Our Investment Sinkhole Problem

We are used to expecting that more investment will yield more output, but in the real world, things don’t always work out that way.

Figure 1. Comparison of 2005 to 2011 percent change in real GDP vs percent change in oil consumption, both on a per capita basis. (GDP per capita on a PPP basis from World bank, oil consumption from BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. Comparison of 2005 to 2011 percent change in real GDP vs percent change in oil consumption, both on a per capita basis. (GDP per capita on a PPP basis from World Bank, oil consumption from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.)

In Figure 1, we see that for several groupings, the increase (or decrease) in oil consumption tends to correlate with the increase (or decrease) in GDP. The usual pattern is that GDP growth is a little greater than oil consumption growth. This happens because of changes of various sorts: (a) Increasing substitution of other energy sources for oil, (b) Increased efficiency in using oil, and (c) A changing GDP mix away from producing goods, and toward producing services, leading to a proportionately lower need for oil and other energy products.

The situation is strikingly different for Saudi Arabia, however. A huge increase in oil consumption (Figure 1), and in fact in total energy consumption (Figure 2, below), does not seem to result in a corresponding rise in GDP.

Figure 2. Total primary energy consumed per capita, based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data and population data from EIA.

Figure 2. Total primary energy consumed per capita, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data and population data from EIA.

At least part of problem is that Saudi Arabia is reaching limits of various types. One of them is inadequate water for a rising population. Adding desalination plants adds huge costs and huge energy usage, but does not increase the standards of living of citizens. Instead, adding desalination plants simply allows the country to pump less water from its depleting aquifers.

To some extent, the same situation occurs in oil and gas fields. Expensive investment is required, but it is doubtful that there is an increase in capacity that is proportional to its cost. To a significant extent, new investment simply offsets a decline in production elsewhere, so maintains the status quo. It is expensive, but adds little to what gets measured as GDP.

The world outside of Saudi Arabia is now running into an investment sinkhole issue as well. This takes several forms: water limits that require deeper wells or desalination plants; oil and gas limits that require more expensive forms of extraction; and pollution limits requiring expensive adjustments to automobiles or to power plants.

These higher investment costs lead to higher end product costs of goods using these resources. These higher costs eventually transfer to other products that most of us consider essential: food because it uses much oil in growing and transport; electricity because it is associated with pollution controls; and metals for basic manufacturing, because they also use oil in extraction and transport.

Ultimately, these investment sinkholes seem likely to cause huge problems. In some sense, they mean the economy is becoming less efficient, rather than more efficient. From an investment point of view, they can expect to crowd out other types of investment. From a consumer’s point of view, they lead to a rising cost of essential products that can be expected to squeeze out other purchases.   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

Why High Oil Prices Are Now Affecting Europe More Than the US

The world is presently sharing a limited supply of oil. When oil prices rise, oil production doesn’t rise very much, if at all.

Figure 1. Brent oil spot price and world oil supply (broadly defined), based on EIA data.

The issues then become: Which buyers get the oil? What uses get priced out of the market?  Which countries are disproportionately affected?

It seems to me that this time around, Europe, and in particular the Eurozone, is the area of the world getting hit the hardest by high oil prices. Part of this has to do with the relative level of the Euro and the US dollar. If we look at the price of Brent oil (a European oil) in Euros (Figure 2), we find that prices are as high now as they were in mid-2008.

Figure 2. Dated Brent average monthly oil prices, expressed in Euros, based on IndexMundi data.

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The Most Important Resource for Our Future: Inexpensive Oil (but its not really available)

Our economy runs on oil. Most of the tractors used for growing food run on oil. Nearly all of today’s cars and trucks run on oil. It is popular to talk about changing to some other fuel, but the practicalities are that any such change will be very slow. There is a huge cost associated with replacing cars and trucks with vehicles using other fuels, assuming we could figure out the technology to do this.

Since 2005, world crude oil supply has bumped up against what seems to be a limit of 75 million barrels of oil a day. No matter how hard companies try to extract more crude oil, and no matter how high world oil prices rise, they seem unable to extract more than 75 million barrels a day (MBD).

World Crude Oil - Quantity Extracted and Price

Figure 1. World crude oil production has been bumping up against a limit of about 75 million barrels a day (MBD) since 2005, as oil prices have gyrated wildly. (EIA data)

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How Limited Oil Supply can lead to a Continuing Financial Crisis

I recently wrote an article called Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis, which has been accepted by the journal Energy. It is still in pre-publication status, but the corrected proof is available for purchase. Because of copyright limitations, I can’t reproduce the article, but I wanted to at least provide a summary.

When I submitted the article, I was asked for five highlights. These are the ones I submitted:

  • Reduced oil consumption leads to lower economic growth and less capacity for debt.
  • Lower capacity for debt leads to debt defaults, reduced credit, falling home prices.
  • Oil supply limits appear to be a primary cause of the 2008–09 recession.
  • If world oil supply remains level, more recession can be expected in OECD countries.
  • Inadequate demand for high-priced oil is likely to cause much oil to be left in place.

I also submitted an abstract:

Since 2005, (1) world oil supply has not increased, and (2) the world has undergone its most severe economic crisis since the Depression. In this paper, logical arguments and direct evidence are presented suggesting that a reduction in oil supply can be expected to reduce the ability of economies to use debt for leverage. The expected impact of reduced oil supply combined with this reduced leverage is similar to the actual impact of the 2008–2009 recession in OECD countries. If world oil supply should continue to remain generally flat, there appears to be a significant possibility that oil consumption in OECD countries will continue to decline, as emerging markets consume a greater share of the total oil that is available. If this should happen, based on these findings we can expect a continuing financial crisis similar to the 2008–2009 recession including significant debt defaults. The financial crisis may eventually worsen, to resemble a collapse situation as described by Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1990) or an adverse decline situation similar to adverse scenarios foreseen by Donella Meadows in Limits to Growth (1972).

An outline of my paper is as follows.

  1. Introduction
  2. Reduced oil supply is likely to result in reduced or negative economic growth
  3. Timing and nature of constriction of oil supply
  4. Oil prices do not rise without limit, and oil limits may appear as an “oil glut”
  5. Differences between a growing economy and a declining economy
  6. Some examples showing ties to the 2008-2009 crisis
  7. Possible future scenarios
  8. Conclusion

Below the fold, I explain what the sections cover.
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