THE END OF SUPERGIANTS: And What It Means

16 05 2019

GUEST POST: By Dr. Louis Arnoux

The meaning of this news snippet takes a bit of explaining.  What the specialised media did not emphasise is what follows:

When giant oil fields go into decline, they usually decline abruptly. Ghawar’s decline is ominous. It was discovered in 1948 and until recently represented about 50% of the oil crude production of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Ghawar is representative of some 100 to 200 giant oil fields. Most of them are old.  The most recently discovered giants are of a diminutive size compared with those old giants.[2]

Giants represent about 1% of the total number of oil fields and yet produce over 60% of conventional oil crude.[3]Very few real giants have been discovered in recent years. The geology of the planet is now known well enough and prospects for new significant giant oil discoveries are known to be low.  In recent decades, discoveries of smaller oil fields have not been able to compensate for the eventual loss of the giants. Figure 1 illustrates the matter. It shows the net flux of addition to reserves per year (additional volumes less volumes used). Since 2010 the steep declining trend has worsened. The level of new discoveries per year is now only about 5% of yearly reserves depletion. That is, since the late 1970s the oil industry has been steadily depleting its stock-in-trade at a rather fast rate.

The fact that Ghawar is in terminal decline means that we must consider that most of the old giants are in a similar situation.  Some were already known to be in a terminal status, e.g. Cantarell in Mexico or the main North Sea fields.[4]  However, there is a paucity of recent public data on giants.  The matter of their depletion status is commercially sensitive.  Still, a number of public databases and studies from about 10 years ago provide a robust backdrop to the Ghawar news.[5]  This needs to be unpacked a bit more.  Older giants have been developed more slowly and as a result, tend to have lower depletion rates once they pass their peak of production.  More recent ones have been developed more aggressively with more recent technology and as a result, tend to have a much steeper depletion rate once past their production peak.  In short, we now must expect a “bunching”of abrupt declines of oil giants, old and more recent, between now and about 2030.

So, in fact, this little snippet of news about Ghawar tells us a lot.  It corroborates the assessment developed since 2010 with a number of colleagues, based on a thermodynamics analysis of the PPS and summarised in Figure 2.  In short, our world runs on net energy from oil.  Due to resource depletion, it takes more and more net energy from oil to get more oil. We estimate that in consequence, since the early 1980s, the absolute amount of net energy delivered by the oil industry to the non-oil part of the industrial world has been in steep decline.  The data summarised in Figure 3 corroborates Figure 2.

Almost no one noticed how dire the situation has become because most analysts reason in terms of barrels of crude or in financial terms. GDP growth data aggregates the growth of the oil industry world (oil industry plus everything and everyone that are necessary for the oil industry to operate) with that of the non-oil world.  This aggregation masks what is actually taking place. To keep operating the oil world progressively starves the non-oil world of the net energy that is vital for its continued existence.

It is in our view significant that it is precisely in the early 1980s that total global debt took off to high heaven (source Bank of America Meryl Lynch). This steep debt growth, evaluated in fiat currencies, masks the decline in net energy from oil; net energy that is at the source of all, actual tangible, real economic growth. Due to this decline, it is most unlikely that this global debt will ever be repaid.

The terminal decline of Ghawar also corroborates the more indirect analyses of the PPS summarised in Figure 3.  This means that the part-floating of Aramco that KSA wants to achieve in the near future is most likely so as to pre-empt having to go into a “fire sale” at a later stage when the decline of Ghawar and of the other Saudi large fields become rather obvious to even the most ignorant traders.

More importantly, the corroboration of our earlier analyses by the Ghawar news and the data summarised in Figure 3 tell us that we must expect abrupt turmoil from 2020 onwards not only re oil, but also concerning all other forms of energy supply, as well as socially and financially (consider the tail end of the orange curve onFigure 2). The present turmoil in Venezuela will probably appear as a forerunner of a nasty situation becoming global.

To emerge, develop and flourish, every civilisation requires a self-powered energy supply chain – i.e. it takes energy to get energy, so any civilisation lives on the energy surplus delivered to it by its self-powered energy supply chain(s). In the globalised industrial world’s case and until recently this was the oil industry (including the whole of the support systems required for the oil industry to operate).  Since oil overtook coal and biomass during the earlier part of the 20th century, the oil industry has been the sole self-powered supply chain of the industrial world. All other forms of energy depend on it, coal, natural gas, nuclear, all so-called “renewables”, and all the way to feed and food production. In our estimates, the oil industry entered terminal decline about 7 years ago and this decline will be over by about 2030 or before.  In our view, the decline of Ghawar corroborates that this end is most likely than not going to be abrupt.

The big problem is that presently we do not have a substitute energy supply chain that could be deployed in time. As summarised in Figure 4, what one calls “renewables” is not quite so and by a wide margin. Not only current “renewable” equipment requires net energy from oil for its manufacture, transport, maintenance, and eventual decommissioning but also its production results in substantial greenhouse gases emissions (GHGs).  Even more importantly, the current “renewable”technology mix cannot form the basis for a new, sustainable, self-powered energy supply chain able to substitute for the oil-based one within the time frame defined by the decline of net energy from oil and the imperatives to combat catastrophic global warming (at least 45% greenhouse gases emissions reduction by 2030).

We call the present situation the Energy Seneca (after the Roman philosopher who first identified patterns of progressive growth followed with a peak and then abrupt decline). Figure 5 explains why the industrial world is now in a very tight spot, just after it has passed through the Energy Seneca apex.  On the one hand, the oil industry world is trapped in the famous Red Queen effect (RQ).  It has to keep pumping at an ever-faster rate to keep delivering net energy while, per barrel extracted, this net energy is in steep decline.  Soon it will run out of breath…  On the other hand, alternatives face what I call the Inverse Red Queen effect (1/RQ).  If the alternatives grow too fast, their manufacture and deployment drain energy from the industrial world just when it desperately needs more. And if those alternatives do not grow fast enough, then the industrial world is bound to abruptly decline or even collapse.

The harsh reality that few have identified is that presently none of the solutions touted by “green”business interests, governmental bodies, and NGOs alike can extricate us in time from the combination of RQ and 1/RQ effects. Not only this combination precludes building a new self-powered energy supply chain in time but also it precludes augmenting the present oil industry with non-oil energy sources to extend its terminal operations.  In short, unbeknown to most, our world is in the process of losing access to all the energy forms it depends on.  This thermodynamic conundrum compounds global warming and all other ecological, social and financial global issues to form a lethal avalanche that has been in train since about 2008.  There is global cognitive failure on the part of world elites to recognise this situation and address it.

As shown in Figure 6, the abrupt end of the Oil Age converges with the surge in protests that have taken place in recent years and that keeps gathering momentum. While most do not understand the intricacies summarised here, thousands of scientists and millions of people now do realise that they no longer have a future.  There is a “demand-for-something-else” than what they presently have.  This now strident demand is for a way forward that breaks through prevailing cognitive failure and re-opens a future for the younger ones.

To conclude, in our view Ghawar’s decline heralds the abrupt end of the Oil Age, as we have known it so far, over the next ten years.  It does not mean that we are “running out of oil”; there is plenty left but most of it will stay underground.  If a resource cannot be used to generate economic activity it loses all value and ceases to be a resource.  Like it or not, we now have to face the harsh emerging reality on the downside of the Energy Seneca.





Enjoy the end of the world….

13 05 2019

Presentation by Dr Sid Smith given at Virginia Tech for the Greens at Virginia Tech, March 26th, 2019 that explains all our predicaments very well….. share widely.





IEA 2018 World Energy Outlook: Peak oil is here, oil crunch by 2023

11 04 2019

Posted on March 10, 2019 by energyskeptic

Preface. I’ve been working on a post about the latest IEA 2018 World Energy Outlook report, but the excerpts from the cleantechnica article below states most clearly why there is likely to be a supply crunch as soon as the early 2020s and the investment implications.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve gleaned from other summaries of the report.

Although many hope that oil companies will drill for oil when prices go up and close the supply gap looming within the next few years, very little oil has been found to drill for for several years now. The IEA 2018 report also says that shale oil will not rescue us, and likely to peak in the mid-2020s.

Oil companies do have money, but they haven’t been drilling because there’s no cheap oil to be found, so instead they’ve been spending their money buying their shares back.

From  crashoil.blogspot.com: World Energy Outlook 2018: Someone shouted “peak oil”

This excerpt is in Spanish translated to English by google.  It shows a civilization crashing 8% decline rate that the IEA hopes will be brought to an also civilization crashing 4% rate with new oil drilling projects.

“How is this alarming graph interpreted? According to the text, the red is what they call “natural decline” and corresponds to how oil production would decrease if the companies did not even invest in maintaining the current wells; As explained in the report, it is 8% per year. The pink area corresponds to the “observed decline” and is what the IEA inferred how production will actually decline if companies invest what is needed for the correct maintenance of the current deposits. This decline corresponds to 4% per year. If new deposits are not produced, in just 7 years from now we will find that the production is 34 Million barrels per day (Mb / d) below where it is expected that the demand will be, or about 25 Mb / d below the demand much more moderate scenario of Sustainable Development. It is a huge hole of more than 35% of all the oil that is produced today.

In the text, the IEA warns us that there is nothing particular to worry about in this terrifying graphic because there will be exploitation of new deposits that will cover that hole to a large extent. However, they warn us, to avoid that hole we would need to find deposits with resources around 16 billion barrels each year…In short: the IEA is assuming…that production in 2025 will be lower than today’s (a deficit of 13 mbd in 2025). In essence, peak oil.”

It isn’t likely oil companies will make up the difference In 2016, only 2.4 billion barrels were discovered (versus 9 billion on average the past 15 years). In 2017, about 7 billion new barrels were discovered. As you can see below, there’s been an alarming lack of new crude oil found.

And it’s not just cleantechnica saying there will be oil shortages, here are some other articles about the coming oil crunch:  BloombergNASDAQoilprice.comaxios calls the shortage as by 2023financial times also by 2023

Enjoy your life for the next few years, beyond that there’s no guarantees. Some regions will fare better than others though.

On page 159 of the IEA 2018 World Energy Outlook the following graph can be found:It is clear 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 massively invest in new exploration.

However, the Oil Majors already have heavily spent money 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.

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.





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.