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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2016: Oil Limits and the End of the Debt Supercycle

What is ahead for 2016? Most people don’t realize how tightly the following are linked:

  1. Growth in debt
  2. Growth in the economy
  3. Growth in cheap-to-extract energy supplies
  4. Inflation in the cost of producing commodities
  5. Growth in asset prices, such as the price of shares of stock and of farmland
  6. Growth in wages of non-elite workers
  7. Population growth

It looks to me as though this linkage is about to cause a very substantial disruption to the economy, as oil limits, as well as other energy limits, cause a rapid shift from the benevolent version of the economic supercycle to the portion of the economic supercycle reflecting contraction. Many people have talked about Peak Oil, the Limits to Growth, and the Debt Supercycle without realizing that the underlying problem is really the same–the fact the we are reaching the limits of a finite world.

There are actually a number of different kinds of limits to a finite world, all leading toward the rising cost of commodity production. I will discuss these in more detail later. In the past, the contraction phase of the supercycle seems to have been caused primarily by too high population relative to resources. This time, depleting fossil fuels–particularly oil–plays a major role. Other limits contributing to the end of the current debt supercycle include rising pollution and depletion of resources other than fossil fuels.

The problem of reaching limits in a finite world manifests itself in an unexpected way: slowing wage growth for non-elite workers. Lower wages mean that these workers become less able to afford the output of the system. These problems first lead to commodity oversupply and very low commodity prices. Eventually these problems lead to falling asset prices and widespread debt defaults. These problems are the opposite of what many expect, namely oil shortages and high prices. This strange situation exists because the economy is a networked system. Feedback loops in a networked system don’t necessarily work in the way people expect.

I expect that the particular problem we are likely to reach in 2016 is limits to oil storage. This may happen at different times for crude oil and the various types of refined products. As storage fills, prices can be expected to drop to a very low level–less than $10 per barrel for crude oil, and correspondingly low prices for the various types of oil products, such as gasoline, diesel, and asphalt. We can then expect to face a problem with debt defaults, failing banks, and failing governments (especially of oil exporters). Continue reading