Why oil prices can’t rise very high, for very long

Oil prices are now as high as they have been for three years. At this writing, Brent is $74.14 per barrel and West Texas Intermediate is at $68.76. These prices aren’t really very high, if a person looks at the situation from a longer term point of view than the last three years.

Figure 1. EIA chart of weekly average Brent oil prices, through April 13, 2018.

There is always a question of how high oil prices can go, and for how long.

In fact, we have many resources, of many kinds, whose prices of extraction keep rising higher. For example, obtaining fresh water for the world’s population keeps getting more and more expensive. Some parts of the world need to resort to desalination.

The world economy cannot withstand high prices for any of these resources for very long. Certainly, it cannot withstand high prices for a combination of necessary resources, because people need to cut back on other purchases, in order to afford the necessities whose prices are rising. This article is a guest post by another actuary, who goes by the pseudonym Shunyata. He explains in a different way why high resource prices cannot last, whether they are for oil, or natural gas, water, or even fresh air.

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Energy Return on Energy Invested – Prof. Charles Hall’s Comments

In my most recent post, Why the Standard Model of Future Energy Supply Doesn’t Work, I made some comments about the calculation of Energy Returned on Energy Invested. Professor Charles Hall sent me the following response to what I said, which he wanted to have published. I have a few follow-up comments, but I will save them for the comments section.

Section of Why the Standard Model of Future Energy Supply Doesn’t Work Upon Which Comments Are Being Made

The Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) Model of Prof. Charles Hall depended on the thinking of the day: it was the energy consumption that was easy to count that mattered. If a person could discover which energy products had the smallest amount of easily counted energy products as inputs, this would provide an estimate of the efficiency of an energy type, in some sense. Perhaps a transition could be made to more efficient types of energy, so that fossil fuels, which seemed to be in short supply, could be conserved.

The catch is that it is total energy consumption, that matters, not easily counted energy consumption. In a networked economy, there is a huge amount of energy consumption that cannot easily be counted: the energy consumption to build and operate schools, roads, health care systems, and governments; the energy consumption required to maintain a system that repays debt with interest; the energy consumption that allows governments to collect significant taxes on exported oil and other goods. The standard EROEI method assumes the energy cost of each of these is zero. Typically, wages of workers are not considered either.

There is also a problem in counting different types of energy inputs and outputs. Our economic system assigns different dollar values to different qualities of energy; the EROEI method basically assigns only ones and zeros. In the EROEI method, certain categories that are hard to count are zeroed out completely. The ones that can be counted are counted as equal, regardless of quality. For example, intermittent electricity is treated as equivalent to high quality, dispatchable electricity.

The EROEI model looked like it would be helpful at the time it was created. Clearly, if one oil well uses considerably more energy inputs than a nearby oil well, it would be a higher-cost well. So, the model seemed to distinguish energy types that were higher cost, because of resource usage, especially for very similar energy types.

Another benefit of the EROEI method was that if the problem were running out of fossil fuels, the model would allow the system to optimize the use of the limited fossil fuels that seemed to be available, based on the energy types with highest EROEIs. This would seem to make best use of the fossil fuel supply available.

Charlie Hall responds:

I have always been, remain and will probably always continue to be a huge fan of Gail Tverberg, her analyses and her blogs. I am also committed to try and make sure science, such as I understand it, remains committed to truth, such as that is possible, which includes an accurate representation of the scientific work of others. In that spirit I wish to correct a short piece (referenced above) that is attempting to represent my own work on Energy Return on Investment (EROI or EROEI) but does not do so in a way that is fully consistent with the published work of myself and my colleagues. Continue reading

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Why the Standard Model of Future Energy Supply Doesn’t Work

The most prevalent view regarding future oil supply, as well as total energy supply, seems to be fairly closely related to that expressed by Peak Oilers. Future fossil fuel supply is assumed to be determined by the resources in the ground and the technology available for extraction. Prices are assumed to rise as fossil fuels are depleted, allowing more expensive technology for extraction. Substitutes are assumed to become possible, as costs rise.

Those with the most optimistic views about the amount of resources in the ground become especially concerned about climate change. The view seems to be that it is up to humans to decide how much energy resources we will use. We can easily cut back, if we want to.

The problem with this approach is the world economy is much more interconnected than most analysts have ever understood. It is also much more dependent on growing energy supply than most have understood. Surprisingly, we humans aren’t really in charge; the laws of physics ultimately determine what happens.

In my view, Peak Oilers were correct about energy supplies eventually becoming a problem. What they were wrong about is the way the problem can be expected to play out. Major differences between my view and the standard view are summarized on Figure 1.

Figure 1. Prepared by Author.

 

Let me explain some of the issues involved.

[1] Modeling is a lot more difficult than it looks. Continue reading

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Our Latest Oil Predicament

It is impossible to tell the whole oil story, but perhaps I can offer a few insights regarding where we are today.

[1] We already seem to be back to the falling oil prices and refilling storage tanks scenario.

US crude oil stocks hit their low point on January 19, 2018 and have started to rise again. The amount of crude oil fill has averaged about 365,000 barrels per day since then. At the same time, prices of both Brent and WTI oil have fallen from their high points.

Figure 1. Average weekly spot Brent oil prices from EIA website, with circle pointing to recent downtick in prices.

Many people believe that the oil problem, when it hits, will be running out of oil. People with such a belief interpret a glut of oil to mean that we are still very far from any limit.

[2] An alternative story to running out of oil is that the economy is a self-organized system, operating under the laws of physics. With this story, too little demand for oil is as likely an outcome as a shortage of oil.

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Raising Interest Rates Is Like Starting a Fission Chain Reaction

Central bankers seem to think that adjusting interest rates is a nice little tool that they can easily handle. The problem is that higher interest rates affect the economy in many ways simultaneously. The lessons that seem to have been learned from past rate hikes may not be applicable today.

Furthermore, there can be quite a long time lag involved. Thus, by the time a central banker starts seeing an effect, it may be clear that the amount of the interest rate change is far too large.

A recent Zerohedge article seems to suggest that problems can arise with 10-year Treasury interest rates of less than 3%. We may be facing a period of declining acceptable interest rates.

Figure 1. Chart from The Scariest Chart in the Market.

Let’s look at a few of the issues involved: Continue reading

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