Crisis? Which crisis are we actually talking about…?

16 03 2017

Since writing about the perceived ‘crisis’ in Australia’s gas supplies, the amount of bullshit coming out of the media, not least social media, is bewildering…… Some of it is downright amusing, and most of it would be really funny, were it not so tragic.

There is so much disinformation out there, it’s hard to even know where to start. The Lock the Gate Alliance fell right into the fossil fuel industry trap with this ridiculous youtube video….

The last thing you need to do if you want to stop the fracking fiasco is to tell everyone there is a shortage of gas… because how do you deal with a shortage? You frack for more..! Especially when there is no shortage and Australia is swimming in gas.

There are no winners in this. The gas companies are forced to sell gas cheaply to Japan and South Korea, neither of which have any energy resources of their own. Australia is the second largest gas exporter after Qatar, and will overtake it within a few years. We export to the nations with the highest demand too. Japan alone, which imports 34% of the world’s gas, so desperate are they for the stuff, could take all our gas, were it not for the fact other arrangements are already in place. Ironically, we sell our gas there so cheaply, it beggars belief. Worse…Qatar raises three times as much in royalties as Australia for selling  the same amount of gas. You can blame John Howard for this….. he didn’t believe in peak energy all those years ago when the contracts were signed, and literally forced the hands of the companies to agree to stupid prices which they are now unable to get out of. Unless the government steps in again.

It borders on the ridiculous that Japanese gas customers buy Australian gas more cheaply than Australians, especially as the gas is drilled in the Bass Strait, piped to Queensland, turned into liquid and shipped 6,700 kilometres to Japan … but the Japanese still pay less than Victorians. And I’m reliably informed that piping the gas from Victoria to Queensland costs ten times as much as moving oil…… imagine the ERoEI of doing this..?

Notwithstanding Alan Kohler announcing on ABC news the other night that the era of cheap energy was over (yes, he actually said this… nearly fell of my chair…), energy is not dear. Remember this video? If people were paid for their labour energy at the same rate as fossil fuels, they would be paid SIX CENTS AN HOUR…… that sounds so dreadfully expensive….

While AGL was earnestly talking up gas shortages in 2014, BHP Petroleum chief Mike Yeager told journalists:

We want to make sure that the market knows that the Bass Strait field still has a large amount of gas that’s undeveloped … We have a lot of gas in eastern Australia that’s available. It’s more important to let the citizens of Victoria and New South Wales, and to some degree, you know, even Queensland … there’s plenty of gas to supply those provinces for – you know, indefinitely.

AGL later quietly issued a release to the ASX conceding it had plenty of gas supply. So there you go, it has nothing to do with those greenies locking their gates up after all….

Even the Guardian is at it…..:

Gas prices have doubled and in some cases tripled because gas suppliers are now capable of exporting our gas to high paying customers in Asia.

Like whom exactly…?

And…

Complicating matters is that gas suppliers rushed in to sign export contracts and then subsequently found they didn’t have enough gas to fulfill them. This has left the Australian domestic market very short of gas.

For pity’s sake, where do these people get their information from…?

Australia swimming in gas

Now, keeping all our gas to ourselves gets complicated here, and I hope I get this right, as this whole issue is really starting to make my head spin. It turns out, much of the money invested in the gas export system was actually borrowed from Japan. Ever heard of the yen carry trade? It is when investors borrow yen at a low interest rate, then exchange it for U.S. dollars or any other currency in a country that pays a higher interest rate on its bonds. Like Australia does. So if we decide to tell the Japanese to get stuffed, their banks may well want their money back, at which stage the brown stuff hits the fan…… Does our merchant banker PM know this I wonder……?

Luckily for us, last September, Japan’s energy minister informed the world that imports of LNG would continue falling. They fell by 4.7% in 2015 and another 2% in 2016 amid a rising commitment to renewables and the rebooting of nuclear reactors that were shut down after the Fukushima disaster……

Meanwhile, they are all panicking here in Australia trying to keep our ‘energy security’ intact by building batteries and a new gas powered station in SA, and pumped hydro energy storage in NSW at a cost of some three billion dollars. All made with fossil fuels of course, because there’s nothing like them… Most of the benefits will be swamped by population growth within less than a decade……

Because dear reader, the crisis is not a gas crisis, it’s a growth crisis, and it’s all coming to a head. But you already knew that, and we all know nobody will do a thing about it.





The end of the Middle East

14 03 2017

I have to say, I am seriously chuffed that Nafeez Ahmed is calling it, as I have been for years now…. In a lengthy but well worth reading article in the Middle East Eye, Nafeez explains the convoluted reasons why we have the current turmoil in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. He doesn’t mention Egypt – yet – but to be fair, the article’s focus in on Mosul and the implications of the disaster unfolding there……

It never ceases to amaze me how Egypt has managed to stay off the news radar. Maybe the populace is too starved to revolt again….

After oil, rice and medicines, sugar has run out in Egypt, as the country has announced a devaluation of 48% of its currency. In Egypt, about 68 million of the total 92 million people receive food subsidized by the State through small consumer stores run by the Ministry of supply and internal trade. After shortages of oil, rice and milk, and even medicines, now sugar scarcity has hit the country. Nearly three quarters of the population completely rely on the government stores for their basic needs.

Egypt produces 2 million tons of sugar a year but has to import 3 million to face domestic demand. However imports have become too expensive.  The country is expected to receive a loan of 12 billion dollars (11 billion euros) from the International monetary Fund (IMF) to tackle its food scarcity. The price for sugar in supermarkets and black markets are skyrocketing as well, with a kilogram costing around 15 pounds. If available, one could get sugar from subsidized government stores for 0.50 euros per kilo.

Nafeez goes into great and interesting detail re the dismaying shenanigans going on in nafeezIraq and Syria at the moment. I’ll leave it to you to go through what he wrote on the Middle East Eye site on those issues, but what struck me as relevant to what this blog is about is how well they correlate with my own thoughts here…..:

Among my findings is that IS was born in the crucible of a long-term process of ecological crisis. Iraq and Syria are both experiencing worsening water scarcity. A string of scientific studies has shown that a decade-long drought cycle in Syria, dramatically intensified by climate change, caused hundreds and thousands of mostly Sunni farmers in the south to lose their livelihoods as crops failed. They moved into the coastal cities, and the capital, dominated by Assad’s Alawite clan. 

Meanwhile, Syrian state revenues were in terminal decline because the country’s conventional oil production peaked in 1996. Net oil exports gradually declined, and with them so did the clout of the Syrian treasury. In the years before the 2011 uprising, Assad slashed domestic subsidies for food and fuel.

While Iraqi oil production has much better prospects, since 2001 production levels have consistently remained well below even the lower-range projections of the industry, mostly because of geopolitical and economic complications. This weakened economic growth, and consequently, weakened the state’s capacity to meet the needs of ordinary Iraqis.

Drought conditions in both Iraq and Syria became entrenched, exacerbating agricultural failures and eroding the living standards of farmers. Sectarian tensions simmered. Globally, a series of climate disasters in major food basket regions drove global price spikes. The combination made life economically intolerable for large swathes of the Iraqi and Syrian populations.

Outside powers – the US, Russia, the Gulf states, Turkey and Iran – all saw the escalating Syrian crisis as a potential opportunity for themselves. As the ensuing Syrian uprising erupted into a full-blown clash between the Assad regime and the people, the interference of these powers radicalised the conflict, hijacked Sunni and Shia groups on the ground, and accelerated the de-facto collapse of Syria as we once knew it.  

AND…..

Meanwhile, across the porous border in Iraq, drought conditions were also worsening. As I write in Failing States, Collapsing Systems, there has been a surprising correlation between the rapid territorial expansion of IS, and the exacerbation of local drought conditions. And these conditions of deepening water scarcity are projected to intensify in coming years and decades.

An Iraqi man walks past a canoe siting on dry, cracked earth in the Chibayish marshes near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in 2015 (AFP)

The discernable pattern here forms the basis of my model: biophysical processes generate interconnected environmental, energy, economic and food crises – what I call earth system disruption (ESD). ESD, in turn, undermines the capacity of regional states like Iraq and Syria to deliver basic goods and services to their populations. I call this human system destabilisation (HSD).

As states like Iraq and Syria begin to fail as HSD accelerates, those responding – whether they be the Iraqi and Syrian governments, outside powers, militant groups or civil society actors – don’t understand that the breakdowns happening at the levels of state and infrastructure are being driven by deeper systemic ESD processes. Instead, the focus is always on the symptom: and therefore the reaction almost always fails entirely to even begin to address earth system sisruption.

So Bashar al-Assad, rather than recognising the uprising against his regime as a signifier of a deeper systemic shift – symptomatic of a point-of-no-return driven by bigger environmental and energy crises – chose to crackdown on his narrow conception of the problem: angry people.

Even more importantly, Nafeez also agrees with my predictions regarding Saudi Arabia…

The Gulf states are next in line. Collectively, the major oil producers might have far less oil than they claim on their books. Oil analysts at Lux Research estimate that OPEC oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 70 percent. The upshot is that major producers like Saudi Arabia could begin facing serious challenges in sustaining the high levels of production they are used to within the next decade.

Another clear example of exaggeration is in natural gas reserves. Griffiths argues that “resource abundance is not equivalent to an abundance of exploitable energy”.

While the region holds substantial amounts of natural gas, underinvestment due to subsidies, unattractive investment terms, and “challenging extraction conditions” have meant that Middle East producers are “not only unable to monetise their reserves for export, but more fundamentally unable to utilise their reserves to meet domestic energy demands”. 

Starting to sound familiar..? We are doing the exact same thing here in Australia…. It’s becoming ever more clear that Limits to Growth equates to scraping the bottom of the barrel, and the scraping sounds are getting louder by the day.

And oil depletion is only one dimension of the ESD processes at stake. The other is the environmental consequence of exploiting oil.

Over the next three decades, even if climate change is stabilised at an average rise of 2 degrees Celsius, the Max Planck Institute forecasts that the Middle East and North Africa will still face prolonged heatwaves and dust storms that could render much of the region “uninhabitable”. These processes could destroy much of the region’s agricultural potential.

Nafeez finishes with a somewhat hopeful few paragraphs.

Broken models

While some of these climate processes are locked in, their impacts on human systems are not. The old order in the Middle East is, unmistakably, breaking down. It will never return.

But it is not – yet – too late for East and West to see what is actually happening and act now to transition into the inevitable future after fossil fuels.

The battle for Mosul cannot defeat the insurgency, because it is part of a process of human system destabilisation. That process offers no fundamental way of addressing the processes of earth system disruption chipping away at the ground beneath our feet.

The only way to respond meaningfully is to begin to see the crisis for what it is, to look beyond the dynamics of the symptoms of the crisis – the sectarianism, the insurgency, the fighting – and to address the deeper issues. That requires thinking about the world differently, reorienting our mental models of security and prosperity in a way that captures the way human societies are embedded in environmental systems – and responding accordingly.

At that point, perhaps, we might realise that we’re fighting the wrong war, and that as a result, no one is capable of winning.

The way the current crop of morons in charge is behaving, I feel far less hopeful that someone will see the light. There aren’t even worthwhile alternatives to vote for at the moment…  If anything, they are all getting worse at ‘leading the world’ (I of course use the term loosely..), not better. Nor is the media helping, focusing on politics rather than the biophysical issues discussed here.

 





Is Australia’s energy crisis starting…..?

9 03 2017

This morning on the news, we were woken up to the fact we could be facing gas shortages in Australia. And because more and more electricity is generated with this fuel (Tasmania and South Australia immediately come to mind), the repercussions could be electricity rationing, as well as gas for heating and cooking.

An assessment from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) is warning that, without a swift response, Australia could face a difficult choice — keeping the power on versus cutting gas supplies to residential and business customers.

“If we do nothing, we’re going to see shortfalls in gas, we’re going to see shortfalls in electricity,” AEMO chief operating officer Mike Cleary said.

The analysis said without new development to support more gas-powered electricity generation, modelling showed supply shortfalls of between 80 gigawatt hours and 363 gigawatt hours could be expected from summer 2018/19 until 2020/21.

It’s not like we weren’t warned……  I wrote about this almost three years ago…. at the time, I quoted Matt Mushalik…: “In July 2006 then Prime Minister Howard declared Australia an energy super power. Two years earlier his energy white paper set the framework for unlimited gas exports while neglecting to set aside gas for domestic use”

Bloomberg agrees…..

Australia, the world’s second-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, needs to remove road blocks to gas exploration on the east coast that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull blames for a looming domestic supply crisis.

“We are facing an energy crisis in Australia because of this restriction of gas,” Turnbull told a business conference in Sydney on Thursday. “Gas reserves or gas resources are not the issue. The biggest problem at the moment is the political opposition from state governments to it being exploited.”

Hang on a minute…… if we are indeed the world’s second biggest gas exporter, why do we need more exploration (code for really dirty coal seam gas)..? And if we are exporting so much gas, why can’t we cut down on the exports, and keep some for ourselves?

I smell a rat…….

According to Bloomberg again……

Origin Energy Ltd, Australia’s largest electricity company, on Tuesday said Queensland gas intended for LNG exports to Asia may be diverted to ease an expected supply shortfall this winter.

So there’s no problem then…?

Royal Dutch Shell Plc, owner of the $20 billion Queensland Curtis LNG development, said in an emailed statement that its QGC Ltd. subsidiary will continue to make gas available “where we have the capacity to do so.”

gas burning.So there’s capacity for export but not for domestic use…. and the hogwash continues at full speed with more statements like “Energy security has come under scrutiny since a state-wide blackout in September hit South Australia, the mainland state most reliant on renewable energy generation. Turnbull’s conservative leaning government called the state “utterly complacent” due to its over reliance on renewable energy following a partial blackout in February, whilst later attacking other left-leaning state governments for similar ambitions.” Oh I get it now…..  it’s the renewables’ fault that we are short on gas. And what on Earth is a left leaning state? You mean like Queensland’s ALP government going full steam ahead to support Adani’s project for the world’s largest coal mine..?

Give me a break Malcolm….  this is all your greedy lot’s fault, you damn well know you can get more money for gas overseas than we are willing (or able) to pay for it locally.

Do the morons in charge really think we are all dills who can’t see through all their propaganda?   “Economics and engineering, they should be the two load stars of our national energy policy,” Turnbull said. “We’ve got to get the ideology and the politics out of it.”  YOU first Malcolm….. you’re not interested in Australia’s energy security, you just want to kow-tow to the right wing nuts in your party, and maximise your mates’ profits…..

Consumer groups are saying it’s too early to advise people whether to switch away from gas, despite the forecast by the Australian Energy Market Operator of a looming shortage on the country’s east coast. Energy Consumers Australia (ECA) said householders should instead research the most competitive offers available from across the range of energy providers. I think consumers should look at alternative technologies myself. While I constantly discredit solar PV on this blog, the most sustainable form of solar power, solar water heating, is struggling to make inroads these days.

Some of the advice is simply ludicrous…. as if LED lights will save you from an energy crisis (let’s call a spade a spade here..) and “The main use of gas is in central heating and hot water, so if you’re building a new house think about reverse cycle air-conditioning or heat pumps” Mr Stock said.  But but…….  Mr Stock, do you realise it’s possible to build houses that actually do NOT need any heating and cooling?

And people wonder why I think we’ll be rooned…….. my wood fired AGA‘s looking pretty good right now.





Making America great again, and other bullshit……

21 01 2017

nafeezIt appears Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed has been making lots of waves lately…. The New York Observer has just run his warning of the probability of a converging oil, food and financial crash in or shortly after 2018 which I discussed here on DTM a few days ago. Not only that, it went viral, hitting the top 20 stories on Medium for several days (at one point hitting number one), and giving him ‘Top Writer’ status on ‘energy’ and ‘climate change’ there….. is the word finally getting out…..?

It gets better….. Nafeez then wrote this via Insurge intelligence in solidarity with the arising people’s movement in the form of the worldwide women’s marches, tying together how the Trumpian inauguration represents at once the culmination of a global war on women, while simultaneously starting a war on the planet.

Nafeez thinks “there is a deep, fundamental but little-understood connection between white supremacist patriarchy and misogyny, and the interlinked environment-economic crisis.” This piece is perhaps the most important – because it highlights the real symbolic meaning of the women’s marches: a planetary declaration of intent to build bridges, not walls.

Then yesterday, Nafeez  wrote another piece for VICE anticipating the Great Orange Face’s ‘America First Energy Plan’, bringing together cutting edge science on why Trump’s fossil fuel madness is doomed to kill the economy.

It simply won’t work, cannot work….. It will backfire. Big time. And it will backfire economically before it even has time to “backfire planetarily” as he so well puts it…… We are already hearing a lot of outrage, rightly so, about the cleansing of the Wipe House website of climate information, and the promotion of this madcap anti-science scheme to burn our planet to hell. We’ll hear less about the science of global net energy decline, which proves decisively that this scheme can simply never work – but you’ll find it here: 

Nafeez begins…..:

As President-elect Trump spearheads plans to boost oil, coal and gas, a major new study by one of the world’s foremost energy experts shows just how dangerous this path would be—not just for the planet, but for the economy.

The new study, just published in January as part of the SpringerBriefs in Energy series, suggests that as long we remain dependent on fossil fuels, economic contraction is inevitable. And while renewable energy offers the only potentially viable future, it is also unlikely to sustain the sort of mass consumerism we are accustomed to—like three or more cars per household, SUVS or massive military projects like aircraft carriers.

The bottom line is that we can’t sustain our present rate of consumption no matter what energy source we rely on. And clinging to oil, gas and coal in the hopes of keeping the endless growth machine alive will be even worse: leading to a spiral of debt and economic recession that has already begun.

Nafeez then introduces his readers to the concept of thermodynamics….. yes, really…!

It all comes down to physics: the laws of thermodynamics. Economies need energy to function. And to grow, they need extra energy to fuel that growth in production and consumption. But as more energy is required just to extract new energy from fossil fuels, there is less “energy surplus” available to continue driving economic growth—to ramp up even more production and consumption. And increasingly, more and more energy is being used just to maintain the existing infrastructure of society as it is, leaving less room for further growth.

“Of perhaps greater concern than the quantity of oil and other energy sources is their declining EROI [energy return on investment]”, writes study author Charles Hall, ESF Foundation Distinguished Professor of Environment Science at the State University of New York. Hall is the founder of the concept of EROI.

Hall’s ground-breaking methodology is now used by scientists around the world to measure the total value of energy a resource can generate. It works by comparing the quantity of energy extracted to the quantity of energy inputted to enable the extraction.

He points out that throughout the energy literature “there is widespread concern that net energy returns (e.g. EROI) for oil and gas are declining and likely to continue declining.” This has economic implications:

We (as in DTM followers) all knew that of course, but it’s interesting that this stuff is actually starting to go viral…..

wheredidgrowthgo

Yes indeed, where did all the growth go…… down the Limits to Growth plughole, that’s where…..

Charlie Hall’s study, Energy Return on Investment: A Unifying Principle for Biology, Economics halleroeibookand Sustainability, clearly shows a correlation between the declining abundance of resources, “as reflected in lower production and EROI for oil and other important fuels”, and the decline of economic growth.

And that gets to the crux of the problem. We need more energy to get more stuff to grow the economy. So what happens when we can’t get as much energy as before? Growth slows.

That’s why Hall fingers the declining EROI of fossil fuels as the key culprit in decreasing rates of production, which in turn has played a key role in the economic slowdown: “Past investments— over the past century— were made at a time when the production of high quality fossil fuels was increasing at rates as high as 5% a year. At the time of this writing they have declined to no more than 1% a year, and the US (and global) economies show similar pattern.”

Hall argues that modern developed economies, with their enormous infrastructures, roads and cities, are rapidly approaching “a stage where all of the available energy is used in ‘maintenance metabolism’ to support the infrastructure that exists.” This leaves less and less energy “available for net growth.”

As I have been saying for a very long time now, the 20th Century was built one brick at a time, as and when it was required, using very cheap and very dense fossil fuels with very high ERoEI. Now we have to replace all the old stuff, more or less all at once (it is getting old now…), and simultaneously build all the new stuff, with low ERoEI energy that is literally costing the Earth.

Make no mistake, America will never be great again………. Trump or no Trump.





2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

20 01 2017

Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

FOLLOWING ON from my last post exposing HSBC’s forecast of a peak oil caused economic collapse, along comes this piece from Gail Tverberg predicting it may all start this year…….

Most of this article is a rehash of things she’s said before all consolidated in one lengthy essay, and some of them were published here before. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to not recognise all our ducks are lining up on the wall…….

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

Some people would argue that 2016 was the year that the world economy started to come apart, with the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Whether or not the “coming apart” process started in 2016, in my opinion we are going to see many more steps in this direction in 2017. Let me explain a few of the things I see.

[1] Many economies have collapsed in the past. The world economy is very close to the turning point where collapse starts in earnest.  

Figure 1

The history of previous civilizations rising and eventually collapsing is well documented.(See, for example, Secular Cycles.)

To start a new cycle, a group of people would find a new way of doing things that allowed more food and energy production (for instance, they might add irrigation, or cut down trees for more land for agriculture). For a while, the economy would expand, but eventually a mismatch would arise between resources and population. Either resources would fall too low (perhaps because of erosion or salt deposits in the soil), or population would rise too high relative to resources, or both.

Even as resources per capita began falling, economies would continue to have overhead expenses, such as the need to pay high-level officials and to fund armies. These overhead costs could not easily be reduced, and might, in fact, grow as the government attempted to work around problems. Collapse occurred because, as resources per capita fell (for example, farms shrank in size), theearnings of workers tended to fall. At the same time, the need for taxes to cover what I am calling overhead expenses tended to grow. Tax rates became too high for workers to earn an adequate living, net of taxes. In some cases, workers succumbed to epidemics because of poor diets. Or governments would collapse, from lack of adequate tax revenue to support them.

Our current economy seems to be following a similar pattern. We first used fossil fuels to allow the population to expand, starting about 1800. Things went fairly well until the 1970s, when oil prices started to spike. Several workarounds (globalization, lower interest rates, and more use of debt) allowed the economy to continue to grow. The period since 1970 might be considered a period of “stagflation.” Now the world economy is growing especially slowly. At the same time, we find ourselves with “overhead” that continues to grow (for example, payments to retirees, and repayment of debt with interest). The pattern of past civilizations suggests that our civilization could also collapse.

Historically, economies have taken many years to collapse; I show a range of 20 to 50 years in Figure 1. We really don’t know if collapse would take that long now. Today, we are dependent on an international financial system, an international trade system, electricity, and the availability of oil to make our vehicles operate. It would seem as if this time collapse could come much more quickly.

With the world economy this close to collapse, some individual countries are even closer to collapse. This is why we can expect to see sharp downturns in the fortunes of some countries. If contagion is not too much of a problem, other countries may continue to do fairly well, even as individual small countries fail.

[2] Figures to be released in 2017 and future years are likely to show that the peak in world coal consumption occurred in 2014. This is important, because it means that countries that depend heavily on coal, such as China and India, can expect to see much slower economic growth, and more financial difficulties.

While reports of international coal production for 2016 are not yet available, news articles and individual country data strongly suggest that world coal production is past its peak. The IEA also reports a substantial drop in coal production for 2016.

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for "other" estimated based on recent trends.

The reason why coal production is dropping is because of low prices, low profitability for producers, and gluts indicating oversupply. Also, comparisons of coal prices with natural gas prices are inducing switching from coal to natural gas. The problem, as we will see later, is that natural gas prices are also artificially low, compared to the cost of production, So the switch is being made to a different type of fossil fuel, also with an unsustainably low price.

Prices for coal in China have recently risen again, thanks to the closing of a large number of unprofitable coal mines, and a mandatory reduction in hours for other coal mines. Even though prices have risen, production may not rise to match the new prices. One article reports:

. . . coal companies are reportedly reluctant to increase output as a majority of the country’s mines are still losing money and it will take time to recoup losses incurred in recent years.

Also, a person can imagine that it might be difficult to obtain financing, if coal prices have only “sort of” recovered.

I wrote last year about the possibility that coal production was peaking. This is one chart I showed, with data through 2015. Coal is the second most utilized fuel in the world. If its production begins declining, it will be difficult to offset the loss of its use with increased use of other types of fuels.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

[3] If we assume that coal supplies will continue to shrink, and other production will grow moderately, we can expect total energy consumption to be approximately flat in 2017. 

Figure 5. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author's estimates for 2016 and 2017.

In a way, this is an optimistic assessment, because we know that efforts are underway to reduce oil production, in order to prop up prices. We are, in effect, assuming either that (a) oil prices won’t really rise, so that oil consumption will grow at a rate similar to that in the recent past or (b) while oil prices will rise significantly to help producers, consumers won’t cut back on their consumption in response to the higher prices.

[4] Because world population is rising, the forecast in Figure 4 suggests that per capita energy consumption is likely to shrink. Shrinking energy consumption per capita puts the world (or individual countries in the world) at the risk of recession.

Figure 5 shows indicated per capita energy consumption, based on Figure 4. It is clear that energy consumption per capita has already started shrinking, and is expected to shrink further. The last time that happened was in the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Figure 5. World energy consumption per capita based on energy consumption estimates in Figure 4 and UN 2015 Medium Population Growth Forecast.

There tends to be a strong correlation between world economic growth and world energy consumption, because energy is required to transform materials into new forms, and to transport goods from one place to another.

In the recent past, the growth in GDP has tended to be a little higher than the growth in the use of energy products. One reason why GDP growth has been a percentage point or two higher than energy consumption growth is because, as economies become richer, citizens can afford to add more services to the mix of goods and services that they purchase (fancier hair cuts and more piano lessons, for example). Production of services tends to use proportionately less energy than creating goods does; as a result, a shift toward a heavier mix of services tends to lead to GDP growth rates that are somewhat higher than the growth in energy consumption.

A second reason why GDP growth has tended to be a little higher than growth in energy consumption is because devices (such as cars, trucks, air conditioners, furnaces, factory machinery) are becoming more efficient. Growth in efficiency occurs if consumers replace old inefficient devices with new more efficient devices. If consumers become less wealthy, they are likely to replace devices less frequently, leading to slower growth in efficiency. Also, as we will discuss later in this  post, recently there has been a tendency for fossil fuel prices to remain artificially low. With low prices, there is little financial incentive to replace an old inefficient device with a new, more efficient device. As a result, new purchases may be bigger, offsetting the benefit of efficiency gains (purchasing an SUV to replace a car, for example).

Thus, we cannot expect that the past pattern of GDP growing a little faster than energy consumption will continue. In fact, it is even possible that the leveraging effect will start working the “wrong” way, as low fossil fuel prices induce more fuel use, not less. Perhaps the safest assumption we can make is that GDP growth and energy consumption growth will be equal. In other words, if world energy consumption growth is 0% (as in Figure 4), world GDP growth will also be 0%. This is not something that world leaders would like at all.

The situation we are encountering today seems to be very similar to the falling resources per capita problem that seemed to push early economies toward collapse in [1]. Figure 5 above suggests that, on average, the paychecks of workers in 2017 will tend to purchase fewer goods and services than they did in 2016 and 2015. If governments need higher taxes to fund rising retiree costs and rising subsidies for “renewables,” the loss in the after-tax purchasing power of workers will be even greater than Figure 5 suggests.

[5] Because many countries are in this precarious position of falling resources per capita, we should expect to see a rise in protectionism, and the addition of new tariffs.

Clearly, governments do not want the problem of falling wages (or rather, falling goods that wages can buy) impacting their countries. So the new game becomes, “Push the problem elsewhere.”

In economic language, the world economy is becoming a “Zero-sum” game. Any gain in the production of goods and services by one country is a loss to another country. Thus, it is in each country’s interest to look out for itself. This is a major change from the shift toward globalization we have experienced in recent years. China, as a major exporter of goods, can expect to be especially affected by this changing view.

[6] China can no longer be expected to pull the world economy forward.

China’s economic growth rate is likely to be lower, for many reasons. One reason is the financial problems of coal mines, and the tendency of coal production to continue to shrink, once it starts shrinking. This happens for many reasons, one of them being the difficulty in obtaining loans for expansion, when prices still seem to be somewhat low, and the outlook for the further increases does not appear to be very good.

Another reason why China’s economic growth rate can be expected to fall is the current overbuilt situation with respect to apartment buildings, shopping malls, factories, and coal mines. As a result, there seems to be little need for new buildings and operations of these types. Another reason for slower economic growth is the growing protectionist stance of trade partners. A fourth reason is the fact that many potential buyers of the goods that China is producing are not doing very well economically (with the US being a major exception). These buyers cannot afford to increase their purchases of imports from China.

With these growing headwinds, it is quite possible that China’s total energy consumption in 2017 will shrink. If this happens, there will be downward pressure on world fossil fuel prices. Oil prices may fall, despite production cuts by OPEC and other countries.

China’s slowing economic growth is likely to make its debt problem harder to solve. We should not be too surprised if debt defaults become a more significant problem, or if the yuan falls relative to other currencies.

India, with its recent recall of high denomination currency, as well as its problems with low coal demand, is not likely to be a great deal of help aiding the world economy to grow, either. India is also a much smaller economy than China.

[7] While Item [2] talked about peak coal, there is a very significant chance that we will be hitting peak oil and peak natural gas in 2017 or 2018, as well.  

If we look at historical prices, we see that the prices of oil, coal and natural gas tend to rise and fall together.

Figure 6. Prices of oil, call and natural gas tend to rise and fall together. Prices based on 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The reason that fossil fuel prices tend to rise and fall together is because these prices are tied to “demand” for goods and services in general, such as for new homes, cars, and factories. If wages are rising rapidly, and debt is rising rapidly, it becomes easier for consumers to buy goods such as homes and cars. When this happens, there is more “demand” for the commodities used to make and operate homes and cars. Prices for commodities of many types, including fossil fuels, tend to rise, to enable more production of these items.

Of course, the reverse happens as well. If workers become poorer, or debt levels shrink, it becomes harder to buy homes and cars. In this case, commodity prices, including fossil fuel prices, tend to fall.  Thus, the problem we saw above in [2] for coal would be likely to happen for oil and natural gas, as well, because the prices of all of the fossil fuels tend to move together. In fact, we know that current oil prices are too low for oil producers. This is the reason why OPEC and other oil producers have cut back on production. Thus, the problem with overproduction for oil seems to be similar to the overproduction problem for coal, just a bit delayed in timing.

In fact, we also know that US natural gas prices have been very low for several years, suggesting another similar problem. The United States is the single largest producer of natural gas in the world. Its natural gas production hit a peak in mid 2015, and production has since begun to decline. The decline comes as a response to chronically low prices, which make it unprofitable to extract natural gas. This response sounds similar to China’s attempted solution to low coal prices.

Figure 7. US Natural Gas production based on EIA data.

The problem is fundamentally the fact that consumers cannot afford goods made using fossil fuels of any type, if prices actually rise to the level producers need, which tends to be at least five times the 1999 price level. (Note peak price levels compared to 1999 level on Figure 6.) Wages have not risen by a factor of five since 1999, so paying the prices that fossil fuel producers need for profitability and growing production is out of the question. No amount of added debt can hide this problem. (While this reference is to 1999 prices, the issue really goes back much farther, to prices before the price spikes of the 1970s.)

US natural gas producers also have plans to export natural gas to Europe and elsewhere, as liquefied natural gas (LNG). The hope, of course, is that a large amount of exports will raise US natural gas prices. Also, the hope is that Europeans will be able to afford the high-priced natural gas shipped to them. Unless someone can raise the wages of both Europeans and Americans, I would not count on LNG prices actually rising to the level needed for profitability, and staying at such a high level. Instead, they are likely to bounce up, and quickly drop back again.

[8] Unless oil prices rise very substantially, oil exporters will find themselves exhausting their financial reserves in a very short time (perhaps a year or two). Unfortunately, oil importerscannot withstand higher prices, without going into recession. 

We have a no win situation, no matter what happens. This is true with all fossil fuels, but especially with oil, because of its high cost and thus necessarily high price. If oil prices stay at the same level or go down, oil exporters cannot get enough tax revenue, and oil companies in general cannot obtain enough funds to finance the development of new wells and payment of dividends to shareholders. If oil prices do rise by a very large amount for very long, we are likely headed into another major recession, with many debt defaults.

[9] US interest rates are likely to rise in the next year or two, whether or not this result is intended by the Federal reserve.

This issue here is somewhat obscure. The issue has to do with whether the United States can find foreign buyers for its debt, often called US Treasuries, and the interest rates that the US needs to pay on this debt. If buyers are very plentiful, the interest rates paid by he US government can be quite low; if few buyers are available, interest rates must be higher.

Back when Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters were doing well financially, they often bought US Treasuries, as a way to retain the benefit of their new-found wealth, which they did not want to spend immediately. Similarly, when China was doing well as an exporter, it often bought US Treasuries, as a way retaining the wealth it gained from exports, but didn’t yet need for purchases.

When these countries bought US Treasuries, there were several beneficial results:

  • Interest rates on US Treasuries tended to stay artificially low, because there was a ready market for its debt.
  • The US could afford to import high-priced oil, because the additional debt needed to buy the oil could easily be sold (to Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations, no less).
  • The US dollar tended to stay lower relative to other currencies, making oil more affordable to other countries than it otherwise might be.
  • Investment in countries outside the US was encouraged, because debt issued by these other countries tended to bear higher interest rates than US debt. Also, relatively low oil prices in these countries (because of the low level of the dollar) tended to make investment profitable in these countries.

The effect of these changes was somewhat similar to the US having its own special Quantitative Easing (QE) program, paid for by some of the counties with trade surpluses, instead of by its central bank. This QE substitute tended to encourage world economic growth, for the reasons mentioned above.

Once the fortunes of the countries that used to buy US Treasuries changes, the pattern of buying of US Treasuries tends to change to selling of US Treasuries. Even not purchasing the same quantity of US Treasuries as in the past becomes an adverse change, if the US has a need to keep issuing US Treasuries as in the past, or if it wants to keep rates low.

Unfortunately, losing this QE substitute tends to reverse the favorable effects noted above. One effect is that the dollar tends to ride higher relative to other currencies, making the US look richer, and other countries poorer. The “catch” is that as the other countries become poorer, it becomes harder for them to repay the debt that they took out earlier, which was denominated in US dollars.

Another problem, as this strange type of QE disappears, is that the interest rates that the US government needs to pay in order to issue new debt start rising. These higher rates tend to affect other rates as well, such as mortgage rates. These higher interest rates act as a drag on the economy, tending to push it toward recession.

Higher interest rates also tend to decrease the value of assets, such as homes, farms, outstanding bonds, and shares of stock. This occurs because fewer buyers can afford to buy these goods, with the new higher interest rates. As a result, stock prices can be expected to fall. Prices of homes and of commercial buildings can also be expected to fall. The value of bonds held by insurance companies and banks becomes lower, if they choose to sell these securities before maturity.

Of course, as interest rates fell after 1981, we received the benefit of falling interest rates, in the form of rising asset prices. No one ever stopped to think about how much of the gains in share prices and property values came from falling interest rates.

Figure 8. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

Now, as interest rates rise, we can expect asset prices of many types to start falling, because of lower affordability when monthly payments are based on higher interest rates. This situation presents another “drag” on the economy.

In Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

Things don’t look too bad right now, but the underlying problems are sufficiently severe that we seem to be headed for a crisis far worse than 2008. The timing is not clear. Things could start falling apart badly in 2017, or alternatively, major problems may be delayed until 2018 or 2019. I hope political leaders can find ways to keep problems away as long as possible, perhaps with more rounds of QE. Our fundamental problem is the fact that neither high nor low energy prices are now able to keep the world economy operating as we would like it to operate. Increased debt can’t seem to fix the problem either.

The laws of physics seem to be behind economic growth. From a physics point of view, our economy is a dissipative structure. Such structures form in “open systems.” In such systems, flows of energy allow structures to temporarily self-organize and grow. Other examples of dissipative structures include ecosystems, all plants and animals, stars, and hurricanes. All of these structures constantly “dissipate” energy. They have finite life spans, before they eventually collapse. Often, new dissipative systems form, to replace previous ones that have collapsed.





THE IMPLICATIONS OF PEAK ENERGY

13 03 2016

SIMON MICHAUX

Dr Simon Michaux has a Bach App Sc in Physics and Geology and a PhD in mining engineering. He has worked in the mining industry for 18 years in various capacities. He has worked in industry funded mining research, coal exploration and in the commercial sector in an engineering company as a consultant. Areas of technical interest have been: Geometallurgy; mineral processing in comminution, flotation and leaching; blasting; mining geology; geophysics; feasibility studies; mining investment; and industrial sustainability.

Our current society is one based on whim. Whatever we want can be had if we have the money. Not only can we have what we want any time we want it, it’s the done thing to throw it away and buy something else when it breaks or the latest upgrade comes out. We are conditioned to believe there are no limits within the current framework, and growth is our reason to be. The ‘how’ we can have all this fantastic stuff is considered someone else’s problem. But with a growing middle class population, for how long will it be possible to utilise finite, non-renewable resources in this linear fashion?

To date, our civilisation has been built on non-renewable natural resources.  What has facilitated all this is our sources of energy – the master resource.  Oil, coal and gas has accounted for the vast amount of industrial development over the last 160 years.

Untitled
World population, per capita-, and total energy consumption by fuel as a percentage of 2011 consumption, 1850-2011

Currently, we are a petroleum based society, where petroleum products and petrochemicals derived from oil provide goods and services for most of the vital requirements of our industrial civilisation. Everything from food production to plastics manufacture is dependent on oil in some form (there are some synthetic alternatives but they are costly and not as effective as natural crude oil as a raw feed product). World growth in GDP, energy consumption and oil consumption all correlate to demonstrate this basic concept.  The world economy is dependant not just on oil but high quality and high net energy oil.

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But all is not well with the oil sector.  Between 2000 and 2012, $2.6 Trillion USD was invested in oil infrastructure CAPEX, with no gain in oil production (this data includes shale oil production in USA).¹  Global crude and condensate production has plateaued since approximately 2005. The problem with this is world population is 13.8% larger now than in 2005 (7.4 billion people 5/2/2016 vs 6.5 billion in 2005). Increasingly unconventional sources of oil are being used to meet demand, where these sources are expensive to extract and struggle to meet the desired quantities.

Increasingly, conventional sources of crude oil have been difficult to discover and exploit. The picture below shows the pattern of oil discovery, listing all of the major plays that have dominated oil production.

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There will come a point where total oil production will peak and decline, the question is just when this will happen. Conventional crude oil production peaked in 2006, something now recognised by the International Energy Agency (Source: IEA World Energy Outlook 2010). Unconventional sources like tight oil (also known as shale oil) in the US have come on line to meet demand requirements, which have for some discredited previous predictions around peak oil.

However, The global combination of conventional crude oil production and unconventional oil production is predicted to peak and decline very soon, according to various studies. A sophisticated analysis on oil production has been conducted by retired actuary Gail Tverberg, where total oil production is predicted to have peaked in the year 2015. Others have suggested that we are in fact past peak, such as the report released by the Energy Watch Group (EWG), which claims that peak oil production (conventional and unconventional) happened around the year 2012.

conventional and unconv
Source: Zittel, W. et al, Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – the supply outlook Energy Watch Group March 2013

Gas as a commodity is important to our industrialisation. As industrial sites require large quantities of power, a gas fired power station is often installed. Acquiring data for gas production has been difficult but it is believed that conventional production of natural gas peaked in the year 2011 (data is spotty). To meet industrial demand, unconventional sources of gas like fracking and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) have been developed. Unconventional gas supply was believed to replace conventional sources of gas, and is in the process of doing so.

gas production
Gas supply scenario projections until 2030. Source: Zittel, W. et al, Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – the supply outlook Energy Watch Group March 2013

Coal is another energy resource that our industrial grid depends on to generate its electricity requirements. It is also often the case that the domestic power grid that supplies electricity is dependent on coal. The EWG report has a peak in coal production at approximately the year 2020. Four years away. Even if this estimate is imprecise, as it now takes about five years to build an industrial power station, it would behove us all to consider a replacement energy source.

geography
Global coal production. Source: Zittel, W. et al, Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – the supply outlook Energy Watch Group March 2013

Each energy source often serves different purposes, so one resource cannot necessarily directly replace another.  For the purposes of comparison though, all energy sources discussed have been put onto one graph:

 

energy sourcespeak energy reference

(Another good estimate has been provided by G. Tverberg  in “A Forecast of Our Energy Future; Why Common Solutions Don’t Work”)

Peak total energy is projected to be approximately in the year 2017. This means that industrialisation in a global context, based on the current rules of the game, will soon tip into contracting economies – the end of growth based economics. As this challenges would have taken 20 years to meet with an engineered alternative (once a viable one has been presented) (Hirsch 2005), the implications of the above charts are quite serious. Even if the projection was incorrect by 10 years, our industrial society would still be faced with an unprecedented challenge.

To examine the usefulness of a replacement energy source, the Energy Return On Energy Invested ratio (EROEI) is used, which is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource.

Oil when it was originally discovered was very good and returned about 100 units of energy for every one invested.  Now it’s around 12-18:1.  Most alternative energy sources are much lower than what oil currently delivers.  To put this in perspective, the European medieval society EROEI was Approximately 1.5:1.  For our industrial society to function, an EROEI ratio of 10:1 is required.

eroei
Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI ratio)

What this means is we have no replacement energy source that is as calorically dense as oil. It is simply not practical to replace oil as an energy source and maintain current energy demands. Colloquially, oil is butter-fried-steak wrapped in bacon and alternative energy is lettuce. This is why peak oil is so relevant and is the rate determining issue amongst the network of problems facing society at this time. With the possibility of peak energy on the horizon, the solution may lie in a fundamental upgrade to the operating system for our economy.

Notes

  1. Data collection stopped at 2012 because since then, there has been a non linear pattern unfolding in the form of global economic stagnation.  Currently the Baltic Dry Index is at a historic low (currently 332), where it was about 600 during the worst of the global correction of 2008.  This means global trade is at a historically low level.  More time is required to determine the true nature what is happening now.




BP Data Suggests We Are Reaching Peak Energy Demand

25 06 2015

Some people talk about peak energy (or oil) supply. They expect high prices and more demand than supply. Other people talk about energy demand hitting a peak many years from now, perhaps when most of us have electric cars.

Neither of these views is correct. The real situation is that we right now seem to be reaching peak energy demand through low commodity prices. I see evidence of this in the historical energy data recently updated by BP (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015).

Growth in world energy consumption is clearly slowing. In fact, growth in energy consumption was only 0.9% in 2014. This is far below the 2.3% growth we would expect, based on recent past patterns. In fact, energy consumption in 2012 and 2013 also grew at lower than the expected 2.3% growth rate (2012 – 1.4%; 2013 – 1.8%).

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

Recently, I wrote that economic growth eventually runs into limits. The symptoms we should expect are similar to the patterns we have been seeing recently (Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)). It seems to me that the patterns in BP’s new data are also of the kind that we would expect to be seeing, if we are hitting limits that are causing low commodity prices.

One of our underlying problems is that energy costs that have risen faster than most workers’ wages since 2000. Another underlying problem has to do with globalization. Globalization provides a temporary benefit. In the last 20 years, we greatly ramped up globalization, but we are now losing the temporary benefit globalization brings. We find we again need to deal with the limits of a finite world and the constraints such a world places on growth.

Energy Consumption is Slowing in Many Parts of the World 

Many parts of the world are seeing slowing growth in energy consumption. One major example is China.

Figure 2. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Based on recent patterns in China, we would expect fuel consumption to be increasing by about 7.5% per year. Instead, energy consumption has slowed, with growth amounting to 4.3% in 2012; 3.7% in 2013; and 2.6% in 2014. If China was recently the growth engine of the world, it is now sputtering.

Part of China’s problem is that some of the would-be buyers of its products are not growing. Europe is a well-known example of an area with economic problems. Its consumption of energy products has been slumping since 2006.

Figure 3. European Union Energy Consumption based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 Data.

I have used the same scale (maximum = 3.5 billion metric tons of oil equivalent) on Figure 3 as I used on Figure 2 so that readers can easily compare the European’s Union’s energy consumption to that of China. When China was added to the World Trade Organization in December 2001, it used only about 60% as much energy as the European Union. In 2014, it used close to twice as much energy (1.85 times as much) as the European Union.

Another area with slumping energy demand is Japan. It consumption has been slumping since 2005. It was already well into a slump before its nuclear problems added to its other problems.

Figure 4. Japan energy consumption by fuel, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

A third area with slumping demand is the Former Soviet Union (FSU). The two major countries within tithe FSU with slumping demand are Russia and Ukraine.

Figure 5. Former Soviet Union energy consumption by source, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy Data 2015.

Of course, some of the recent slumping demand of Ukraine and Russia are intended–this is what US sanctions are about. Also, low oil prices hurt the buying power of Russia. This also contributes to its declining demand, and thus its consumption.

The United States is often portrayed as the bright ray of sunshine in a world with problems. Its energy consumption is not growing very briskly either.

Figure 6. United States energy consumption by fuel, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.

To a significant extent, the US’s slowing energy consumption is intended–more fuel-efficient cars, more fuel efficient lighting, and better insulation. But part of this reduction in the growth in energy consumption comes from outsourcing a portion of manufacturing to countries around the world, including China. Regardless of cause, and whether the result was intentional or not, the United States’ consumption is not growing very briskly. Figure 6 shows a small uptick in the US’s energy consumption since 2012. This doesn’t do much to offset slowing growth or outright declines in many other countries around the world.

Slowing Growth in Demand for Almost All Fuels

We can also look at world energy consumption by type of energy product. Here we find that growth in consumption slowed in 2014 for nearly all types of energy.

Figure 7. World energy consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Looking at oil separately (Figure 8), the data indicates that for the world in total, oil consumption grew by 0.8% in 2014. This is lower than in the previous three years (1.1%, 1.2%, and 1.1% growth rates).

Figure 8. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

If oil producers had planned for 2014 oil consumption based on the recent past growth in oil consumption growth, they would have overshot by about 1,484 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE), or about 324,000 barrels per day. If this entire drop in oil consumption came in the second half of 2014, the overshoot would have been about 648,000 barrels per day during that period. Thus, the mismatch we are have recently been seeing between oil consumption and supply appears to be partly related to falling demand, based on BP’s data.

(Note: The “oil” being discussed is inclusive of biofuels and natural gas liquids. I am using MTOE because MTOE puts all fuels on an energy equivalent basis. A barrel is a volume measure. Growth in barrels will be slightly different from that in MTOE because of the changing mix of liquid fuels.)

We can also look at oil consumption for the US, EU, and Japan, compared to all of the rest of the world.

Figure 9. Oil consumption divided between the (a) US, EU, and Japan, and (b) Rest of the World.

While the rest of the world is still increasing its growth in oil consumption, its rate of increase is falling–from 2.3% in 2012, to 1.6% in 2013, to 1.3% in 2014.

Figure 10 showing world coal consumption is truly amazing. Huge growth in coal use took place as globalization spread. Carbon taxes in some countries (but not others) further tended to push manufacturing to coal-intensive manufacturing locations, such as China and India.

Figure 10. World coal consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Looking at the two parts of the world separately (Figure 11), we see that in the last three years, growth in coal consumption outside of US, EU, and Japan, has tapered down. This is similar to the result for world consumption of coal in total (Figure 10).

Figure 10. Coal consumption for the US, EU, and Japan separately from the Rest of the World, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Another way of looking at fuels is in a chart that compares consumption of the various fuels side by side (Figure 12).

Figure 8. World energy consumption by fuel, showing each fuel separately, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Consumption of oil, coal and natural gas are all moving on tracks that are in some sense parallel. In fact, coal and natural gas consumption have recently tapered more than oil consumption. World oil consumption grew by 0.8% in 2014; coal and natural gas consumption each grew by 0.4% in 2014.

The other three fuels are smaller. Hydroelectric had relatively slow growth in 2014. Its growth was only 2.0%, compared to a recent average of as much as 3.5%. Even with this slow growth, it raised hydroelectric energy consumption to 6.8% of world energy supply.

Nuclear electricity grew by 1.8%. This is actually a fairly large percentage gain compared to the recent shrinkage that has been taking place.

Other renewables continued to grow, but not as rapidly as in the past. The growth rate of this grouping was 12.0%, (compared to 22.4% in 2011, 18.1% in 2012, 16.5% in 2013). With the falling percentage growth rate, growth is more or less “linear”–similar amounts were added each year, rather than similar percentages. With recent growth, other renewables amounted to 2.5% of total world energy consumption in 2014.

Falling Consumption Is What We Would Expect with Lower Inflation-Adjusted Prices

People buy goods that they want or need, with one caveat: they don’t buy what they cannot afford. To a significant extent affordability is based on wages (or income levels for governments or businesses). It can also reflect the availability of credit.

We know that commodity prices of many kinds (energy, food, metals of many kinds) have been have generally been falling, on an inflation adjusted basis, for the past four years. Figure 13 shows a graph prepared by the International Monetary Fund of trends in commodity prices.

Figure 9. Charts prepared by the IMF showing trends in indices of primary commodity prices.

It stands to reason that if prices of commodities are low, while the general trend in the cost of producing these commodities is upward, there will be erosion in the amount of these products that can be purchased. (This occurs because prices are falling relative to the cost of producing the goods.) If, prior to the drop in prices, consumption of the commodity had been growing rapidly, lower prices are likely to lead to a slower rate of consumption growth. If prices drop further or stay depressed, an absolute drop in consumption may occur.

It seems to me that the lower commodity prices we have been seeing over the past four years (with a recent sharper drop for oil), likely reflect an affordability problem. This affordability problem arises because for most people, wages did not rise when energy prices rose, and the prices of commodities in general rose in the early 2000s.

For a while, the lack of affordability could be masked with a variety of programs: economic stimulus, increasing debt and Quantitative Easing. Eventually these programs reach their limits, and prices begin falling in inflation-adjusted terms. Now we are at a point where prices of oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium are all low in inflation-adjusted terms, discouraging further investment.

Commodity Exporters–Will They Be Next to Be Hit with Lower Consumption?

If the price of a commodity, say oil, is low, this is a problem for a country that exports the commodity. The big issue is likely to be tax revenue. Governments very often get a major share of their tax revenue from taxing the profits of the companies that sell the commodities, such as oil. If the price of oil, or other commodity that is exported drops, then it will be difficult for the government to collect enough tax revenue. There may be other effects as well. The company producing the commodity may cut back its production. If this happens, the exporting country is faced with another problem–laid-off workers without jobs. This adds a second need for revenue: to pay benefits to laid-off workers.

Many oil exporters currently subsidize energy and food products for their citizens. If tax revenue is low, the amount of these subsidies is likely to be reduced. With lower subsidies, citizens will buy less, reducing world demand. This reduction in demand will tend to reduce world oil (or other commodity) prices.

Even if subsidies are not involved, lower tax revenue will very often affect the projects an oil exporter can undertake. These projects might include building roads, schools, or hospitals. With fewer projects, world demand for oil and other commodities tends to drop.

The concern I have now is that with low oil prices, and low prices of other commodities, a number of countries will have to cut back their programs, in order to balance government budgets. If this happens, the effect on the world economy could be quite large. To get an idea how large it might be, let’s look again at Figure 1, recopied below.

Notice that the three “layers” in the middle are all countries whose economies are fairly closely tied to commodity exports. Arguably I could have included more countries in this category–for example, other OPEC countries could be included in this grouping. These countries are now in the “Rest of the World” category. Adding more countries to this category would make the portion of world consumption tied to countries depending on commodity exports even greater.

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

My concern is that low commodity prices will prove to be self-perpetuating, because low commodity prices will adversely affect commodity exporters. As these countries try to fix their own problems, their own demand for commodities will drop, and this will affect world commodity prices. The total amount of commodities used by exporters is quite large. It is even larger when oil is considered by itself (see Figure 8 above).

In my view, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 occurred indirectly as a result of low oil prices in the late 1980s. A person can see from Figure 1 how much the energy consumption of the Former Soviet Union fell after 1991. Of course, in such a situation exports may fall more than consumption, leading to a rise in oil prices. Ultimately, the issue becomes whether a world economy can adapt to falling oil supply, caused by the collapse of some oil exporters.

Our Economy Has No Reverse Gear

None of the issues I raise would be a problem, if our economy had a reverse gear–in other words, if it could shrink as well as grow. There are a number of things that go wrong if an economy tries to shrink:

  • Businesses find themselves with more factories than they need. They need to lay off workers and sell buildings. Profits are likely to fall. Loan covenants may be breached. There is little incentive to invest in new factories or stores.
  • There are fewer jobs available, in comparison to the number of available workers. Many drop out of the labor force or become unemployed. Wages of non-elite workers tend to stagnate, reflecting the oversupply situation.
  • The government finds it necessary to pay more benefits to the unemployed. At the same time, the government’s ability to collect taxes falls, because of the poor condition of businesses and workers.
  • Businesses in poor financial condition and workers who have been laid off tend to default on loans. This tends to put banks into poor financial condition.
  • The number of elderly and disabled tends to grow, even as the working population stagnates or falls, making the funding of pensions increasingly difficult.
  • Resale prices of homes tend to drop because there are not enough buyers.

Many have focused on a single problem area–for example, the requirement that interest be paid on debt–as being the problem preventing the economy from shrinking. It seems to me that this is not the only issue. The problem is much more fundamental. We live in a networked economy; a networked economy has only two directions available to it: (1) growth and (2) recession, which can lead to collapse.

Conclusion

What we seem to be seeing is an end to the boost that globalization gave to the world economy. Thus, world economic growth is slowing, and because of this slowed economic growth, demand for energy products is slowing. This globalization was encouraged by the Kyoto Protocol (1997). The protocol aimed to reduce carbon emissions, but because it inadvertently encouraged globalization, it tended to have the opposite effect. Adding China to the World Trade Organization in 2001 further encouraged globalization. CO2 emissions tended to grow more rapidly after those dates.

Figure 14. World CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, based on data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Now growth in fuel use is slowing around the world. Virtually all types of fuel are affected, as are many parts of the world. The slowing growth is associated with low fuel prices, and thus slowing demand for fuel. This is what we would expect, if the world is running into affordability problems, ultimately related to fuel prices rising faster than wages.

Globalization brings huge advantages, in the form of access to cheap energy products still in the ground. From the point of view of businesses, there is also the possibility of access to cheap labor and access to new markets for selling their goods. For long-industrialized countries, globalization also represents a workaround to inadequate local energy supplies.

The one problem with globalization is that it is not a permanent solution. This happens for several reasons:

  • A great deal of debt is needed for the new operations. At some point, this debt starts reaching limits.
  • Diminishing returns leads to higher cost of energy products. For example, later coal may need to come from more distant locations, adding to costs.
  • Wages in the newly globalized area tend to rise, negating some of the initial benefit of low wages.
  • Wages of workers in the area developed prior to globalization tend to fall because of competition with workers from parts of the world getting lower pay.
  • Pollution becomes an increasing problem in the newly globalized part of the world. China is especially concerned about this problem.
  • Eventually, more than enough factory space is built, and more than enough housing is built.
  • Demand for energy products (in terms of what workers around the world can afford) cannot keep up with production, in part because wages of many workers lag thanks to competition with low-paid workers in less-advanced countries.

It seems to me that we are reaching the limits of globalization now. This is why prices of commodities have fallen. With falling prices comes lower total consumption. Many economies are gradually moving into recession–this is what the low prices and falling rates of energy growth really mean.

It is quite possible that at some point in the not too distant future, demand (and prices) will fall further. We then will be dealing with severe worldwide recession.

In my view, low prices and low demand for commodities are what we should expect, as we reach limits of a finite world. There is widespread belief that as we reach limits, prices will rise, and energy products will become scarce. I don’t think that this combination can happen for very long in a networked economy. High energy prices tend to lead to recession, bringing down prices. Low wages and slow growth in debt also tend to bring down prices. A networked economy can work in ways that does not match our intuition; this is why many researchers fail to see understand the nature of the problem we are facing.