn’t they?

Strangely enough, higher costs translate to higher prices only sometimes. When energy consumption per capita is rising rapidly (peaks of red areas on Figure 5), rising costs do seem to translate to rising prices. Spiking oil prices were experienced several times: 1917 to 1920; 1974 to 1982; 2004 to mid 2008; and 2011 to 2014. All of these high oil prices occurred toward the end of the red peaks on Figure 5. In fact, these high oil prices (as well as other high commodity prices that tend to rise at the same time as oil prices) are likely what brought growth in energy consumption down. The prices of goods and services made with these commodities became unaffordable for lower-wage workers, indirectly decreasing the growth rate in energy products consumed.

Figure 5.

The red peaks represented periods of very rapid growth, fed by growing supplies of very cheap energy: coal and hydroelectricity in the Electrification and Early Mechanization period, oil in the Postwar Boom, and coal in the China period. With low energy prices,  many countries were able to expand their economies simultaneously, keeping demand high. The Postwar Boom also reflected the addition of many women to the labor force, increasing the ability of families to afford second cars and nicer homes.

Rapidly growing energy consumption allowed per capita output of both food (with meat protein given a higher count than carbohydrates) and industrial products to grow rapidly during these peaks. The reason that output of these products could grow is because the laws of physics require energy consumption for heat, transportation, refrigeration and other processes required by industrialization and farming. In these boom periods, higher energy costs were easy to pass on. Eventually the higher energy costs “caught up with” the economy, and pushed growth in energy consumption per capita down, putting an end to the peaks.

Figure 6 shows Figure 5 with the valleys labeled, instead of the peaks.

Figure 6.

When I say that the world economy is reaching “peak industrial output per capita” and “peak food per capita,” this represents the opposite of a rapidly growing economy. In fact, if the world is reaching Limits to Growth, the situation is even worse than all of the labeled valleys on Figure 6. In such a case, energy consumption growth is likely to shrink so low that even the blue area (population growth) turns negative.

In such a situation, the big problem is “not enough to go around.” While cost increases due to diminishing returns could easily be passed along when growth in industrial and food output per capita were rapidly rising (the Figure 5 situation), this ability seems to disappear when the economy is near limits. Part of the problem is that the lower growth in per capita energy affects the kinds of jobs that are available. With low energy consumption growth, many of the jobs that are available are service jobs that do not pay well. Wage disparity becomes an increasing problem.

When wage disparity grows, the share of low wage workers rises. If businesses try to pass along their higher costs of production, they encounter market resistance because lower wage workers cannot afford the finished goods made with high cost energy products. For example, auto and iPhone sales in China decline. The lack of Chinese demand tends to lead to a drop in demand for the many commodities used in manufacturing these goods, including both energy products and metals. Because there is very little storage capacity for commodities, a small decline in demand tends to lead to quite a large decline in prices. Even a small decline in China’s demand for energy products can lead to a big decline in oil prices.

Strange as it may seem, the economy ends up with low oil prices, rather than high oil prices, being the problem. Other commodity prices tend to be low as well.

What Is Ahead, If We Are Reaching Economic Growth Limits?

1. Figure 1 at the top of this post seems to give an indication of what is ahead after 2019, but this forecast cannot be relied on. A major issue is that the limited model used at that time did not include the financial system or debt. Even if the model seems to provide a reasonably accurate estimate of when limits will hit, it won’t necessarily give a correct view of what the impact of limits will be on the rest of the economy, after limits hit. The authors, in fact, have said that the model should not be expected to provide reliable indications regarding how the economy will behave after limits have started to have an impact on economic output.

2. As indicated in the title of this post, considerable financial volatility can be expected in 2019if the economy is trying to slow itself. Stock prices will be erratic; interest rates will be erratic; currency relativities will tend to bounce around. The likelihood that derivatives will cause major problems for banks will rise because derivatives tend to assume more stability in values than now seems to be the case. Increasing problems with derivatives raises the risk of bank failure.

3. The world economy doesn’t necessarily fail all at once. Instead, pieces that are, in some sense, “less efficient” users of energy may shrink back. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the countries that seemed to be most affected were countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy that depend on oil for a disproportionately large share of their total energy consumption. China and India, with energy mixes dominated by coal, were much less affected.

Figure 7. Oil consumption as a percentage of total energy consumption, based on 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 8. Energy consumption per capita for selected areas, based on energy consumption data from 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy and United Nations 2017 Population Estimates by Country.

In the 2002-2008 period, oil prices were rising faster than prices of other fossil fuels. This tended to make countries using a high share of oil in their energy mix less competitive in the world market. The low labor costs of China and India gave these countries another advantage. By the end of 2007, China’s energy consumption per capita had risen to a point where it almost matched the (now lower) energy consumption of the European countries shown. China, with its low energy costs, seems to have “eaten the lunch” of some of its European competitors.

In 2019 and the years that follow, some countries may fare at least somewhat better than others. The United States, for now, seems to be faring better than many other parts of the world.

4. While we have been depending upon China to be a leader in economic growth, China’s growth is already faltering and may turn to contraction in the near future. One reason is an energy problem: China’s coal production has fallen because many of its coal mines have been closed due to lack of profitability. As a result, China’s need for imported energy (difference between black line and top of energy production stack) has been growing rapidly. China is now the largest importer of oil, coal, and natural gas in the world. It is very vulnerable to tariffs and to lack of available supplies for import.

Figure 9. China energy production by fuel plus its total energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 data.

A second issue is that demographics are working against China; its working-age population already seems to be shrinking. A third reason why China is vulnerable to economic difficulties is because of its growing debt level. Debt becomes difficult to repay with interest if the economy slows.

5. Oil exporters such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria have become vulnerable to government overthrow or collapse because of low world oil prices since 2014. If the central government of one or more of these exporters disappears, it is possible that the pieces of the country will struggle along, producing a lower amount of oil, as Libya has done in recent years. It is also possible that another larger country will attempt to take over the failing production of the country and secure the output for itself.

6. Epidemics become increasingly likely, especially in countries with serious financial problems, such as Yemen, Syria, and Venezuela. Historically, much of the decrease in population in countries with collapsing economies has come from epidemics. Of course, epidemics can spread across national boundaries, exporting the problems elsewhere.

7. Resource wars become increasingly likely. These can be local wars, perhaps over the availability of water. They can also be large, international wars. The timing of World War I and World War II make it seem likely that these wars were both resource wars.

Figure 10.

8. Collapsing intergovernmental agencies, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund, seem likely. The United Kingdom’s planned exit from the European Union in 2019 is a step toward dissolving the European Union.

9. Privately funded pension funds will increasingly be subject to default because of continued low interest rates. Some governments may choose to cut back the amounts they provide to pensioners because governments cannot collect adequate tax revenue for this purpose. Some countries may purposely shut down parts of their governments, in an attempt to hold down government spending.

10. A far worse and more permanent recession than that of the Great Recession seems likely because of the difficulty in repaying debt with interest in a shrinking economy. It is not clear when such a recession will start. It could start later in 2019, or perhaps it may wait until 2020. As with the Great Recession, some countries will be affected more than others. Eventually, because of the interconnected nature of financial systems, all countries are likely to be drawn in.

Summary

It is not entirely clear exactly what is ahead if we are reaching Limits to Growth. Perhaps that is for the best. If we cannot do anything about it, worrying about the many details of what is ahead is not the best for anyone’s mental health. While it is possible that this is an end point for the human race, this is not certain, by any means. There have been many amazing coincidences over the past 4 billion years that have allowed life to continue to evolve on this planet. More of these coincidences may be ahead. We also know that humans lived through past ice ages. They likely can live through other kinds of adversity, including worldwide economic collapse.





Interesting times ahead…..

29 11 2018

Very few people join all the dots, and as usual, Gail Tverberg does her best to do so here again…. There are so many signals on the web now pointing to a major reset it’s not funny.

Low Oil Prices: An Indication of Major Problems Ahead?

Many people, including most Peak Oilers, expect that oil prices will rise endlessly. They expect rising oil prices because, over time, companies find it necessary to access more difficult-to-extract oil. Accessing such oil tends to be increasingly expensive because it tends to require the use of greater quantities of resources and more advanced technology. This issue is sometimes referred to as diminishing returns. Figure 1 shows how oil prices might be expected to rise, if the higher costs encountered as a result of diminishing returns can be fully recovered from the ultimate customers of this oil.

In my view, this analysis suggesting ever-rising prices is incomplete. After a point, prices can’t really keep up with rising costs because the wages of many workers lag behind the growing cost of extraction.

The economy is a networked system facing many pressures, including a growing level of debt and the rising use of technology. When these pressures are considered, my analysis indicates that oil prices may fall too low for producers, rather than rise too high for consumers. Oil companies may close down if prices remain too low. Because of this, low oil prices should be of just as much concern as high oil prices.

In recent years, we have heard a great deal about the possibility of Peak Oil, including high oil prices. If the issue we are facing is really prices that are too low for producers, then there seems to be the possibility of a different limits issue, called Collapse. Many early economies seem to have collapsed as they reached resource limits. Collapse seems to be characterized by growing wealth disparity, inadequate wages for non-elite workers, failing governments, debt defaults, resource wars, and epidemics. Eventually, population associated with collapsed economies may fall very low or completely disappear. As Collapse approaches, commodity prices seem to be low, rather than high.

The low oil prices we have been seeing recently fit in disturbingly well with the hypothesis that the world economy is reaching affordability limits for a wide range of commodities, nearly all of which are subject to diminishing returns. This is a different problem than most researchers have been concerned about. In this article, I explain this situation further.

One thing that is a little confusing is the relative roles of diminishing returns and efficiency. I see diminishing returns as being more or less the opposite of growing efficiency.

The fact that inflation-adjusted oil prices are now much higher than they were in the 1940s to 1960s is a sign that for oil, the contest between diminishing returns and efficiency has basically been won by diminishing returns for over 40 years.

Oil Prices Cannot Rise Endlessly

It makes no sense for oil prices to rise endlessly, for what is inherently growing inefficiency. Endlessly rising prices for oil would be similar to paying a human laborer more and more for building widgets, during a time that that laborer becomes increasingly disabled. If the number of widgets that the worker can produce in one hour decreases by 50%, logically that worker’s wages should fall by 50%, not rise to make up for his/her growing inefficiency.

The problem with paying higher prices for what is equivalent to growing inefficiency can be hidden for a while, if the economy is growing rapidly enough. The way that the growing inefficiency is hidden is by adding Debt and Complexity (Figure 4).

Growing complexity is very closely related to “Technology will save us.” Growing complexity involves the use of more advanced machinery and ever-more specialized workers. Businesses become larger and more hierarchical. International trade becomes increasingly important. Financial products such as derivatives become common.

Growing debt goes hand in hand with growing complexity. Businesses need growing debt to support capital expenditures for their new technology. Consumers find growing debt helpful in affording major purchases, such as homes and vehicles. Governments make debt-like promises of pensions to citizen. Thanks to these promised pensions, families can have fewer children and devote fewer years to child care at home.

The problem with adding complexity and adding debt is that they, too, reach diminishing returns. The easiest (and cheapest) fixes tend to be added first. For example, irrigating a field in a dry area may be an easy and cheap way to fix a problem with inadequate food supply. There may be other approaches that could be used as well, such as breeding crops that do well with little rainfall, but the payback on this investment may be smaller and later.

A major drawback of adding complexity is that doing so tends to increase wage and wealth disparity. When an employer pays high wages to supervisory workers and highly skilled workers, this leaves fewer funds with which to pay less skilled workers. Furthermore, the huge amount of capital goods required in this more complex economy tends to disproportionately benefit workers who are already highly paid. This happens because the owners of shares of stock in companies tend to overlap with employees who are already highly paid. Low paid employees can’t afford such purchases.

The net result of greater wage and wealth disparity is that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep prices high enough for oil producers. The many workers with low wages find it difficult to afford homes and families of their own. Their low purchasing power tends to hold down prices of commodities of all kinds. The higher wages of the highly trained and supervisory staff don’t make up for the shortfall in commodity demand because these highly paid workers spend their wages differently. They tend to spend proportionately more on services rather than on commodity-intensive goods. For example, they may send their children to elite colleges and pay for tax avoidance services. These services use relatively little in the way of commodities.

Once the Economy Slows Too Much, the Whole System Tends to Implode

A growing economy can hide a multitude of problems. Paying back debt with interest is easy, if a worker finds his wages growing. In fact, it doesn’t matter if the growth that supports his growing wages comes from inflationary growth or “real” growth, since debt repayment is typically not adjusted for inflation.

Both real growth and inflationary growth help workers have enough funds left at the end of the period for other goods they need, despite repaying debt with interest.

Once the economy stops growing, the whole system tends to implode. Wage disparity becomes a huge problem. It becomes impossible to repay debt with interest. Young people find that their standards of living are lower than those of their parents. Investments do not appear to be worthwhile without government subsidies. Businesses find that economies of scale no longer work to their advantage. Pension promises become overwhelming, compared to the wages of young people.

The Real Situation with Oil Prices

The real situation with oil prices–and in fact with respect to commodity prices in general–is approximately like that shown in Figure 6.

What tends to happen is that oil prices tend to fall farther and farther behind what producers require, if they are truly to make adequate reinvestment in new fields and also pay high taxes to their governments. This should not be too surprising because oil prices represent a compromise between what citizens can afford and what producers require.

In the years before diminishing returns became too much of a problem (back before 2005, for example), it was possible to find prices that were within an acceptable range for both sellers and buyers. As diminishing returns has become an increasing problem, the price that consumers can afford has tended to fall increasingly far below the price that producers require. This is why oil prices at first fall a little too low for producers, and eventually seem likely to fall far below what producers need to stay in business. The problem is that no price works for both producers and consumers.

Affordability Issues Affect All Commodity Prices, Not Just Oil

We are dealing with a situation in which a growing share of workers (and would be workers) find it difficult to afford a home and family, because of wage disparity issues. Some workers have been displaced from their jobs by robots or by globalization. Some spend many years in advanced schooling and are left with large amounts of debt, making it difficult to afford a home, a family, and other things that many in the older generation were able to take for granted. Many of today’s workers are in low-wage countries; they cannot afford very much of the output of the world economy.

At the same time, diminishing returns affect nearly all commodities, just as they affect oil. Mineral ores are affected by diminishing returns because the highest grade ores tend to be extracted first. Food production is also subject to diminishing returns because population keeps rising, but arable land does not. As a result, each year it is necessary to grow more food per arable acre, leading to a need for more complexity (more irrigation or more fertilizer, or better hybrid seed), often at higher cost.

When the problem of growing wage disparity is matched up with the problem of diminishing returns for the many different types of commodity production, the same problem occurs that occurs with oil. Prices of a wide range of commodities tend to fall below the cost of production–first by a little and, if the debt bubble pops, by a whole lot.

We hear people say, “Of course oil prices will rise. Oil is a necessity.” The thing that they don’t realize is that the problem affects a much bigger “package” of commodities than just oil prices. In fact, finished goods and services of all kinds made with these commodities are also affected, including new homes and vehicles. Thus, the pattern we see of low oil prices, relative to what is required for true profitability, is really an extremely widespread problem.

Interest Rate Policies Affect Affordability

Commodity prices bear surprisingly little relationship to the cost of production. Instead, they seem to depend more on interest rate policies of government agencies. If interest rates rise or fall, this tends to have a big impact on household budgets, because monthly auto payments and home payments depend on interest rates. For example, US interest rates spiked in 1981.

This spike in interest rates led to a major cutback in energy consumption and in GDP growth.

Oil prices began to slide, with the higher interest rates.

Figure 11 indicates that the popping of a debt bubble (mostly relating to US sub-prime housing) sent oil prices down in 2008. Once interest rates were lowered through the US adoption of Quantitative Easing (QE), oil prices rose again. They fell again, when the US discontinued QE.

While these charts show oil prices, there is a tendency for a broad range of commodity prices to move more or less together. This happens because the commodity price issue seems to be driven to a significant extent by the affordability of finished goods and services, including homes, automobiles, and restaurant food.

If the collapse of a major debt bubble occurs again, the world seems likely to experience impacts somewhat similar to those in 2008, depending, of course, on the location(s) and size(s) of the debt bubble(s). A wide variety of commodity prices are likely to fall very low; asset prices may also be affected. This time, however, government organizations seem to have fewer tools for pulling the world economy out of a prolonged slump because interest rates are already very low. Thus, the issues are likely to look more like a widespread economic problem (including far too low commodity prices) than an oil problem.

Lack of Growth in Energy Consumption Per Capita Seems to Lead to Collapse Scenarios

When we look back, the good times from an economic viewpoint occurred when energy consumption per capita (top red parts on Figure 12) were rising rapidly.

The bad times for the economy were the valleys in Figure 12. Separate labels for these valleys have been added in Figure 13. If energy consumption is not growing relative to the rising world population, collapse in at least a part of the world economy tends to occur.

The laws of physics tell us that energy consumption is required for movement and for heat. These are the basic processes involved in GDP generation, and in electricity transmission. Thus, it is logical to believe that energy consumption is required for GDP growth. We can see in Figure 9 that growth in energy consumption tends to come before GDP growth, strongly suggesting that it is the cause of GDP growth. This further confirms what the laws of physics tell us.

The fact that partial collapses tend to occur when the growth in energy consumption per capita falls too low is further confirmation of the way the economics system really operates. The Panic of 1857occurred when the asset price bubble enabled by the California Gold Rush collapsed. Home, farm, and commodity prices fell very low. The problems ultimately were finally resolved in the US Civil War (1861 to 1865).

Similarly, the Depression of the 1930s was preceded by a stock market crash in 1929. During the Great Depression, wage disparity was a major problem. Commodity prices fell very low, as did farm prices. The issues of the Depression were not fully resolved until World War II.

At this point, world growth in energy consumption per capita seems to be falling again. We are also starting to see evidence of some of the same problems associated with earlier collapses: growing wage disparity, growing debt bubbles, and increasingly war-like behavior by world leaders. We should be aware that today’s low oil prices, together with these other symptoms of economic distress, may be pointing to yet another collapse scenario on the horizon.

Oil’s Role in the Economy Is Different From What Many Have Assumed

We have heard for a long time that the world is running out of oil, and we need to find substitutes. The story should have been, “Affordability of all commodities is falling too low, because of diminishing returns and growing wage disparity. We need to find rapidly rising quantities of very, very cheap energy products. We need a cheap substitute for oil. We cannot afford to substitute high-cost energy products for low-cost energy products. High-cost energy products affect the economy too adversely.”

In fact, the whole “Peak Oil” story is not really right. Neither is the “Renewables will save us” story, especially if the renewables require subsidies and are not very scalable. Energy prices can never be expected to rise high enough for renewables to become economic.

The issues we should truly be concerned about are Collapse, as encountered by many economies previously. If Collapse occurs, it seems likely to cut off production of many commodities, including oil and much of the food supply, indirectly because of low prices.

Low oil prices and low prices of other commodities are signs that we truly should be concerned about. Too many people have missed this point. They have been taken in by the false models of economists and by the confusion of Peak Oilers. At this point, we should start considering the very real possibility that our next world problem is likely to be Collapse of at least a portion of the world economy.

Interesting times seem to be ahead.





Heavy Oil Shock……

25 11 2018

paris fuel riots 2.jpg.jpg

As the French government increases taxes on petrol and diesel to encourage people to switch to ‘cleaner’ transport, as if they can afford to just dump the cars they now own to buy something really expensive…..  this is what collapse looks like, no doubt about it. And it’s spreading to Belgium…

paris fuel riots.jpg

How long before Alice’s “When Trucks Stop” scenario comes to realisation..?

For all the talk about electric cars and renewable electricity, global oil production rose above 100 million barrels a day last month.  For all the policy pronouncements to the contrary, the stark reality remains that our insatiable demand for oil, the products of oil, and all of the stuff that we transport with oil continues to drive up demand.

From Consciousness of Sheep…..

There is, however, a big problem with that 100mbb/d figure that has yet to make it to the forefront of media and political debate.  This is that not all oil is equal.  This ought to be obvious enough to anyone living in my part of the world; where our economic history was shaped by the difference between the low-quality bituminous coal at the east of the South Wales coalfield and the high-quality anthracite coal in the west.  The same issues are true for oil.  On the one hand there is the sweet crude from fields in Texas, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; on the other there are the ultra-light condensates fracked out of the shale plays, the bitumen boiled out of Canadian tar sands and the high-sulphur toxic stew being extracted in Kazakhstan.  The former powered the unprecedented burst of global industrial expansion between 1953 and 1973.  The latter are the dregs that humanity will have to get by on in the future.

Not, of course, that this has been a problem so far.  Those older oil fields are still producing – although many are past their peak – and with a little tweaking of the set-up, refineries can manage blends of heavy and light oils that approximate the sweet crude they were designed for.  But there are limits to the tweaking.  And as the world comes to depend increasingly on blends of too light and too heavy oils, refineries will not be able to supply enough of the fuels that we have built the global economy upon.

Refining uses a combination of heat and chemistry to “crack” the molecule chains in the crude oil into various lengths according to the fuel being produced – butane and petrol (gasoline) are the lightest, kerosene and diesel in the middle and the heaviest are fuel oils used in shipping and building heating.  And while you and I might value the lighter fuels for sparking up a barbecue or powering a car, for the global transportation system it is the middle and heavier fuels that are the most important.  Most important of all, of course, is the diesel oil that powers all of the heavy machinery and trucks that are essential to the extractive processes that convert naturally occurring materials into the resources used to manufacture all of the stuff – including our food – which we consume.

Simply looking at total global oil production, then, is only part of the story.  What we also need to know is what fuel products those 100 mbb/d are being converted into.  This is where a recent post on The Oil Crash blog should ring alarm bells.  Drawing on data from the JODI database, they show that:

“Since 2007 (and therefore before the official start of the economic crisis) the production of other [heavy] fuel oils is in decline and also seems perfectly consolidated…

“The fact is that if you have made changes in the refineries to crack more oil molecules and get other lighter products (and that is why less heavy fuel oil is produced), those molecules that used to go to heavy fuel oil should now go to other products. It follows, taking into account the added value of fuels with longer molecules, that these heavy fuel oils are being cracked especially to generate diesel and possibly more kerosene for airplanes and eventually more gasoline.”

Heavy oil production
Heavy fuel production

Concern about peak oil was always, ultimately a concern about peak diesel because of its central role in the global economy.  However, producing ever less heavy oils to maintain the output of diesel and kerosene (and eventually petrol) can only be a temporary solution.   Indeed, the JODI data shows an alarming decline in diesel fuel production since 2015:

Diesel fuel production

“That is why, dear reader, when you are told that the taxes on your diesel car will be raised in a brutal way, now you will know why.  Because they prefer to adjust these imbalances with a mechanism that seems to be a market (although this is actually less free and more intervened) to explain the truth. The fact is that from now on what can be expected is a real persecution against cars with internal combustion engines (gasoline will continue for a few years longer than diesel).”

To add to our woes, the decline in heavy oil production is compounded by new regulations that will dramatically increase demand for diesel just as the industry’s ability to produce it is in decline.  As Nick Cunningham at Business Insider reported back in July:

“A research paper from economist and oil market watcher Philip K. Verleger predicts there could be a shortage of low-sulfur diesel fuel in 2020 as a result of regulations from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) aimed at cutting sulfur emissions…

“Up until now, the maritime industry has been burning the residual fuel oil left over after the refining process. Fuel oil is the bottom of the barrel – it’s the cheapest, most viscous and dirtiest part of the barrel.”

The choice facing the shipping industry is whether to invest in expensive scrubbers and filters designed to capture sulphur that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere or whether to make much cheaper engine alterations in order to run ships on diesel.  It is difficult to argue with Cunningham assessment:

“By 2020, diesel production will need to rise by at least seven percent, according to Philip K. Verleger, on top of the three percent increase needed for road transport and other uses. All of it will need to be low-sulfur.”

If ship owners switch fuels, we are looking at a global oil price above $200 per barrel; with diesel fuel being priced well above anything ordinary working people can afford for powering cars; and other fuels following close behind.  This will impact British and American motorists far harder than those in Europe because of our systematic neglect of public transport and our insistence in building out into the suburbs.  The broader question, however, is whether the current strategy of relying on a combination of fuel taxes and higher prices is a sensible approach to diesel shortages.

Prices and taxes most often result in the misallocation of resources.  This is most obvious when we contrast the suffering of millions of people in poorer countries against the frivolous consumption of the fortunate top ten percent of the global population living in the G7 states.  However, because the growth in global energy consumption has allowed billions of people to experience an increase in their standard of living in the years since World War Two, the misallocation has appeared to be less urgent (to those in the developed states).  In the event that strategic fuel production falls – as it appears to be doing – continued misallocation will accelerate the process of collapse.

For example, most farmers depend upon diesel-powered machinery to maintain yields.  Unfortunately, many of those same farmers are already struggling to remain in business despite already receiving subsidies from the state.  And while there are some alternative power sources (batteries, biogas, hydrogen) for light vehicles, there is no means by which heavy diesel machinery and haulage vehicles can be substituted.  Thus, if diesel prices rise, either food prices rise accordingly or (and most likely both) farmers go out of business.  At the same time, however, the very richest one percent of the population is likely to regard the rise in diesel prices as a good thing since it will remove much of the road congestion they experience without preventing them from driving and flying.

The alternative would be to develop and implement a rationing scheme based on the need to maintain critical infrastructure (including food production) even if this comes at the expense of limiting private vehicle use and severely restricting commercial air travel.  In practice, unfortunately, our response to this looming fuel crisis is more likely to follow the pattern of our response to climate change; with powerful lobbies paying to distract our attention, large numbers denying the crisis exists, and most of those who acknowledge the crisis grasping at techno-utopian pseudo-solutions like electric cars and windmills.

All I can say is hold onto your hats because when oil prices spike above $200 and our ability to consume collapses, we are going to witness economic and social dislocation on a scale that will make Brexit and the policies of Donald Trump that everyone seems so exercised about look trivial.

As an aside, I currently have three French wwoofers, and you better believe they are right on top of collapse and planning all sorts of things to get ready, not least coming here to learna trick or two. I’m so proud of being able to teach them stuff…..

If the embedded video doesn’t show English subtitles, they are available at youtube….





Peak Oil & Drastic Oil Shortages Imminent: IEA

24 11 2018

While the IEA got a lot of coverage for its World Energy Outlook 2018 (WEO 18), there might be a little snippet that got way underappreciated. (from Cleantechnica)

On page 159 of its Outlook, accessible only behind a payment barrier, the following graph can be found:

IEA-graph.jpg

It is clear to see that Peak Oil will be hit well before 2020, while demand keeps on rising, unless the world’s Oil Majors and State Owned Oil Companies would massively invest in new exploration, according to the IEA.

However, the Oil Majors did already heavily spend on new oil exploration in the years after 2000, where a fossil fuel hype with an accompanying coal boom lead up to an oil price of over $150 in 2008. While this oil price proved unsustainable for a crashing world economy, this oil exploration boom lead to very little new findings in the big scheme of things:

So what does that mean?

It means that a collapse of oil supply to half of its current size within only six years simply cannot be compensated by new oil findings and certainly not by unconventional oil sources like oil sands and fracking. That the Oil Majors did not pick up with new oil exploration after the oil price rose again to $100 per barrel in the years after 2008 is another sign that the world is already “overexplored,” as geologists put it. Instead the Oil Majors concentrated on a stock buyback, knowing full well that further exploration would be a waste of money while they are sitting on oil that will become very valuable even though the amount of oil they will extract will decline significantly.

In summary, the Oil Majors and State Owned Oil Companies (in this field notably the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of Saudi-Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, has been scrubbed) are waiting for an oil price bonanza to happen, while the IEA is very concerned about future oil supply.

While the IEA has no credibility left when it comes to renewables (see following graph), because its forecasts historically have all been absurdly wrong, the IEA should possess some knowledge in the oil business and especially concerning the decline rates of existing conventional fields, which have been studied in depths for decades.

Notably the Peak Oil graph from the IEA (first graph in this article) has been unearthed by the Association of Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), which as an organization has itself published multiple studies on Peak Oil. While ASPO has put Peak Oil sooner than the IEA, in its latest study already at 2011 for conventional crude, it is remarkable that the IEA refuted this claim back then with the statement that Peak Oil would not be reached before 2020. Well, it surely looks like they corrected that statement for themselves now.

So what does that mean for investors in oil and the world economy?

Surely there could a handsome profit be made by riding the coming oil shortages, but one has to keep in mind that while the oil price may go through the roof, the barrels that can be sold also shrink fast and drastically. So there remains the question of how high the profits of the Oil Majors will rise and how much will this be appreciated by the stock price for these clearly dying companies. Furthermore, with these rapid stock swings, you compete with banking supercomputers that act in a millisecond timeframe, so you would have to be alert night and day for the point when the crash will come because of the world economy not being able to take the oil price anymore. As a conservative long term investor, this can only mean to get out of these stocks as soon as possible, while risk-loving investors can try to make a quick buck on the coming stock volatility, with the world economy crashing a couple of times due to ongoing undersupply in oil.

For the climate, this is excellent news, because the adoption of electric vehicles and clean transport in general will get a major boost and surely blow all current predictions out of the water. As an investor this is imho, where your money should be.

About the author: Dr. Harry Brinkmann got a Ph. D. in Physics in the working group “Applied Physics” from the Justus-Liebig-University in Gießen. In his free time he is contributing to working groups of Bündnis90/Die Grünen such as Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Energie (Federal working group energy) and likes arguing with people online over energy solutions and a sustainable future. Based in Berlin, he also writes and publishes German novels. 





Jean Marc Jancovici on Radio Eco Shock

14 11 2018

I’ve just listened to his podcast, and it’s a must listen item……  you will not be disappointed!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

jean-marc-jancoviciDid you know energy is free, and Peak Oil is not dead? That comes from a French expert in technology, energy, and climate, Jean-Marc Jancovici. Jean-Marc co-founded Carbone 4 consultancy, and The Shift Project. He advises, writes books, and lectures mostly in French, but his ideas resonate with American writers like Richard Heinberg.

We have a special treat for you this week: the world premiere of an English language in-depth radio interview with Jean-Marc JancoviciJean-Marc is well known in Europe and beyond. He is a Professor, an author of several books, the latest being “Sleep quiet until 2100, and other misunderstandings about climate and energy” (French only, translation pending?). Jancovici is also a member of ASPO France, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil.

Listen to or download this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (57 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

In a Foreword to the book by Bernard Durand, Jean-Marc writes

The only question, so to say, is when the peak occurs (and should we trigger it for environmental reasons, or wait for it to happen for other reasons?), at what level, and with what consequences. The oil production of the North Sea peaked in 2000, and the world production of conventional oil (everything except tar sands and shale oil) peaked in 2006, so this is no virtual process!





How Donald Trump saved Civilization (and lost the planet)

22 10 2018

Just found this….  wow…….

 
The controversy swirling around murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been moving Congress towards sending to the White House an Act* imposing broad sanctions on Saudi Arabia, effectively scrapping billions in pending arms sales.

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “The kingdom and all involved in this brutal murder must be held accountable, and if the Trump administration will not take the lead, Congress must.”

***

In internal discussions, Mr. Kushner has urged the president and his aides not to abandon Prince Mohammed. But as Turkish officials leaked details of the grisly killing of Mr. Khashoggi and of the dismemberment of his body, the White House has become increasingly isolated in its defense of Saudi Arabia.

Take a moment and picture this scenario.
Caving to his image-advisors and pollsters who fret about a Blue Tide surging into key states, POTUS inks the sanctions.
As its mercantile supply line begins to dry up, Saudi Arabia does not blink. It does precisely what it said it would do. It retaliates by hitting the world where it hurts most: the oil supply.
For decades Saudi Arabia has been OPEC’s swing vote, able to turn up or down the light sweet crude flowing to international markets. No other producers have either the reserves or production to control the volume and thereby the price of petroleum.
Suppose they tightened the spigot. It would not be enough to merely reduce the flow. If they have learned anything in their years of military alliance with the Great Satan, it is the tactic of Shock and Awe. They close the valves. All of them. Call it the Third Middle East Oil Shock.
In spite of a record production year for the cartel of 32.78 million b/d, US sanctions on Iranian oil and deteriorating output from Venezuela have already begun pushing prices towards $100/barrel. Demand might be marginally slowing in climate-minded Europe or in economically stressed Turkey, Brazil, and Argentina, but in North America and Asia, oil consumption is still on an exponential trajectory. Despite the US’s shale oil production having increased at a spectacular annualized rate of over 5 million b/d (estimated), the hole created by Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal, accompanied by withdrawal of like supplies from its Middle Eastern OPEC neighbors out of enforced loyalty, would dwarf anything POTUS might have thought he held as a hole card.
Economic ripples became waves. Waves became a tsunami. The price of oil shoots to $400/b virtually overnight. It would take some weeks for that price to pass through refineries and reach retailers but already gas stations around the US jack up the price at the pump.
Then the Seventh Fleet sails into the Straits of Hormuz, but it is too little too late. The supertankers are empty. Short of landing the Marines to take the giant oil fields and recruiting an army of production engineers to run them, military options are few, and costly. Saudi Arabia, after all, is armed with state-of-the-art US weaponry, and with its honor at stake, is entirely capable of self-inflicting scorched earth if push comes to shove.
Meanwhile, back at home, everything descends to chaos. Markets crash. The most-energy-dependent sectors scramble to come up with downscaling plans that could keep the doors open, but within weeks — a month at the most — giants like WalMart and Amazon are shuttering million-square-foot warehouses. Freighters turn back to Shenzhen with full cargoes. Bankers are unwilling to extend lines of credit.
Economic contraction would spread like a pandemic across the face of Europe. It would reach into Russia and China, who had imagined themselves immune, but were already weakened by US economic sanctions. China’s giant economy demands 9 million barrels of refined oil each and every day.
Russia, now importing only 30,000 b/d, is likely to be the least harmed by a global energy supply drop, but is helpless to fend off the knock-on effects of global economic downturn, especially when its Chinese trading partner goes belly up. It could extend credit for gas purchases both Eastward and Westward but any expectation that it would be repaid would eventually be dashed. The world economy would be as a boxer who has been struck a knockout blow, still standing, but bound for the canvas.
In Scandinavia and Germany, breadlines form. In Spain and Italy, fascist movements take to the streets and find broad support. We’ve seen all this before, but this is a different beast. The event will be enormous, and it will be fast.
Central Banks and the Fed can meet in emergency sessions but the tools they used in earlier crises are gone, spent in 2008 and the lingering QE programs. In any case, this situation is not something that can be remedied by rejiggering debt. Energy is not money.
The televised bobbleheads we see wringing their hands over the Khashoggi affair, urging POTUS to stick up for “American values” would be mute. Their communications channels would be shutting down in any event. They might busy themselves thinking how they can feed their families as grocery store shelves go empty.
Of course, the other possibility would be that Donald Trump simply refuses to sign the sanctions bill and thereby saves Civilization. That is, until rising temperatures and rising seas erase it from memory.
Donald Trump has a chance here to do the right thing. He can kill Civilization and save the Earth. He just has to stick it to Saudi Arabia.

______

* Before Congress can take action of this kind, it is required to first invoke the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and give the President 120 days to investigate and recommend sanctions. Lawmakers did that on October 18.





The third curve…. concept vs reality

17 10 2018

Money vs Oil Real Combined - SmallerThanks to good old facebook, I have discovered another webside I want to share with my now nearly 800 followers…. Mansoor Khan is writing a book called The Third Curve, and is publishing it chapter by chapter on his website. I am currently distracted by a wedding and a funeral in Queensland, and haven’t yet delved too far into this book, but I was originally attracted to it by that telling graph at left, because it clearly describes the disconnect between concept and reality….

Khan studied engineering at IIT, Cornell University and MANSOOR_KHAN_4MIT but then went on to make four feature films including Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. In 2003, he moved to Coonoor, to realize his first passion of living on an organic farm. His first book, ‘The Third Curve – The End of Growth as we know it’ explains the limits of growth in economy and industry from an Energetics perspective.

Gail Tverberg, and others, have been saying for some time now, that the disconnect occurred during the 1970’s and 1980’s oil shocks, when the amount of net energy available from conventional oil (there was nothing else that far back) started going down. It was also the time when Thatcher and Reagan had to choose between managing limits to growth, or deregulating everything and, as Thatcher put it, move from a society to an economy. Of course the former never had a chance in hell of being applied, so now we are stuck with this neoliberalism cancer that will destroy civilisation…….

Debt has clearly replaced net energy to keep growth going until it can’t – like round about right now – and surely collapse can no longer be very far away……. Mnsoor Khan calls it deficit in real growth.

Phase 2 Deficit - Money and Oil - Smaller

Khan writes…….:

To most, the Modern Industrial World is the epitome of man’s ingenuity: a glorious manifestation of human intelligence and enterprise.
In my opinion, this is completely untrue.

The fact is that all the seemingly fabulous constructs and conveniences of the Modern Industrial World were only possible because of abundant and cheap fossil fuels. Human ingenuity was a co-factor and not the prime reason for it. As simple as that!

With a wild Concept like “Time-Value of Money” floating on the edge of our consciousness, we were simply looking for the perfect ally from Reality to make Exponential Growth possible.

And we found that ally. It was Oil – nothing but over 150 million years of ancient sunlight trapped in the bosom of the Earth.

A once-in-an-eternity bounty. Plentiful, cheap, energy-dense, portable, easily convertible to heat, motion, and electricity… A primeval elixir so varied in possibilities, having the unique innate ability to morph into a dazzling array of useful materials that it, but naturally, shaped the most powerful culture ever to dominate this Earth: modern industrial civilization.

No wonder oil has been referred to as the “blood of the devil”, a double-edged warning!

With the discovery of oil, the Concept and the Reality fused effortlessly and we took the easiest path. Whatever oil offered us, we seized: cars, airplanes, plastics, lubricants, complex electronics, computers, space travel, internet, gigabyte memory chips, mobile networks, artificial limbs, mega cities, automated garbage collection, robot-controlled assembly lines, global food networks, moving mountains or damming rivers, clearing forests or strip mining! Anything seemed possible! Nothing else could have achieved it on this scale of size, speed and complexity. Yes, oil allowed us to nurture the most audacious, wasteful, self-indulgent and even self-destructive ideas we could dream about, and turn them into reality.

This led the civilized world to believe that we did all this because of our superior intelligence as a species and as a culture. We patted ourselves on the back by terming it innate “human ingenuity”. We felt that, even if oil was removed or reduced, we could simply replace it with some other form of energy and continue on the same trajectory. This we also deemed to be our entitlement and inevitable destiny. Shoot the messenger but the message remains. This is a pipe-dream. Few ponder on why this is so.

It is because oil was not only an unbelievably cheap, plentiful, dense and portable source of energy to RUN our world, but also a divinely unique source of mind-boggling byproducts that BUILT our Modern Industrial World. Bitumen for our roads, plastics for everything, lubricants for all kinds of machinery, fertilizers and pesticides for our complex and vulnerable modern food production, chemical reagents for pharmaceuticals and endlessly more.

All these and more are intertwined in a complex web of interdependencies that are hard to unravel, let alone replace, to make the Modern Industrial World possible.
And reaching the peak of oil production means only an imminent decline of what is possible.

The world will not disappear because of Peak Oil but we will find ourselves in a considerably different world with a new set of economic rules, in fact, an inversion of the rules of Economics: Shrinkage instead of Growth. To appreciate fully what oil means, we first have to do a primer on energy.

The third curve is worth visiting just for the cartoons!