Why Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us

27 11 2019

Richard Heinberg

August 17, 2017


Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution, and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity. The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival. Until we understand and address this systemic imbalance, symptomatic treatment (doing what we can to reverse pollution dilemmas like climate change, trying to save threatened species, and hoping to feed a burgeoning population with genetically modified crops) will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures that are ultimately destined to fail.

The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972), an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion, and pollution. Overshoot (1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.

However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.

Why have environmental writers and advocacy organizations succumbed to tunnel vision? Perhaps it’s simply that they assume systems thinking is beyond the capacity of policy makers. It’s true: if climate scientists were to approach world leaders with the message, “We have to change everything, including our entire economic system—and fast,” they might be shown the door rather rudely. A more acceptable message is, “We have identified a serious pollution problem, for which there are technical solutions.” Perhaps many of the scientists who did recognize the systemic nature of our ecological crisis concluded that if we can successfully address this one make-or-break environmental crisis, we’ll be able to buy time to deal with others waiting in the wings (overpopulation, species extinctions, resource depletion, and on and on).

If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solar, wind, and nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps, and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don’t have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers, and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.

The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can’t do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation, and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn’t it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?

Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Future, concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity, and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating, and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.

Downsizing the world’s energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That’s a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, “Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it’s also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.

The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics (“There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss”).  Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that’s having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.

In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren’t sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.

Why didn’t the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves “bright greens” or “eco-modernists” have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won’t work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all.

The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn’t that it appealed to humanity’s moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement’s great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn’t able to alter industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we’re at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.

The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn’t wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot “save” consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.

There’s more good news: once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.

But machines won’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it’s not just our last hope; it’s the only real hope we’ve ever had.





Conjuring Up the Next Depression

11 09 2018

chrishedges

Chris Hedges

During the financial crisis of 2008, the world’s central banks, including the Federal Reserve, injected trillions of dollars of fabricated money into the global financial system. This fabricated money has created a worldwide debt of $325 trillion, more than three times global GDP. The fabricated money was hoarded by banks and corporations, loaned by banks at predatory interest rates, used to service interest on unpayable debt or spent buying back stock, providing millions in compensation for elites. The fabricated money was not invested in the real economy. Products were not manufactured and sold. Workers were not reinstated into the middle class with sustainable incomes, benefits and pensions. Infrastructure projects were not undertaken. The fabricated money reinflated massive financial bubbles built on debt and papered over a fatally diseased financial system destined for collapse.

What will trigger the next crash? The $13.2 trillion in unsustainable U.S. household debt? The $1.5 trillion in unsustainable student debt? The billions Wall Street has invested in a fracking industry that has spent $280 billion more than it generated from its operations? Who knows. What is certain is that a global financial crash, one that will dwarf the meltdown of 2008, is inevitable. And this time, with interest rates near zero, the elites have no escape plan. The financial structure will disintegrate. The global economy will go into a death spiral. The rage of a betrayed and impoverished population will, I fear, further empower right-wing demagogues who promise vengeance on the global elites, moral renewal, a nativist revival heralding a return to a mythical golden age when immigrants, women and people of color knew their place, and a Christianized fascism.

The 2008 financial crisis, as the economist Nomi Prins points out, “converted central banks into a new class of power brokers.” They looted national treasuries and amassed trillions in wealth to become politically and economically omnipotent. In her book “Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World,” she writes that central bankers and the world’s largest financial institutions fraudulently manipulate global markets and use fabricated, or as she writes, “fake money,” to inflate asset bubbles for short-term profit as they drive us toward “a dangerous financial precipice.”

“Before the crisis, they were just asleep at the wheel, in particular, the Federal Reserve of the United States, which is supposed to be the main regulator of the major banks in the United States,” Prins said when we met in New York. “It did a horrible job of doing that, which is why we had the financial crisis. It became a deregulator instead of a regulator. In the wake of the financial crisis, the solution to fixing the crisis and saving the economy from a great depression or recession, whatever the terminology that was used at any given time, was to fabricate trillions and trillions of dollars out of an electronic ether.”

The Federal Reserve handed over an estimated $29 trillion of this fabricated money to American banks, according to researchers at the University of MissouriTwenty-nine trillion dollars! We could have provided free college tuition to every student or universal health care, repaired our crumbling infrastructure, transitioned to clean energy, forgiven student debt, raised wages, bailed out underwater homeowners, formed public banks to invest at low interest rates in our communities, provided a guaranteed minimum income for everyone and organized a massive jobs program for the unemployed and underemployed. Sixteen million children would not go to bed hungry. The mentally ill and the homeless—an estimated 553,742 Americans are homeless every night—would not be left on the streets or locked away in our prisons. The economy would revive. Instead, $29 trillion in fabricated money was handed to financial gangsters who are about to make most of it evaporate and plunge us into a depression that will rival that of the global crash of 1929.

Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers write on the website Popular Resistance, “One-sixth of this could provide a $12,000 annual basic income, which would cost $3.8 trillion annually, doubling Social Security payments to $22,000 annually, which would cost $662 billion, a $10,000 bonus for all U.S. public school teachers, which would cost $11 billion, free college for all high school graduates, which would cost $318 billion, and universal preschool, which would cost $38 billion. National improved Medicare for all would actually save the nation trillions of dollars over a decade.”

An emergency clause in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 allows the Fed to provide liquidity to a distressed banking system. But the Federal Reserve did not stop with the creation of a few hundred billion dollars. It flooded the financial markets with absurd levels of fabricated money. This had the effect of making the economy appear as if it had revived. And for the oligarchs, who had access to this fabricated money while we did not, it did.

The Fed cut interest rates to near zero. Some central banks in Europe instituted negative interest rates, meaning they would pay borrowers to take loans. The Fed, in a clever bit of accounting, even permitted distressed banks to use these no-interest loans to buy U.S. Treasury bonds. The banks gave the bonds back to the Fed and received a quarter of a percent of interest from the Fed. In short, the banks were loaned money at virtually no interest by the Fed and then were paid interest by the Fed on the money they borrowed. The Fed also bought up worthless mortgage assets and other toxic assets from the banks. Since Fed authorities could fabricate as much money as they wanted, it did not matter how they spent it.

“It’s like going to someone’s old garage sale and saying, ‘I want that bicycle with no wheels. I’ll pay you 100 grand for it. Why? Because it’s not my money,’ ” Prins said.

“These people have rigged the system,” she said of the bankers. “There is money fabricated at the top. It is used to pump up financial assets, including stock. It has to come from somewhere. Because money is cheap there’s more borrowing at the corporate level. There’s more money borrowed at the government level.”

“Where do you go to repay it?” she asked. “You go into the nation. You go into the economy. You extract money from the foundational economy, from social programs. You impose austerity.”

Given the staggering amount of fabricated money that has to be repaid, the banks need to build greater and greater pools of debt. This is why when you are late in paying your credit card the interest rate jumps to 28 percent. This is why if you declare bankruptcy you are still responsible for paying off your student loan, even as 1 million people a year default on student loans, with 40 percent of all borrowers expected to default on student loans by 2023. This is why wages are stagnant or have declined while costs, from health care and pharmaceutical products to bank fees and basic utilities, are skyrocketing. The enforced debt peonage grows to feed the beast until, as with the subprime mortgage crisis, the predatory system fails because of massive defaults. There will come a day, for example, as with all financial bubbles, when the wildly optimistic projected profits of industries such as fracking will no longer be an effective excuse to keep pumping money into failing businesses burdened by debt they cannot repay.

“The 60 biggest exploration and production firms are not generating enough cash from their operations to cover their operating and capital expenses,” Bethany McLean writes of the fracking industry in an article titled “The Next Financial Crisis Lurks Underground” that appeared in The New York Times. “In aggregate, from mid-2012 to mid-2017, they had negative free cash flow of $9 billion per quarter.”

The global financial system is a ticking time bomb. The question is not if it will explode but when it will explode. And once it does, the inability of the global speculators to use fabricated money with zero interest to paper over the debacle will trigger massive unemployment, high prices for imports and basic services, and a devaluation in which the dollar will become nearly worthless as it is abandoned as the world’s reserve currency. This manufactured financial tsunami will transform the United States, already a failed democracy, into an authoritarian police state. Life will become very cheap, especially for the vulnerable—undocumented workers, Muslims, poor people of color, girls and women, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist critics branded as agents of  foreign powers—who will be demonized and persecuted for the collapse. The elites, in a desperate bid to cling to their unchecked power and obscene wealth, will disembowel what is left of the United States.





Why the ERoEI of oil fracking is so awful revisited…

1 06 2018

Following from my last post on this subject, in which the voice over person in the video clips gives the impression of “how smart are we doing this stuff”, Steve StAngelo of SRSRocco fame published this amazing set of data. I clearly remember Chris Martenson saying in another podcast that the amount of tax levied at the fracking industry barely covered something like a third of the cost of repairing the roads after the millions of truck trips in Texas alone…..

IF you don’t regularly visit SRSRocco, I heartily recommend it.

The Unbelievable Amount Of Frac Sand Consumed By U.S. Shale Oil Industry

The U.S. Shale Oil Industry utilizes a stunning amount of equipment and consumes a massive amount of materials to produce more than half of the country’s oil production.  One of the vital materials used in the production of shale oil is frac sand.  The amount of frac sand used in the shale oil business has skyrocketed by more than 10 times since the industry took off in 2007.

 

According to the data by Rockproducts.com and IHS Markit, frac sand consumption by the U.S. shale oil and gas industry increased from 10 billion pounds a year in 2007 to over 120 billion pounds in 2017.  This year, frac sand consumption is forecasted to climb to over 135 billion pounds, with the country’s largest shale field, the Permian, accounting for 37% of the total at 50 billion pounds.

Now, 50 billion pounds of frac sand in the Permian is an enormous amount when we compare it to the total 10 billion pounds consumed by the entire shale oil and gas industry in 2007.

To get an idea of the U.S. top shale oil fields, here is a chart from my recent video, The U.S. Shale Oil Ponzi Scheme Explained:

(charts courtesy of the EIA – U.S. Energy Information Agency)

As we can see in the graph above, the Permian Region is the largest shale oil field in the United States with over 3 million barrels per day (mbd) of production compared to 1.7 mbd in the Eagle Ford, 1.2 mbd at the Bakken and nearly 600,000 barrels per day in the Niobrara.  However, only about 2 mbd of the Permian’s total production is from horizontal shale oil fracking.  The remainder is from conventional oil production.

Now, to produce shale oil or gas, the shale drillers pump down the horizontal oil well a mixture of water, frac sand, and chemicals to release the oil and gas.  You can see this process in the video below (example used for shale gas extraction):

The Permian Region, being the largest shale oil field in the United States, it consumes the most frac sand.  According to BlackMountainSand.com Infographicthe Permian will consume 68,500 tons of frac sand a day, enough to fill 600 railcars.  This equals 50 billion pounds of frac sand a year.  And, that figure is forecasted to increase every year.

Now, if we calculate the number of truckloads it takes to transport this frac sand to the Permian shale oil wells, it’s truly a staggering figure.  While estimates vary, I used 45,000 pounds of frac sand per sem-tractor load.  By dividing 50 billion pounds of frac sand by 45,000 pounds per truckload, we arrive at the following figures in the chart below:

Each month, over 91,000 truckloads of frac sand will be delivered to the Permian shale oil wells.  However, by the end of 2018, over 1.1 million truckloads of frac sand will be used to produce the Permian’s shale oil and gas.  I don’t believe investors realize just how much 1.1 million truckloads represents until we compare it to the largest retailer in the United States.

According to Walmart, their drivers travel approximately 700 million miles per year to deliver products from the 160 distribution centers to thousands of stores across the country.  From the information, I obtained at MWPWL International on Walmart’s distribution supply chain, the average one-way distance to its Walmart stores is about 130 miles.  By dividing the annual 700 million miles traveled by Walmart drivers by the average 130-mile trip, the company will utilize approximately 5.5 million truckloads to deliver its products to all of its stores in 2018.

The following chart compares the annual amount of Walmart’s truckloads to frac sand delivered in the Permian for 2018:

To provide the frac sand to produce shale oil and gas in the Permian this year, it will take 1.1 million truckloads or 20% of the truckloads to supply all the Walmart stores in the United States.  Over 140 million Americans visit Walmart (store or online) every week.  However, the Industry estimates that the Permian’s frac sand consumption will jump from 50 billion pounds this year to 119 billion pounds by 2022.  Which means, the Permian will be utilizing 2.6 million truckloads to deliver frac sand by 2022, or nearly  50% of Walmart’s supply chain:

This is an insane number of truckloads just to deliver sand to produce shale oil and gas in the Permian.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe the Permian will be consuming this much frac sand by 2022.  As I have stated in several articles and interviews, I see a massive deflationary spiral taking place in the markets over the next 2-4 years.  This will cause the oil price to fall back much lower, possibly to $30 once again.  Thus, drilling activity will collapse in the shale oil and gas industry, reducing the need for frac sand.

Regardless, I wanted to show the tremendous amount of frac sand that is consumed in the largest shale oil field in the United States.  I calculated that for every gallon of oil produced in the Permian in 2018, it would need about one pound of frac sand.  But, this does not include all the other materials, such as steel pipe, cement, water, chemicals, etc.

For example, the Permian is estimated to use 71 billion gallons of water to produce oil this year. Thus, the fracking crews will be pumping down more than 1.5 gallons of water for each gallon of oil they extract in 2018.  So, the shale industry is consuming a larger volume of water and sand to just produce a smaller quantity of uneconomic shale oil in the Permian.

Lastly, I have provided information in several articles and videos explaining why I believe the U.S. Shale Oil Industry is a Ponzi Scheme.  From my analysis, I see the disintegration of the U.S. shale oil industry to start to take place within the next 1-3 years.  Once the market realizes it has been investing in a $250+ billion Shale Oil Ponzi Scheme, the impact on the U.S. economy and financial system will be quite devastating.





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.





The Real Reason behind the Oil Price Collapse

14 03 2015

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

Michael T. Klare on Energy Policy and Sustainability

Michael T Klare

By Michael T Klare

Many reasons have been provided for the dramatic plunge in the price of oil to about $60 per barrel (nearly half of what it was a year ago): slowing demand due to global economic stagnation; overproduction at shale fields in the United States; the decision of the Saudis and other Middle Eastern OPEC producers to maintain output at current levels (presumably to punish higher-cost producers in the US and elsewhere); and the increased value of the dollar relative to other currencies. There is, however, one reason that’s not being discussed, and yet it could be the most important of all: the complete collapse of Big Oil’s production-maximizing business model.

Until last fall, when the price decline gathered momentum, the oil giants were operating at full throttle, pumping out more petroleum every day. They did so, of course, in part to profit from the high prices. For most of the previous six years, Brent crude, the international benchmark for crude oil, had been selling at $100 or higher. But Big Oil was also operating according to a business model that assumed an ever-increasing demand for its products, however costly they might be to produce and refine. This meant that no fossil fuel reserves, no potential source of supply—no matter how remote or hard to reach, how far offshore or deeply buried, how encased in rock—was deemed untouchable in the mad scramble to increase output and profits.

In recent years, this output-maximizing strategy had, in turn, generated historic wealth for the giant oil companies. Exxon, the largest US-based oil firm, earned an eye-popping $32.6 billion in 2013 alone, more than any other American company except for Apple. Chevron, the second biggest oil firm, posted earnings of $21.4 billion that same year. State-owned companies like Saudi Aramco and Russia’s Rosneft also reaped mammoth profits.

How things have changed in a matter of mere months. With demand stagnant and excess production the story of the moment, the very strategy that had generated record-breaking profits has suddenly become hopelessly dysfunctional.

To fully appreciate the nature of the energy industry’s predicament, it’s necessary to go back a decade to 2005, when the production-maximizing strategy was first adopted. At that time, Big Oil faced a critical juncture. On the one hand, many existing oil fields were being depleted at a torrid pace, leading experts to predict an imminent “peak” in global oil production, followed by an irreversible decline; on the other, rapid economic growth in China, India and other developing nations was pushing demand for fossil fuels into the stratosphere. In those same years, concern over climate change was also beginning to gather momentum, threatening the future of Big Oil and generating pressures to invest in alternative forms of energy.

A “Brave New World” of Tough Oil

No one better captured that moment than David O’Reilly, the chairman and CEO of Chevron. “Our industry is at a strategic inflection point, a unique place in our history,” he told a gathering of oil executives that February. “The most visible element of this new equation,” he explained in what some observers dubbed his “Brave New World” address, “is that relative to demand, oil is no longer in plentiful supply.” Even though China was sucking up oil, coal and natural gas supplies at a staggering rate, he had a message for that country and the world: “The era of easy access to energy is over.”

To prosper in such an environment, O’Reilly explained, the oil industry would have to adopt a new strategy. It would have to look beyond the easy-to-reach sources that had powered it in the past and make massive investments in the extraction of what the industry calls “unconventional oil” and what I labeled at the time “tough oil“: resources located far offshore, in the threatening environments of the far north, in politically dangerous places like Iraq, or in unyielding rock formations like shale. “Increasingly,” O’Reilly insisted, “future supplies will have to be found in ultradeep water and other remote areas, development projects that will ultimately require new technology and trillions of dollars of investment in new infrastructure.”

For top industry officials like O’Reilly, it seemed evident that Big Oil had no choice in the matter. It would have to invest those needed trillions in tough-oil projects or lose ground to other sources of energy, drying up its stream of profits. True, the cost of extracting unconventional oil would be much greater than from easier-to-reach conventional reserves (not to mention more environmentally hazardous), but that would be the world’s problem, not theirs. “Collectively, we are stepping up to this challenge,” O’Reilly declared. “The industry is making significant investments to build additional capacity for future production.”

On this basis, Chevron, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and other major firms indeed invested enormous amounts of money and resources in a growing unconventional oil and gas race, an extraordinary saga I described in my book The Race for What’s Left. Some, including Chevron and Shell, started drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico; others, including Exxon, commenced operations in the Arctic and eastern Siberia. Virtually every one of them began exploiting US shale reserves via hydro-fracking.

Only one top executive questioned this drill-baby-drill approach: John Browne, then the chief executive of BP. Claiming that the science of climate change had become too convincing to deny, Browne argued that Big Energy would have to look “beyond petroleum” and put major resources into alternative sources of supply. “Climate change is an issue which raises fundamental questions about the relationship between companies and society as a whole, and between one generation and the next,” he had declared as early as 2002. For BP, he indicated, that meant developing wind power, solar power and biofuels.

Browne, however, was eased out of BP in 2007 just as Big Oil’s output-maximizing business model was taking off, and his successor, Tony Hayward, quickly abandoned the “beyond petroleum” approach. “Some may question whether so much of the [world’s energy] growth needs to come from fossil fuels,” he said in 2009. “But here it is vital that we face up to the harsh reality [of energy availability].” Despite the growing emphasis on renewables, “we still foresee 80% of energy coming from fossil fuels in 2030.”

Under Hayward’s leadership, BP largely discontinued its research into alternative forms of energy and reaffirmed its commitment to the production of oil and gas, the tougher the better. Following in the footsteps of other giant firms, BP hustled into the Arctic, the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, and Canadian tar sands, a particularly carbon-dirty and messy-to-produce form of energy. In its drive to become the leading producer in the Gulf, BP rushed the exploration of a deep offshore field it called Macondo, triggeringthe Deepwater Horizon blow-out of April 2010 and the devastating oil spill of monumental proportions that followed.

Over the Cliff

By the end of the first decade of this century, Big Oil was united in its embrace of its new production-maximizing, drill-baby-drill approach. It made the necessary investments, perfected new technology for extracting tough oil, and did indeed triumph over the decline of existing, “easy oil” deposits. In those years, it managed to ramp up production in remarkable ways, bringing ever more hard-to-reach oil reservoirs online.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy, world oil production rose from 85.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 92.9 million in 2014, despite the continuing decline of many legacy fields in North America and the Middle East. Claiming that industry investments in new drilling technologies had vanquished the specter of oil scarcity, BP’s latest CEO, Bob Dudley, assured the world only a year ago that Big Oil was going places and the only thing that had “peaked” was “the theory of peak oil.”

That, of course, was just before oil prices took their leap off the cliff, bringing instantly into question the wisdom of continuing to pump out record levels of petroleum. The production-maximizing strategy crafted by O’Reilly and his fellow CEOs rested on three fundamental assumptions: that, year after year, demand would keep climbing; that such rising demand would ensure prices high enough to justify costly investments in unconventional oil; and that concern over climate change would in no significant way alter the equation. Today, none of these assumptions holds true.

Demand will continue to rise—that’s undeniable, given expected growth in world income and population—but not at the pace to which Big Oil has become accustomed. Consider this: in 2005, when many of the major investments in unconventional oil were getting under way, the EIA projected that global oil demand would reach 103.2 million barrels per day in 2015; now, it’s lowered that figure for this year to only 93.1 million barrels. Those 10 million “lost” barrels per day in expected consumption may not seem like a lot, given the total figure, but keep in mind that Big Oil’s multibillion-dollar investments in tough energy were predicated on all that added demand materializing, thereby generating the kind of high prices needed to offset the increasing costs of extraction. With so much anticipated demand vanishing, however, prices were bound to collapse.

Current indications suggest that consumption will continue to fall short of expectations in the years to come. In an assessment of future trends released last month, the EIA reported that, thanks to deteriorating global economic conditions, many countries will experience either a slower rate of growth or an actual reduction in consumption. While still inching up, Chinese consumption, for instance, is expected to grow by only 0.3 million barrels per day this year and next—a far cry from the 0.5 million barrel increase it posted in 2011 and 2012 and its one million barrel increase in 2010. In Europe and Japan, meanwhile, consumption is actually expected to fall over the next two years.

And this slowdown in demand is likely to persist well beyond 2016, suggests the International Energy Agency (IEA), an arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the club of rich industrialized nations). While lower gasoline prices may spur increased consumption in the United States and a few other nations, it predicted, most countries will experience no such lift and so “the recent price decline is expected to have only a marginal impact on global demand growth for the remainder of the decade.”

This being the case, the IEA believes that oil prices will only average about $55 per barrel in 2015 and not reach $73 again until 2020. Such figures fall far below what would be needed to justify continued investment in and exploitation of tough-oil options like Canadian tar sands, Arctic oil and many shale projects. Indeed, the financial press is now full of reports on stalled or cancelled mega-energy projects. Shell, for example, announced in January that it had abandoned plans for a $6.5 billion petrochemical plant in Qatar, citing “the current economic climate prevailing in the energy industry.” At the same time, Chevron shelved its plan to drill in the Arctic waters of the Beaufort Sea, while Norway’s Statoil turned its back on drilling in Greenland.

There is, as well, another factor that threatens the wellbeing of Big Oil: climate change can no longer be discounted in any future energy business model. The pressures to deal with a phenomenon that could quite literally destroy human civilization are growing. Although Big Oil has spent massive amounts of money over the years in a campaign to raise doubts about the science of climate change, more and more people globally are starting toworry about its effects—extreme weather patterns, extreme storms, extreme drought, rising sea levels and the like—and demanding that governments take action to reduce the magnitude of the threat.

Europe has already adopted plans to lower carbon emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020 and to achieve even greater reductions in the following decades. China, while still increasing its reliance on fossil fuels, has at least finally pledged to cap the growth of its carbon emissions by 2030 and to increase renewable energy sources to 20% of total energy use by then. In the United States, increasingly stringent automobile fuel-efficiency standards will require that cars sold in 2025 achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon, reducing US oil demand by 2.2 million barrels per day. (Of course, the Republican-controlled Congress—heavily subsidized by Big Oil—will do everything it can to eradicate curbs on fossil fuel consumption.)

Still, however inadequate the response to the dangers of climate change thus far, the issue is on the energy map and its influence on policy globally can only increase. Whether Big Oil is ready to admit it or not, alternative energy is now on the planetary agenda and there’s no turning back from that. “It is a different world than it was the last time we saw an oil-price plunge,” said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven in February, referring to the 2008 economic meltdown. “Emerging economies, notably China, have entered less oil-intensive stages of development.… On top of this, concerns about climate change are influencing energy policies [and so] renewables are increasingly pervasive.”

The oil industry is, of course, hoping that the current price plunge will soon reverse itself and that its now-crumbling maximizing-output model will make a comeback along with $100-per-barrel price levels. But these hopes for the return of “normality” are likely energy pipe dreams. As van der Hoeven suggests, the world has changed in significant ways, in the process obliterating the very foundations on which Big Oil’s production-maximizing strategy rested. The oil giants will either have to adapt to new circumstances, while scaling back their operations, or face takeover challenges from more nimble and aggressive firms.





Derrick Jensen interview at the Earth at Risk 2014 Conference

3 12 2014

 





The collapse of oil prices and energy security in Europe

17 11 2014

This is a written version of the brief talk I gave at the hearing of the EU parliament on energy security in Brussels on Nov 5, 2014. It is not a transcription, but a shortened version that tries to maintain the substance of what I said. In the picture, you can see the audience and, on the TV screen, yours truly taking the picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, let me say that it is a pleasure and an honour to be addressing this distinguished audience today. I am here as a faculty member of the University of Florence and as a member of the Club of Rome, but let me state right away that what I will tell you are my own opinions, not necessarily those of the Club of Rome or of my university.

This said, let me note that we have been discussing so far with the gas crisis and the Ukrainian situation, but I have to alert you that there is another ongoing crisis – perhaps much more worrisome – that has to do with crude oil. This crisis is being generated by the rapid fall in oil prices during the past few weeks. I have to tell you that low oil prices are NOT a good thing for the reasons that I will try to explain. In particular, low oil prices make it impossible for many oil producers to produce at a profit and that could generate big problems for the world’s economy, just as it already happened in 2008.

So, let me start with an overview of the long term trends of oil prices. Here it is, with data plotted from the BP site.

These data are corrected for inflation. You see strong oscillations, but also an evident trend of growth. Let’s zoom in, to see the past thirty years or so:

These data are not corrected for inflation, but the correction is not large in this time range. Prices are growing, but they stabilized during the past 4-5 years at somewhere around US 100 $ per barrel. Note the fall during the past month or so. I plotted these data about one week ago, today we are at even lower prices, well under 80 dollars per barrel.

The question is: what generates these trends? Obviously, there are financial factors of all kinds that tend to create fluctuations. But, in the end, what determines prices is the interplay of demand and offer. If prices are too high, people can’t afford to buy; that’s what we call “demand destruction”. If prices are too low, then it is offer that is destroyed. Simply, producers can’t sell their products at a loss; not for a long time, at least. So there is a range of prices which are possible for oil: too high, and customers can’t buy, too low, and companies can’t sell. Indeed, if you look at historical prices, you see that when they went over something like 120 $/barrel (present dollars) the result was a subsequent recession and the collapse of the economy.

Ultimately, it is the cost of production that generates the lower price limit. Here, we get into the core of the problem. As you see from the price chart above, up to about the year 2000, there was no problem for producers to make a profit selling oil at around 20 dollars per barrel. Then something changed that caused the prices to rise up. That something has a name: it is depletion.

Depletion doesn’t mean that we run out of oil. Absolutely not. There is still plenty of oil to extract in the world. Depletion means that we gradually consume our resources and – as you can imagine – we tend to extract and produce first the least expensive resources. So, as depletion gradually goes on, we are left with more expensive resources to extract. And, if extracting costs more, then the market prices must increase: as I said, nobody wants to sell at a loss. And here we have the problem. Below, you can see is a chart that shows the costs of production of oil for various regions of the world. (From an article by Hall and Murphy on The Oil Drum)

Of course, these data are to be taken with caution. But there are other, similar, estimates, including a 2012 report by Goldman and Sachs, where you can read that most recent developments need at least 120 $/barrel to be profitable. Here is a slide from that report.

So, you see that, with the present prices, a good 10% of the oil presently produced is produced at a loss. If prices were to go back to values considered “normal” just 10 years ago, around 40 $/barrel, then we would lose profitability for around half of the world’s production. Production won’t collapse overnight: a good fraction of the cost of production derives from the initial investment in an oil field. So, once the field has been developed, it keeps producing, even though the profits may not repay the investment. But, in the long run, nobody wants to invest in an enterprise at so high risks of loss. Eventually, production must go down: there will still be oil that could be, theoretically, extracted, but that we won’t be able to afford to extract. This is the essence of the concept of depletion.

The standard objection, at this point, is about technology. People say, “yes, but technology will lower costs of extraction and everything will be fine again”. Well, I am afraid that it is not so simple. There are limits to what that technology can do. Let me show you something:

That object you see at the top of the image is a chunk of shale. It is the kind of rock out of which shale oil and shale gas can be extracted. But, as you can imagine, it is not easy. You can’t pump oil out of shales; the oil is there, but it is locked into the rock. To extract it, you must break the rock down into small pieces; fracture it (this is where the term “fracking” comes from). And you see on the right an impression of the kind of equipment it takes. You can be sure that it doesn’t come cheap. And that’s not all: once you start fracking, you have to keep on fracking. The decline rate of a fracking well is very rapid; we are talking about something like a loss of 80% in three years. And that’s expensive, too. Note, by the way, that we are speaking of the cost of production. The market price is another matter and it is perfectly possible for the industry to have to produce at a loss, if they were too enthusiastic about investing in these new resources. It is what’s happening for shale gas in the US; too much enthusiasm on the part of investors has created a problem of overproduction and prices too low to repay the costs of extraction.

So, producing this kind of resources, the so called “new oil” is a complex and expensive task. Surely technology can help reduce costs, but think about that: how exactly can it reduce the energy that it takes to break a rock into fine dust? Are you going to hammer on it with a smartphone? Are you going to share a photo of it on Facebook? Are you going to run it through a 3D printer? The problem is that to break and mill a piece of rock takes energy and this energy has to come from somewhere.

Eventually, the fundamental point is that you have a balance between the energy invested and the energy returned. It takes energy to extract oil, we can say that it takes energy to produce energy. The ratio of the two energies is the “Net Energy Return” of the whole system, also known as EROI or EROEI (energy return of energy invested). Of course, you want this return to be as high as possible, but when you deal with non renewable resources, such as oil, the net energy return declines with time because of depletion. Let me show you some data.

As you see, the net energy return for crude oil (top left) declined from about 100 to around 10 over some 100 years (the value of 100 may be somewhat overestimated, but the trend remains the same). And with lower net energies, you get less and less useful energy from an oil well; as you can see in the image at the lower right. The situation is especially bad for the so called “new oil”, shale oil, biofuels, tar sands, and others. It is expected: these kinds of oil (or anyway combustible liquids) are the most expensive ones and they are being extracted today because we are running out of the cheap kinds. No wonder that prices must increase if production has to continue at the levels we are used to. Then, when the market realizes that prices are too high to be affordable, there is the opposite effect; prices go down to tell producers to stop producing a resource which is too expensive to sell.

So, we have a problem. It is a problem that appears in the form of sudden price jumps; up and down, but which is leading us gradually to a situation in which we won’t be able to produce as much oil as we are used to. The same is true for gas and I think that the present crisis in Europe, which is seen today mainly as a political one, ultimately has its origin in the gradual depletion of gas resources. We still have plenty of gas to produce, but it is becoming an expensive resource.  It is the same for coal, even though so far there we don’t see shortages; for coal, troubles come more from emissions and climate change; and that’s an even more serious problem than depletion. Coal may (perhaps) be considered abundant (or, at least, more abundant than other fossil resources) but it is not a solution to any problem.

In the end, we have problems that cannot be “solved” by trying to continue producing non renewable resources which in the long run are going to become too expensive. It is a physical problem, and cannot be solved by political or financial methods. The only possibility is to switch to resources which don’t suffer of depletion. That is, to renewable resources.

At this point, we should discuss what is the energy return of renewables and compare it to that of fossil fuels. This is a complex story and there is a lot of work being done on that. There are many uncertainties in the estimates, but I think it can be said that the “new renewables“, that is mainly photovoltaics and wind, have energy returns for the production of electrical energy which is comparable to that of the production of the same kind of energy from oil and gas. Maybe renewables still can’t match the return of fossil fuels but, while the energy return of fossil energy keeps declining, the return of renewables is increasing because of economies of scale and technological improvements. So, we are going to reach a crossing point at some moment (maybe we have already reached it) and, even in terms of market prices, the cost of renewable electric power is today already comparable to that of electric power obtained with fossil fuels.

The problem is that our society was built around the availability of cheap fossil fuels. We can’t simply switch to renewables such as photovoltaics, which can’t produce, for instance, liquid fuels for transportation. So, we need a new infrastructure to accommodate the new technologies, and that will be awfully expensive to create. We’ll have to try to do our best, but we cannot expect the energy transition – the “energiewende” – to be painless. On the other hand, if we don’t prepare for it, it will be worse.

So, to return to the subject of this hearing, we were discussing energy security for Europe. I hope I provided some data for you that show how security is ultimately related to supply and that we are having big problems with the supply of fossil energy right now. The problem can only increase in the future because of the gradual depletion of fossil resources. So, we need to think in terms of supplies which are not affected by this problem. As a consequence, it is vital for Europe’s energy security to invest in renewable energy. We shouldn’t expect miracles from renewables, but they will be immensely helpful in the difficult times ahead.

Let me summarize the points I made in this talk:

Thank you very much for your attention and if you want to know more, you can look at my website “Resource Crisis”. www.cassandralegacy.blogspot.com


Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy. He is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of “Extracted, how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet” (Chelsea Green 2014)