Towards a new operating system……

28 08 2018

Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise

A climate change-fueled switch away from fossil fuels means the worldwide economy will fundamentally need to change.

Image: Shutterstock

ANOTHER brilliant piece of journalism from Nafeez Ahmed. Originally sighted on MOTHERBOARD….

nafeezCapitalism as we know it is over. So suggests a new report commissioned by a group of scientists appointed by the UN Secretary-General. The main reason? We’re transitioning rapidly to a radically different global economy, due to our increasingly unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s environmental resources.

Climate change and species extinctions are accelerating even as societies are experiencing rising inequalityunemploymentslow economic growthrising debt levels, and impotent governments. Contrary to the way policymakers usually think about these problems, the new report says that these are not really separate crises at all.

Rather, these crises are part of the same fundamental transition to a new era characterized by inefficient fossil fuel production and the escalating costs of climate change. Conventional capitalist economic thinking can no longer explain, predict, or solve the workings of the global economy in this new age, the paper says.

Energy shift

Those are the stark implications of a new scientific background paper prepared by a team of Finnish biophysicists. The team from the BIOS Research Unit in Finland were asked to provide research that would feed into the drafting of the UN Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), which will be released in 2019.

For the “first time in human history,” the paper says, capitalist economies are “shifting to energy sources that are less energy efficient.” This applies to all forms of energy. Producing usable energy (“exergy”) to keep powering “both basic and non-basic human activities” in industrial civilisation “will require more, not less, effort.”

“Economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle the waste generated by energy and material use”

The amount of energy we can extract, compared to the energy we are using to extract it, is decreasing “across the spectrum—unconventional oils, nuclear and renewables return less energy in generation than conventional oils, whose production has peaked—and societies need to abandon fossil fuels because of their impact on the climate,” the paper states.

The shift to renewables might help solve the climate challenge, but for the foreseeable future will not generate the same levels of energy as cheap, conventional oil.

In the meantime, our hunger for energy is driving what the paper refers to as “sink costs.” The greater our energy and material use, the more waste we generate, and so the greater the environmental costs. Though they can be ignored for a while, eventually those environmental costs translate directly into economic costs as it becomes more difficult to ignore their impacts on our societies.

And the biggest “sink cost,” of course, is climate change:

“Sink costs are also rising; economies have used up the capacity of planetary ecosystems to handle the waste generated by energy and material use. Climate change is the most pronounced sink cost,” the paper states.

The paper’s lead author, Dr. Paavo Järvensivu, is a “biophysical economist”—an emerging type of economist exploring the role of energy and materials in fuelling economic activity.

The BIOS paper suggests that much of the political and economic volatility we have seen in recent years has a root cause in ecological crisis. As the ecological and economic costs of industrial overconsumption continue to rise, the constant economic growth we have become accustomed to is now in jeopardy. That, in turn, has exerted massive strain on our politics.

But the underlying issues are still unacknowledged and unrecognised by most policymakers.

“We live in an era of turmoil and profound change in the energetic and material underpinnings of economies. The era of cheap energy is coming to an end,” the paper says.

Conventional economic models, the Finnish scientists note, “almost completely disregard the energetic and material dimensions of the economy.”

“More expensive energy doesn’t necessarily lead to economic collapse,” Järvensivu told me. “Of course, people won’t have the same consumption opportunities, there’s not enough cheap energy available for that, but they are not automatically led to unemployment and misery either.”

The scientists refer to the pioneering work of systems ecologist Professor Charles Hall of the State University of New York with economist Professor Kent Klitgaard from Wells College. Earlier this year, Hall and Klitgaard released an updated edition of their seminal book, Energy and the Wealth of Nations: An Introduction to BioPhysical Economics.

Hall and Klitgaard are highly critical of mainstream capitalist economic theory, which they say has become divorced from some of the most fundamental principles of science. They refer to the concept of ‘Energy Return on Investment’ (EROI) as a key indicator of the shift into a new age of difficult energy. EROI is a simple ratio that measures how much energy we use to extract more energy.

“For the last century, all we had to do was to pump more and more oil out of the ground,” say Hall and Klitgaard. Decades ago, fossil fuels had very high EROI values—a little bit of energy allowed us to extract large amounts of oil, gas and coal.

“We face a form of capitalism that has hardened its focus to short-term profit maximization with little or no apparent interest in social good.”

Earlier in August, billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham—who has a track record of consistently calling financial bubbles—released an update to his April 2013 analysis, ‘The Race of Our Lives.’

The new paper, ‘The Race of Our Lives Revisited,’ provides a bruising indictment of contemporary capitalism’s complicity in the ecological crisis. Grantham’s verdict is that “capitalism and mainstream economics simply cannot deal with these problems,” namely, the systematic depletion of planetary ecosystems and environmental resources:

“The replacement cost of the copper, phosphate, oil, and soil—and so on—that we use is not even considered. If it were, it’s likely that the last 10 or 20 years (for the developed world, anyway) has seen no true profit at all, no increase in income, but the reverse,” he wrote.

Many experts believe we’re moving past capitalism, but they disagree on what the ultimate outcome will be. In his book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, British economics journalist Paul Mason theorises that information technology is paving the way for the emancipation of labour by reducing the costs of knowledge production—and potentially other kinds of production that will be transformed by AI, blockchain, and so on—to zero. Thus, he says, will emerge a utopian ‘postcapitalist’ age of mass abundance, beyond the price system and rules of capitalism.

It sounds peachy, but Mason completely ignores the colossal, exponentially increasing physical infrastructure for the ‘internet-of-things.’ His digital uprising is projected to consume evermore vast quantities of energy (as much as one-fifth of global electricity by 2025), producing 14 percent of global carbon emissions by 2040.

Toward a new economic operating system

Most observers, then, have no idea of the biophysical realities pointed out in the background paper commissioned by the UN Secretary-General’s IGS—that the driving force of the transition to postcapitalism is the decline of what made ‘endless growth capitalism’ possible in the first place: abundant, cheap energy.

The UN’s Global Sustainable Development Report is being drafted by an independent group of scientists (IGS) appointed by the UN Secretary-General. The IGS is supported by a range of UN agencies including the UN Secretariat, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the UN Environment Programme, the UN Development Programme, the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the World Bank.

The paper, co-authored by Dr Järvensivu with the rest of the BIOS team, was commissioned by the UN’s IGS specifically to feed into the chapter on ‘Transformation: the Economy.’ Invited background documents are used as the basis of the GSDR, but what ends up in the final report will not be known until the final report is released next year.

“No widely applicable economic models have been developed specifically for the upcoming era”

Overall, the paper claims that we have moved into a new, unpredictable and unprecedented space in which the conventional economic toolbox has no answers. As slow economic growth simmers along, central banks have resorted to negative interest rates and buying up huge quantities of public debt to keep our economies rolling. But what happens after these measures are exhausted? Governments and bankers are running out of options.

“It can be safely said that no widely applicable economic models have been developed specifically for the upcoming era,” write the Finnish scientists.

Having identified the gap, they lay out the opportunities for transition.

In this low EROI future, we simply have to accept the hard fact that we will not be able to sustain current levels of economic growth. “Meeting current or growing levels of energy need in the next few decades with low-carbon solutions will be extremely difficult, if not impossible,” the paper finds. The economic transition must involve efforts “to lower total energy use.”

Key areas to achieve this include transport, food, and construction. City planning needs to adapt to the promotion of walking and biking, a shift toward public transport, as well as the electrification of transport. Homes and workplaces will become more connected and localised. Meanwhile, international freight transport and aviation cannot continue to grow at current rates.

As with transport, the global food system will need to be overhauled. Climate change and oil-intensive agriculture have unearthed the dangers of countries becoming dependent on food imports from a few main production areas. A shift toward food self-sufficiency across both poorer and richer countries will be essential. And ultimately, dairy and meat should make way for largely plant-based diets.

The construction industry’s focus on energy-intensive manufacturing, dominated by concrete and steel, should be replaced by alternative materials. The BIOS paper recommends a return to the use of long-lasting wood buildings, which can help to store carbon, but other options such as biochar might be effective too.

But capitalist markets will not be capable of facilitating the required changes – governments will need to step up, and institutions will need to actively shape markets to fit the goals of human survival. Right now, the prospects for this look slim. But the new paper argues that either way, change is coming.

Whether or not the system that emerges still comprises a form of capitalism is ultimately a semantic question. It depends on how you define capitalism.

“Capitalism, in that situation, is not like ours now,” said Järvensivu. “Economic activity is driven by meaning—maintaining equal possibilities for the good life while lowering emissions dramatically—rather than profit, and the meaning is politically, collectively constructed. Well, I think this is the best conceivable case in terms of modern state and market institutions. It can’t happen without considerable reframing of economic-political thinking, however.”





Areas Of The World More Vulnerable To Collapse

16 06 2018

ANOTHER great post from SRSrocco…..  this one should be of particular interest to Australians though, because we are in a more vulnerable region…. and while Australia may look not too bad on those charts, it’s only because our relatively small population means we consume way less than most of the other nations of the Asia Pacific region…

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Certain areas of the world are more vulnerable to economic and societal collapse.  While most analysts gauge the strength or weakness of an economy based on its outstanding debt or debt to GDP ratio, there is another factor that is a much better indicator.  To understand which areas and regions of the world that will suffer a larger degree of collapse than others, we need to look at their energy dynamics.

For example, while the United States is still the largest oil consumer on the planet, it is no longer the number one oil importer.  China surpassed the United States by importing a record 8.9 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2017.  This data came from the recently released BP 2018 Statistical Review.  Each year, BP publishes a report that lists each countries’ energy production and consumption figures.

BP also lists the total oil production and consumption for each area (regions and continents).  I took BP’s figures and calculated the Net Oil Exports for each area.  As we can see, the Middle East has the highest amount of net oil exports with 22.3 million barrels per day in 2017:

The figures in the chart above are shown in “thousand barrels per day.”  Russia and CIS (Commonwealth Independent States) came in second with 10 mbd of net oil exports followed by Africa with 4 mbd and Central and South America with 388,000 barrels per day.  The areas with the negative figures are net oil importers.

The area in the world with the largest net oil imports was the Asia-Pacific region at 26.6 mbd followed by Europe with 11.4 mbd and North America (Canada, USA & Mexico) at 4.1 mbd.

Now, that we understand the energy dynamics shown in the chart above, the basic rule of thumb is that the areas in the world that are more vulnerable to collapse are those with the highest amount of net oil imports.  Of course, it is true that the Middle Eastern or African countries with significant oil exports can suffer a collapse due to geopolitics and civil wars (example, Iraq, and Libya), but this was not a result of domestic oil supply and demand forces.  Rather the collapse of Iraq and Libya can be blamed on certain superpowers’ desire to control the oil market as they are strategic net oil importers.

The areas with the largest net oil imports, Asia-Pacific and Europe, have designed complex economies that are highly dependent on significant oil supplies to function.  Thus, the areas and countries with the largest net oil imports will experience a higher degree of collapse. Yes, there’s more to it than the amount of net oil imports, but that is an easy gauge to use.   I will explain the other factors shortly.  If we look at the Asia-Pacific countries with the largest net oil imports, China, India, and Japan lead the pack:

China is a net importer of nearly 9 mbd of oil, followed by India at 4 mbd and Japan with 3.9 mbd.  Thus, as these net oil imports decline, so will the degree of economic activity.  However, when net oil imports fall to a certain level, then a more sudden collapse of the economy will result… resembling the Seneca Cliff.

We must remember, a great deal of the economic infrastructure (Skyscrapers, commercial buildings, retail stores, roads, equipment, buses, trucks, automobiles, etc etc.) only function if a lot of oil continually runs throughout the system.  Once the oil supply falls to a certain level, then the economic system disintegrates.

While China is the largest net oil importer, the United States is still the largest consumer of oil in the world.  Being the largest oil consumer is another very troubling sign.  The next chart shows the countries with the highest oil consumption in the world and their percentage of net oil imports:

Due to the rapid increase in domestic shale oil production, the United States net oil imports have fallen drastically over the past decade.  At one point, the U.S. was importing nearly three-quarters (75%) of its oil but is now only importing 34%.  Unfortunately, this current situation will not last for long.  As quickly as shale oil production surged, it will decline in the same fashion… or even quicker.

You will notice that Saudi Arabia is the sixth largest oil consumer in the world followed by Russia.  Both Saudi Arabia and Russia export a much higher percentage of oil than they consume.  However, Russia will likely survive a much longer than Saudi Arabia because Russia can provide a great deal more than just oil.  Russia and the Commonwealth Independent States can produce a lot of food, goods, commodities, and metals domestically, whereas Saudi Arabia must import most of these items.

Of the largest consumers of oil in the chart above, Japan and South Korea import 100% (or nearly 100%) of their oil needs.  According to the data put out by BP 2018 Statistical Review, they did not list any individual oil production figures for Japan or South Korea.  However, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported in 2015 that Japan produced 139,000 bd of total petroleum liquids while S. Korea supplied 97,000 bd.  Production of petroleum liquids from Japan and South Korea only account for roughly 3% of their total consumption…. peanuts.

Analysts or individuals who continue to believe the United States will become energy independent are ignorant of the impacts of Falling EROI – Energy Returned On Investment or the Thermodynamics of oil depletion.  Many analysts believe that if the price of oil gets high enough, say $100 or $150; then shale oil would be hugely profitable.  The error in their thinking is the complete failure to comprehend this simple relationship… that as oil prices rise, SO DO the COSTS… 

Do you honestly believe a trucking company that transports fracking sand, water or oil for the shale oil industry is going to provide the very same costs when the oil price doubles????  We must remember, the diesel price per gallon increases significantly as the oil price moves higher.  Does the energy analyst believe the trucking companies are just going to eat that higher cost for the benefit of the shale oil industry??  This is only one example, but as the oil price increases, inflationary costs will thunder throughout the shale oil industry.

If the oil price shoots up to $100 or higher and stays there (which I highly doubt), then costs will start to surge once again for the shale oil industry.  As costs increase, we can kiss goodbye the notion of higher shale oil profits.  But as I mentioned in the brackets, I don’t see the oil price jumping to $100 and staying there.  Yes, we could see an oil price spike, but not a long-term sustained price as the current economic cycle is getting ready to roll over.  And with it, we are going to experience one hell of a deflationary collapse.  This will take the oil price closer to $30 than $100.

Regardless, the areas and countries with the highest oil consumption and net oil imports will be more vulnerable to collapse and will fall the hardest.  Just imagine the U.S. economy consuming 5 million barrels of oil per day, rather than the current 20 mbd.  The United States just has more stuff that will become worthless and dysfunctional than other countries.

Lastly, the end game suggests that the majority of countries will experience an economic collapse due to the upcoming rapid decline in global oil production.  However, some countries will likely be able to transition better than others, as the leverage and complexity of the economies aren’t as dependent on oil as the highly advanced Western and Eastern countries.





Why the ERoEI of oil fracking is so awful…

30 05 2018

I recently listened to a podcast featuring Nate Hagens, who, as you might know, is very well connected with Wall Street from his previous life there….. Nate quoted someone who owns an oil company, and apparently they budget 30% of their total well costs on…. DIESEL!

 

 

Here is the latest Chris Martenson podcast of Art Berman that re-confirms most of the above.





Why I am a double atheist

28 11 2017

For years and years – at least 15 – I argued with Dave Kimble over his notion that solar energy production was growing far too fast to be sustainable, let alone reduce greenhouse emissions.  I eventually had to relent and agree with him, he had a keener eye for numbers than me, and he was way better with spreadsheets!

The whole green technology thing has become a religion. I know, I used to have the faith too….. but now, as you might know if you’ve been ‘here’ long enough, I neither believe in god nor green tech!

This article – to which you will have to go to for the references – landed in my newsfeed…….  and lo and behold, it says exactly the same thing Dave was saying all those years ago…….:

How Sustainable is PV solar power?

How sustainable is pv solar power

Picture: Jonathan Potts.

It’s generally assumed that it only takes a few years before solar panels have generated as much energy as it took to make them, resulting in very low greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional grid electricity.

However, a more critical analysis shows that the cumulative energy and CO2 balance of the industry is negative, meaning that solar PV has actually increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions instead of lowering them.

The problem is that we use and produce solar panels in the wrong places. By carefully selecting the location of both manufacturing and installation, the potential of solar power could be huge.

There’s nothing but good news about solar energy these days. The average global price of PV panels has plummeted by more than 75% since 2008, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years, though at a lower rate. [1-2] According to the 2015 solar outlook by investment bank Deutsche Bank, solar systems will be at grid parity in up to 80% of the global market by the end of 2017, meaning that PV electricity will be cost-effective compared to electricity from the grid. [3-4]

Lower costs have spurred an increase in solar PV installments. According to the Renewables 2014 Global Status Report, a record of more than 39 gigawatt (GW) of solar PV capacity was added in 2013, which brings total (peak) capacity worldwide to 139 GW at the end of 2013. While this is not even enough to generate 1% of global electricity demand, the growth is impressive. Almost half of all PV capacity in operation today was added in the past two years (2012-2013). [5] In 2014, an estimated 45 GW was added, bringing the total to 184 GW. [6] [4].

Solar PV total global capacitySolar PV total global capacity, 2004-2013. Source: Renewables 2014 Global Status Report.

Meanwhile, solar cells are becoming more energy efficient, and the same goes for the technology used to manufacture them. For example, the polysilicon content in solar cells — the most energy-intensive component — has come down to 5.5-6.0 grams per watt peak (g/wp), a number that will further decrease to 4.5-5.0 g/wp in 2017. [2] Both trends have a positive effect on the sustainability of solar PV systems. According to the latest life cycle analyses, which measure the environmental impact of solar panels from production to decommission, greenhouse gas emissions have come down to around 30 grams of CO2-equivalents per kilwatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh), compared to 40-50 grams of CO2-equivalents ten years ago. [7-11] [12]

According to these numbers, electricity generated by photovoltaic systems is 15 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a natural gas plant (450 gCO2e/kWh), and at least 30 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a coal plant (+1,000 gCO2e/kWh). The most-cited energy payback times (EPBT) for solar PV systems are between one and two years. It seems that photovoltaic power, around since the 1970s, is finally ready to take over the role of fossil fuels.

BUT the bit that caught my eye was this…..:

A life cycle analysis that takes into account the growth rate of solar PV is called a “dynamic” life cycle analysis, as opposed to a “static” LCA, which looks only at an individual solar PV system. The two factors that determine the outcome of a dynamic life cycle analysis are the growth rate on the one hand, and the embodied energy and carbon of the PV system on the other hand. If the growth rate or the embodied energy or carbon increases, so does the “erosion” or “cannibalization” of the energy and CO2 savings made due to the production of newly installed capacity. [16]

For the deployment of solar PV systems to grow while remaining net greenhouse gas mitigators, they must grow at a rate slower than the inverse of their CO2 payback time. [19] For example, if the average energy and CO2 payback times of a solar PV system are four years and the industry grows at a rate of 25%, no net energy is produced and no greenhouse gas emissions are offset. [19] If the growth rate is higher than 25%, the aggregate of solar PV systems actually becomes a net CO2 and energy sink. In this scenario, the industry expands so fast that the energy savings and GHG emissions prevented by solar PV systems are negated to fabricate the next wave of solar PV systems. [20]

Which is precisely what Dave Kimble was saying more than ten years ago.  To see his charts and download his spreadsheet, go to this post.

His conclusions are that “We have been living in an era of expanding energy availability, but Peak Oil and the constraints of Global Warming mean we are entering a new era of energy scarcity. In the past, you could always get the energy you wanted by simply paying for it. From here on, we are going to have to be very careful about how we allocate energy, because not only is it going to be very expensive, it will mean that someone else will have to do without. For the first time, ERoEI is going to be critically important to what we choose to do. If this factor is ignored, we will end up spending our fossil energy on making solar energy, which only makes Global Warming worse in the short to medium term.”

 





Major Oil Companies Debt Explode Since The GFC

15 10 2017

WORLD’S LARGEST OIL COMPANIES: Deep Trouble As Profits Vaporize While Debts Skyrocket

The world’s largest oil companies are in serious trouble as their balance sheets deteriorate from higher costs, falling profits and skyrocketing debt.  The glory days of the highly profitable global oil companies have come to an end.  All that remains now is a mere shadow of the once mighty oil industry that will be forced to continue cannibalizing itself to produce the last bit of valuable oil.

I realize my extremely unfavorable opinion of the world’s oil industry runs counter to many mainstream energy analysts, however, their belief that business as usual, will continue for decades, is entirely unfounded.  Why?  Because, they do not understand the ramifications of the Falling EROI – Energy Returned On Invested, and its impact on the global economy.

For example, Chevron was able to make considerable profits in 1997 when the oil price was $19 a barrel.  However, the company suffered a loss in 2016 when the price was more than double at $44 last year.  And, it’s even worse than that if we compare the company’s profit to total revenues.  Chevron enjoyed a $3.2 billion net income profit on revenues of $42 billion in 1997 versus a $497 million loss on total sales of $114 billion in 2016.  Even though Chevron’s revenues nearly tripled in twenty years, its profit was decimated by the falling EROI.

Unfortunately, energy analysts, who are clueless to the amount of destruction taking place in the U.S. and global oil industry by the falling EROI, continue to mislead a public that is totally unprepared for what is coming.  To provide a more realistic view of the disintegrating energy industry, I will provide data from seven of the largest oil companies in the world.

The World’s Major Oil Companies Debt Explode Since The 2008 Financial Crisis

To save the world from falling into total collapse during the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed and Central Banks embarked on the most massive money printing scheme in history.  One side-effect of the massive money printing (and the purchasing of assets) by the central banks pushed the price of oil to a record $100+ a barrel for more than three years.  While the large oil companies reported handsome profits due to the high oil price, many of them spent a great deal of capital to produce this oil.

For instance, the seven top global oil companies that I focused on made a combined $213 billion in cash from operations in 2013. However, they also forked out $230 billion in capital expenditures.  Thus, the net free cash flow from these major oil companies was a negative $17 billion… and that doesn’t include the $44 billion they paid in dividends to their shareholders in 2013.  Even though the price of oil was $109 in 2013; these seven oil companies added $45 billion to their long-term debt:

As we can see, the total amount of long-term debt in the group (Petrobras, Shell, BP, Total, Chevron, Exxon & Statoil) increased from $227 billion in 2012 to $272 billion in 2013.  Isn’t that ironic that the debt ($45 billion) rose nearly the same amount as the group’s dividend payouts ($44 billion)?  Of course, we can’t forget about the negative $17 billion in free cash flow in 2013, but here we see evidence that the top seven global oil companies were borrowing money even in 2013, at $109 a barrel oil, to pay their dividends.

Since the 2008 global economic and financial crisis, the top seven oil companies have seen their total combined debt explode four times, from $96 billion to $379 billion currently.  You would think with these energy companies enjoying a $100+ oil price for more than three years; they would be lowering their debt, not increasing it.  Regrettably, the cost for companies to replace reserves, produce oil and share profits with shareholders was more than the $110 oil price.

There lies the rub….

One of the disadvantages of skyrocketing debt is the rising amount of interest the company has to pay to service that debt.  If we look at the chart above, Brazil’s Petrobras is the clear winner in the group by adding the most debt.  Petrobras’s debt surged from $21 billion in 2008 to $109 billion last year.  As Petrobras added debt, it also had to pay out more to service that debt.  In just eight years, the annual interest amount Petrobras paid to service its debt increased from $793 million in 2008 to $6 billion last year.  Sadly, Petrobras’s rising interest payment has caused another nasty side-effect which cut dividend payouts to its shareholders to ZERO for the past two years.

Petrobras Annual Dividend Payments:

2008 = $4.7 billion

2009 = $7.7 billion

2010 = $5.4 billion

2011 = $6.4 billion

2012 = $3.3 billion

2013 = $2.6 billion

2014 = $3.9 billion

2015 = ZERO

2016 = ZERO

You see, this is a perfect example of how the Falling EROI guts an oil company from the inside out.  The sad irony of the situation at Petrobras is this:

If you are a shareholder, you’re screwed, and if you invested funds (in company bonds, etc.) to receive a higher interest payment, you’re also screwed because you will never get back your initial investment.  So, investors are screwed either way.  This is what happens during the final stage of collapsing oil industry.

Another negative consequence of the Falling EROI on these major oil companies’ financial statements is the decline in profits as the cost to produce oil rises more than the economic price the market can afford.

Major Oil Companies’ Profits Vaporize… Even At Higher Oil Prices

To be able to understand just how bad the financial situation has become at the world’s largest oil companies, we need to go back in time and compare the industry’s profitability versus the oil price.  To find a year when the oil price was about the same as it was in 2016, we have to return to 2004, when the average oil price was $38.26 versus $43.67 last year.  Yes, the oil price was lower in 2004 than in 2016, but I can assure you, these oil companies weren’t complaining.

In 2004, the combined net income of these seven oil companies was almost $100 billion….. $99.2 billion to be exact.  Every oil company in the group made a nice profit in 2004 on a $38 oil price.  However, last year, the net profits in the group plunged to only $10.5 billion, even at a higher $43 oil price:

Even with a $5 increase in the price of oil last year compared to 2004, these oil companies combined net income profit fell nearly 90%.  How about them apples.  Of the seven companies listed in the chart above, only four made profits last year, while three lost money.  Exxon and Total enjoyed the highest profits in the group, while Petrobras and Statoil suffered the largest losses:

Again, the financial situation is in much worse shape because “net income” accounting does not factor in the companies’ capital expenditures or dividend payouts.  Regardless, the world’s top oil companies’ profitability has vaporized even at a higher oil price.

Now, another metric that provides us with more disturbing evidence of the Falling EROI in the oil industry is the collapse of  the “Return On Capital Employed.”  Basically, the Return On Capital Employed is just dividing the company’s earnings (before taxes and interest) by its total assets minus current liabilities.  In 2004, the seven companies listed above posted between 20-40% Return On Capital Employed.  However, this fell precipitously over the next decade and are now registering in the low single digits:

In 2004, we can see that BP had the lowest Return On Capital Employed of 19.68% in the group, while Statoil had the highest at 46.20%.  If we throw out the highest and lowest figures, the average for the group was 29%.  Now, compare that to the average of 2.4% for the group in 2016, and that does not including BP and Chevron’s negative returns (shown in Dark Blue & Orange).

NOTE:  I failed to include the Statoil graph line (Magenta)  when I made the chart, but I added the figures afterward.  For Statoil to experience a Return On Capital Employed decline from 46.2% in 2004 to less than 1% in 2016, suggests something is seriously wrong.

We must remember, the high Return On Capital Employed by the group in 2004, was based on a $38 price of oil, while the low single-digit returns by the oil companies in 2016 were derived from a higher price of $43.  Unfortunately, the world’s largest oil companies are no longer able to enjoy high returns on a low oil price.  This is bad news because the market can’t afford a high oil price unless the Fed and Central Banks come back in with an even larger amount of QE (Quantitative Easing) money printing.

I have one more chart that shows just how bad the Falling EROI is destroying the world’s top oil companies.  In 2004, these seven oil companies enjoyed a net Free Cash Flow minus dividends of a positive $34 billion versus a negative $39.1 billion in 2016:

Let me explain these figures.  So, after these oil companies paid their capital expenditures and dividends to shareholders, they had a net $34 billion left over.  However, last year these companies were in the HOLE for $39.1 billion after paying capital expenditures and dividends.  Thus, many of them had to borrow money just to pay dividends.

To understand how big of a change has taken place at the oil companies since 2004, here are the figures below:

Top 7 Major Oil Companies Free Cash Flow Figures

2004 Cash From Operations = …………$139.6 billion

2004 Capital Expenditures = ……………..$67.7 billion

2004 Free Cash Flow = ………………………$71.9 billion

2004 Shareholder Dividends = …………..$37.9 billion

2004 Free Cash Flow – Dividends = $34 billion

2016 Cash From Operations = ……………..$118.5 billion

2016 Capital Expenditures = ………………..$117.5 billion

2016 Free Cash Flow = …………………………..$1.0 billion

2016 Shareholder Dividends = ……………….$40.1 billion

2016 Free Cash Flow – Dividends = -$39.1 billion

Here we can see that the top seven global oil companies made more in cash from operations in 2004 ($139.6 billion) compared to 2016 ($118.5 billion).   That extra $21 billion in operating cash in 2004 versus 2016 was realized even at a lower oil price.  However, what has really hurt the group’s Free Cash Flow, is the much higher capital expenditures of $117.5 billion in 2016 compared to the $67.7 billion in 2004.  You will notice that the net combined dividends didn’t increase that much in the two periods… only by $3 billion.

So, the lower cash from operations and the higher capital expenditures have taken a BIG HIT on the balance sheets of these oil companies.  This is precisely why the long-term debt is skyrocketing, especially over the past three years as the oil price fell below $100 in 2014.  To continue making their shareholders happy, many of these companies are borrowing money to pay dividends.  Unfortunately, going further into debt to pay shareholders is not a prudent long-term business model.

The world’s major oil companies will continue to struggle with the oil price in the $50 range.  While some analysts forecast that higher oil prices are on the horizon, I disagree.  Yes, it’s true that oil prices may spike higher for a while, but the trend will be lower as the U.S. and global economies start to contract.  As oil prices fall to the $40 and below, oil companies will begin to cut capital expenditures even further.  Thus, the cycle of lower prices and the continued gutting of the global oil industry will move into high gear.

There is one option that might provide these oil companies with a buffer… and that is massive Fed and Central Bank money printing resulting in severe inflation and possibly hyperinflation.  But, that won’t be a long-term solution, instead just another lousy band-aid in a series of band-aids that have only postponed the inevitable.

The coming bankruptcy of the once mighty global oil industry will be the death-knell of the world economy.  Without oil, the global economy grinds to a halt.  Of course, this will not occur overnight.  It will take time.  However, the evidence shows that a considerable wound has already taken place in an industry that has provided the world with much-needed oil for more than a century.

Lastly, without trying to be a broken record, the peak and decline of global oil production will destroy the value of most STOCKS, BONDS and REAL ESTATE.  If you have placed most of your bests in one of these assets, you have my sympathies.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: TO MY FOLLOWERS:

I want to thank the new and existing supporters of the SRSrocco Report site.  In just the past week, I have received 11 new Patrons and several new members on the SRSrocco Report site.  Your support allows me to continue posting articles for the entire public.  I have noticed over the past few years, more analysts have decided to put their articles and content behind a subscriber paywall.  Unfortunately, that shuts off the information to many followers who do not have the funds to support that paid content.

I believe the economic and financial situation in the U.S. and world will continue to deteriorate over the next two years and will only get increasing worse going forward.  Those who understand the root cause of it all, ENERGY, will be better prepared or less shocked (or both) when the collapse picks up speed.

I want to thank everyone who participates in the comment section of the site… even those I disagree with… LOL.  We like to keep the debate open for everyone.  So, if you have been a follower of the SRSroccoReport site for a while, but haven’t participated in the comment section, please let us know what you are thinking.

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From oilslick to tyranny

10 10 2017

A prosperous society is an orderly society.

Just found this……  says it all really.  I expect that one day Australia will also be ‘disunited’, I can see how easily Tasmania would cease to trade with the rest of Australia for starters…. republished from ExtraNewsfeed.

People with full bellies, stable homes and secure employment do not allow themselves to be involved in civil disorder. Unfortunately we are living on borrowed money in a bankrupt society. When our debts catch up with us, society will collapse, violent disorder will ensue and martial law will be inevitable. Pre-oil, despotic rule was the norm and democracies did not exist; we are going to return to that era.

The hallmark of the tyrant is already being stamped on the nation for anyone willing to recognise it. Suppression of truth is already in hand, information on climate change has been removed from government websites. It is the preparation for your future governance. No names are given here, because no-one will recognise the opportunist until he makes his grab for ultimate power. It will not be who you expect it to be.

forget Wall St., this is what world bankruptcy looks like:

Oil is our prime source of energy, ‘alternatives’ cannot power our industrial infrastructure.

Any business that continually burns through its assets at ten times the rate of replacement can be said to be bankrupt; that describes the global economy. Fossil fuels are the only asset we have, because everything else is a derivative of coal oil and gas inputs. Without heat, nothing can be manufactured. We elect politicians to lie on our behalf, because we want to be told that our resources and growth are infinite. In return for our votes, they are happy to do this. Everyone is complicit in the grand deceit, to accept the truth would destroy the existence of all of us.

So to perpetuate that lie there is a collective insistence that the global economy must continue to function to a very simple (but ultimately nonsensical) formula:

the more fuel we burn, the greater our gross domestic product. The faster we burn it, the higher our percentage growth.

Our machines and the (finite) fuels that move them now form the sinews that hold all nations together. They feed us, provide heat, light and transport, and with equal importance, stabilise international democracies and political systems.

No matter how complex or mundane your current job, whether garbage collector or brain surgeon, someone, somewhere is producing sufficient surplus energy to support it.

Prosperity is not an infinite right

Collective prosperity at the global level depends on cheap surplus fossil fuel energy. For 2 centuries we have been able to use those fossil fuels as collateral for future debt, to build ever bigger machines to extract elemental resources from the earth. This has been our great burning, because extracted materials of themselves are of no use to us unless we use heat to process them into desirable commodities.

That excess heat is altering our climate beyond human tolerance.

But heat provides our industrial growth economy: fuels must be consumed to sustain it and provide continued employment to make things that are ultimately thrown away in order to consume more to enable our debts to be continually carried forward. Our system of rolling debt depends on increasing energy input ad infinitum. So the one who asserts that climate change is a hoax gets voted into office, granting permission to burn our planet forever.

Without economic stability, democracy cannot survive.

Fuel resources have been a once-only gift of nature, and there are no viable substitutes. When they are no longer freely available, the effects will be catastrophic and force the events outlined here because the availability of surplus energy directly underpins our economic system. Without surplus energy you cannot have a modern democratic society. Be under no illusions, on current trends the events outlined here are certain. Only timing is in question by a few years either way.

Our global bank balance in oil has been falling for 70 years.

We are living on legacy oil. Oilwells cannot be refilled by votes, prayers or money.

We have created an industrial economy that is entirely predicated on a single factor: converting explosive force into rotary motion. Those six words separate us from the economics of the horsedrawn cart, windmill and sailing ship. They also separate us from the disease and deprivation that was the lot of our forebears only a century or two ago. Only fossil fuels can supply that explosive force at the rate we need.

The global industrial economy is now an interlocked progressive whole. It will not allow isolationism to function, neither will it allow a return to a previous era and downsized economic environment. We demand more, you have heard the aspiring tyrant’s words that promise more.

Political promises evaporate when there is insufficient energy to support them.

The notion of “Saudi America” is reassuring, but the facts are not.

Despite the rhetoric and posturing, reality cannot be ignored: the USA produces around 9 Million barrels of oil a day, but uses 0ver 19MBd. (2016). This imbalance is not going to change, despite collective belief to the contrary.

Price fluctuations and the ebb and flow of gluts should be ignored. If the cost of oil rises to a level that sustains the producers, users can’t afford to buy it; if it falls, oil producers can’t afford to extract it. This is the economic vice that is inexorably crushing the global industrial system as oil supplies decline.

Real wages fall in lockstep with oil depletion.

As surplus energy falls away, so does real income. We have substituted debt for income and allowed that debt to grow to mask the reality of our situation. We are stealing from our own future and from generations unborn to stay solvent. It might be called intergenerational larceny. When our great grandchildren arrive they will find nothing left for them to burn.

We are already in the phase of expending too much energy to get energy, which is why real income has been static for 30 years. We live in an energy economy, not a money economy. Wages are paid from energy surpluses, not printing presses, and that surplus has been gradually reducing.

The mirage of infinity.

The killer factor is Energy Return on Energy Invested, EROEI. Over the last 150 years civilisation has been built based on coal that returned an EROEI of 50:1, and oil that returned 100:1. Those ratios of return provided the cheap surplus energy that created our industrial infrastructure, and led to the expectation of infinite affluence.

We cannot maintain our current lifestyle using expensive fuels which give a return ratio of only 20:1 (and falling), which is what the best oilwells deliver.

Around 14:1 our society might hold together in a rudimentary sense if consumption could be balanced at that level, but 80 million new people arrive on the planet each year. They demand to be housed clothed and fed, spreading available resources even thinner. The mothers of the next 2 billion people are alive now. They will reproduce as a matter of personal survival, taking global population beyond 9 billion by mid century, guaranteeing our fall off the ‘energy cliff’.

The Energy Cliff:

There are numerous interpretations of the ‘energy cliff’, offering different return ratios that will supposedly allow our industrial society to function. 14:1, 12:1 even 8:1. The exact figure is irrelevant, right now we are entering the ‘elbow curve’ of the cliff, pinning our energy hopes on PV, wind, nuclear and tarsands; the ultimate downturn is inescapable. Wind and solar farms cannot supply sufficient concentrated energy to replace oil.

oil-gas-war-graffitiWe are 7.5 billion people on a planet that, pre-oil, supported between 1 and 2 billion. By any reckoning, 5 billion people do not have a future, let alone 2 billion more due over the next 30 years.

We must burn fuel to maintain what we have, but the act of burning destroys what we have. This is contrary to human instinct, so the only recourse will be armed conflict to take what others have. All wars are about survival and acquisition of resources. Conflict will drain what little energy we have left and finally exhaust any survivors.

When we reach the point of having only shale or tar sand oil or wind turbines returning 5:1, there will not be enough surplus energy in our industrial systems to provide the economic momentum we need, and maintain the necessary machinery to power the system.

When our wheels stop turning, we stop eating. Our situation is as brutally simple as that. Electric vehicles cannot function outside a hydrocarbon based infrastructure, and no transportation can exist beyond the extent of its purpose. A collapsed economy removes any such purpose. Battery power will not deliver fresh water and remove your wastes, and there isn’t going to be a bucolic utopia where we all become rural gardeners. We don’t know how, there isn’t enough room and probably not enough time. Hungry people will not allow a second harvest.

But the demand for answers will persist, a search for those responsible for our misfortunes, and insistence that our lives are restored to the ‘normality’ of previous times. Already the finger pointing rhetoric of the despot is being cheered on a wave of ignorance and bigotry: lock up opponents and dissenters, suppress the media, remove the unwanted, ignore the laws.

When that (and more) is done, all will be well. They are words from recent history, overlaid on our own time. We thought fascism was impossible in civilised nations; as long as prosperity held for all, that was true. As prosperity fails, it is stirring again, with an appetite easily fed but never sated.

Secession

As energy supplies deplete, the industrial economy will enter its terminal phase, still under collective denial. But no nation can hold together without the fuel sources that created it. Secession will become inevitable, into five, six, seven or more regions in the USA, along racial, religious, political and geographic lines. The faultlines are already there, with no energy base there will be nothing to stop ultimate breakup. Other conglomerations of states and provinces will also disintegrate. The EU, Russia, China, Africa will react and deny, but the end result will be the same: Energy depletion = social collapse.

As civil unrest takes hold, governments will act in the only way they know how: violent suppression to restore order. This will mean military intervention and imposition of martial law as civil breakdown becomes widespread.

At that point your elected leader will assume the role of dictator and suspend the constitution. Once established, godly certainties among those around him will cloak this in righteousness and subvert it into a theocracy of the worst kind. That will make it easier to identify the heathen and justify any form of retribution. It will be fascism cloaked in holy orders. It will not be the first time: Hitler’s army had “Gott Mitt Uns” stamped on their belt buckles.

Those who support him will become part of the new order. Those who do not will be dismissed from office, either voluntarily or by force. Police and military will fall in behind whoever pays their wages, and enforce the new regime. Totalitarian states have shown that there is never a shortage of willing hands to perform unpleasant tasks. They are always ready and waiting to be recruited.

The inevitability of regional secession will inflame regional differences, and spark civil war(s). It will be the time of petty states and tyrannies, each regime desperate to resist the decline into a different lifestyle, certain that the mess can be ‘fixed’, and only ‘they’ can fix it by enforcement of ideology. Yet without the power of fossil fuels there will be an inexorable regression to the brutalities of medievalism, with power resting only in the command of muscle.

Eventually they will be forced to accept each other’s existence, for no better reason than there will be insufficient means to do anything about it.

Welcome to the (dis) United States of America.

So what of the years to come? The dictator’s power will grow for a time, and make life unpleasant for millions, but ultimately his Reich will extend only to the door of his bunker. No doubt he will remain in his seat of imagined power for as long as possible, issuing incoherent commands that cannot be fulfilled because there will be insufficient energy to do so, just as his predecessor discovered 75 years ago.

You can follow me on twitter

or my book “The End of More” https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00D0ADPFY

might give a clearer insight into how we got into the mess in the first place.





Peak ERoEI…?

22 08 2017

Inside the new economic science of capitalism’s slow-burn energy collapse

nafeezAnd why the struggle for a new economic paradigm is about to get real

Another MUST READ article by Nafeez Ahmed……….

 

Originally published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.

New scientific research is quietly rewriting the fundamentals of economics. The new economic science shows decisively that the age of endlessly growing industrial capitalism, premised on abundant fossil fuel supplies, is over.

The long-decline of capitalism-as-we-know-it, the new science shows, began some decades ago, and is on track to accelerate well before the end of the 21st century.

With capitalism-as-we-know it in inexorable decline, the urgent task ahead is to rewrite economics to fit the real-world: and, accordingly, to redesign our concepts of value and prosperity, precisely to rebuild our societies with a view of adapting to this extraordinary age of transition.


A groundbreaking study in Elsevier’s Ecological Economics journal by two French economists, for the first time proves the world has passed a point-of-no-return in its capacity to extract fossil fuel energy: with massive implications for the long-term future of global economic growth.

The study, ‘Long-Term Estimates of the Energy-Return-on-Investment (EROI) of Coal, Oil, and Gas Global Productions’, homes in on the concept of EROI, which measures the amount of energy supplied by an energy resource, compared to the quantity of energy consumed to gather that resource. In simple terms, if a single barrel of oil is used up to extract energy equivalent to 50 barrels of oil, that’s pretty good. But the less energy we’re able to extract using that single barrel, then the less efficient, and more expensive (in terms of energy and money), the whole process.

Recent studies suggest that the EROI of fossil fuels has steadily declined since the early 20th century, meaning that as we’re depleting our higher quality resources, we’re using more and more energy just to get new energy out. This means that the costs of energy production are increasing while the quality of the energy we’re producing is declining.

But unlike previous studies, the authors of the new paper — Victor Court, a macroeconomist at Paris Nanterre University, and Florian Fizaine of the University of Burgundy’s Dijon Laboratory of Economics (LEDi)—have removed any uncertainty that might have remained about the matter.

Point of no return

Court and Fizaine find that the EROI values of global oil and gas production reached their maximum peaks in the 1930s and 40s. Global oil production hit peak EROI at 50:1; while global gas production hit peak EROI at 150:1. Since then, the EROI values of oil and gas — the overall energy we’re able to extract from these resources for every unit of energy we put in — is inexorably declining.

Source: Court and Fizaine (2017)

Even coal, the only fossil fuel resource whose EROI has not yet maxed out, is forecast to undergo an EROI peak sometime between 2020 and 2045. This means that while coal might still have signficant production potential in some parts of the world, rising costs of production are making it increasingly uneconomical.

Axiom: Aggregating this data together reveals that the world’s fossil fuels overall experienced their maximum cumulative EROI of approximately 44:1 in the early 1960s.

Since then, the total value of energy we’re able to extract from the world’s fossil fuel resource base has undergone a protracted, continuous and irreversible decline.

Insight: At this rate of decline, by 2100, we are projected to extract the same value of EROI from fossil fuels as we were in the 1800s.

Several other studies suggest that this ongoing decline in the overall value of the energy extracted from global fossil fuels has played a fundamental role in the slowdown of global economic growth in recent years.

In this sense, the 2008 financial crash did not represent a singular event, but rather one key event in an unfolding process.

The economy-energy nexus

This is because economic growth remains ultimately dependent on “growth in material and energy use,” as a study in the journal PLOS One found last October. That study, lead authored by James D. Ward of the School of Natural and Built Environments, University of South Australia, challenged the idea that GDP growth can be “decoupled” from environmental impacts.

The “illusion of decoupling”, Ward and his colleagues argued, has been maintained through the following misleading techniques:

  1. substituting one resource for another;
  2. financialization of GDP, such as through increasing “monetary flows” through creation of new debt, without however increasing material or energy throughput (think quantitative easing);
  3. exporting environmental impacts to other nations or regions, so that the realities of increasing material throughput can be suppressed from data calculations.
  4. growing inequality of income and wealth, which allows GDP to grow for the benefit of a few, while the majority of workers see decreases in real income —in other words, a wealthy minority monopolises the largest fraction of GDP growth, but does not increase their level of consumption with as much demand for energy and materials.

Ward and his co-authors sought to test these factors by creating a new economic model to see how well it stacks up against the data.

Insight: They found that continued economic growth in GDP “cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.”

Other recent scientific research has further fine-tuned this relationship between energy and prosperity.

The prosperity-resource nexus

Adam Brandt, a leading EROI expert at Stanford University’s Department of Energy Resources Engineering, in the March edition of BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality proves that the decline of EROI directly impacts on economic prosperity.

Earlier studies on this issue, Brandt points out, have highlighted the risk of a “net energy cliff”, which refers to how “declining EROI results in rapid increases in the fraction of energy dedicated to simply supporting the energy system.”

Axiom: So the more EROI declines, a greater proportion of the energy being produced must be used simply to extract more energy. This means that EROI decline leads to less real-world economic growth.

It also creates a complicated situation for oil prices. While at first, declining EROI can be expected to lead to higher prices reflecting higher production costs, the relationship between EROI and prices begins to breakdown as EROI becomes smaller.

This could be because, under a significantly reduced EROI, consumers in a less prosperous economy can no longer afford, energetically or economically, the cost of producing more energy — thus triggering a dramatic drop in market prices, despite higher costs of production. At this point, in the new era of shrinking EROI, swinging oil prices become less and less indicative of ‘scarcity’ in supply and demand.

Brandt’s new economic model looks at how EROI impacts four key sectors — food, energy, materials and labor. Exploring what a decline in net energy would therefore mean for these sectors, he concludes:

“The reduction in the fraction of a resource free and the energy system productivity extends from the energy system to all aspects of the economy, which gives an indication of the mechanisms by which energy productivity declines would affect general prosperity.

A clear implication of this work is that decreases in energy resource productivity, modeled here as the requirement for more materials, labor, and energy, can have a significant effect on the flows required to support all sectors of the economy. Such declines can reduce the effective discretionary output from the economy by consuming a larger and larger fraction of gross output for the meeting of inter-industry requirements.”

Brandt’s model is theoretical, but it has direct implications for the real world.

Insight: Given that the EROI of global fossil fuels has declined steadily since the 1960s, Brandt’s work suggests that a major underlying driver of the long-term process of economic stagnation we’re experiencing is resource depletion.

The new age of economic stagnation

Exactly how big the impact of resource depletion on the economy might be, can be gauged from a separate study by Professor Mauro Bonauiti of the Department of Economics and Statistics at the University of Turn.

His new paper published in February in the Journal of Cleaner Production assesses data on technological innovations and productivity growth. He concludes that:

“… advanced capitalist societies have entered a phase of declining marginal returns — or involuntary degrowth — with possible major effects on the system’s capacity to maintain its present institutional framework.”

Bonauiti draws on anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s work on the growth and collapse of civilizations. Tainter’s seminal work, The Collapse of Complex Societies, showed that the very growth in complexity driving a civilization’s expansion, generates complex new problems requiring further complexity to solve them.

 

Axiom: Complex civilizations tend to accelerate the use of resources, while diminishing the quantity of resources available for the civilization’s continued expansion — because they are continually being invested in solving the new problems generated by increasing complexity.

The result is that complex societies tend to reach a threshold of growth, after which returns diminish to such an extent that the complexification of the society can no longer be sustained, leading to its collapse or regression.

Bonauiti builds on Tainter’s framework and applies it to new data on ‘Total Factor Productivity’ to assess correlations between the growth and weakening in productivity, industrial revolutions, and the implications for continued economic growth.

The benefits that a certain society obtains from its own investments in complexity “do not increase indefinitely”, he writes. “Once a certain threshold has been reached (T0), the social organisation as a whole will enter a phase of declining marginal returns, that is to say, a critical phase, which, if ignored, may lead to the collapse of the whole system.”

This threshold appears to have been reached by Europe, Japan and the US before the early 1970s, he argues.

Insight: The US economy, he shows, appears to have reached “the peak in productivity in the 1930s, the same period in which the EROI of fossil fuels reached an extraordinary value of about 100.”

Of course, Court and Fizaine quantify the exact value of this peak EROI differently using a new methodology, but they agree that the peak occurred roughly around this period.

The US and other advanced economies are currently tapering off the end of what Bonauiti calls the ‘third industrial revolution’ (IR3), in information communications technologies (ICT). This was, however, the shortest and weakest industrial revolution from a productivity standpoint, with its productivity “evaporating” after just eight years.

In the US, the first industrial revolution utilized coal to power steam engine and telegraph technology, stimulating a rapid increase in productivity that peaked between between 1869 and 1892, at almost 2%.

The second industrial revolution was powered by the electric engine and internal combustion engine, which transformed manufacturing and domestic consumption. This led productivity to peak at 2.78%, remaining at around 2% for at least another 25 years.

After the 1930s, however, productivity continually declined, reaching 0.34% in the period 1973–95. Since then, the third industrial revolution driven by computing technology led to a revival of productivity which, however, has already tapered out in a way that is quite tepid compared to the previous industrial revolutions.

Axiom: The highest level of productivity was reached around the 1930s, and since then with each industrial revolution has declined.

The decline period also roughly corresponds to the post-peak EROI era for total fossil fuels identified by Court and Fizaine.

Thus, Bonauiti concludes, “the empirical evidence and theoretical reasons lead one to conclude that the innovations introduced by IR3 are not powerful enough to compensate for the declining returns of IR2.”

Insight: The implication is that the 21st century represents the tail-end of the era of industrial economic expansion, originally ushered in by technological innovations enabled by abundant fossil fuel energy sources.

The latest stage is illustrated with the following graph which demonstrates the rapid rise and decline in productivity of the last major revolution in technological innovation (IR3):

The productivity of the third industrial revolution thus peaked around 2004 and since then has declined back to near 1980s levels.

Bonauiti thus concludes that “advanced capitalist societies (the US, Europe and Japan) have entered a phase of declining marginal returns or involuntary degrowth in many key sectors, with possible major detrimental effects on the system’s capacity to maintain its present institutional framework.”

In other words, the global economic system has entered a fundamentally new era, representing a biophysical phase-shift into an energetically constrained landscape.

Going back to the new EROI analysis by French economists, Victor Court and Florian Fizaine, the EROI of oil is forecast to reduce to 15:1 by 2018. It will continue to decline to around 10:1 by 2035.

They broadly forecast the same pattern for gas and coal: Overall, their data suggests that the EROI of all fossil fuels will hit 15:1 by 2060, and decline further to 10:1 by 2080.

If these projections come to pass, this means that over the next few decades, the overall costs of fossil fuel energy production will increase, even while the market value of fossil fuel energy remains low. The total net energy yield available to fuel continued economic growth will inexorably decline. This will, in turn, squeeze the extent to which the economy can afford to buy fossil fuel energy that is increasingly expensive to produce.

We cannot be sure what this unprecedented state of affairs will herald for the market prices of oil, gas and coal, which are unlikely to follow the conventional supply and demand dynamics we were used to in the 20th century.

But what we can know for sure from the new science is that the era of unlimited economic growth — the defining feature of neoliberal finance capitalism as we know it — is well and truly over.

UK ‘end of growth’ test-case

The real-world workings of this insight have been set out by a team of economists at the University of Leeds’ Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, whose research was partly funded by giant engineering firm Arup, along with the main UK government-funded research councils — the UK Energy Research Centre, the Economics and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

In their paper published by the university’s Sustainability Research Institute this January, Lina Brand-Correa, Paul Brockway, Claire Carter, Tim Foxon, Anne Owen, and Peter Taylor develop a national-level EROI measure for the UK.

Studying data for the period 1997-2012, they find that “the country’s EROI has been declining since the beginning of the 21st Century”.

Energy Returned (Eout) and Energy Invested (Ein) in the UK (1997–2012) Source: Brand-Correa (2017)

The UK’s net EROI peaked in 2000 at a maximum value of 9.6, “before gradually falling back to a value of 6.2 in 2012.” What this means is that on average, “12% of the UK’s extracted/captured energy does not go into the economy or into society for productive or well-being purposes, but rather needs to be reinvested by the energy sectors to produce more energy.”

The paper draws on previous work by economists Court and Fizaine suggesting that continuous economic growth requires a minimal societal EROI of 11, based on the current energy intensity of the UK economy. By implication, the UK is dropping increasingly below this benchmark since the start of the 21st century:

“These initial results show that more and more energy is having to be used in the extraction of energy itself rather than by the UK’s economy or society.”

This also implies that the UK has had to sustain continued economic growth through other mechanisms outside of its own domestic energy context: in particular, as we know, the expansion of debt.

It is no coincidence, then, that debt-to-GDP ratios have continued to grow worldwide. As EROI is in decline, an unsustainable debt-bubble premised on exploitation of working and middle classes is the primary method to keep growth growing — an endeavour that at some point will inevitably come undone under its own weight.

We need a new economics

According to MIT and Harvard trained economist Dr. June Sekera — who leads the Public Economy Project at Tufts University’s Global Development And Environment Institute (GDAE) — net energy decline proves that neoclassical economic theory is simply not fit for purpose.

In Working Paper №17–02 published by the GDAE, Sekera argues that: “One of the most important contributions of biophysical economics is its critique that mainstream economics disregards the biophysical basis of production, and energy in particular.”

Policymakers, she says, “need to understand the biophysical imperative: that societal net energy yield is falling. Hence the need for a biophysical economics, and for policymakers to comprehend its central messages.”

Yet a key problem is that mainstream economics is held back from being able to even comprehend the existence of net energy decline due to an ideological obsession with the market. The result is that production that occurs outside the market is seen as an aberration, a form of government, state or ‘political’ interference in the ‘natural’ dynamics of the market.

And this is why the market alone is incapable of generating solutions to the net energy crisis driving global economic stagnation. The modern market paradigm is fatally self-limited by the following dynamics: “short time horizons, growth as a requisite, gratuitous waste baked-in, profits as life-blood.” This renders it “incapable of producing solutions that demand long-view investment without profits.”

Thus, Sekera calls for a new “public economics” commensurate with what is needed for a successful energy transition. The new public economics will spur on breakthrough scientific and technological innovations that solve “common-need problems” based on “distributed decision-making and collective action.”

The resulting solutions will require “long time-horizon investment: investments with no immediate payoff in terms of saleable products, no visible ROI (return on investment), no profit-making in the near-term. Such investment can be generated only in a non-market environment, in which payment is collective and financial profit is not the point.”

The only problem is that, as Sekera herself recognizes, the main incubator and agent of the non-market public economy is government — but government itself is playing a key role in dismantling, hollowing-out and privatizing the non-market public economy.

There is only one solution to this conundrum, however difficult it might seem:

Citizens themselves at all scales have an opportunity to work together to salvage and regenerate new public economies based on pooling their human, financial and physical assets and resources, to facilitate the emergence of more viable and sustainable economic structures. Part of this will include adapting to post-carbon energy sources.

Far from representing the end of prosperity, this transition represents an opportunity to redefine prosperity beyond the idea of endlessly increasing material accumulation; and realigning society with the goal of meeting real-world human physical, psychological and spiritual needs.

What will emerge from efforts to do so has not yet been written. But those efforts will define the contours of the new post-carbon economy, as the unsustainable juggernaut of the old grinds slowly and painfully to a protracted, chaotic halt.

In coming years and decades, the reality of the need for a new economic science that reflects the dynamics of the economy’s fundamental embeddedness in the biophysical environment will become evermore obvious.

So say goodbye to endless growth neoliberalism.


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Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an award-winning 16-year investigative journalist and creator of INSURGE intelligence, a crowdfunded public interest investigative journalism project. He is ‘System Shift’ columnist at VICE’s Motherboard.

His work has been published in The Guardian, VICE, Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, Raw Story, New Internationalist, Huffington Post UK, Al-Arabiya English, AlterNet, The Ecologist, and Asia Times, among other places.

Nafeez has twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s ‘Top 1,000’ list of most influential people in London.

His latest book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer, 2017) is a scientific study of how climate, energy, food and economic crises are driving state failures around the world.