Drilling Down: Tainter and Patzek tell the energy-complexity story

Joseph Tainter and Tadeusz Patzek are authors of a soon-to-be-released book called Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma. This book is part of Charles Hall’s Briefs in Energy series with the publisher Springer. An earlier book in this series was The Limits to Growth Revisited, by Ugo Bardi.

The new book, Drilling Down, is not simply the story of the Gulf oil spill (although it does tell this story, quite well). Tainter and Patzek use the story of the Gulf oil spill as the background for discussing the energy-complexity spiral, and its relationship to this accident.

The energy-complexity spiral occurs because the availability of abundant, inexpensive energy permits increased complexity. Complexity has the advantage of allowing society to solve more problems, but it has the disadvantage of being more costly–that is requiring more energy for its creation. The need for more energy (and the fact that Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) is declining) leads to a need for more complexity to obtain this additional energy, assuring that the cycle continues. With growing complexity, there is an increased risk of accidents that can be expected because of the complex nature of the system, but which are hard for participants to foresee.

Tainter and Patzek add new perspectives to what has been reported elsewhere, such as at The Oil Drum. Joe Tainter is an anthropologist and historian who teaches in the department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. His best-known work is The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tad Patzek has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering and teaches at the University of Texas in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering. He has testified at congressional hearings on the oil spill.

The book has nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Significance of Oil in the Gulf of Mexico
  3. The Energy that Runs the World
  4. Offshore Drilling and Production: A Short History
  5. The Energy Complexity Spiral
  6. The Benefits and Costs of Complexity
  7. What Happened at the Macondo Well
  8. Why the Gulf Disaster Happened
  9. Our Energy and Complexity Dilemma: Prospects for the Future

We have already extracted quite a bit of the easy-to-extract oil. As we move on to more difficult to extract oil, we find it necessary to use ever more complex, costly and risky technologies, driven by falling EROEI, in an energy-complexity spiral. The energy-complexity spiral in oil production mirrors the larger energy complexity spiral in society as a whole. The introduction describes the purpose of the book as two-fold:

. . . firstly to explain the Gulf disaster, the energy-­complexity spiral, and how they are necessarily connected; and secondly to encourage all consumers of energy to consider whether this spiral is sustainable, and what it will mean for us if it is not.

The two authors bring their perspectives to the situation. Patzek tells the technical story of oil extraction, why we need oil from the Gulf of Mexico, and how oil from the Gulf is found in ever-smaller and deeper reservoirs. He also tells some of the details about the complexity of extraction as more people and companies are involved in the process and as more complex extraction equipment is needed. Tainter brings the overview of how the energy-complexity spiral works. He also provides background on how previous civilizations handled growing complexity, and the difficulty of maintaining adequate energy supply, as marginal returns decline. Together, they tell the specific story of the Deepwater Horizon accident, but also the more general story of our search for greater energy supplies, and the problems involved.

The book describes the Deepwater Horizon as a “normal accident”:

Perrow uses the term “normal accidents” partly as a synonym for “inevitable” accidents, accidents whose likelihood is inherent in a complex technological system. In a highly complex piece of technology with many parts, accidents happen from unpredictable interactions among some of those parts. Complexity makes failures nearly inevitable. Engineers try to avoid failure by adding more complexity, all of which makes the operation of technological systems difficult for human operators to understand.

. . .

Normal accidents appear as if they are Black Swans, something that cannot happen. In fact, the very nature of complex technologies makes accidents probable. They are a normal byproduct of the operation of systems whose complexity is beyond human understanding.

Part of the reason that accidents are prone to happen is because various tasks are divided among various companies, each trying to earn a profit. Within each company, tasks are further divided among many workers.

The chance of “normal accidents” can be expected to increase as drilling is started in ever-riskier places, such as off the coast of Greenland and north of the Arctic Circle.

Drilling Down touches on many interesting topics, from details about how extraction is done, to details about what happened at the time of the accident, to overviews of how various civilizations have dealt with rising complexity and reduced energy flows. Tainter brings up the issue of declining marginal return on investment in complexity–and how this seems to be born out, for example, by fewer new patents, even in energy sectors. The book also mentions that more complex solutions–from hybrid gas-electric cars to fancier military airplanes–tend to be more expensive per unit built, and this higher cost limits how many are actually sold.

The book talks about how energy slaves in the form of fossil fuels are a way of paying for increased complexity, at least until they start running short. The book also talks about how things that should be obvious–like our dependence on fossil fuels–are masked by the fact that they are so much a part of our everyday life, and for many years were not a problem. In explaining this, the point is made that a fish wouldn’t know that its nose is wet–water is such a part of its everyday environment as not to be noticed.

This is not a book that gives a formula for solving our energy problems. The following is part of the final remarks of the book (actual wording may vary–the manuscript I am working from is not final).

It is fashionable to think that we will be able to produce renewable energy with gentler technologies, with simpler machines that produce less damage to the earth, the atmosphere, and people. We all hope so, but we must approach such technologies with a dose of realism and a long-term perspective. A geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, begun in December 2006, had been underway only a few days when there was a small earthquake of magnitude 3.4, frightening people and damaging buildings. More than 100 aftershocks continued into 2007, and the project was abandoned, because people were too scared. Solar and wind power, at a scale great enough to be meaningful, would consume large amounts of land . . . Renewable energy that gives the same power per person as we enjoy today would not be free of environmental damage. . . Indeed, in the large land areas that it would require, renewable energy could cause more environmental damage than that caused by our use of fossil fuels. We know that this is not a pleasant observation, but throughout the book we have emphasized the need for realism.

It is always important to keep long-term processes in mind, as well as the regularities in how humans behave. As with fossil fuels, we will first exploit sources of renewable energy with the steepest energy gradients, the highest EROEI. Once those no longer satisfy our needs, we will do what we are now doing with petroleum: We will produce renewable energy in places that are more and more unfavorable, and to this we will develop technologies that are complex, costly, and risky. Perhaps in the end the consequences will not be as great as the Gulf spill, although we will not presume to guess how people might weigh the economic and emotional costs of an earthquake against those of an oil spill, or the difference between opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and taking over a vast desert ecosystem to capture its solar energy. We hope that renewable energy will be more environmentally benign than fossil fuels have been, but we will know only when we push into renewable energy sources that yield declining marginal returns.

What are the alternatives? The fiscal crises currently experienced by many governments give us a taste of what would likely be in store for us should our energy sources ever prove inadequate. . . Teachers are being laid off, programs canceled, and school years shortened. Britain is eliminating whole agencies of government, and planning to implement the most drastic curtailment of public services since World War II. All this is happening at a time when energy is still abundant and relatively inexpensive.

Our societies cannot postpone a public discussion about future energy. As we stated earlier, this must be an adult discussion, a discussion that is honest, serious, and realistic. It cannot be grounded in punditry, or faith-based economics, or unlimited technological optimism. . . We can anticipate and plan for our future, or we can simply allow the future to happen. This is our choice.

The era of plentiful petroleum will someday end, hopefully without any more accidents of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. We don’t know when this will happen, nor does anyone else. Surely it will happen sooner than we want. Yet we are not without some ability to understand how the future will unfold. We can project the future based on past experience, for we are not the first people to encounter challenges of energy. Always in our discussions it is worthwhile to keep in mind the restatement of Stein’s Law: A trend that can’t continue, won’t.

Drilling Down is now available for pre-order. I am told the book will be ready the first week in October. The book is well worth its modest price of $13.23, in my opinion. With one detail-oriented author, and one “big picture” author, the book includes something for everyone. No background in oil terminology is required; a glossary is provided.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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27 Responses to Drilling Down: Tainter and Patzek tell the energy-complexity story

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  9. yt75 says:

    Thanks for the review Gail, does Tad also adress the coal situation in this book ? As I understand from some of his previous work, his evaluations on coal reserves and possible production levels are somehow well below what is often considered.

  10. denisaf says:

    All this discussion avoids three simple physical principles. All technology makes use of natural forces to irreversibly use irreplaceable natural resources, such as oil. This process includes using a wide range of materials. EROEI is a measure that only indicates how effective the technology is in supplying energy. It does not take into account the fact that the materials, including oil, are running out. Some materials will be recycled and some replaced but that does not affect the principle. Secondly, all technological systems are subject to an aging process due to the action of natural forces such as friction. Society has built up a commitment to using vast amounts of energy supplied by systems that in the long run (as far as this civilization is concerned) cannot be replaced. Thirdly, the civilization and its human population needs more than energy to operate. The energy supply problem is a major issue but omitting consideration of its interaction with over population and water and food predicaments conveys a false impression of what has gone wrong.

  11. jukka says:

    “I have a hard time faulting the oil and gas companies. ”

    why? as far as i understand you think they are telling lies. so why do you have a hard time faulting them?

    about tainter’s collapse book. i think it’s a very inspiring book. however, there is something in the book which is not true in an interesting way. tainter says that no country can collapse by itself because the neighboring countries would invade it, and hence the complexity wouldn’t diminish. but somalia and congo (ex zaire) are counterexamples to this. i think this is significant in itself: the first time in history (maybe?) the “rich” countries have decided not to invade a region or country because it is not profitable.

    in the long run it’s simply the matter of numbers: usa can’t control in any effective way the rest of the world. there are simply too many people to control.

    • They are telling part of the story. I am not sure they necessarily understand the full story, since each business is one particular company, which is only a part of the total energy situation.

  12. Dan Taylor says:

    Gail, thank you for the article and your post in general – very tight and clear work.
    I have had Tainter’s new book on pre-order for months now. Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies” is a book I strongly recommend to all thinking people.
    I have given or loaned several copies to associates and friends over the years … amazingly the most common response is “those things couldn’t happen in our modern society”.
    Clearly we live in a time of unbridled hubris – unfortunately reality trumps hubris every time.

    • I have had the privilege of spending a fair amount of time with Joe, when we were both speakers at the same conferences. He is a very good speaker, and good to work with. This is a photo from the Biophysical Economics Conference this spring. Charlie Hall has the green shirt on; Joe Tainter has a white shirt on; and Jim Kuntzler has a black shirt on.

      After Biophysical Economics Conference; Gail Tverberg, Charlie Hall, Joe Tainter, Jim Kuntzler

  13. phil harris says:

    Very valuable.
    I am glad to see authors using Perrow’s discussion of ‘normal accidents’. I found Perrow useful for my official risk assessments nearly 20(?) years ago – though most ‘official’ committees ‘did not get it’. Perrow had a useful subsidiary concept, “tight-coupling” for a matrix of risk assessment. If I remember correctly, also he had a nice little throw-away remark about embarking on the “chaos” of the ocean: “Elites do not travel on Liberian tankers.”
    Another thought about “official thinking”, especially perhaps when academic scientists are involved: ‘Logical Positivists’ have great difficulty including information about ‘what they do not know’ [in a scientific sense] in any calculation. It was surprising to me how scenarios could be ruled out of discussion on the basis that nobody could think of a “mechanism”. ‘System accidents’ always sound extremely unlikely, until they happen – and then it usually is some poor cog in the machine who is blamed.

    • phil harris says:

      Quick footnote.
      Discussion of risk in high-tec society has moved on since Charles Perrow (I realise that I first read him more than 25 years ago). But a review of Perrow’s risk assessment matrix: vis, ‘complexity’ x ‘tight-coupling’ = ‘trouble’, and other very useful stuff is at http://www.ohio.edu/people/piccard/entropy/perrow.html Latter updated this year with an email available author.
      Looking forward to Tainter & Patzek.

  14. Bicycle Dave says:

    Our societies cannot postpone a public discussion about future energy…. a discussion that is honest, serious, and realistic. It cannot be grounded in punditry, or faith-based economics, or unlimited technological optimism

    So, what is the shape of this discussion today? This bit is repeated ad nauseam on a daily basis:


    Should this ad be considered a criminal act? I think so.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Not sure how to insert a specific YouTube video – I was trying to get at the oil sands pitch – but, I guess any of them make the point.

      • The problem is that we don’t have good options. If we want to grow food using the equipment we have today, we need oil, and there aren’t good options for getting oil. We can get along without bitumen from the oil sands and let Canada use it themselves, or let Canada send it to China. It doesn’t change the world situation, I am afraid.

        Or i suppose we can substitute coal in some cases, but that is worse. Or we can buy products from China, and let them use the coal. That way it is out of site, out of mind, and someone else has the ground-level pollution.

    • Hydraulic fracturing is being used in extracting both oil and natural gas. It has a lot more problems in the East (used on natural gas) than in the West (used on both oil and natural gas). The problems in the East are because of more fractured rock formations, more population, and a lack of history of regulation of oil and gas industry.

      At this point, we would lose a lot of oil production without fracking.

      The discussion has gotten very confused, because I don’t think people understand the issues. The problems in New York /Pennsylvania are not the same as those elsewhere.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Gail,

        In my attempt to be cryptic and a bit dramatic, perhaps I failed to make my point. I wasn’t really thinking about the fine points of fracking or tar sands. My concern is with the power of disinformation to mold public opinion and ultimately the laws of our land that will impact our future. Free speech is not without responsibility (yelling fire in theater thing). I’m contending that major oil companies are not only abusing their right to free speech but also endangering the lives of future generations by deliberately creating the illusion that BAU can continue indefinitely if we just support their technologies and financial aspirations. They have the short term goal of maximizing profits. They don’t want these profits compromised by environmental regulations, taxation, or a real push for efficiency and conservation – perish the idea that we should leave FFs in the ground for future generations and thier most high value uses.

        I don’t think the folks at major oil companies are a bunch of dummies – I’m sure they are well aware of all the issues we discuss here and on sites like TOD. I see no difference between their strategies and the strategies of the tobacco industry a couple of decades ago. I understand they even employ some of the same PR people. The question is: should they be allowed to spend millions (perhaps billions) of dollars to persuade the public that our current level of energy supply will continue for “centuries” if we just trust (and financially support) them. These huge corporations have amassed gigantic fortunes by extracting natural resources from our country (and surrounding area). It can be argued that they have harmed our environment in the process (like GW). Then, instead of using those profits to benefit the country, they are allowed to corrupt the political process that just might help mitigate the issues of PO, GW, etc. Recall that we did stop smoking ads.

        I was reacting to the idea that the authors were calling for an honest and realistic discussion of our energy future. How can the major oil company ads be considered honest and realistic when they never even hint at the real issues associated with PO, GW, and a host of other environmental dangers associated with continued reliance on FF? Like the tobbaco companies not mentioning cancer. On this blog we are trying to figure out if collapse will happen in 2 years or 20 years. The major oil companies are trying to convince the general public that we can continue BAU for centuries – just trust them. Either we are nuts or they are deliberately doing something that may well cost millions of people to suffer and die early. I don’t see how this is just a small difference of POV.

        • I have a hard time faulting the oil and gas companies. Anyone who is selling something is going to make it look good in their write-ups.

          The ones I fault are the government agencies, who seem to deliberately look the other way, and put out loads of disinformation on “solutions” which seem to be just around the corner, such as carbon capture and storage and cellulosic ethanol. They also make terribly optimistic forecasts of oil and gas production.

          Also, university researchers are not truly independent. They line up for whatever money is given out by government agencies, regardless of how stupid the project. Also, university researchers tend to have a very narrow view of the world. Most of their research ties back to what somebody, somewhere else said 10 or 20 years ago. They don’t step back and look at what is really happening in the world, because that largely is not written up in the peer reviewed literature. (I tried to do my part with Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.)

          • Bicycle Dave says:

            Hi Gail,

            I certainly agree with you regarding the failure of both government agencies and university researchers to provide the public with realistic analysis and policy suggestions related to our energy future. However, I very much disagree with your defense of oil and gas companies.

            There appears to be an emerging movement to hold companies accountable for being a “GOOD STEWARD” as relates to environment and other factors – see:


            For example, Exxon-mobile, Valero, and Sunoco all score an “F” according to the Good Company Scoring Methodology.


            According to this movement, large corporations are no longer given a pass just because they want to “look good” in their sales process. Given the huge settlements that tobacco companies were forced to make a few years ago, it would seem the major oil companies would want to take a more responsible approach. The irony is that energy companies are actually much better positioned than tobacco companies to adopt a much more responsible strategy both for their advertising and their actual commercial activities.

            I suspect that many of us with an environmental bent could outline a new approach for energy companies that would move them from villains to heroes as the energy picture unfolds. It is puzzling why they don’t take advantage of the opportunity they have to become really good members of the community. It would seem that they could get an “A” score from Good Company and still be very profitable – but with a very large change of corporate mindset/culture.

            • I am not sure that there is anything they could do to get good scores from the environmental group. Simply having people occupying the land in any way interferes with habitats. Putting things back the way they were after the fact doesn’t seem to be acceptable to them. Stopping doing fracking pretty much means that most of our new oil and gas supply would stop, so the US decline would be very steep. We couldn’t count on replacing the oil and gas we lose with imports. The crash would come more quickly and harder.

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