IEA Oil Forecast Unrealistically High; Misses Diminishing Returns

The International Energy Agency (IEA) provides unrealistically high oil forecasts in its new 2012 World Energy Outlook (WEO). It claims, among other things, that the United States will become the world’s largest oil producer by around 2020, and North America will become a net oil exporter by 2030.

Figure 1. Author’s interpretation of IEA Forecast of Future US Oil Production under “New Policies” Scenario, based on information provided in IEA’s 2012 World Energy Outlook.

Figure 1 shows that this increase comes solely from the expected rise in tight oil production and natural gas liquids. The idea that we will become an exporter in later years occurs despite falling production, because “demand” will drop so much.

The oil price forecasts underlying these and other forecasts in the report are approximately as follows:

Figure 2. Author’s interpretation of future average world oil prices, as provided by IEA in their 2012 WEO report. (Forecast provided by IEA is more “concave downward”.) Historical amounts are based on BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy amounts.

One reason the WEO 2012 estimates are unreasonable is because the oil prices shown are unrealistically low relative to the production amounts forecast in the report. This seems to occur because the IEA misses the problem of diminishing returns. As the easy-to-produce oil becomes more depleted, and we need to move to more difficult reservoirs, the cost of extraction increases.

In fact, there is evidence that the “tight” oil referenced in Exhibit 1 is already starting to reach production limits, at current prices. The only way these production limits might be reasonably overcome is with higher oil prices–much higher than the IEA is assuming in any of its forecasts.

Higher oil prices cause a huge problem because of their impact on the world economy. The IEA in fact mentions that current high oil prices are already acting as a brake on the global economy in its first slide for the press. Higher oil prices also mean that investment costs required to reach target production levels will be even higher than forecast by the IEA, adding another impediment to reaching its forecast production levels.

If higher prices put the economies of oil importing nations into recession, then oil prices will drop lower, reducing the incentive to invest in new oil production infrastructure. In fact, we could find ourselves reaching “peak oil” because of an economic dilemma: while there seems to be plenty of oil available, the cost of extracting it may be reaching a point where it is more expensive than consumers can afford. As a result, some oil that we know about, and have been counting as reserves, will have to be left in the ground.

The IMF has recently done modeling that is relevant to this issue in a working paper called “Oil and the World Economy: Some Possible Futures.” This analysis may provide some insight as to what the real situation will be.  Continue reading

Can an Economy Learn to Live with Increasingly High Oil Prices?

Prof. James Hamilton of University of California recently wrote a post called Thresholds in the economic effects of oil prices. In it, he concludes

As U.S. retail gasoline prices once again near $4.00 a gallon, does this pose a threat to the economy and President Obama’s prospects for re-election? My answer is no.

EDIT – I originally wrote this post thinking that Prof. Hamilton was looking at a broader question: Can an economy learn to live with increasingly high oil prices? After looking again at his article again, I realize that he is talking about a narrow question: Using the figures he was looking at (average gasoline prices across all grades), prices were for the week of September 17 near $4 a gallon, as they had been several times in the past, as they bounced up and down.

In that context, what he says is far closer to right than what my analysis of the broader question of whether an economy can learn to live with increasingly high oil prices, below, would suggest. There is a difference, because gasoline prices are not too closely tied to oil prices in short term fluctuations, and because the issue is likely to be as much one of consumer sentiment as anything else, as long as the issue is simply one of gasoline prices in a not-too-wide range. But I think there are some longer-term, more general issues we should be concerned about.

My Analysis of the More General Question: Can an Economy Learn to Live with Increasingly High Oil Prices?

As I see it, increasingly high oil prices weaken an economy because they reduce discretionary spending and indirectly cause people to be laid-off from work. They have many other adverse effects as well–they tend to raise food prices, with similar effect. The laid-off workers require unemployment compensation payments, and the same time they are contributing less tax revenue. All of this creates a huge imbalance between revenue collected by governments and expenditures paid out. If oil prices rise again, it will tend to make the imbalance worse.

An economy such as the United States can cover up the problems caused by high oil prices with variety of financial techniques. In my view, high consumer confidence measures the success of those cover-ups, more than it measures the actual underlying situation. One way the US government has managed to cover up how badly the economy is being hurt by high oil prices is by spending far more than the government takes in as revenue. This has happened continuously since late 2008, with outgo exceeding income by more than 50% each year, even though the country is supposedly not in recession.

Figure 1. US Government Income and Outlay, based on historical tables from the White House Office of Management and Budget (Table 1.1). Amounts include off-budget spending, such as Social Security and Medicare, in addition to on-budget spending. *2012 is estimated. http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals

The amount consumers have available to spend on cars and gasoline is very much affected by deficit spending. With deficit spending, government employment can remain high and transfer payments can continue, without anyone really “paying” for these costs, putting more money into the economy to spend on oil and cars.

There are other government programs as well. Interest rates on homes and new cars are being kept at record lows, leaving consumers with more money to spend on cars and gasoline. Low interest rates and low taxes also stimulate employers to hire more employees. Quantitative easing helps contribute to higher stock market prices, and makes it easier for the federal government to keep adding large amount of debt.

To me, the fact that the economy is not currently completely “in the tank” speaks more to the success of stimulus programs than having anything to do with adaptation to higher price levels. Countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy do not have the luxury of being able to hide the impacts of their high cost of oil. They are doing less well financially, but were not included in Hamilton’s analysis. Continue reading

Lower Oil Prices–Not a Good Sign!

Are lower oil prices good news? Not really, if it means the world is sinking into recession.

We know from recent past experience and from common sense that higher oil prices are a drag on oil importing economies, since if more $$$ are spent on the same amount of oil, there is less to spend on discretionary goods and services. In addition, oil money sent to oil exporting countries is likely to be spent within those economies, rather than being reinvested in the oil importing country that the funds came from.

igure 1. A rough calculation of expenditure (in 2011$) associated with oil imports or exports, based on 2012 BP Statistical Review data, for three areas of the world: the Former Soviet Union (FSU), the sum of EU-27, United States, and Japan, and the Remainder of the World. (Negative values are revenue from exports.)

A rough calculation based on 2012 BP Statistical Review data indicates that the combination of the EU-27, the United States, and Japan spent a little over $1 trillion dollars in oil imports in 2011–roughly the same amount as in 2008. Governments have been running up huge deficits and have been keeping interest rates very low to cover up this damage, but it is hard to make this strategy work. The deficit soon becomes unmanageable, as the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) countries in Europe have recently been recently been discovering. The US government is facing automatic spending cuts, as of January 2, 2013, because of its continuing deficits.

Furthermore, lower interest rates aren’t entirely beneficial. With low interest rates, pension funds need much larger employer contributions, if they are to make good on their promises. Retirees who depend on interest income to supplement their Social Security checks find themselves with less income. The lower interest rates don’t necessarily have a huge stimulatory impact on the economy, either, if buyers don’t have sufficient discretionary income to buy the additional services that new investment might provide.

Below the fold, we will discuss what is really happening with oil prices, and consider reasons why lower oil prices may be a signal that the world is again headed for deep recession. Continue reading

RIO+20 Talks Need to Consider Physical Limits

RIO+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, is to be held this week on June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.

The term Sustainable Development seems to me to be almost a contradiction in terms. One dictionary gives the definition of “development” as “the act or process of developing; growth; progress”. In a finite world, how can growth be sustainable? Isn’t it possible that human population already passed the world’s carrying capacity, and world leaders should be talking about shrinking instead of growing?

The open access journal PLoS Biology is starting to raise questions in this area. According to a press release of the journal, “Coinciding with Rio+20, the open-access journal PLoS Biology is publishing three articles in the June 19 issue by leaders in ecology and conservation science who raise important concerns about physical limits on resource use that should be considered at the conference—but almost certainly won’t be, because sustainability has largely developed with little reference to the key ecological principles that govern life on Earth.”

I’d like to highlight one of these articles called, “The Macroecology of Sustainability“. The article is by Robbie Burger and Jim Brown at the University of New Mexico, plus several other authors. I mentioned this upcoming article in March in my post True Sustainability Solutions.

The “Macroecology of Sustainability” points out that the discipline of sustainability science, as it is usually practiced, tends to be a social science rather than a natural science.  Studies are often at a local scale, rather than a global scale, and focus on efforts to improve standards or living and reduce environmental impacts, without consideration as to whether these so-called solutions would be feasible on a global scale. According to the researchers, “Any efforts to develop a science of sustainability or implement policy solutions are necessarily incomplete and will ultimately fail without considering the core ecological principles that govern all of life.”

This is a link to the entire current issue of PLoS Biology, including the three articles.

Continue reading

New IMF Working Paper Models Impact of Oil Limits on the Economy

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently issued a new working paper called “The Future of Oil: Geology versus Technology” (free PDF), which should be of interest to people who are following “peak oil” issues. This is a research paper that is being published to elicit comments and debate; it does not necessarily represent IMF views or policy.

The paper considers two different approaches for modeling future oil supply:

  1. The economic/technological approach, used by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and others, and
  2. The geological view, used in peak oil forecasts, such as forecasts made by Colin Campbell and forecasts made using Hubbert Linearization.

The analysis in the IMF Working Paper shows that neither approach has worked perfectly, but in recent years, forecasts of oil supply using the geological view have tended to be closer than those using the economic/technological approach.  Since neither model works perfectly, the new paper takes a middle ground: it sets up a model of oil supply where the amount of oil produced is influenced by a combination of (1) geological depletion and (2) price levels.

This blended model fits recent production amounts and recent price trends far better than traditional models. The forecasts it gives are concerning though.  The new model indicates that (1) oil supply in the future will not rise nearly as rapidly as in the pre-2005 period and (2) oil prices are likely to nearly double in “real” (inflation-adjusted) terms by 2020. The world economy will be in uncharted territory if this happens.

It seems to me that this new model is a real step forward in looking at oil supply and the economy. The model, as it is today, points out a definite problem area (namely, the likelihood of oil high prices, if growth in oil production continues to be constrained below pre-2005 rates of increase). The researchers also raise good questions for further analysis.

At the same time, I am doubtful that the world GDP forecast of the new model is really right–it seems too high. The questions the authors raise point in this direction as well. Below the fold, I discuss the model, its indications, and some shortcomings I see.  Continue reading