Oil Limits and the Economy: One Story, Not Two

The two big stories of our day are

(1) Our economic problems: The inability of economies to grow as rapidly as they would like, add as many jobs as they would like, and raise the standards of living of citizens as much as they would like. Associated with this slow economic growth is a continued need for ultra-low interest rates to keep economies of the developed world from slipping back into recession.

(2) Our oil related-problems: One part of the story relates to too little, so-called “peak oil,” and the need for substitutes for oil. Another part of the story relates to too much carbon released by burning fossil fuels, including oil, leading to climate change.

While the press treats these issues as separate stories, they are in fact very closely connected, related to the fact that we are reaching limits in many different directions simultaneously. The economy is the coordinating system that ties together all available resources, as well as the users of these resources. It does this almost magically, by figuring out what prices are needed to keep the system in balance—how much materials of which types are needed, given what consumers can afford to pay.

The catch is that the economic system is not infinitely flexible. It needs to grow, to have enough funds to (sort of) pay back debt with interest and to make good on all the promises that have been made, such as Social Security.

Energy use is very closely tied to economic growth. When energy consumption becomes slow-growing (or high-priced—which  is closely tied to slow-growing), it pulls back on economic growth. Job growth becomes more difficult, and governments find it difficult to get enough funding through tax revenue. This is the situation we have been experiencing for the last several years. Continue reading

Our Oil Problems are Not Over!

If a person reads US newspapers, it is easy to get the impression that all of the world’s oil problems are over. But this is not really the case.

An Overlooked Part of the Problem: High Oil Prices

A major piece of the world’s oil problem is high price. Prices continue to be far above historic levels, now in 2013.

Figure 1. World oil price (Brent equivalent) in 2011$,  based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 1. World oil price (Brent equivalent) in 2011$, based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

High oil prices disrupt economies around the world because when oil prices rise, the wages of the vast majority of workers do not rise to compensate. Workers find that they need to adjust their spending patterns because the higher price of oil leads to higher prices for many things, including the cost of commuting, the cost of food, and the cost of buying goods that have been shipped long distance.

When workers adjust their spending patterns, discretionary spending is cut. This leads to patterns we associate with recession, or perhaps just slow growth. Unemployment rises, and there is less demand for new homes and cars.

Governments are also affected, because many of their costs, such as building roads, are higher. They also have to pay benefits to workers who can’t find jobs, or who can only find only low-paying jobs. Governments find it increasingly difficult to collect enough taxes because of the low wages of workers. Problems with rising deficits and the debt ceiling become the order of the day. Does any of this sound familiar?

Continue reading

Reaching Limits in a Finite World

We don’t usually think about it, but we live in a finite world. In other words, in theory we can count precisely how many atoms make up the earth. We can also theoretically count how many humans live on earth and how many of any other species live on earth at a particular point in time.

At some point, in a finite world, we start reaching limits. There are now about seven billion people in the world. We could probably add some more, but how many? What is it that limits our ability to add more people to the world we live in today?

Too Much Population “Morphs” to an Energy and Financial Limit

One obvious guess as to what might limit world population is the amount of fresh water that is available. If we don’t have enough fresh water available, we can’t continue to expand population.

The amount of fresh water that is available can be changed, though, by adding desalination plants. There are many other ways of getting fresh water. To give an extreme example, the amount of fresh water available could be increased by melting ice in Antarctica and importing it by ship. Either of these solutions would require energy in an appropriate form—either to run the desalination plant, or to melt the ice and transport it by ship. Thus the fresh water shortage, at least for the foreseeable future, can be worked around if there is sufficient energy available of the right type.

The other not-so-minor detail is that the cost of desalination or of importing melted ice from Antarctica needs to be inexpensive enough that users of fresh water can afford it. In order for this to be the case, the cost of the appropriate type of energy must be extremely inexpensive. Continue reading

High-Priced Fuel Syndrome

Governments and economists around the world have not figured out that what the world economy is suffering from, to varying degrees, is “high-priced fuel syndrome“.

High-priced fuel syndrome has a number of symptoms:

  • Slow economic growth, or contraction
  • People in discretionary industries laid off from work
  • High unemployment rates
  • Debt defaults (or huge government intervention to prevent debt defaults)
  • Governments in increasingly poor financial condition
  • Declining home and business property values
  • Rising food prices
  • Lower tolerance for immigrants
  • Huge difficulty in funding retirement programs, programs for disabled, and regular pension plans
  • Rising international tensions related to energy supply

The countries with the most problem with high-priced fuel syndrome are the industrialized countries that are big importers of oil. This is the case because oil has been a particularly high-priced fuel in the past few years. Importing high-priced oil adds challenges of its own, since funds used for imported oil flow out of the country.

Figure 1. Historical inflation adjusted oil price per barrel, (Brent equivalent in 2011$), based on amounts shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

While oil is the biggest culprit in high-priced fuel syndrome, high-priced fuels of other sorts can play a role as well. Natural gas is recently high-priced in Europe and Japan, but not the USA. The higher natural gas price contributes to a higher average energy cost level for these countries.  High-priced renewables, such as off-shore wind and solar photovoltaic, can be expected to act in a similar fashion, because they add to the price challenge customers face.

At this point, Europe is hardest-hit by high-priced fuel syndrome. In part this is because Europe is a big importer of both oil and gas,  and both are high-priced. European countries have also encouraged the use of high-priced renewables, adding to their difficulties.

While many people have laughed at the issue of the world “running out of oil” (or natural gas, or some other substitute fuel), it seems to me that they have basically missed the point. There is always lots of fuel in the ground, or available through devices we create that produce “renewable” fuel. The major issue is that the fuel becomes too expensive for the economy to afford.

The United States, Europe, and Japan were industrialized back when fuels were cheap, in the pre-1972 era (Figure 1, above). The cost structure of government welfare programs (such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment) also assume that the economy will continue as it did with low-priced fuels. Substituting ever more-expensive fuels can be expected to push a country toward economic contraction, reduction in programs that the economy can no longer afford, and the symptoms listed above. Continue reading

The Close Tie Between Energy Consumption, Employment, and Recession

The number of jobs available to job-seekers has been a problem for quite a long tine now—since 2000 in the United States, and longer than that in Europe. If we look at the percentage of the US population who are employed, it is now back to 1984 or 1985 levels.

Figure 1. Total number of individuals employed in non-farm labor, and reported by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, divided by US resident population, as reported by the US Census Bureau.

I have run into a number of clues about what is happening. In this post, I’d like to discuss what I am seeing. Part of the problem is that high oil costs squeeze the economy, reducing employment. Part of the problem is growing trade with Asia. It is even possible that the Kyoto protocol (which the US did not sign) has something to do with what we are seeing. Let me start by explaining a fairly strange relationship. Continue reading