Eight Pieces of Our Oil Price Predicament

A person might think that oil prices would be fairly stable. Prices would set themselves at a level that would be high enough for the majority of producers, so that in total producers would provide enough–but not too much–oil for the world economy. The prices would be fairly affordable for consumers. And economies around the world would grow robustly with these oil supplies, plus other energy supplies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way recently. Let me explain at least a few of the issues involved.

1. Oil prices are set by our networked economy.

As I have explained previously, we have a networked economy that is made up of businesses, governments, and consumers. It has grown up over time. It includes such things as laws and our international trade system. It continually re-optimizes itself, given the changing rules that we give it. In some ways, it is similar to the interconnected network that a person can build with a child’s toy.

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Thus, these oil prices are not something that individuals consciously set. Instead, oil prices reflect a balance between available supply and the amount purchasers can afford to pay, assuming such a balance actually exists. If such a balance doesn’t exist, the lack of such a balance has the possibility of tearing apart the system.

If the compromise oil price is too high for consumers, it will cause the economy to contract, leading to economic recession, because consumers will be forced to cut back on discretionary expenditures in order to afford oil products. This will lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors. See my post Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem.

If the compromise price is too low for producers, a disproportionate share of oil producers will stop producing oil. This decline in production will not happen immediately; instead it will happen over a period of years. Without enough oil, many consumers will not be able to commute to work, businesses won’t be able to transport goods, farmers won’t be able to produce food, and governments won’t be able to repair roads. The danger is that some kind of discontinuity will occur–riots, overthrown governments, or even collapse.

2. We think of inadequate supply being the number one problem with oil, and at times it may be. But at other times inadequate demand (really “inadequate affordability”) may be the number one issue. 
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WSJ Gets it Wrong on “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True”

On Monday, September 29, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a story called “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True.” The story is written as if there are only two possible outcomes:

  1. The Peak Oil version of what to expect from oil limits is correct, or
  2. Diminishing Returns can and are being put off by technological progress–the view of the WSJ.

It seems to me, though, that a third outcome is not only possible, but is what is actually happening.

3. Diminishing returns from oil limits are already beginning to hit, but the impacts and the expected shape of the down slope are quite different from those forecast by most Peak Oilers.

Area of Confusion

In many people’s way of thinking, the economy is separate from resources and the extraction of those resources. If we believe economists, the economy can grow indefinitely, with or without the use of resources. Clearly, with this view, the price of these resources doesn’t matter very much. If one kind of resource becomes more expensive, we can substitute other resources, once the scarce resource becomes sufficiently high-priced that the alternative makes financial sense. Incomes can rise arbitrarily high–all it takes is for each of us to pay the other higher wages. And we can fix any problem with the financial system with more money printing and more debt.

This wrong version of how our economy works has been handed down through the academic world, through our system of peer review, with each academic researcher following in the tracks of previous academic researchers. As long as new researchers follow the same wrong thinking as previous researchers, their articles will be published. Economists were especially involved in putting together this wrong world-view, but politicians helped as well. They liked the outcomes of the models the economists produced, since it made it look like the politicians, with the help of economists, were all-powerful. All the politicians needed to do was tweak the financial system, and the world economy would grow forever. There was not even a need for resources!

Peak Oilers’ Involvement 

The Peak Oilers walked into a situation with this wrong world view, and started trying to fix pieces of it. One piece that was clearly wrong as the relationship between resources and the economy.  Resources, especially energy resources, are needed to make any of the goods and services we buy. If those resources started reaching diminishing returns, it would be harder for the economy to grow. The economy might even shrink. Dr. Charles Hall, recently retired professor from SUNY-ESF, came up with one measure of diminishing returns–falling Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI).

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Low Oil Prices: Sign of a Debt Bubble Collapse, Leading to the End of Oil Supply?

Oil and other commodity prices have recently been dropping. Is this good news, or bad?

Figure 1. Trend in Commodity Prices since January 2011. Brent spot oil price from EIA; Australian Coal from World Bank Prink Sheet; Food from UN's FAO.

Figure 1. Trend in Commodity Prices since January 2011. Brent spot oil price from EIA; Australian Coal from World Bank Prink Sheet; Food from UN’s FAO.

I would argue that falling commodity prices are bad news. It likely means that the debt bubble which has been holding up the world economy for a very long time–since World War II, at least–is failing to expand sufficiently. If the debt bubble collapses, we will be in huge difficulty.

Many people have the impression that falling oil prices mean that the cost of production is falling, and thus that the feared “peak oil” is far in the distance. This is not the correct interpretation, especially when many types of commodities are decreasing in price at the same time. When prices are set in a world market, the big issue is affordability. Even if food, oil and coal are close to necessities, consumers can’t pay more than they can afford.

A person can tell from Figure 1 that since the first part of 2011, the prices of Brent oil, Australian coal, and food have been trending downward. This drop in prices continues into September. For example, as I write this, Brent oil price is $97.70, while the average price for the latest month shown (August) is $105.27. It is this steeper, recent drop, which many are concerned about.

We are dealing with several confusing issues. Let me try to explain some of them.

Issue #1: Over the short term, commodity prices don’t reflect the cost of extraction; they reflect what buyers can afford.

Oil prices are set on a worldwide basis. The cost of extraction varies around the world. So it is clear that oil prices will not match the cost of extraction, or the cost of extraction plus a reasonable profit, for any particular producer.

If oil prices drop, there is a temptation to believe that this is because the cost of production has dropped. Over a long enough period, a drop in the cost of production might be expected to lead to lower oil prices. But we know that many oil producers are finding current oil prices too low. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “Royal Dutch Shell CEO: Can’t deny returns are too low. Ben van Beurden prepared to shrink company in order to boost returns, profitability.” I wrote about this issue in my post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.

In the short term, low prices are likely to signal that less of the commodity can be sold on the world market. Commodities such as oil and food are very desirable products. Why would less be needed? The issue, unfortunately, is affordability. Affordability depends largely on (1) wages and (2) debt. Wages tend to be fairly stable. The likely culprit, if affordability is leading to lower demand for desirable products like oil and food, is less growth in debt. Continue reading

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An Energy-Related Reason Why US Healthcare Outcomes are Awful

Back in January 2013, the US Institute of Medicine published a report called U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. This poor health outcome for US citizens is in spite of the US spending twice as much as a percentage of GDP on healthcare as other high-income nations.

As an example of the problems the US has, the report showed the following exhibit, pointing out that the US has made much smaller advances in life expectancy since 1980 than other high-income nations.  The US is now seventeenth of the seventeen countries analyzed in male life expectancy, and sixteenth out of seventeenth in female life expectancy.

Figure 1-6 Female life expectancy at birth

I am sure I do not know all of the reasons for the US divergence from patterns seen elsewhere, but let me try to explain one energy-related reason for our problems. It has to do with a need to get a wide variety of nutrients at the same time we need to balance (Energy In) = (Energy Needed for Life Processes), in a period of time when the food we eat is increasingly of the “processed” variety. There may also be an issue of eating too much animal protein in our food mix, thanks to today’s ability to ramp up meat production using grains grown and shipped around the world, using fossil fuels.

An Overview of Energy-Related Modifications to Food

If we look at primates in general, it is pretty clear that all of the nutrients such animals need come prepackaged in the food that they gather with their limbs. They get the level of exercise they need from gathering this food and from their other daily activities. They have a pretty good balance between (Energy In) = (Energy Needed for Life Processes), without any special effort. Continue reading

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Update on US natural gas, coal, nuclear, and renewables

On August 6, I wrote a post called Making Sense of the US Oil Story, in which I looked at US oil. In this post, I would like to look at other sources of US energy. Of course, the energy source we hear most about is natural gas. We continue to be a net natural gas importer, even as our own production rises.

Figure 1. US natural gas production and consumption, based on EIA data.

Figure 1. US natural gas production and consumption, based on EIA data.

US natural gas production leveled off in 2013, because of the low level of US natural gas prices. In 2013, there was growth in gas production in Pennsylvania in the Marcellus, but many other states, including Texas, saw decreases in production. In early 2014, natural gas prices have been higher, so natural gas production is rising again, roughly at a 4% annual rate.

The US-Canada-Mexican natural gas system is more or less a closed system (at least until LNG exports come online in the next few years) so whatever natural gas is produced, is used. Because of this, natural gas prices rise or fall so that demand matches supply. Natural gas producers have found this pricing situation objectionable because natural gas prices tend to settle at a low level, relative to the cost of production. This is the reason for the big push for natural gas exports. The hope, from producers’ point of view, is that exports will push US natural gas prices higher, making more natural gas production economic.

The Coal / Natural Gas Switch

If natural gas is cheap and plentiful, it tends to switch with coal for electricity production. We can see this in electricity consumption–natural gas was particularly cheap in 2012:

Figure 2. Selected Fuels Share of US Electricity - Coal, Natural Gas, and the sum of Coal plus Natural Gas

Figure 2. Selected Fuels Share of US Electricity Production – Coal, Natural Gas, and the sum of Coal plus Natural Gas, based on EIA data.

Coal use increased further in early 2014, because of the cold winter and higher natural gas prices. In Figure 2, there is a slight downward trend in the sum of coal and natural gas’s share of electricity, as renewables add their (rather small) effect. Continue reading

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