Fossil Fuel Production Is Reaching Limits in a Strange Way

Strangely enough, the limit we seem to be reaching with respect to fossil fuel extraction comes from low prices. At low prices, the extraction of oil, coal, and natural gas becomes unprofitable. Producers go bankrupt, or they voluntarily cut back production in an attempt to force prices higher. As the result of these forces, production tends to fall. This limit comes long before the limit that many people imagine: the amount of fossil fuels in the ground that seems to be available with current extraction techniques.

The last time there was a similar problem was back in 1913, when coal was the predominant fossil fuel used and the United Kingdom was the largest coal producer in the world. The cost of production was rising due to depletion, but coal prices would not rise sufficiently to cover the higher cost of production. As a result, the United Kingdom’s coal production reached its highest level in 1913, the year before World War I started, and began to fall in 1914.

Between 1913 and 1945, the world economy was very troubled. There were two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic and the Great Depression. My concern is that we are again headed into another very troubled period that could last for many years.

The way the energy problems of the period between 1913 and 1945 were resolved was through the rapid ramp-up of oil production. Oil was, as that time, inexpensive to produce and could be sold for a very large multiple of the cost of production. If population is to remain at the current level or possibly grow, we need a similar “energy savior.” Unfortunately, none of the alternatives we are looking at now yield a high enough return relative to the required investment.

I recently gave a talk to an engineering group interested in energy research talking about these issues. In this post, I will discuss the slides of this presentation. A PDF of the presentation can be found at this link.

The Low Oil Price Problem

Oil prices seem to bounce around wildly. One major issue is that there is a two-way tug of war between the prices that citizens can afford and the prices that oil companies require. We can look back now and say that the mid-2008 price of over $150 per barrel was too high for consumers. But strangely enough, oil producers began complaining about oil prices being too low to cover their rising cost levels, starting in 2012. Prices, at a 2019 cost level, were at about $120 per barrel at that time. I wrote about this issue in the post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. Oil prices now are in the $40 range, so are way, way below both $120 per barrel and $150 per barrel.

Interest rates and the availability of debt also play a role in oil prices. If interest rates are low and debt is readily available, it is easy to buy a new home or new car, and oil prices tend to rise because of the higher demand. When prices are too low for producers, central banks have been able to lower interest rates through a program called “quantitative easing.” This program seems to have helped oil prices to rise again, over a three-year period, after they crashed in 2008.

OPEC producers are known for their low cost of production, but even they report needing high oil prices. The cost of extracting the oil is reported to be very low (perhaps $10 per barrel), but the price charged needs to be high enough to allow governments to collect very high taxes on the oil extracted. If prices are high enough, these countries can continue the food subsidies that their populations depend upon. They can also sponsor development programs to provide jobs for the ever-growing populations of these countries. OPEC producers also need to develop new oil fields because the old ones deplete.

Oil production outside of the United States and Canada entered a bumpy plateau in 2005. The US and Canada added oil production from shale and bitumen in recent years, helping to keep world oil production (including natural gas liquids) rising.

One reason why producers need higher prices is because their cost of extraction tends to rise over time. This happens because the oil that is cheapest to extract and process tends to be extracted first, leaving the oil with higher cost of extraction until later. 

Some OPEC countries, such as Saudi Arabia, can hide the low price problem for a while by borrowing money. But even this approach does not work well for long. The longer low oil prices last, the greater the danger is of governments being overthrown by unhappy citizens. Oil production can then be expected to become erratic because of internal conflicts.

In the US and Canada, oil companies have been funded by bank loans, bond sales and the sale of shares of stock. These sources of funding are drying up, as many oil companies report poor earnings, year after year, and some are seeking bankruptcy protection. 

Chart 6 shows that the number of drilling rigs in operation has dropped dramatically in both the United States and Canada, as oil companies cut back on drilling. There is a lag between the time the number of drilling rigs is cut back and the time production starts to fall of perhaps a year, in the case of shale. These low drilling rig counts suggest that US and Canadian oil production from shale will fall in 2021.

Of course, unused drilling rigs cannot be mothballed indefinitely. At some point, they are sold as scrap and the workers who operated them find other employment. It then becomes difficult to restart oil extraction.

How the Economy Works, and What Goes Wrong as Limits Are Reached

Slide 7 shows one way of visualizing how the world economy, as a self-organizing system, operates. It is somewhat like a child’s building toy. New layers are added as new consumers, new businesses and new laws are added. Old layers tend to disappear, as old consumers die, old products are replaced by new products, and new laws replace old laws. Thus, the structure is to some extent hollow.

Self-organizing objects that grow require energy under the laws of physics. Our human bodies are self-organizing systems that grow. We use food as our source of energy. The economy also requires energy products of many kinds, such as gasoline, jet fuel, coal and electricity to allow it to operate.

It is easy to see that energy consumption allows the economy to produce finished goods and services, such as homes, automobiles, and medical services. It is less obvious, but just as important, that energy consumption provides jobs that pay well. Without energy supplies in addition to food, typical jobs would be digging in the dirt with a stick or gathering food with our hands. These jobs don’t pay well.

Finally, Slide 7 shows an important equivalence between consumers and employees. If consumers are going to be able to afford to buy the output of the economy, they need to have adequate wages.

A typical situation that arises is that population rises more quickly than energy resources, such as land to grow food. For a while, it is possible to work around this shortfall with what is called added complexity: hierarchical organization, specialization, technology, and globalization. Unfortunately, as more complexity is added, the economic system increasingly produces winners and losers. The losers end up with very low wage jobs, or with no jobs at all. The winners get huge wages and often asset ownership, as well. The winners end up with far more revenue than they need to purchase basic goods and services. The losers often do not have enough revenue to feed their families and to buy basic necessities, such as a home and some form of basic transportation.

The strange way the economy works has to do with the physics of the situation. Physicist Francois Roddier explains this as being similar to what happens to water at different temperatures. When the world economy has somewhat inadequate energy supplies, the goods and services produced by the economy tend to bubble to the top members of the world economy, similar to the way steam rises. The bottom members of the economy tend to get “frozen out.” This way, the economy can downsize without losing all members of the economy, simultaneously. This is the way ecosystems of all kinds adapt to changing conditions: The plants and animals that are best adapted to the conditions of the time tend to be the survivors.

These issues are related to the fact that the economy is, in physics terms, a dissipative structure. The economy, like hurricanes and like humans, requires adequate energy if it is not to collapse. Dissipative structures attempt to work around temporary shortfalls in energy supplies. A human being will lose weight if his caloric intake is restricted for a while. A hurricane will lose speed, if the energy it gets from the warm water of the ocean is restricted. A world economy with inadequate energy is likely to shrink back in many ways: unprofitable businesses may fail, layers of government may disappear and population may fall, for example.

In the discussion of Slide 7, I mentioned the fact that if we try to “stretch” energy supply with added complexity, many workers would end up with very low wages. Some of these low wage workers would be in the US and Europe, but many of them would be in China, India and Africa. Even though these workers are producing goods for the world economy, they often cannot afford to buy those same goods themselves. Henry Ford is remembered to have said something to the effect that he needed to pay his workers enough so that they, themselves, could buy the cars they were making. To a significant extent, this is no longer happening when a person takes into account international workers.

The high interest rates that low-wage workers pay mean that loans don’t really help low-wage workers as much as they help high-wage workers. The high interest on credit card debt and personal loans tend to transfer part of the income of low-wage workers to the financial sector, leaving poor people worse off than they would have been without the loans. 

COVID shutdowns are extremely damaging to the world economy. They are like taking support sticks out of the dome on Slide 7. They produce many more unemployed people around the world. People in low wage countries that produce clothing for a living have been particularly hard hit, for example. Migrant workers and miners of various kinds have also been hard hit.

We Seem to Be Reaching a Major Turning Point

Oil production and consumption have both fallen in 2020; oil prices are far too low for producers; wage disparity is a major problem; countries seem to be increasingly having problems getting along. Many analysts are forecasting a prolonged recession.

The last time that we had a similar situation was in 1913, when the largest coal producer in the world was the United Kingdom. The UK’s cost of coal production kept rising because of depletion (deeper mines, thinner seams), but prices would not rise to compensate for the higher cost of production. Miners were paid very inadequate wages; poor workers regularly held strikes for higher wages. World War I started in 1914, the same year coal production of the UK started to fall. The UK’s coal production has fallen nearly every year since then.

The last time that wage disparity started to spike as badly as it has in recent years occurred back in the late 1920s, or perhaps as early as 1913 to 1915.  The chart shown above is for the US; problems were greater in Europe at that time.

With continued low oil prices, production is likely to start falling and may continue to fall for years. It is hard to bring scrapped drilling rigs back into service, for example. The experience in the UK with coal shows that energy prices don’t necessarily rise to compensate for higher costs due to depletion. There need to be buyers for higher-priced goods made with higher-priced coal. If there is too much wage disparity, the many poor people in the system will tend to keep demand, and prices, too low. They may eat poorly, making it easier for pandemics to spread, as with the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919. These people will be unhappy, leading to the rise of leaders promising to change the system to make things better.

My concern is that we may be heading into a long period of unrest, as occurred in the 1913 to 1945 era. Instead of getting high energy prices, we will get disruption of the world economy.  The self-organizing economy is attempting to fix itself, either by getting more energy supply or by eliminating parts of the economy that aren’t contributing enough to the overall system. Conflict between countries, pandemics, bankruptcies and economic contraction are likely to be part of the mix.

Coal Seems to Be Reaching Extraction Limits as Well 

Coal has essentially the same problem as oil: Prices tend to be too low for producers to extract coal profitably. Many coal producers have gone bankrupt. Prices were higher back in 2008, when demand was high for everything, and again in 2011, when quantitative easing had been helpful. 

There have been stories in the press in the past week about China limiting coal imports from Australia, so as to make more jobs for coal miners in China. The big conflict among countries relates to “not enough jobs that pay well” and “not enough profitable companies.” These indirectly are energy issues. If there was more “affordability” of goods made with high-priced coal, there would be no problem.

Coal production worldwide has been on a bumpy plateau since 2012. In fact, China, the largest producer of coal, found its production stagnating, starting about 2012. The problem was a familiar one: The cost of extraction rose because many mines that had been used for quite a number of years were depleted. The selling price would not rise to match the higher cost of extraction because of affordability issues.

The underlying problem is that the economy is a dissipative structure. Commodity prices are set by the laws of physics. Prices don’t rise high enough for producers, if there are not enough customers willing and able to buy the goods made with high-priced coal.

We Have a Major Problem if Both Coal and Oil Production Are in Danger of Falling Because of Low Prices

Oil and coal are the two largest sources of energy in the world. We can’t get along without them. While natural gas production is fairly high, there is not nearly enough natural gas to replace both oil and coal.

Looking down the list, we see that nuclear production hit a maximum back in 2006 and has fallen since then.

Hydroelectric continues to grow, but from a small base. Most of the good sites have already been taken. In many cases, there are conflicts between countries regarding who should get the benefit of water from a given river.

The only grouping that is growing rapidly is Renewables. (This is really Renewables Other than Hydroelectric.) It includes wind and solar plus a few other energy types, including geothermal. This grouping, too, is very small compared to oil and coal.

Natural Gas Has a Low Price Problem as Well

Natural gas, at first glance, looks like it might be a partial solution to the world’s energy problems: It is lower in carbon than coal and oil, and it is fairly abundant. The problem with natural gas is that it is terribly expensive to ship. At one time, people used to talk about there being a lot of “stranded” natural gas. This natural gas seemed to be available, but when shipping costs were included, the price of goods made with it (such as electricity or winter heat for homes) was often unaffordable.

After the run-up in oil prices in the early 2000s, many people became optimistic that, with energy scarcity, natural gas prices would rise sufficiently to make extraction and shipping long distances profitable. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that, while prices can temporarily spike due to scarcity and perhaps a debt bubble, keeping the prices up for the long run is extremely difficult. Customers need to be able to afford the goods and services made with these energy products, or the laws of physics bring market prices back down to an affordable level.

The prices in the chart reflect three different natural gas products. The lowest priced one is US Henry Hub, which is priced near the place of extraction, so long distance shipping is not an issue. The other two, German Import and Japan Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), include different quantities of long distance shipping. Prices in 2020 are even lower than in 2019. For example, some LNG imported by Japan has ben purchased for $4 per million Btu in 2020.

The Economy Needs a Bail-Out Similar to the Growth of Oil After WWII

The oil that was produced shortly after World War II had very important characteristics:

  1. It was very inexpensive to produce, and
  2. It could be sold to customers at a far higher price than its cost of production.

It was as if, today, we had a very useful energy product that could be produced and delivered for $4, but it was so valuable to consumers that they were willing to pay $120 for it. In other words, the consumer was willing to pay 30 times as much as the cost that went into extracting and refining the oil.

With an energy product this valuable, a company producing it would need virtually no debt. It could drill a well or two, and with the profits from the first wells, finance the investment of many more wells. The company could pay very high taxes, allowing governments to build roads, schools, electricity transmission lines and much other infrastructure, without having to raise taxes on citizens.

Besides using the profits for reinvestment and for taxes, oil companies could pay high dividends. This made oil company stocks favorites of pension plans. Thus, in a way, oil company profits could help subsidize pension plans, as well.

Now, because of depletion, we have reached a situation where oil companies, and in fact most companies, are unprofitable. Companies and governments keep adding debt at ever lower interest rates. In fact, the tradition of ever-increasing debt at ever-lower interest rates goes back to 1981. Thus, we have been using debt manipulation to hide energy problems for almost 40 years now.

We need a way to counteract this trend toward ever-lower returns. Some people talk about “Energy Return on Energy Investment” or EROEI. I gave an example in dollars, but a major thing those dollars are buying is energy, so the result is very similar.

I think researchers have set the “bar” far too low, in looking at what is an adequate EROEI. Today’s wind and solar don’t really have an adequate EROEI, when the full cost of delivery is included. If they did, they would not need the subsidy of “going first” on the electric grid. They would also be able to pay high taxes instead of requiring subsidies, year after year. We need much better solutions than the ones we have today.

Some researchers talk about “Net Energy per Capita,” calculated as ((Energy Delivered to the End User) minus (Energy Used in Making and Transporting Energy to the End User)) divided by (Population). It seems to me that Net Energy per Capita needs to stay at least constant, and perhaps rise. If net energy per capita could actually rise, it would allow the economy to increasingly fight depletion and pollution.

Conclusion: We Need a New Very Inexpensive Energy Source Now

We need a new, very inexpensive energy source that buyers will willingly pay a disproportionately high price for right now, not 20 or 50 years from now.

The alternative may be an economy that does poorly for a long time or collapses completely.

The one ray of hope, from a researcher’s perspective, is the fact that people are always looking for solutions. They may be able to provide funds for research at this time, even if funds for full implementation are unlikely.

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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2,885 Responses to Fossil Fuel Production Is Reaching Limits in a Strange Way

  1. Tim M. says:

    So the booming Trump economy is a farce, as confirmed by declining oil production. Orange face is a fraud and a fascist. Creepy Joe is no better.

    • Well, one is certainly not advised to hang much around with “wolfiee” like Donald’s clan, but in comparison to plain “trailer park material” with Biden’s (recent news just confirming again), they are then rendered almost human in comparison. Marginal difference or none?

      ps that cheap “fascist” smear is not even laughable as the guy evidently survived multiple deep state (majority) attacks to dethrone him

      • Tim M. says:

        The first thing Trump did in office was dish out a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut to the giant corporations. He then convinced the Fed to print another 4 trillion. Trump has filed bankruptcy 6 times. I’d say that qualities as fascism. How much of that money did you get?

        • Trump was ~2nd-3rd rate regional oligarch who struck it lucky against the permanent state (FIN+MIC) political structure in 2016 as he jumped over their pre-selected pool of usual uniparty candidate cadre. He (and his tiny allied faction) naively believed the levers of power are still with the office.

          If you really think, one term president (so far) tied down mostly with faked investigation against him for the entire time somehow means fascism vs. several aggregated decades of expropriating hundreds of trillions by these guys (say since WWII), be my guest..

          ps The Duran just ran a declassified .pdf how the outsourced spooks of FBI/CIA ran that msm narrative with help of several key staffers from various dept., it’s hilarious they literally have had a “story board” like script how to feed the complex propaganda machine on all fronts..

          • Kowalainen says:

            The Telly always gave me a bad vibe for some reason. AlIt oozed “manufactured” narratives. So I dumped it some 20 years ago and feel much happier ever since. What a waste of time to be programmed by clueless people.

            When the abyss of brutal reality stares back, I feel a warmth in my cold, dead heart. ❤️

            • Oh dear says:

              The British state actually forces us all to pay upfront for state propaganda MSM. It is illegal to watch TV at all in UK unless you have first given hundreds of pounds to the BBC for a ‘TV licence’ – even if one never, ever watches the BBC.

              It would be like if you were forced to take out a pricey subscription to CNN every year before you were allowed to watch any other TV. Otherwise you get hauled into court and fined thousands of pounds.

              The Tory Party fully supports the ‘TV licence’. They actually have the front to make noises about it, to try to get votes, even while they adamantly impose it, year after year.

              The Tories are like that in UK, they actually get votes by making noises about policies that they support themselves, like open borders for the CBI – and the ‘sheep’ fall for it and vote for them. It is completely ridiculous country.

          • misanthropr#7 says:

            I cant say how valuable i think your posts are world of H. In a world of polarization and intolerance the truth still shines light. Well done. Today I listened to a NPR guest talking about “misinformation” about Hunter Biden. Yet i heard a show about HBs massive China interests on NPR about a year ago. Now thats bad. Everything other than PC narrative is “misinformation” “fascist” . Very scary.

            • Lidia17 says:

              Twitter is saying the Hunter Biden story link “is unsafe”. The Senate is subpeona-ing Jack to do some ‘splainin’ (after which nothing will happen, just like every other Senate hearing into misconduct that I can remember).

              There really is a full court press to suppress this information, which is damning in the extreme.. with more to come, promises Giuliani.

              Hunter’s text to Naomi [Biden, Hunter’s daughter]: “But I don’t receive any respect and that’s fine I guess. Works for you, apparently. I hope you all can do what I did and pay for everything for this entire family for 30 years. It’s really hard, but don’t worry, unlike Pop (Joe Biden) I won’t make you give me half your salary.”

            • Lidia17 says:

              correction: Senate is voting next week whether to subpeona Dorsey over the Biden censorship; they have not decided to do so.

            • It’s very interesting how abrupt intersections of history [right now] tend to reveal things in simplicity as they are.

              For example, one can almost feel tiny drop of sympathy with the desperate Hunter character, basically forced into the vulgar-sleazy gang operation of his father, who himself is a small fish anyway. Compare contrast with the slightly higher level and “always Mr. Clean” players such Obamas, Gores with their nice bulletproof mega contracts and skyrocketing investment portfolios.., and there are several layers above them.

              It’s almost like watching some “swamp creature” ecosystem consisting of various animal forms with different pecking order, and survival strategies.

            • Kowalainen says:

              Worldof, it sounds like the bidens will be the proverbial sacrifical lambs. But not only them will be on the chopping bloc, rather the complicit MSM and the interests behind them will be thrown into the dustbin of history for their lack of coverage.

              No action is also an action.

              The only good thing with this plan is that the Bidens will be mostly immune to foreign blackmail in the case of an election victory.

        • Denial says:

          Well lets see if this makes it though…..really lame of Gail to censor…Lidia it does not matter what biden son did anymore…Trump used campaign money to pay off porn stars and borrowed money from countries all over the world..and that is just the tip of the iceberg …..Yes I voted for the douche bag but I am regretting it every day….he has added so much to the debt…yes anyone can look like they made the economy great if they borrowed 5 trillion dollars!!!! Come on Gail I know you are for trump but you need to do a story on how the economy broke in 2008 and was never fixed!!! And yes please if you are going to complain about the left wing media censoring then don’t do it yourself! ! STOP CENSORING!!!!!!!

          • The economy (especially the US, Europe, and Japan portion) was already suffering from not enough growth in net energy consumption per capita back in 2008. It had been trying to cover up the lack of energy consumption growth with debt growth for a long time. Growth in energy consumption had shifted mostly to China, India, and other developing Asian countries. This wasn’t really a substitute for growth in the Advanced Economies. New home building dropped way back, and did the sale of new automobiles.

            More recently, the lack of growth in world coal consumption in China and worldwide has been an issue.

      • Robert Firth says:

        Be of good cheer, worldofH. The fact that Trump’s enemies have to resort to cheap smears is just further evidence they have no good arguments against him.

  2. Jarle says:

    “Conclusion: We Need a New Very Inexpensive Energy Source Now”

    That’s not going to happen … goodbye and thanks for all the fish.

    • Steve Riley says:

      So what we need then is the magical unlimited power of fusion. Unfortunately fusion has been only 25 years away for the last 50. Looks like the brown stuff will hit the fan in the not too distant future, or maybe it already has?

      • “Looks like the brown stuff will hit the fan in the not too distant future, or maybe it already has?”

        This is a worry. But given that the world didn’t completely fall apart back in the 1913-1945 era, perhaps there is some hope. All of us have some older relatives who lived during this timeframe. Somehow, most of them made it through the period. Of course, the world was far less interconnected before. It is today’s interconnection and our dependence on international trade that make the current situation frightening. It would seem like the system could fail quite quickly, but we don’t really have very good imaginations regarding what might happen next. Could part of the system hang on, while parts of it fail? I don’t know.

        • JMS says:

          I’d say in the end everything boils down to the overpopulation drived by surplus energy and Maximum Power principle. In 1914 there was 1,6 billion of us around. Today that is only the population of China + Nigeria, who themselves represent “only” 20% of world population. Everything lead us to believe we are utterly doomed. Pockets of high-tech and COG will be maintained in certain regions/countries? Maybe, but even these not for very long i suspect, remembering the insoluble problem of nuclear waste.

        • ASPO Germany uses the term “oil fields of hope’ in a graph trying to unhide the information given in the latest IEA World Energy Outlook

          Of course that hope is not cheap

          • Oh dear says:

            ‘All you need is hope’, evidently.

            IEA should do a ‘presentation’ of their message like John Lennon – get the world leaders together for a video, drop the opening bars to the La Marseillaise and off they go – ‘all you need is hope, la la la la la’.

            Good luck to them in trying to run the global economy on that stuff – it is as likely to run on literal BS.

            • Tim Groves says:

              There’s nothing you can do; It can’t be done
              No place you can go; Nowhere to run
              Nothing you can say that wouldn’t ruin everybody’s day
              It’s easy!

              There’s no one you can teach who isn’t taught
              No one you can buy who isn’t bought
              No one you can tell who wouldn’t tell you to go straight to hell
              It’s easy…..

              I took the train and visited Osaka yesterday.

              The city, which was a ghost town on my last visit in May, is now back to normal, albeit the “new normal”. In the big commercial districts and subterranean malls, the streets are crowded again, although well below the the levels before the pandamonium started—thanks to the collapse of the inbound tourist trade and to the practice of many office workers working from home several days a week. But department stores and boutiques were doing a reasonable trade, perhaps enough to keep them ticking over with the aid of some government subsidy money. The back streets told a more somber story. There are lots of stores and other businesses boarded up as if their owners have given up on the idea that their trade is going to come back any time soon.

              About 99% of the people on the streets were wearing masks—loose fitting paper masks, tight fitting rubber-looking masks that made their wearers look like ducks or puffins, and various cloth masks, many of which were beautifully decorated fashion statements, as well as a few bandannas. I didn’t see a single woman unmasked in the street. Among the men, the minority of unmasked included people of all ages from sixteen to sixty-six. Some were older salary men who had emerged from restaurants and were walking with a toothpick sticking out of their mouths—a common custom among the less well-mannered classes. It is difficult pick your teeth AND wear a mask at the same time, so what are you gonna do?

              As for the night life, you CAN eat, drink and be merry and maskless in bars and restaurants. There is often a plea to patrons to wear a disinfect your hands with the liquid provided at the door, but masks are dispensed with once the customers sit down.

              Underemployment is undermining a lot of people’s confidence and robbing them of peace of mind. Parts of the economy have been almost unaffected by the slowdown, while other parts, such as tourism, accommodation, advertising and wining and dining, have taken a real beating. The service sector is beginning to look like it will never be the same.

              The overall consensus seems to be that the virus is dangerous, the masking and social distancing are effective at keeping it at bay, the government is doing its best and should be supported, no price is to high to pay to keep people safe, and that we are all in this together brother. People I’ve talked to who have lost most of their expected income over the past half year and are worrying that things will be worse next year have in every cased blamed the virus for their problems rather than the response to the pandemic. One old friend commented to me, “This bloody virus kills in more ways than one!”

              My views are obviously in a small minority and, after a series of difficult conversations in which others raised the issue of coronavirus and I replied by doubting the virus’s strength, the potential of masks to protect people from it, and need for such stringent measures, and met with suppressed anger or hostility from people who were unable to accept such views as valid, I no longer voice skepticism openly. These people have enough on their plates without having to put up with conflicting points of view or inconvenient facts. They want only to lament or vent the situation ad wallow in the consensus, not to question it. I feel I have no right to intrude and so I let them get on with it.

              Online, of course, it’s quite a different matter. Here, freedom of expression should reign supreme, every commentator is a warrior using words as swords, and pretending not to disagree with opinions that you find disagreeable for the sake of politeness is the worst form of deception.

      • Dennis L. says:


        There is the issue of waste heat, the earth cannot radiate that much heat, in a few hundreds of years the surface exceeds 200 degrees F(I am doing this from memory, in actual time and temperature the result is the same). The processes have to be moved off planet, a note to Gail below, serious money is now looking at that, I have seen a date of 2025. Trump wants to go back to the moon. A guess is serious policy understands the issues.

        Dennis L.

        • davidinamonthorayearoradecade says:


          I agree that serious upper level people are looking at all of that, but failure is the only option, since all of that is based on energy resources and not just bright ideas and big money.

          a woman will walk on the moon later this decade (and the “next” man!) but any moon project is always going to be an energy sink.

          certainly the math guarantees it.

          • Moon (and other world) projects must always be energy sinks.

            job creation schemes for NASA PhDs

            The cost of obtaining any material ‘off earth’ must always be colossal, and can never bring any material return

            • Lidia17 says:

              Amen, Norman!

              All human endeavor is a “waste of energy”/waste of energy.

              Everything we consider consumption, is consumption.
              And everything we consider PRODUCTION, is consumption.
              “Productivity” is a misnomer.
              There is no human production of anything, that I can see.

    • Kowalainen says:

      Not for you.

      Lycka till på färden. 👋

    • ElbowWilham says:

      Do we even get a galactic super high-way out of the deal?

  3. Michael Feltes says:

    I think I can imagine an “energy savior” technology based on solar energy, but perhaps I’m too ignorant of the basic physics to understand whether there are fundamental barriers. Otherwise, it’s fusion or bust.

    Georgescu-Roegen wrote a lot about the important, usually elided distinction between energy sources which are stocks and energy sources which are flows. It’s precisely this characteristic of fossil fuels, that we’re releasing energy that’s already captured and so can therefore consume the energy in arbitrary quantities just at the place & time it’s required, that makes them so damn useful and difficult to replicate in all their distinct qualities with green energy sources.

    We need to shift to the relatively abundant solar source, but we also need to capture and store that energy using infrastructure that’s created either out of solar flow or of stocks that are so plentiful that we’re kicking the can several hundred years down the road. If Goodenough really has the goods with batteries that can be made out of sand & salt if you throw enough solar energy at them, that would be an enormous help. I don’t know of solar capture devices which are not reliant on rare earths, though, other than plants obviously. Perhaps I’m thinking in too limited a way, you might have to go solar energy -> chemical energy -> electricity.

    If we can get to a point where we electrify everything that can be electrified and can produce suitable biofuels for every other application, so we can at least hold greenhouse gases constant, then a path forward to a high energy consumption economy based on solar that could persist for a couple of centuries seems narrow but passable. Nothing about this addresses the fundamental problem of indefinite growth on a finite planet but we’ve wasted the past 40 years and need time to work on the social & political side of the problem.

    I don’t know, this all seems like drawing to an inside straight but it is the only game in town so we’d better try and play as well as we can.

    • A major problem with solar is the fact its availability drops greatly in winter, which is precisely when it is needed most. Researchers in the area of space solar technology would like to generate electricity up in geosynchronous orbit. Its advantage would be that it would provide electricity most of the year, except around the spring and fall equinoxes.(These are low times for heating/cooling demand as well.) But solar energy from space would not be sufficiently cheap. And no one thinks it would be available soon.

      • Dennis L. says:

        Perhaps that is why serious money is talking of mining the moon in 2025. Wags would worry about lunar pollution, but it would be a good place for dirty processes. Run it nuclear, place the waste on the back side of the moon.

        We are fast approaching a time when hypotheticals become realities, the decisions are going to be neither easy nor comfortable.

        Dennis L.

        • I have heard recent comments that the radiation level is surprisingly high on the moon. It may not be a good place to do mining (besides being hard to get to and from).

          • Dennis L. says:

            Not arguing, really don’t know. One of the issues in “Limits to Growth” is pollution and I have speculated that not only did we use China’s energy, we dumped significant amounts of pollution there. Who care’s about the moon?

            This is the opposite of a gravity well from earth, low lunar gravity, give the finished product a shove and let it go into earth orbit, drop it down one way or another.

            The US stopped neodymium mining in CA I believe not because of access to ores but the incredible pollution in processing the stuff. Again a guess, the moon was blasted out of the earth, no reason to not expect similar minerals, less lunar gravity should mean heavy metals did not fall to the center as in earth, shallower mining. Snag an astroid, slam it into the moon, it will not burn up in the moon’s atmosphere – it will join the other craters already present, no one will notice.

            Nuclear has a proven history of things going wrong, it requires huge mitigation costs for wastes and plant decommissioning. Moon, let it rip, when one out grows the moon, there is the cosmos, it is impossible for man to pollute the cosmos. Or, think big. We have a beautiful planet, move the dirty stuff off site. Renewables might work if one did not need to do industrial processes, in any case the ores are becoming less and less concentrated.

            We have more or less concluded nuclear is the only option, move it off site, move the processes off site. Greta may well be right, we may be killing ourselves with our own waste products. Don’t ship the waste into space, ship the finished product back to earth. If one wants to make jobs, this one should keep everyone busy for a few years – sort of a joke, but no sarcasm. At least it has a chance of working and the idea has held civilizations together before, think pyramids, or cathedrals.

            Dennis L.

        • Robert Howell says:

          Well this would be a non-starter. The energy on earth still exists but the economy won’t allow the price to go high enough to extract it from the ground and process it. How do even begin to make a business case to fly rockets to the moon and extract energy and ship it back to earth. Pure science fiction.

          • Dennis L. says:


            We have been through everything here, none of it works. Humans have tried everything and now it is done with debt – for how long? What do we have to lose?

            If fossil energy is the problem, go to one of the moons of Saturn and pump it off the surface, there has to be a surplus as there is so much of it. Getting around in space is frictionless and gravitational assists from planets are common. Momentum is the biggest issue, starting and stopping, mass is a constant at current speeds, warp drive is a different issue. Need heat, move the process through an orbit close to the sun, fusion that works.

            The real problem with increasing use of energy on earth is the radiation issue, earth can’t radiate it to space quickly enough, it warms the surface and makes a desert. Pollution was mentioned in “Limits to Growth,” we are there.

            Reading this month’s post, we are out of solutions; I don’t see lying down and waiting for death and misery. For me it suggests reasons the pyramids were built – same as FDR and the make work jobs, build dams for which there is no real current use, get into a war and use them to build bombs, advance technology. Humans are designed to cooperate, not kill one another, sometimes that idea is forgotten.

            A great frustration of mine is this constant calling for collapse to happen – next year. ASPO started this in earnest and it hasn’t happened yet. I say go for it, get the pollution off the earth, accept Greta may not be totally wrong, put as much effort into a “save humanity” project as into fighting for what is left. Some here think humanity is not worth saving, okay, they can be not saved first; for me “What do we have to lose?

            Dennis L.

      • Michael Feltes says:

        I think I’m beginning to understand why Bucky Fuller said the following: “The global energy grid is the World Game’s highest priority objective.” You address the physical problem of inconstant solar flow while also creating a social project that binds continents together. I asked a friend of mine who works for a utility whether a world grid was theoretically possible and he replied, “If an HVDC line from Darwin to Singapore is possible, anything is!”

        • Kowalainen says:

          Information and Energy flows is the only hard currency in existence.

          0’s and 1’s inside computers is digitized delusion.
          Only a hallucination would make it real.

          And as an obvious coincidence the rapacios primate brain is a master at hallucinating objective reality into computationally tractable concepts.

          Ah, the irony is staggering.

    • Tim Josling says:

      > He’s tops in the field and really a fantastic scientist.

      He’s also 98 years old (emeritus syndrome). And it’s 3 years since his was announced. I think a high degree of scepticism is appropriate.

    • as i keep trying to point out

      make as much electricity as you like/need. (fusion, solar, wind etc)

      but without the means to use it, it’s exactly the same as having a lightswitch on the wall, but no bulb in the socket

      If you still don’t get it—go research the level of industrial complexity needed to produce lightbulbs in billions

      • hkeithhenson says:

        “research the level of industrial complexity needed to produce lightbulbs in billions”

        The light bulb was invented in 1879, so it would not take more complexity than was available then.

        • I didn’t mention ‘inventing’ the lightbulb

          I said manufacturing it in billions.
          If my bait hadn’t been taken so eagerly it would have been obvious that the lightbulb was meant to symbolise the complexity of our entire industrial system of the 20th c

          And no, that complexity was not available in 1879

          • hkeithhenson says:

            Consumption of incandescent light bulbs grew rapidly in the US. In 1885, an estimated 300,000 general lighting service lamps were sold, all with carbon filaments. When tungsten filaments were introduced, about 50 million lamp sockets existed in the US. In 1914, 88.5 million lamps were used, (only 15% with carbon filaments), and by 1945, annual sales of lamps were 795 million (more than 5 lamps per person per year). (Wikipedia)

    • Nehemiah says:

      Fusion or bust?
      Research physicist Daniel Jassby, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently, said that commercial fusion energy, long a supposed holy grail to solve all of the problems associated with generating electricity, is a flawed fantasy.

      Jassby has standing. Now retired, he did major plasma physics research for 25 years at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. He writes, “Now that I have retired, I have begun to look at the whole fusion enterprise more dispassionately, and I feel that a working, every-day, commercial fusion reactor would cause more problems than it would solve.”

      The current article is a follow-up to a Bulletin article a year ago, in which Jassby concluded, “The harsh realities of fusion belie the claims of its proponents of ‘unlimited, clean, safe and cheap energy.’

    • Oil companies can see that oil prices are chronically too low. They can also see that with subsidies, it is possible to make wind and solar. So they talk about transitioning to renewables. This adds to the credibility of the Green narrative.

      Of course, subsidies for renewables would disappear without fossil fuels. The renewables cannot possibly stand on their own. With subsidies and government guarantees, renewables do generate jobs, so that they look good for now.

      • hkeithhenson says:

        “The renewables cannot possibly stand on their own.”

        I would like to see a conference on this subject. I can’t think of a renewable project that requires fossil fuels. For example, we could use electric trucks to maintain wind turbines and the electric grid.

        • davidinamonthorayearoradecade says:

          I agree.

          Renewables can stand on their own.

          in this scenario, the world economy would be perhaps 99% smaller than it was with FF in 2019, but so what?

        • doomphd says:

          “I can’t think of a renewable project that requires fossil fuels.”

          a lot of solar panels use glass melt from coal-fired power plants, in China for example. wind turbines are soaking in fossil fuel, like in the hydraulic cranes and the trucks that position and get them out there, in the plastics used in their construction.

          • hkeithhenson says:

            “a lot of solar panels use glass melt from coal-fired power plants, in China for example. wind turbines are soaking in fossil fuel, like in the hydraulic cranes and the trucks that position and get them out there, in the plastics used in their construction.”

            If you asked a bunch of engineers to melt glass with PV, the engineers would just do it. The amount of energy involved in setting up a wind turbine, even if you count all the materials in the trucks is an insignificant fraction of what a wind turbine produced over its life.

            • Lidia17 says:

              Try mining copper or cobalt with just electricity. Or try running industrial farming with electricity to feed the electric-truck drivers and the electric wind-turbine mechanics… It is not do-able now, nor will it ever be.

              hkh: “I can’t think of a renewable project that requires fossil fuels. For example, we could use electric trucks to maintain wind turbines and the electric grid.”

              So, you are proposing that roads no longer be made of asphalt, that tires be made of -what? -hand-collected natural rubber? .. that internal vehicle fixtures be made of -wood? -leather? rather than plastic? That gaskets and insulation be made of -organic straw? -compressed yak hair? That lubricants be supplied by.. [was going to say something extremely rude here]?

              Wind turbines are complex fiberglass/resin compounds that cannot be recycled. To build and maintain them today, with cheap FF inputs, already costs more than the value of the electricity they yield in a number of cases.

              Warren Buffett: “We get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.”

              Outside of personal collection of wood, dung, peat, or other biomass for home heating and cooking, ALL NON-RENEWABLE “RENEWABLE” PROJECTS REQUIRE FOSSIL FUELS. PERIOD.

              Your vaunted wind turbines are composed of 11-16% plastic:
              But, hkeithhenson, you “can’t think” of that! Are you physically prevented from thinking of it? Genetically? Or what?

              Dennis L., maybe you should hook up with keith, here, if you are looking for a grandiose end-of-civilization boondoggle in which to invest. I’m seeing the Dennis L./HKH wind farm and electric truck stop. With AI-based robotic silicone hookers.

            • hkeithhenson says:

              “Try mining copper or cobalt with just electricity.”

              Not sure about cobalt, but copper is already mostly processed with electricity. Look up “electrowinning”

              “Or try running industrial farming with electricity to feed the electric-truck drivers and the electric wind-turbine mechanics… It is not do-able now, nor will it ever be.”

              People were growing food before fossil fuels were in use. Are you trying to deny the historical record?

            • doomphd says:

              “If you asked a bunch of engineers to melt glass with PV, the engineers would just do it.”

              of course Keith, they, like you, focus on the challenge and the end result, nevermind the true costs of the project. all alternatives to FF will work, for a limited time, in special circumstances, for a limited number of people. the trouble is we’ve built a whole civilization on FF, so when they get scarce, bad things begin to happen, like in now.

        • Minority Of One says:

          Once FF have gone, in the not too distant future and certainly within my children’s lifetime if not mine, renewables are all we will have. But it will be renewables based on very simple, easy to make, easy to maintain principles, just like before FF came on the scene.

          Both global population and personal energy consumption will fall 90-99%. It is just a matter of how we get there.

        • HK

          I remain mystified by the statement:
          I can’t think of a renewable project that requires fossil fuels.

          your technical background would suggest a certain level of reasoning intellect.
          Yet the above statement must invite mirth

          The most basic construction projects, which is what ‘renewable projects’ are, cannot begin to function without fossil fuel inputs at the most primary–and subsequent— levels.

          Of course, if such construction is to take place by means as yet uninvented—that would be a different matter entirely.

          In the meantime I’m off to road test my new hoverboard

          • hkeithhenson says:

            “cannot begin to function without fossil fuel inputs”

            Even if fuel is required, it does not need to be fossil. Simple economic analysis will tell you that we can make hydrocarbons for about the same price we pay for them now. You simply cannot distinguish between synthetic fuel and fuel from fossil sources. I could run through the analysis again, but it is fairly clear that your ideas are fixed and facts are not going to change that.

            • Norman Pagett says:

              someone else on here has threatened to vomit at the suggestion of reconstituting molecules back into viable hydrocarbons

              i won’t go that far our of respect for assembled company

            • Nehemiah says:

              Sure, you can make hydrocarbons from biomass but:

              1. It’s an energy sink. EROI is less than 1. Might still make sense on a small scale, but would not be viable on a large scale.

              2. It displaces crop land or timber land or pasture, so just how scalable is it? Someone estimated that running just our farm equipment on biofuels would displace 20% of our crop land. (We can go back to horses, but they too require quite a bit of crop land to “fuel.”)

            • hkeithhenson says:

              “Sure, you can make hydrocarbons from biomass but:

              Where did I mention biomass? The analysis assumed using PV (at under 1.5 cents per kWh) to make hydrogen from water and to pull CO2 out of the air. The hydrogen and CO2 would feed an F/T hydrocarbon synthesis. these have been constructed at scale (34,000 bbl/day). Green plants are not much better at capturing energy than 1%, PV is ~20%

              ” 1. It’s an energy sink. EROI is less than 1. Might still make sense on a small scale, but would not be viable on a large scale.

              Are you an engineer or equivalent? Or have you read an economic analysis?

              ” 2. It displaces crop land or timber land or pasture, so just how scalable is it?

              The proposal is to pave over a fair fraction of the Sahra Desert with PV, so no food production would be lost.

            • Dust

              the sahara is covered in it. You need water to wash it off

              thought it was as well to mention it.

            • Nehemiah says:

              We currently use between 6 and 11 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy, so growing plants is already an energy sink. Now convert the plants to another form of energy (oil) and you will lose even more energy in the conversion process.

              After fossil fuels, the analysis gets more complicated. If you live near water transport, you might be able to transport the biomass efficiently, but if the biomass must be transported overland about 60 miles to get to a processing point, the animals doing the hauling will consume an amount of energy equal to what is contained in the biomass. (I assume the animals are oxen and the surface is level, but I don’t think equines would change the equation much either way.)

              Using PV to make oil for certain purposes sounds interesting, but we have to consider the EROI of the PV’s (which will likely fall as minerals become more depleted, plus I don’t think current PV EROI includes the cost of “decommissioning” the PV waste, and that needs to be figured in) and the EROI of extracting CO2 from the air (and don’t start sucking it out faster than it gets replaced or we will endanger all life on earth!) and the EROI of hydrolysis (which is usually put about breakeven!) and whatever other energy costs are involved in synthesizing hydrocarbons, and I don’t see how this ends up as anything other than an energy sink. Every step in the process will require energy.

              Americans are 90 watt bulbs burning at 11,000 watts. Three Americans are the energy consuming equivalent of two blue whales. Everybody else in this world wants to be a blue whale too. How many blue whales can the earth support?

              PV’s in the Sahara Desert: who’s going to blow off the dust??? And you have to run a huge amount of electrical cable to Europe, and Africa will probably want a share of it too. You’ll need more copper and aluminum and insulation (made from petroleum no doubt) and maintenance men and trucks, and there will be energy losses along those long transmission lines, and threats of disruption from political unrest in Africa, or simple thievery, so you will need security, and in about 25 years, the PV energy production will begin falling, so you will need to expand the coverage area or replace the declining panels and pay for the waste disposal and transportation. The whole operation would be a HUGE engineering project. People have talked about it for at least 20 years now, maybe longer, but I will be surprised if anyone actually attempts it. Ever.

            • by now, you will be traditionally blue in the face from the telling of what would seem to be obvious by any level of rational thinking. But no matter.

              the arithmetic says you can reconstitute molecules of hydrocarbon back into liquid fuels (or something like that) so therefore it will be done,

              The arithmetic says you can cover the sahara with pv panels and have free electricity for evermore.

              Sandstorms and bad tempered bedouins are not covered by any mathematical formulae, so they do not figure in any form of energy calculaion.

              Arithmetic states quite clearly that you can have space elevators, mines on asteroids, nuclear farms on the backside of the moon and our excess population can shift to off earth cylinders pointed at the sun.

              And all by utilising the industrial means available to us today.
              (Oh—and with a few ‘technology breakthroughs ‘ of course)

              Where would we be without breakthroughs?

            • hkeithhenson says:

              “convert the plants to another form of energy (oil)”

              I don’t think I have ever written about biomass as an energy source. Photosynthesis is less than one-tenth of the efficiency of PV. No transmission lines are needed for making synthetic oil.

              ” People have talked about it for at least 20 years now, maybe longer,”

              I would really like a pointer to where people have talked about this 20 years ago since I don’t like taking credit for someone else’s work. I started writing about it when PV power cost went under 2 cents per kWh in the mid-east a couple of years ago.

              I might add that I am not a big fan of this idea. My main interest has been power satellites. But if you are serious about one energy project, you need to keep an eye on other proposals that might be lower cost. See StratoSolar for an example. I spent a year and a half working on that project.

  4. stephen riley says:

    So what we need then is the magical unlimited power of fusion. Unfortunately fusion has been only 25 years away for the last 50. Looks like the brown stuff will hit the fan in the not too distant future, or maybe it already has?

    • It seems like problems hit different parts of the world at a little different times. Poor people everywhere are having problems now. Venezuela has had a particularly difficult time with oil extraction. It also made the mistake of pre-selling some of its reserves in the ground to the Chinese. Using this money, he raised the standard of living of the people, but of course, that cannot really last.

    • The “closed nuclear cycle” has been already solved in the combo of fuel reprocessing facilities, breeder + conventional NPPs, the Russians have it running on industrial scale. But is it really going to scale up with still readily available access to coal mines and natgas fields?

      Most likely the best midterm gain for the buck are these Chinese passively cooled arrays of coal power plants in W-deserts, it’s cooled like computer processors – heat sink with liquid metal loop or something..

      ps the Northern Kim ran a mil parade just few days ago showing a new “fat” missile, most likely MIRVs capable (swarm of warheads), so the club of top players got bigger and chances “everybody” in every systemic region of the globe might eventually receive blast from such weapon (although smallish size) has risen significantly aka you can’t even hide into a cabin in the woods anymore lolz..

      • Kowalainen says:


        The nukes will come online en masse once the essential production capability and capacity is threatened by FF depletion.

        The last thing stuffed into those behemoths will be those fancy MIRV warheads.

        Expect rolling blackouts for the hoi-polloi in the death traps (cities).

        But not quite yet.

  5. Jim says:

    There is enough oil and gas for everyone for many decades. A single barrel oil > 4 years of human labour. Does 4 years of human labor anywhere in the world cost $40?

    Renewables (except hydro) cannot match hydrocarbons for too many reasons. If they were so much better every company, house, cat and dog would have converted already leaving hydrocarbons in the dust. Like moving from DVDs to Netflix.

    Everyone wants a greener world but as-is that push is just a higher rent extraction for energy while decreasing resiliency. If you really want to rush into a green world you better take stock of poster boy California – embrace rolling brownouts while hoping to charge your electric vehicle tonight to get the kid to the doctor tomorrow all with a much smaller bank account.

    How did the USA and Canada realize their exuberance from the first settlers until the amazing cross nation buildout and unprecedented wealth creation through the roaring 1920s when the population did not have access to and utilize credit credit, and, effectively paid no personal income taxes like they do today?

    There isn’t an energy problem, there is a debt and tax problem.

    • There might be enough oil and gas for many decades, if we could get the price high enough. Our problem is that we can’t get the price high enough. I am not sure that there is a work-around for this issue. If not, production of oil, coal and natural gas could all fall quite steeply. Ugo Bardi talks about the fall followinga Seneca Curve. Seneca, long ago, said something like, “The way to gain in slow, but collapse comes quickly.”

      • Jim says:

        Almost every other industry goes through boom and bust, just because energy is going through another bust of many doesn’t mean it is falling off a Seneca cliff. They talked about peak oil 50 years ago in USA and where are we today? A key pillar to that theory is the assumption of starting with the best opportunities and finish with the worst but that is not the shale story at all.

        The innovation in shale is mind boggling and turns that pillar on its head. For example for a decade many producers punched holes in the Montney and got poor production. The worst. Then one producer identified a unique way to realize bountiful extraction and now everyone has land in the Montney.

        Huff and puff is just getting started, estimates are one can get about the same return as when the well was virgin. But this second time no cost for both drilling and building most of the surface infrastructure. Imagine going back to existing wells and applying huff n puff.

        Since producers are only getting a small fraction of what is there, then any additional tiny increase in recovery makes a huge difference. The innovation with shale as a rock is in its infancy.

        The list goes on.

        This changes the price has to rise theory.

        Renewables are the one in potential danger of a Seneca cliff because first of their reliance on oil and gas just to get off the ground and maintain viability. That’s compounded with all the rare minerals with horrid environmental issues, then silver which appears to be reaching peak production and then the inability to recycle lithium batteries and wind mill arms. The list goes on.

        Based on your break even price chart most producers around the world should be bankrupt since the oil price collapse in early 2015, why not? That’s almost 6 years now. Globally not just USA. Oil will be at the 2020 range for coming years and production will still happen, the strong hands will take over the weak hands. Just like in every other industry that goes through cycles. Lower prices will also make the green push all the harder.

        Oil and gas are the economy.

        Renewables have their place but they are unfortunately proving their own sustainability and resilience issues already.

        • mch says:

          thanks for your mentioning “Huff and Puff”. I’d never heard of it before and it looks interesting.

          “Current oil production techniques for unconventionals are often estimated to recover just 5-7% of inplace oil using today’s technology. In response, a number of Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) techniques are being considered to boost this percentage and improve ultimate recoveries. One of the most promising techniques is “Huff and Puff” cyclic gas injection.
          In the Huff & Puff technique separator gas from a nearby well or gas installation is injected (the Huff phase) into a depleted or partially depleted oil well at a high enough pressure to achieve miscibility. During the following soak period the miscible gas spreads through the formation, swelling the oil volume and decreasing its viscosity. After the soaking period, the well is put back on production (the Puff phase) with an expected increase in production rate due to the higher reservoir pressure and lower oil viscosity. The separated gas can then be sold, or reinjected in another well to initiate a new Huff & Puff sequence. This process can be repeated as long a commercial quantities of liquids are extracted from each Huff and Puff cycle. “

          • I noticed this proposal relates to oil, rather than just natural gas, which is good. We don’t recover much of the oil now. Getting the percentage up would help a lot. I didn’t find a date on this PDF, so I couldn’t tell how recent this is.

            I would never rule out the possibility of technological innovation helping. Of course, if may not help enough, soon enough, to fix our problems.

      • Robert Firth says:

        The admonition 1s from Seneca’s “Ad Lucilium epistolae morales”, No 91 if memory serves.

    • misanthropr#7 says:

      “Wealth creation” is nothing more than maximum power principle. Those that used the power of fossil fuels were able to provide value many times in excess of their potential without doing so. The coolaid your drinking , taxes are keeping u from infinite wealth is. the counterpart to the oligarchs are keeping u from infinite wealth coolaid. Coke or Pepsi. They both rot your teeth and taste fantastic.

    • davidinamonthorayearoradecade says:

      Jim: “There is enough oil and gas for everyone for many decades. A single barrel oil > 4 years of human labour. Does 4 years of human labor anywhere in the world cost $40?”

      Gail: “There might be enough oil and gas for many decades, if we could get the price high enough. Our problem is that we can’t get the price high enough. I am not sure that there is a work-around for this issue.”

      I think there is a simple work-around, but I am not sure if it will be enacted in time.

      in the case of our USA, it is government takeover of the FF industry, which eliminates the production price and profit issues.

      then, the real economic benefit, which Jim correctly describes, could continue for a while longer, though “many decades” is doubtful.

      • Patrick says:

        I think we will see just such things. We are already experiencing that states are taking over more and more corporations (e.g. from aviation) and that we are sliding more and more into the planned economy. The only problem is that the state is usually a bad entrepreneur and inefficiency will increase.
        Nationalizing oil companies may help for a while, just as printing money may help for a while, but it still doesn’t get around the physical problems.

      • Robert Firth says:

        Your prescription might work for the US, but I’m skeptical that the energy equation and the debt equation can be kept in longer term balance. But the OPEC countries are in a hopeless situation, because their major source of revenue is oil taxes. If the oil cannot be sold at (extraction cost plus huge tax) their economies will simply collapse. And since they have to import almost everything, including labour, the countries will then collapse. But be of good cheer, the price of used camels will soar.

    • I see taxes as a way of transferring surplus energy to the broader economy. Dividends to shareholders do this as well, but taxes are essential. They are what tend to keep the need for taxes on other parts of the economy low. You can see this in historical tax levels in states with significant fossil fuel resources, such as Alaska and Oklahoma. But it also works as the federal level. Of course, for oil exporting countries, these taxes are absolutely essential.

      Added debt is a way of temporarily hiding the fact that not enough energy is really available. Add ever more debt leads to debt bubbles that pop. I am afraid we are headed for a popping debt bubble. Governments will try to hide this for as long as possible, however, by creating as much money as they can.

  6. hkeithhenson says:

    “people are always looking for solutions.”

    True. In the last couple of months, I have seen two proposed steel mills that propose to use PV. One of them is in Pueblo, Colorado, and is being set up to make railroad rails. The other is in Finland or Norway

    I have been following converting renewable electricity to hydrocarbons. PV in the mid-east gets down to as little as 1.35 cents per kWh. Power from space can get down to 1.5 cents per kWh. The cost to pull CO2 out of the air and make hydrogen out of water for either of these sources will make synthetic fuel for around $60/bbl. Electric vehicle batteries look like they will considerably reduce the need for hydrocarbons.

    • Dennis L. says:


      You have thought about this problem for a long time. Try putting industrial processes in space, leave all the pollution there. Radiating all that energy on to earth will not work, the earth cannot radiate it all back.

      Not being disagreeable, we have covered all the obvious solutions here and concluded they do not work, there is nothing left to lose by thinking outside the box.

      Follow the money and one generally gets a good answer. Big money is invested in space, there is renewed interest in the moon. If radiation is an issue, dig a hole, beats trying to shield a space craft.

      There is always an answer.

      Dennis L.

      • hkeithhenson says:

        “You have thought about this problem for a long time”

        Off and on since 1975 when Dr. O’Neill first merged power satellites and space colonies.

        “we have covered all the obvious solutions here and concluded they do not work,”

        I have seen a fair amount of handwaving, but I have never seen an engineering analysis on OFW as to why an “obvious solution” will not work. Engineers take such things as a challenge.

        • Dennis L. says:

          Attempted to find the analysis of economic growth, growth in energy over the past 200 years and what it would mean for the next 200 years. It seems to me that the earth’s surface would heat to about 200 degrees F.

          I am lazy, my first guess and it is a guess is move manufacturing to the moon for basic materials, mine them, drop an asteroid, whatever and use nuclear to refine the raw materials. Drop end products on to the earth, or build an elevator which does not need to accelerate objects into orbit, drop them at a “controlled” rate. Need more physics than I have to look at that idea.

          We have beaten all the conventional ideas to death on OFW, I am willing to concede they won’t work. Your idea of beaming power from space and continued power growth seems to run into the limits of getting rid of that energy once it is here. My mantra is “pollute the moon” no one will ever know and in person inspection will be a challenge. I suppose somewhat sarcastic, but realistic.

          At first I thought mine the moon, but asteroids are already up there, find the desirable ones, nudge them, crash them into the moon, part of the milling process for processing is done for you.

          It really comes down to basic energy calculations. The ores on earth are requiring every greater energy inputs, use the gravity well, use the energy of mining ores to nudge an asteroid into the moon, collect, refine and ship.

          Dennis L.

          • great stuff

            moon mining/asteroid mining

            make goods—TVs, cars, Furniture, bricks, cement, planes—Ive run out of ideas


            ship back to earth

            earthpeople wait in line to collect and use. (Amazon space) You saw it here first folks!!!!


            use implies energy again====,


            New car–energy


            8 bn people awaiting eagerly for development of engineering systems as yet uninvented, so they can utilise products for which they will have no means to use.

            Why am I losing the will to live?

          • hkeithhenson says:

            “past 200 years and what it would mean for the next 200 years”

            Google “singularity” vinge.

            There was an industrial revolution that changed the world. It seems likely that the singularity Vinge talks about will change the world even more than the industrial revolution. The earth heating to 200 F in 200 years is really unlikely

            • Nehemiah says:

              Vinge and Kurzweil have watched too many Star Trek reruns. Here are some quotes I found from physicist Geoffrey West’s book _Scale_:
              p31, summarizing the ramifications of scaling laws for cities, and the unfortunate likelihood of a finite time singularity (note that this phenomenon is different from a Malthusian collapse): “In a nutshell, the problem is that the theory also predicts that unbounded growth cannot be sustained without having either infinite resources or inducing major paradigm shifts that ‘reset’ the clock before potential collapse occurs.”

              p31, with another serious catch…we can put off the finite time singularity with innovations, but, “Theory dictates that such discoveries must occur at an increasingly accelerating pace; the time between successive innovations must systematically and inextricably get shorter and shorter.”

              p32, with the kicker: “This is clearly not sustainable, potentially leading to the collapse of the entire urbanized socioeconomic fabric.”

              p414 expands on the inconvenient problem of a finite time singularity, and distinguishes it from a Malthusian collapse: “Because of the presence of a finite time singularity resulting from superlinear scaling, this scenario is categorically different from that of Malthus. If growth were purely exponential as assumed by Malthusians, neo-Malthusians, their followers, and critics, then the production of energy, resources, and food could at least in principle keep up with exponential expansion because all of the relevant characteristics of the economy or city remain finite, even if they continue to increase in size and become very large. This cannot be achieved if you are growing superexponentially and approaching a finite time singularity. In this scenario demand gets progressively larger and larger, eventually becoming infinite within a finite period of time.”

              You can also find some lectures by West on youtube. Please note too that being “different” from a “Malthusian collapse” is not in this case “better” than.

            • the industrial revolution (in the 1700s) was in fact just the discovery of the means by which we could burn through more fuel at a faster rate.


              btw HK—I watched a sci fi movie on TV last night:

              —normally I would be zedding after the first 10 minutes, but this one had a particularly clever story line even if it was all hokum. Entertaining though..
              Interesting because they used those ‘cylinder’ thingies in space you’ve mentioned in the past.

              They skipped over the bit about making them, which was a pity.

            • Kowalainen says:

              Ah, and here we are again.

              The myopia of the ordinary.

              Don’t you see?

              You ARE already living in fantasy land compared with a man from medieval times. Not to speak about a bronze or Stone Age man.

              FF’s were uneconomical and totally irrelevant for mankind for the better part, if not effectively 99.999 percent of human existence.

              The same with electricity.

              The same with the microprocessor.

              The same with the Internet.

              The same with highly automated production.

              And the list goes on.

              But for the blindingly obvious myopia is the default.

      • misanthropr#7 says:

        There is always a answer. Sometimes its no.

    • How do you plan to deal with the intermittency problem of solar in your factories? Do you plan to use batteries to store electricity for when the sun is not available, or balance with fossil fuel energy? Will the manufacturing plants operate all year, or only in the summer?

      • misanthropr#7 says:

        The plants dont need to actually function. They serve to get politicians elected by supposedly offering solutions. More money lended debt injection into economy via jobs on a boondoggle. The steel coming out of the plant would cost many multiples of steel coming out portugal, spain, or china. Not that any steel would ever come out of it. ghost cities.

        • LOL! There is actually a little truth to your answer. Anything that provides an excuse for more debt to the economy, and more jobs thanks to this debt, is actually helpful, whether or not the purpose of the debt is actually helpful. This is why Japan and China build unneeded roads. Any kind of grant to study the feasibility of some project is likely to hire more workers, and thus to be helpful.

          • Artleads says:

            “…whether or not the purpose of the debt is actually helpful. ” But with a little bit of luck the purpose of the debt would be quite helpful. After all, stupidity does kill when taken too far.

      • misanthropr#7 says:

        It could perhaps work. Steel production relies more on the insulation of the foundry than the energy itself. You place energy into the foundry as heat and it cant escape. The DC from the panels could pour heat into the foundry. If the heat loss is minimal due to extreme insulation It wouldnt matter that it was daytime only. The storage would not be electrical energy stored in batteries but heat stored in the thermal mass of the foundry steel. All foundries use electrical energy not combustion to provide the thermal energy. The source of the energy could be PV DC electric. The losses due to intermittent energy would be compensated by the EROI of PV. Lets just say hypothetically the EROI of PV is 8 without batteries. It actually could be viable. The foundry would have to be insulated to a extreme but thats how they work anyway. Whether there is actual demand for the steel is another matter. Conceivably the project could even pay for itself from both a EROI and $ perspective over the life of the plant although i find that doubtful. The premise of the plant itself is not completely irrational however.

        • I am more concerned about winter and prolonged cloudy periods than the overnight issue. Norway, especially will not be getting much solar energy in winter.

      • hkeithhenson says:

        “How do you plan to deal with the intermittency problem of solar in your factories? Do you plan to use batteries to store electricity for when the sun is not available, or balance with fossil fuel energy? Will the manufacturing plants operate all year, or only in the summer?”

        I have not read the engineering and financial analysis soi I don’t know. But the consequences are fairly obvious. The cost of steel is the material (mostly scrap), labor, energy, and the capital charge for the plant. Assuming the other costs are about the same, the reduced production from using intermittent renewable energy will be a factor of 4 to 5. But especially for old plants like the one at Pueblo, the capital investment is mostly paid off.

        Guessing that the capital cost is around ten percent, the cost of renewable steel might go up by around 15%

  7. adonis says:

    thanks for the new article Gail and Senecas Cliff definitely is coming but hopefully not just yet maybe the elders will come to their senses and deal with the real problem so far their introduction of the virus and lockdowns which has resulted in dwindling economic activity may forestall the cliff for a lot longer and who knows what other surprises they have in store for us .

    • davidinamonthorayearoradecade says:

      I still have plenty of good food, a cool house in summer and a warm house in winter, clean cold water and hot water when desired, great transportation (my car!), and excellent arts and information resources.

      please thank all the elders for me.

    • You are right. It is bizarre the amount of planning that seems to have gone into a pandemic response like the one we are seeing, starting back in 2010. There was also the planning session in late 2019. They really had nothing to do with controlling the infection. They were more aimed at controlling population growth and use of resources.

    • Nehemiah says:

      “maybe the elders will come to their senses and deal with the real problem” — You don’t understand. The elders are not in control. They would love to rush in and play hero to an adoring populace, but they can’t. Geology, math, and other natural factors are in the driver’s seat. It’s not 1933 or 1961 or 1981. Not this time.

  8. Malcopian says:

    Apparently, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is in its infancy.

    Here perhaps is one example of its products:

    So, AI and quantum computing too? Could such science develop new materials that do not need to be mined in bulk from the ravaged earth? One lives in hope.

    • Malcopian says:

      Infinite Energy, But Not For The Masses

      But surely the capitalists would prefer to sell us energy that costs, rather than allow us to glimpse free and infinite energy. And that way, the military-industrial complex gets to play the war games it loves so much.

      Beyond that, what else could people do with infinite free energy? Use it to make terrible weapons, presumably. So on the basis of not encouraging terrorists, the genie would not be let out of the bottle.

    • davidinamonthorayearoradecade says:

      new materials?

      I suspect that will take lots more energy than just using the materials that have been easily found on the surface of the Earth or just below.

      like wood, which is freely available in many places, and was “manufactured” without any human-added energy.

      • hkeithhenson says:

        “new materials?”

        The most useful structural material is carbon. A couple of decades back, I predicted the real carbon crisis “the real carbon dioxide crisis will be when there is too little from people taking carbon (the strongest engineering material) out of the air to build houses, roads, tunnels through the mantle, industrial works, and spacecraft in large numbers.

        This requires nanotechnology, something which I expect to come along by mid-century.

        • misanthropr#7 says:

          Keth; Calculate the energy required to take co2 from the atmosphere and create a cubic meter of carbon fiber. As you well know just because atoms exist does not mean they are in a usable form. Entropy dictates that once hydrocarbons are consumed the energy required to reassemble them is extreme. It is perhaps crazy that we burn hydrocarbons as they are the building blocks for so much and the form of the hydrocabon so versatile in its uses and non manufacturable due to energy requirements. Natural resources are not created by thinking about them. If you reply that there will be infinite energy from power satellites I am going to vomit.

          • you really must stop pointing out the obvious

            it is against the religious doctrine of the wish-scientists, wish- economists and wish -politicians.

            The thought-police will come looking for you one day.

            • misanthropr#7 says:

              The thought police dont care about a occasional thought criminal because no one listens to or believes anything contrary to “the religious doctrine of the wish-scientists, wish- economists and wish -politicians.” Well phrased i must say. We gather here on this tiny blog trying to determine the truth and NO ONE CARES. I consider Gails work the most pivotal of our era yet NO ONE CARES. Its horrible because the truth is denied and the young people of our tribe will suffer. Its beautiful because we can discuss all topics openly.

            • misanthropr#7 says:

              “One of these days, thought Winston with sudden deep conviction, Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”
              George Orwell

        • >>>>>“the real carbon dioxide crisis will be when there is too little from people taking carbon (the strongest engineering material) out of the air to build houses, roads, tunnels through the mantle, industrial works, and spacecraft in large numbers.<<<<<<

          Forgive me HK—I am writing this comment in a hurry. The neighbours found me rolling on the lawn outside, cackling with insane laughter and, caring folks that they are—sent for the men in white coats to take me to a place of safety.

    • Robert Firth says:

      Plastic eating bugs! The protagonists of an episode of the BBC series “Doomwatch”. Called “The Plastic Eaters”, and broadcast on 9 February 1970. Premise: the bugs escape, and start eating all the world’s plastic, starting with an aeroplane, which crashes. Chaos ensues.

      • Malcopian says:

        ‘the bugs escape, and start eating all the world’s plastic’

        But surely Nigel Farage’s prosthetic testicle would be safe?!

      • Nehemiah says:

        Recently, some plastic-eating bacteria were discovered to have evolved naturally. I always figured they would, but I thought it might take millions of years for the right mutations. Sometimes evolution works fast.

    • Some speculate that the Muskianic spinoff in tunneling-boring technology is not only about the lower cost small diameter tunnel transportation with robotaxis under existing cities but also could play some role in precision targeted mining of raw ores, again with higher degree of automation..

    • The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a “digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

      The big deal is keeping electricity operating. California is a case study of what goes wrong when an economy tries to depend on renewables. Lots of long distance transmission lines that need to be maintained that tend to cause fires, for example. Not enough electricity produced locally, so a need to import electricity from elsewhere, if it is available. A need for very much higher charges for electricity than are currently being made, if the system is to go on. A major exodus of people from the state (especially the San Francisco area) because of the problems California has.

      I wonder how long it will be before other states will put up barriers to people from California moving in? Can California be the center of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? I don’t think so.

  9. Malcopian says:

    Here’s one for ‘Oh dear’, starring a Scot who is world famous in England.

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