Easily overlooked issues regarding COVID-19

We read a lot in the news about the new Wuhan coronavirus and the illness it causes (COVID-19), but some important points often get left out.

[1] COVID-19 is incredibly contagious.

COVID-19 transmits extremely easily from person to person. Interpersonal contact doesn’t need to be very long; a taxi driver can get the virus from a passenger, for example. The virus may be transmissible even before an infected person develops symptoms. It may also be transmissible for a few days after a person seems to be over the virus; it is possible to get positive virus tests, even after symptoms disappear. Some people may have the disease, but never show symptoms.

[2] The virus likely remains active on inanimate surfaces such as paper, plastic, or metal for many days.

There haven’t been tests on the COVID-19 virus per se, but studies on similar viruses suggest that human pathogens may remain infectious for up to eight days. Some viruses that only infect animals can survive for more than 28 days. China is reported to be destroying paper currency from the hardest hit area, because people do not want to accept money which may have viruses on it. Clearly, surfaces in airplanes, trains and buses may also harbor viruses, long after a passenger with the virus has left, unless they have been thoroughly wiped down with disinfectant. Continue reading

Our Energy and Debt Predicament in 2019

Many people are concerned that we have an oil problem. Or they are concerned about recession and the need to lower interest rates.

As I see the situation, we have a problem of a networked economy that is not functioning well. A big part of this problem is energy-related. Strange as it may seem, energy prices (including oil prices) are too low for producers. If debt levels were growing more rapidly, this low-price problem would go away.

The “standard way” of encouraging more debt-based purchases is by lowering interest rates. But we are running out of room to do this now. We also seem to be running out of economic investments to make with debt. If expected returns on investment were greater, interest rates would be higher.

Without economic investments, demand for commodities of all kinds, including energy products, tends to stay too low. This is the problem we have today. Our debt problem and our energy problem are really different aspects of a networked economy that is no longer generating enough total return. History suggests that these periods tend to end badly.

In the following sections, I will explain some of the issues involved.

[1] Our problem is not just that oil prices are too low. Prices are too low for practically every type of energy producer, and in many parts of the globe.

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2019: World Economy Is Reaching Growth Limits; Expect Low Oil Prices, Financial Turbulence

Financial markets have been behaving in a very turbulent manner in the last couple of months. The issue, as I see it, is that the world economy is gradually changing from a growth mode to a mode of shrinkage. This is something like a ship changing course, from going in one direction to going in reverse. The system acts as if the brakes are being very forcefully applied, and reaction of the economy is to almost shake.

What seems to be happening is that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as predicted in the computer simulations modeled in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth. In fact, the base model of that set of simulations indicated that peak industrial output per capita might be reached right about now. Peak food per capita might be reached about the same time. I have added a dotted line to the forecast from this model, indicating where the economy seems to be in 2019, relative to the base model.1

Figure 1. Base scenario from The Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil with dotted line at 2019 added by author. The 2019 line is drawn based on where the world economy seems to be now, rather than on precisely where the base model would put the year 2019.

The economy is a self-organizing structure that operates under the laws of physics. Many people have thought that when the world economy reaches limits, the limits would be of the form of high prices and “running out” of oil. This represents an overly simple understanding of how the system works. What we should really expect, and in fact, what we are now beginning to see, is production cuts in finished goods made by the industrial system, such as cell phones and automobiles, because of affordability issues. Indirectly, these affordability issues lead to low commodity prices and low profitability for commodity producers. For example:

  • The sale of Chinese private passenger vehicles for the year of 2018 through November is down by 2.8%, with November sales off by 16.1%. Most analysts are forecasting this trend of contracting sales to continue into 2019. Lower sales seem to reflect affordability issues.
  • Saudi Arabia plans to cut oil production by 800,000 barrels per day from the November 2018 level, to try to raise oil prices. Profits are too low at current prices.
  • Coal is reported not to have an economic future in Australia, partly because of competition from subsidized renewables and partly because China and India want to prop up the prices of coal from their own coal mines.

The Significance of Trump’s Tariffs Continue reading

An Updated Version of the “Peak Oil” Story

The Peak Oil story got some things right. Back in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère wrote an article published in Scientific American called, “The End of Cheap Oil.” In it they said:

Our analysis of the discovery and production of oil fields around the world suggests that within the next decade, the supply of conventional oil will be unable to keep up with demand.

There is no single definition for conventional oil. According to one view, conventional oil is oil that can be extracted by conventional methods. Another holds it to be oil that can be extracted inexpensively. Other authors list specific types of oil that require specialized techniques, such as very heavy oil and oil from shale formations, that are considered unconventional.

Figure 1 shows the growth in unconventional oil supply for three parts of the world:

  1. Oil from shale formations in the US.
  2. Oil from the Oil Sands in Canada.
  3. Oil characterized as unconventional in China, in a recent academic paper of which I was a co-author. (Temporarily available for free here.)
Figure 1. Approximate unconventional oil production in the United States, Canada, and China. US amounts estimated from EIA data; Canadian amounts from CAPP.

Figure 1. Approximate unconventional oil production in the United States, Canada, and China. US amounts estimated from EIA data; Canadian amounts from CAPP. Oil prices are yearly average Brent oil prices in $2015, from BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Oil prices in 1998, which is when the above quote was written, were very low, averaging $12.72 per barrel in money of the day–equivalent to $18.49 per barrel in 2015 dollars. From the view of the authors, even today’s oil prices in the low $40s per barrel would be quite high. Since the above chart shows only yearly average prices, it doesn’t really show how high prices rose in 2008, or how low they fell that same year. But even when oil prices fell very low in December 2008, they remained well above $18.49 per barrel.

Clearly, if oil prices briefly exceeded six times 1998 prices in 2008, and remained in the range of six times 1998 prices in the 2011 to 2013 period, companies had an incentive to use techniques that were much higher-cost than those used in the 1998 time-period. If we subtract from total crude oil production only the production of the three types of unconventional oil shown in Figure 1, we find that a bumpy plateau of conventional oil started in 2005. In fact, conventional oil production in 2005 is slightly higher than the later values.

Figure 2. World conventional crude oil production, if our definition of unconventional is defined as in Figure 1.

Figure 2. World conventional crude oil production, if our definition of unconventional is defined as in Figure 1.

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Why oil under $30 per barrel is a major problem

A person often reads that low oil prices–for example, $30 per barrel oil prices–will stimulate the economy, and the economy will soon bounce back. What is wrong with this story? A lot of things, as I see it:

1. Oil producers can’t really produce oil for $30 per barrel.

A few countries can get oil out of the ground for $30 per barrel. Figure 1 gives an approximation to technical extraction costs for various countries. Even on this basis, there aren’t many countries extracting oil for under $30 per barrel–only Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. We wouldn’t have much crude oil if only these countries produced oil.

Figure 1. Global Breakeven prices (considering only technical extraction costs) versus production. Source:Alliance Bernstein, October 2014

Figure 1. Global breakeven prices (considering only technical extraction costs) versus production. Source: Alliance Bernstein, October 2014

2. Oil producers really need prices that are higher than the technical extraction costs shown in Figure 1, making the situation even worse.

Oil can only be extracted within a broader system. Companies need to pay taxes. These can be very high. Including these costs has historically brought total costs for many OPEC countries to over $100 per barrel.

Independent oil companies in non-OPEC countries also have costs other than technical extraction costs, including taxes and dividends to stockholders. Also, if companies are to avoid borrowing a huge amount of money, they need to have higher prices than simply the technical extraction costs. If they need to borrow, interest costs need to be considered as well.

3. When oil prices drop very low, producers generally don’t stop producing.

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