The Real Oil Extraction Limit, and How It Affects the Downslope

There is a lot of confusion about which limit we are reaching with respect to oil supply. There seems to be a huge amount of “reserves,” and oil production seems to be increasing right now, so people can’t imagine that there might be a near term problem. There are at least three different views regarding the nature of the limit:

  1. Climate Change. There is no limit on oil production within the foreseeable future. Oil prices can be expected to keep rising. With higher prices, alternative fuels and higher cost extraction techniques will become available. The main concern is climate change. The only reason that oil production would drop is because we have found a way to use less oil because of  climate change concerns, and choose not to extract oil that seems to be available.
  2. Limit Based on Geology (“Peak Oil”). In each oil field, production tends to rise for a time and then fall. Therefore, in total, world oil production will most likely begin to fall at some point, because of technological limits on extraction. In fact, this limit seems quite close at hand. High oil prices may play a role as well.
  3. Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough. We need high oil prices to keep oil extraction up, but as we reach diminishing returns with respect to oil extraction, oil prices don’t rise high enough to keep extraction at the required level. If oil prices do rise very high, there are feedback loops that lead to more recession and job layoffs and less “demand for oil” (really, oil affordability) among potential purchasers of oil. One major cut-off on oil supply is inadequate funds for reinvestment, because of low oil prices.

Why “Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough” Is the Real Limit

In my view, our real concern should be the third item above, “Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough.” The problem is caused by a mismatch between wages (which are not growing very quickly) and the cost of oil extraction (which is growing quickly). If oil prices rose as fast as extraction costs, they would leave workers with a smaller and smaller percentage of their wages to spend on food, clothing, and other necessities–something that doesn’t work for very long. Let me explain what happens. 

Because of diminishing returns, the cost of oil extraction keeps rising. It is hard for oil prices to increase enough to provide an adequate profit for producers, because if they did, workers would get poorer and poorer. In fact, oil prices already seem to be too low. In years past, oil companies found that the price they sold oil for was sufficient (a) to cover the complete costs of extraction, (b) to pay dividends to stockholders, (c) to pay required governmental taxes, and (d) to provide enough funds for investment in new wells, in order to  keep production level, or even increase it.  Now, because of the rapidly rising cost of new extraction, oil companies are finding that they are coming up short in this process. 

Oil companies have begun returning money to stockholders in increased dividends, rather than investing in projects which are likely to be unprofitable at current oil prices. See Oil companies rein in spending to save cash for dividendsIf our need for investment dollars is escalating because of diminishing returns in oil extraction, but oil companies are reining in spending for investments because they don’t think they can make an adequate return at current oil prices, this does not bode well for future oil extraction. Continue reading

Diminishing Returns, Energy Return on Energy Invested, and Collapse

What do diminishing returns, energy return on energy invested (EROI or EROEI), and collapse have to do with each other? Let me start by explaining the connection between Diminishing Returns and Collapse.

Diminishing Returns and Collapse

We know that historically, many economies that have collapsed were ones that have hit “diminishing returns” with respect to human labor–that is, new workers added less production than existing workers were producing (on average). For example, in an agricultural economy, available land might already have as many farmers as the land can optimally use. Adding more farmers might add a little more production–perhaps the new workers would keep weeds down a bit better. But the amount of additional food the new workers would produce would be less than what earlier workers were producing, on average. If new workers were paid on the basis of their additional food production, they would find that their wages dropped relative to those of the original farmers.

Lack of good paying jobs for everyone leads to a need for workarounds of various kinds. For example, swamp land might be drained to add more farmland, or irrigation ditches might be added to increase the amount produced per acre. Or the government might hire a larger army might to conquer more territory. Joseph Tainter (1990) talks about this need for workarounds as a need for greater “complexity.” In many cases, greater complexity translates to a need for more government services to handle the problems at hand.

Turchin and Nefedof (2009) in Secular Cycles took Tainter’s analysis a step further,  analyzing financial data relating to historical collapses of eight agricultural societies in operation between the years 30 B.C. E. and 1922 C. E.. Figure 1 shows my summary of the pattern they describe.

Figure 1. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on work of Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov.

Figure 1. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on work of Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov.

Typically, a civilization developed a new resource which increased food availability, such as clearing a large plot of land of trees so that crops could be planted, or irrigating an  existing plot of land. The economy tended to expand for well over 100 years, as the population grew in size to match the potential output of the new resource. Wages were relatively high.

Eventually, the civilization hit a period of stagflation, typically lasting 50 or 60 years, as the population hit the carrying capacity of the land, and as additional workers did not add proportionately more output. When this happened, the wages of common workers tended to stagnate or decrease, resulting in increased wage disparity. The price of food tended to spike. To counter these problems, the amount of government services rose, as did the amount of debt.

Ultimately, what brought the civilizations down was the inability of governments to collect enough taxes for expanded government services from the increasingly impoverished citizens. Other factors played a role as well–more resource wars, leading to more deaths; impoverished common workers not being able to afford an adequate diet, so plagues were more able to spread; overthrown or collapsing governments; and debt defaults. Populations tended to die off.  Such collapses took place over a long period, typically 20 to 50 years.

For those who are familiar with economic theory, the shape of the curve in Figure 1 is very similar to the production function mentioned in Two Views of our Current Economic and Energy Crisis. In fact, the three main phases are the same as well. The issue in both cases is diminishing returns ultimately leading to collapse.

There seems to be a parallel to the current world situation. The energy resource that we learned to develop this time is fossil fuels, starting with coal about 1800. World population was able to expand greatly because of additional food production permitted by fossil fuels and because of improvements in hygiene. A period of stagflation began in the 1970s, when we first encountered problems with US oil production and spiking oil prices.  Now, the question is whether we are approaching the Crisis Stage as described by Turchin and Nefedov. Continue reading