Why EIA, IEA, and BP Oil Forecasts are Too High

When forecasting how much oil will be available in future years, a standard approach seems to be the following:

  1. Figure out how much GDP growth the researcher hopes to have in the future.
  2. “Work backward” to see how much oil is needed, based on how much oil was used for a given level of GDP in the past. Adjust this amount for hoped-for efficiency gains and transfers to other fuel uses.
  3. Verify that there is actually enough oil available to support this level of growth in oil consumption.

In fact, this seems to be the approach used by most forecasting agencies, including EIA, IEA and BP. It seems to me that this approach has a fundamental flaw. It doesn’t consider the possibility of continued low oil prices and the impact that these low oil prices are likely to have on future oil production. Hoped-for future GDP growth may not be possible if oil prices, as well as other commodity prices, remain low.

Future Oil Resources Seem to Be More Than Adequate

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An Economic Theory of Limited Oil Supply

We seem to hear two versions of the story of limited oil supply:

1. The economists’ view, saying that the issue is a simple problem of supply and demand. Substitution, higher prices, demand destruction, greater efficiency, and increased production of oil at higher prices will save the day.

2. A version of Hubbert’s peak oil theory, saying that world oil production will rise and at some point reach a plateau and begin to decline, because of geological depletion. The common belief is that the rate of decline will be determined by geological considerations, and will roughly match the rate at which production increased.

In my view, neither of these views is correct. My view is a third view:

3. An adequate supply of cheap ($20 or $30 barrel) oil is no longer available, because most of the “easy to extract” oil is gone. The cost of extracting oil keeps rising, but the ability of oil-importing economies to pay for this oil does not. There are no good low-cost substitutes for oil, so substitution is very limited and will continue to be very limited. The big oil-importing economies are already finding themselves in poor financial condition, as higher oil prices lead to cutbacks in discretionary spending and layoffs in discretionary industries.

The government is caught up in this, as layoffs lead to more need for stimulus funds and for payments to unemployed workers, at the same time that tax revenue is reduced. There can be a temporary drop in oil prices (as there was in late 2008), as recession worsens, but eventually demand rises again, oil prices rise again, and the pattern of layoffs and increased governments financial problems occurs again.

Without substitutes at a price that the economy can afford, economies will adapt to lower amounts of oil they can afford by worsening recession, debt defaults, and reduced international trade. There may be tendency for international alliances (such as the Euro) to fall apart, and for countries to break into smaller units (Catalonia secede from Spain, or countries break up the way the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia did).

At some point, probably not too many years in the future, the amount of oil extracted from the ground will drop, reflecting a combination of geological and economic factors. The fall may very well be quite steep. While we can’t expect to extract more than geology will allow, there is nothing to say that political and economic factors will allow extraction of this amount. If civil war breaks out in an oil producer, production may drop quickly. Or if oil prices drop because of severe recession, drilling of new fields and wells may drop off quickly, leading to lower production as existing wells deplete, and not enough new supply as added. There may also be disruption in international sales of oil. Continue reading

Renewables Are Overrated, We Need Cheap Oil – Interview with Gail Tverberg

This article originally appeared at Oilprice.com.

What does our world’s energy future look like? Does renewable energy feature as much in the energy production mix as many hope it will? Will natural gas and fracking help reduce our dependence upon oil and how will the world economy and trade fare as supplies of cheap oil continue to dwindle?

To help us take a look at this future scenario we had a chance to chat with Gail Tverberg – a well-known commentator on energy issues and author of the popular blog, Our Finite World

In the interview Gail talks about:

•    Why natural gas is not the energy savior we were hoping for
•    Why renewable energy will not live up to the hype
•    Why we shouldn’t write off nuclear energy
•    Why oil prices could fall in the future
•    Why our energy future looks fairly bleak
•    Why the government should be investing less in renewable energy
•    Why constant economic growth is not a realistic goal

Gail Tverberg is an independent researcher who examines questions related to oil supply, substitutes, and their impact on the economy. Her background is as a casualty actuary, making financial projections within the insurance industry. She became interested in the question of oil shortages in 2005, and has written and spoken about the expected impact of limited oil supply since then to a variety of audiences: insurance, academic, “peak oil”, and more general audiences. Her work can be found on her website, Our Finite World.

Interview conducted by James Stafford of Oilprice.com

Oilprice.com: Do you believe that shale gas is the energy savior we have been hoping for and can deliver all that has been promised? Or have we been oversold on its potential? Continue reading

The Growing Part of the World in Charts

Some parts of the world pretty much sailed through the 2008-2009 recession, while other parts of the world had huge problems. The part that sailed through the recession is what I call the “Growing Part of the World.”

I thought it would be interesting to see how the countries in the “Growing Part of the World” have behaved over the long term with respect to a number of variables (energy, GDP, and population). I compare these countries to two other groups of countries which did not fare as well during the 2008-2009 recession:

  1. European Union 27, United States and Japan
  2. Former Soviet Union (FSU)

Together these three groups equal the whole world, which is why I call the Growing Part of the World “Remainder” on my charts.

Figure 1 (below) shows that GDP growth rates have been quite different over the long term for the three groups, with the growth rate of the Growing Group higher than that of EU, US and Japan. The FSU’s growth rate has been more variable. Thus, it is not just during the 2008-2009 recession that the groups were different.

Figure 1 – Annual per cent increase in real GDP by area, based on USDA Economic Research Service data. “Remainder” corresponds to the Growing Part of the World.

The charts I have prepared show huge differences in variables besides GDP growth: in population levels, growth rate of population, and types of energy used, for example. The amount of energy for each unit of GDP varies widely, as does the pattern over time. While the FSU and the “EU, US & Japan” grouping show lower energy consumption for each unite of GDP over time, the Growing Group in total does not.

At the end of this post, I explain the reasons that why the Growing Part of the World seems to be doing so much better than the world economically and offer my view of what its prospects are for the future.

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The Myth that the US will Soon Become an Oil Exporter

Countries trade crude oil and oil products back and forth. When all of these transactions are netted out, is the US close to becoming a “net” oil exporter?

With the recent increase in oil production (perhaps even exceeding that of Russia on a “barrels-per-day” basis), a person might think that US oil production problems are behind us. If we look at the data, though, it is very clear that the US is still a long way from becoming a net oil exporter.

There are several reasons for confusion. One is the fact that excess refinery capacity can lead to the ability to export both gasoline and diesel, even though the United States continues to import large amounts of crude oil. Another is that tight oil (extracted through “fracking”) is growing from a small base, but can’t necessarily ramp up very far, very quickly. Another source of confusion is with respect to how different types of liquids should be combined for comparison purposes.

In this post, I would like to explain why the idea that the US is about to become a net oil exporter is simply a myth.  Continue reading