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

How Oil Exporters Reach Financial Collapse

Recently, I explained how high oil prices can bring on financial collapse for oil importers. In this post, I’ll discuss the flip side of the situation: how oil exporters reach financial collapse.

Unfortunately, we have many examples of countries that were oil exporters, but are dealing with collapse situations. Egypt, Syria, and Yemen all have had political disruptions since 2011. These may not be called financial collapse, but they all took place as the country’s oil exports decreased and as the price of imported food rose. Another example is the Former Soviet Union (FSU). It collapsed in 1991, after a period of low oil prices, in what looks very much like a financial collapse.

There are several dynamics at work in the financial collapse of oil exporters:

  1. Oil exporters are often dependent on oil export revenue to fund government programs.
  2. The need for government programs grows as population grows and as the price of food  rises.
  3. The amount of oil that can be extracted in a given year often declines over time, as initial stores are depleted.
  4. Exports often decline even more rapidly than oil supply, because of rising oil consumption as population grows.

In general, high oil prices are good for oil exporters (except the effect on food prices). At the same time, oil importers strongly prefer low oil prices.  As a result, we end up with a price tug of war between oil importers and oil exporters.

One additional issue is declining Energy Return on Energy Invested. Countries often have the option of reducing their rate of decline by adding production in areas which are more expensive to drill (say deeper, smaller locations offshore Norway) or by using enhanced oil recovery methods. Such approaches add costs (and energy use), and further add to the price that oil exporters need for their product.

Egypt, Syria, and Yemen

Egypt, Syria, and Yemen are three countries that the press would say are suffering from the continuing impact of the Arab Spring revolutions, which began in 2011, or of civil war. The similarity of the oil production and consumption charts for the three countries (shown below) suggests that declining oil exports likely played a major role as well.  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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Fall of the Soviet Union: Implications for Today

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the country that was the “big growth story” was the Soviet Union. Its oil consumption grew by leaps and bounds. Its space program grew; its military program grew; and it became much more industrialized. But then something happened to stop the amazing growth story. The Soviet Union became the Former Soviet Union (FSU) in late 1991, and even before that, oil production and consumption slowed.

It seems to me that the FSU changes have been helpful to the rest of the world, in ways we don’t stop to consider, because it helped put off peak oil and left resources of many types in the ground that could be extracted later. Furthermore, the fact that in many ways the FSU has not bounced back to where it was prior to the fall, even today, has some profound implications, as the world contemplates going through its own financial “tight spot,” and wonders what may be ahead.

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World Oil Production – Looking for Clues as to What may be Ahead

If we look at a graph of historical world oil production, we see a somewhat bumpy production pattern with two major price spikes (in 2009 $)–one peaking in 1981 and one peaking in 2008.

Figure 1. World oil (crude and condensate) average daily production and refiners average acquisition cost in 2009 $, both based on EIA data. 2010 is partial year through September 30.

The first spike in prices occurred when Persian Gulf production dropped starting in 1980, so seems to be oil supply related. The second spike occurred when world oil production would not rise above a bumpy plateau, despite rising demand, in the 2005 to 2008 period.

In this post, I will show some breakdowns that I think give a little insight into our current situation. Continue reading