Why stimulus can’t fix our energy problems

Economists tell us that within the economy there is a lot of substitutability, and they are correct. However, there are a couple of not-so-minor details that they overlook:

  • There is no substitute for energy. It is possible to harness energy from another source, or to make a particular object run more efficiently, but the laws of physics prevent us from substituting something else for energy. Energy is required whenever physical changes are made, such as when an object is moved, or a material is heated, or electricity is produced.
  • Supplemental energy leverages human energy. The reason why the human population is as high as it is today is because pre-humans long ago started learning how to leverage their human energy (available from digesting food) with energy from other sources. Energy from burning biomass was first used over one million years ago. Other types of energy, such as harnessing the energy of animals and capturing wind energy with sails of boats, began to be used later. If we cut back on our total energy consumption in any material way, humans will lose their advantage over other species. Population will likely plummet because of epidemics and fighting over scarce resources.

Many people appear to believe that stimulus programs by governments and central banks can substitute for growth in energy consumption. Others are convinced that efficiency gains can substitute for growing energy consumption. My analysis indicates that workarounds, in the aggregate, don’t keep energy prices high enough for energy producers. Oil prices are at risk, but so are coal and natural gas prices. We end up with a different energy problem than most have expected: energy prices that remain too low for producers. Such a problem can have severe consequences.

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

Why we get bad diagnoses for the world’s energy-economy problems

The world economy seems to be seriously ill. The problem is not overly high oil prices, but that does not rule out energy as being a major underlying problem.

Two of the symptoms of the economy’s malaise are slow wage growth and increasing wage disparity. Tariffs are being used as solutions to these issues. Radical leaders are increasingly being elected. The Bank for International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund have raised concerns about the world’s aggregate debt levels. The IMF has even suggested that a second Great Depression might be ahead if major banks should fail in the manner that Lehman Brothers did in 2008.

Figure 1. Ratio of Core Debt Growth (non-financial debt including governmental debt) to GDP, based on data of the Bank of International Settlements.

If the economy were a human being, we would send it to a physician for a diagnosis regarding what is wrong. What really is needed is a physician who has a wide overview, and thus can understand the many symptoms. Hopefully, the physician can also provide a reasonable prognosis of what lies ahead.

Individual specialists studying the world’s economic and energy problems tend to look at these problems from narrow points of view. Some examples include:

  •  Curve fitting and cycle analysis using economic data by country since World War II, as is often performed by economists
  • Analysis of oil supply based on technically recoverable reserves or resources
  • Analysis of fresh water supply problems
  • Analysis of population problems, including rising population relative to arable land, and rising retiree population relative to working population
  • Analysis of ocean problems, including rising acidity and depleting fish stocks
  • Analysis of the expected impact of CO2 production from fossil fuels on climate
  • Analysis of rising debt levels

In fact, we are facing a combined problem, but most analysts/economists are looking at only their own piece of the problem. They assume that the other aspects have little or no influence on their particular result. What we really need is an analysis of the overall economic malady from a broader perspective.

In some ways, the situation is analogous to having no physician with a sufficient overview of where the world economy is headed. Instead, we have a number of specialists (perhaps analogous to a psychiatrist, a urologist, a podiatrist, and a dermatologist), none of whom really understands the underlying problem the patient is facing.

One point of confusion regarding whether today’s oil prices should be of concern is the fact that the maximum affordable oil price seems to decline over time. This happens because workers around the world increasingly cannot afford to buy the goods and services that the world economy produces. Inadequate wage growth within countries, growing globalization and rising interest rates all contribute to this growing affordability problem. To make matters confusing, this growing affordability problem corresponds to “falling demand” in the way economists frame the issues we are facing.

If we believe the technical analysis shown in Figure 2, the maximum affordable West Texas Intermediate oil price has declined from $147 per barrel in July 2008 to $76 per barrel recently. The current price is about $62 per barrel. The chart suggests that downward price resistance might be reached at $55 per barrel, assuming no major event occurs to change the current trend line. Any upward price bounce would appear to leave the price still much lower than oil producers need in order to reinvest sufficiently to allow future oil production to be maintained at current levels.

Figure 2. Down sloping diagonal line at the top of chart gives an estimate of the trend in maximum affordable West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil prices. The downward trend line starts in July 2008, when oil prices hit a maximum. This high point occurred when the US real estate debt bubble started unwinding. Later maximum points correspond to points when oil prices stopped rising and crude oil reservoirs started refilling. Chart prepared by Amit Noam Tal.

Thus, our concern about adequate future oil supplies should perhaps be focused on keeping oil prices high enough. It takes a growing debt bubble to keep oil demand high; perhaps our concern should be keeping this debt bubble high enough to allow extraction of commodities of all kinds, including oil. Figure 1 seems to show a recent downward trend in Debt to GDP ratios for the Eurozone, the United States and China. This may be part of today’s low price problem for commodities of all types.

Needless to say, climate analyses do not consider the severity of our energy problems, nor do they consider the extent to which there is a connection between energy supply and the ability of the economy to operate as usual. If the real issue is a near-term financial crash that will radically affect future fossil fuel consumption, the climate analysis will certainly miss this event.

The Real Nature of the Limits to Growth Problem

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Why Standard Economic Models Don’t Work–Our Economy is a Network

The story of energy and the economy seems to be an obvious common sense one: some sources of energy are becoming scarce or overly polluting, so we need to develop new ones. The new ones may be more expensive, but the world will adapt. Prices will rise and people will learn to do more with less. Everything will work out in the end. It is only a matter of time and a little faith. In fact, the Financial Times published an article recently called “Looking Past the Death of Peak Oil” that pretty much followed this line of reasoning.

Energy Common Sense Doesn’t Work Because the World is Finite 

The main reason such common sense doesn’t work is because in a finite world, every action we take has many direct and indirect effects. This chain of effects produces connectedness that makes the economy operate as a network. This network behaves differently than most of us would expect. This networked behavior is not reflected in current economic models.

Most people believe that the amount of oil in the ground is the limiting factor for oil extraction. In a finite world, this isn’t true. In a finite world, the limiting factor is feedback loops that lead to inadequate wages, inadequate debt growth, inadequate tax revenue, and ultimately inadequate funds for investment in oil extraction. The behavior of networks may lead to economic collapses of oil exporters, and even to a collapse of the overall economic system.

An issue that is often overlooked in the standard view of oil limits is diminishing returns. With diminishing returns, the cost of extraction eventually rises because the easy-to-obtain resources are extracted first. For a time, the rising cost of extraction can be hidden by advances in technology and increased mechanization, but at some point, the inflation-adjusted cost of oil production starts to rise.

With diminishing returns, the economy is, in effect, becoming less and less efficient, instead of becoming more and more efficient. As this effect feeds through the system, wages tend to fall and the economy tends to shrink rather than grow. Because of the way a networked system “works,” this shrinkage tends to collapse the economy. The usage of  energy products of all kinds is likely to fall, more or less simultaneously.

In some ways current, economic models are the equivalent of flat maps, when we live in a spherical world. These models work pretty well for a while, but eventually, their predictions deviate further and further from reality. The reason our models of the future are wrong is because we are not imagining the system correctly. Continue reading

Why a Finite World is a Problem

Why is a finite world a problem? I can think of many answers:

1. A finite world is a problem because we and all of the other creatures living in this world share the same piece of “real estate.” If humans use increasingly more resources, other species necessarily use less. Even “renewable” resources are shared with other species. If humans use more, other species must use less. Solar panels covering the desert floor interfere with normal wildlife; the use of plants for biofuels means less area is available for planting food and for vegetation preferred by desirable insects, such as bees.

2. A finite world is governed by cycles. We like to project in straight lines or as constant percentage increases, but the real world doesn’t follow such patterns. Each day has 24 hours. Water moves in waves. Humans are born, mature, and die. A resource is extracted from an area, and the area suddenly becomes much poorer once the income from those exports is removed. Once a country becomes poorer, fighting is likely to break out. A recent example of this is Egypt’s loss of oil exports, about the time of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 (Figure 1). The fighting has not yet stopped. 

Figure 1. Egypt's oil production and consumption, based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 1. Egypt’s oil production and consumption, based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The interconnectedness of resources with the way economies work, and the problems that occur when those resources are not present, make the future much less predictable than most models would suggest.

3.  A finite world means that we eventually run short of easy-to-extract resources of many types, including fossil fuels, uranium, and metals.  This doesn’t mean that we will “run out” of these resources. Instead, it means that the extraction process will become more expensive for these fuels and metals, unless technology somehow acts to hold costs down. If extraction costs rise, anything made using these fuels and metals becomes more expensive, assuming businesses selling these products are able to recover their costs. (If they don’t, they go out of business, quickly!) Figure 2 shows that a recent turning point toward higher costs came in 2002, for both energy products and base metals.

Figure 2. World Bank Energy (oil, natural gas, and coal) and Base Metals price indices, using 2005 US dollars, indexed to 2010 = 100.  Data source: World Bank.

Figure 2. World Bank Energy (oil, natural gas, and coal) and Base Metals price indices, using 2005 US dollars, indexed to 2010 = 100. Base metals exclude iron. Data source: World Bank.

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The Real Oil Extraction Limit, and How It Affects the Downslope

There is a lot of confusion about which limit we are reaching with respect to oil supply. There seems to be a huge amount of “reserves,” and oil production seems to be increasing right now, so people can’t imagine that there might be a near term problem. There are at least three different views regarding the nature of the limit:

  1. Climate Change. There is no limit on oil production within the foreseeable future. Oil prices can be expected to keep rising. With higher prices, alternative fuels and higher cost extraction techniques will become available. The main concern is climate change. The only reason that oil production would drop is because we have found a way to use less oil because of  climate change concerns, and choose not to extract oil that seems to be available.
  2. Limit Based on Geology (“Peak Oil”). In each oil field, production tends to rise for a time and then fall. Therefore, in total, world oil production will most likely begin to fall at some point, because of technological limits on extraction. In fact, this limit seems quite close at hand. High oil prices may play a role as well.
  3. Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough. We need high oil prices to keep oil extraction up, but as we reach diminishing returns with respect to oil extraction, oil prices don’t rise high enough to keep extraction at the required level. If oil prices do rise very high, there are feedback loops that lead to more recession and job layoffs and less “demand for oil” (really, oil affordability) among potential purchasers of oil. One major cut-off on oil supply is inadequate funds for reinvestment, because of low oil prices.

Why “Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough” Is the Real Limit

In my view, our real concern should be the third item above, “Oil Prices Don’t Rise High Enough.” The problem is caused by a mismatch between wages (which are not growing very quickly) and the cost of oil extraction (which is growing quickly). If oil prices rose as fast as extraction costs, they would leave workers with a smaller and smaller percentage of their wages to spend on food, clothing, and other necessities–something that doesn’t work for very long. Let me explain what happens. 

Because of diminishing returns, the cost of oil extraction keeps rising. It is hard for oil prices to increase enough to provide an adequate profit for producers, because if they did, workers would get poorer and poorer. In fact, oil prices already seem to be too low. In years past, oil companies found that the price they sold oil for was sufficient (a) to cover the complete costs of extraction, (b) to pay dividends to stockholders, (c) to pay required governmental taxes, and (d) to provide enough funds for investment in new wells, in order to  keep production level, or even increase it.  Now, because of the rapidly rising cost of new extraction, oil companies are finding that they are coming up short in this process. 

Oil companies have begun returning money to stockholders in increased dividends, rather than investing in projects which are likely to be unprofitable at current oil prices. See Oil companies rein in spending to save cash for dividendsIf our need for investment dollars is escalating because of diminishing returns in oil extraction, but oil companies are reining in spending for investments because they don’t think they can make an adequate return at current oil prices, this does not bode well for future oil extraction. Continue reading