Why “supply and demand” doesn’t work for oil

The traditional understanding of supply and demand works in some limited cases–will a manufacturer make red dresses or blue dresses? The manufacturer’s choice doesn’t make much difference to the economic system as a whole, except perhaps in the amount of red and blue dye sold, so it is easy to accommodate.

Figure 1. From Wikipedia: The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

Figure 1. From Wikipedia: The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

A gradual switch in consumer preferences from beef to chicken is also fairly easy to accommodate within the system, as more chicken producers are added and the number of beef producers is reduced. The transition is generally helped by the fact that it takes fewer resources to produce a pound of chicken meat than a pound of beef, so that the spendable income of consumers tends to go farther. Thus, while supply and demand are not independent in this example, a rising percentage of chicken consumption tends to be helpful in increasing the “quantity demanded,” because chicken is more affordable than beef. The lack of independence between supply and demand is in the “helpful” direction. It would be different if chicken were a lot more expensive to produce than beef. Then the quantity demanded would tend to decrease as the shift was increasingly made, putting a fairly quick end to the transition to the higher-priced substitute.

A gradual switch to higher-cost energy products, in a sense, works in the opposite direction to a switch from beef to chicken. Instead of taking fewer resources, it takes more resources, because we extracted the cheapest-to-extract energy products first. It takes more and more humans working in these industries to produce a given number of barrels of oil equivalent, or Btus of energy. The workers are becoming less efficient, but not because of any fault of their own. It is really the processes that are being used that are becoming less efficient–deeper wells, locations in the Arctic and other inhospitable climates, use of new procedures like hydraulic fracturing, use of chemicals for extraction that wouldn’t have been used in the past. The workers may be becoming more efficient at drilling one foot of pipe used for extraction; the problem is that so many more feet need to be drilled for extraction to take place. In addition, so many other steps need to take place that the overall process is becoming less efficient. The return on any kind of investment (human labor, US dollars of investment, steel invested, energy invested) is falling. Continue reading

Low Oil Prices: Why Worry?

Most people believe that low oil prices are good for the United States, since the discretionary income of consumers will rise. There is the added benefit that Peak Oil must be far off in the distance, since “Peak Oilers” talked about high oil prices. Thus, low oil prices are viewed as an all around benefit.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Peak Oil story we have been told is wrong. The collapse in oil production comes from oil prices that are too low, not too high. If oil prices or prices of other commodities are too low, production will slow and eventually stop. Growth in the world economy will slow, lowering inflation rates as well as economic growth rates. We encountered this kind of the problem in the 1930s. We seem to be headed in the same direction today. Figure 1, used by Janet Yellen in her September 24 speech, shows a slowing inflation rate for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), thanks to lower energy prices, lower relative import prices, and general “slack” in the economy.

Figure 1. Why has PCE Inflation fallen below 2%? from Janet Yellen speech, September 24, 2015.

Figure 1. “Why has PCE Inflation fallen below 2%?” from Janet Yellen speech, September 24, 2015.

What Janet Yellen is seeing in Figure 1, even though she does not recognize it, is evidence of a slowing world economy. The economy can no longer support energy prices as high as they have been, and they have gradually retreated. Currency relativities have also readjusted, leading to lower prices of imported goods for the United States. Both lower energy prices and lower prices of imported goods contribute to lower inflation rates.

Instead of reaching “Peak Oil” through the limit of high oil prices, we are reaching the opposite limit, sometimes called “Limits to Growth.” Limits to Growth describes the situation when an economy stops growing because the economy cannot handle high energy prices. In many ways, Limits to Growth with low oil prices is worse than Peak Oil with high oil prices. Slowing economic growth leads to commodity prices that can never rebound by very much, or for very long. Thus, this economic malaise leads to a fairly fast cutback in commodity production. It can also lead to massive debt defaults.

Let’s look at some of the pieces of our current predicament.

Part 1. Getting oil prices to rise again to a high level, and stay there, is likely to be difficult. High oil prices tend to lead to economic contraction.  

Continue reading

Peak Oil Demand is Already a Huge Problem

We in the United States, the Euro-zone, and Japan are already past peak oil demand. Oil demand has to do with how much oil we can afford. Many of the developed nations are not able to outbid the developing nations when it comes to the world’s limited oil supply. A chart of oil consumption shows that oil consumption peaked for the combination of the United States, EU-27, and Japan in 2005 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world "all liquids" production amounts.

Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world “all liquids” production amounts.

We can see an even more pronounced version of this pattern if we look at the oil consumption of the five countries known as the PIIGS in Europe: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain. All of these countries have had serious declines in oil consumption in recent years, as high oil prices have impeded their economies.

Figure 2. Oil consumption for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, based on EIA data.

Figure 2. Oil consumption for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, based on EIA data.

Oil consumption for the PIIGS in total hit its highest level in 2004, before the decline began. Peak oil consumption by country varied a bit: Portugal, 2002; Italy, declining since 1995; Ireland, peak in 2007; Spain, peak in 2007; Greece, peak in 2006. Continue reading

Will the decline in world oil supply be fast or slow?

I wrote a post last week called Steep oil decline or slow oil decline? Since writing it, I had some additional thoughts on the subject, on reasons to expect a steep decline rather than a slow decline.

Furthermore, my article What’s behind United States budget problems? got me to thinking about the reasons for declining employment. In this post, I also try to explain the connection between declining EROEI , declining demand for oil, and lower employment. I explain why free trade with China and India tends to make the employment problem worse and increase global CO2 emissions. It also increases the chance of collapse in the developed world. Continue reading

This Week’s ‘This Week In Petroleum’ and Record Demand for Oil

This is a post by Dave Summers (also known as “Heading Out”). It was previously posted at Bit Tooth Energy.

The EIA released their “This Week in Petroleum” report on Wednesday, December 8, with a graph of American demand over the past year plotted by month. I had not seen the data presented that way before, and since you may not have, either, here it is:

Change in overall petroleum demand in the USA. This figure, and all others in this post, are from EIA’s This Week in Petroleum.

US demand has been growing rapidly. According to the EIA:

U.S. year-over-year growth of almost 750,000 to over 900,000 barrels per day in August and September is of an order approaching, or even exceeding, growth levels seen in China.

Continue reading