American Decline

Peak Oil and the Challenging Years Ahead

By Gail Tverberg

Oil Price

We seem to hear two versions of the story of limited oil supply:

1. The economists’ view, saying that the issue is a simple problem of supply and demand. Substitution, higher prices, demand destruction, greater efficiency, and increased production of oil at higher prices will save the day.

2. A version of Hubbert’s peak oil theory, saying that world oil production will rise and at some point reach a plateau and begin to decline, because of geological depletion. The common belief is that the rate of decline will be determined by geological considerations, and will roughly match the rate at which production increased.

In my view, neither of these views is correct. My view is a third view:

3. An adequate supply of cheap ($20 or $30 barrel) oil is no longer available, because most of the “easy to extract” oil is gone. The cost of extracting oil keeps rising, but the ability of oil-importing economies to pay for this oil does not. There are no good low-cost substitutes for oil, so substitution is very limited and will continue to be very limited. The big oil-importing economies are already finding themselves in poor financial condition, as higher oil prices lead to cutbacks in discretionary spending and layoffs in discretionary industries.

The government is caught up in this, as layoffs lead to more need for stimulus funds and for payments to unemployed workers, at the same time that tax revenue is reduced. There can be a temporary drop in oil prices (as there was in late 2008), as recession worsens, but eventually demand rises again, oil prices rise again, and the pattern of layoffs and increased governments financial problems occurs again.

Without substitutes at a price that the economy can afford, economies will adapt to lower amounts of oil they can afford by worsening recession, debt defaults, and reduced international trade. There may be tendency for international alliances (such as the Euro) to fall apart, for countries to break into smaller units (Catalonia secede from Spain, or countries break up the way the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia did).

At some point, probably not too many years in the future, the amount of oil extracted from the ground will drop, reflecting a combination of geological and economic factors. The fall may very well be quite steep. While we can’t expect to extract more than geology will allow, there is nothing to say that political and economic factors will allow extraction of this amount. If civil war breaks out in an oil producer, production may drop quickly. Or if oil prices drop because of severe recession, drilling of new fields and wells may drop off quickly, leading to lower production as existing wells deplete, and not enough new supply as added. There may also be disruption in international sales of oil.

What the Economists’ View Misses

The economists’ view misses the fact that it is external energy that makes the economy operate the way it does. (See my earlier posts, here, here and here.) If energy products are higher priced, energy importers can afford less of them, and there is a tendency of their economies to shrink back to what their economies can afford—fewer employed workers and fewer government programs. I talk about the connection between employed workers and energy consumption in The Close Tie Between Energy Consumption, Employment and Recession.

World GDP, Oil Consumption, and Energy Consumption
Figure 1. World GDP, oil consumption and energy consumption growth rates, based on data of USDA, Angus Maddison, and BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

As the growth rate in energy supplies decreases (oil by itself, or in total), the economy tends to shrink back.  Initially (in the 1970s and 1980s), the economy shrinking back looked like it was slowing down – no longer undertaking big new initiatives like interstate highway systems and major electrical grid expansions, and adding new initiatives for taking care of the poor. Then the economy shrinking back morphed into a bigger emphasis on debt financing; less concern about keeping up infrastructure the way it had in the past; and switching from manufacturing of goods to production of services, to keep energy needs lower.

Another way of keeping down energy use was by keeping wages down. Since wages translate to purchase of things that energy can make, lower wages allow an economy to “get by” with less energy consumption. In the US, the quest for lower wages has manifested itself in many ways—the failure of men’s median wages to rise after the mid 1970s, the increasing use of women (at lower average wages) in the workforce, and later outsourcing of jobs to countries overseas with lower wages (and thus less energy consumption by workers).

Per Capita Oil Consumption
Figure 2. Per capita oil consumption in countries with recent bank bailouts, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Eventually, the economy shrinking back has become more disruptive. It looks more like recession, with job layoffs, debt defaults, and serious government funding problems. Governments find themselves going deeper and deeper into debt, as tax revenue lags, and there is more need for stimulus funding and benefits for unemployed workers. In such an atmosphere, government stability is at risk. This seems to be where quite a few of the European countries are right now. The United States is not far away either, with many of its problems hidden by deficit spending, “quantitative easing,” ultra low interest rates, and the fiscal cliff.

The Myth of Substitution
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