Why peak oil signals the world's end, or at least the one we know
By Joel Guglietta
While global financial markets are still levitating somewhere between the stratosphere and the Kingdom of Asgard, by 60°24′31″ North and 172°43′12″ West, in the middle of nowhere, an isolated island of 137.857 sq-mi holds the key of three major economic developments and risks:
- November 2013, Lawrence Summers raised the question whether the “secular stagnation” and the impossibility for the US and other major economies to grow without the help of recurring bubbles was not doomed to become the “new normal”.
- March 2014, the Conference Board released a study (figure 1) showing the falling trend in global total factor productivity, i.e. in the share of output not explained by the “accumulation of factors” (more on this economic jargon below).
- March 2014 again, the NASA published a research paper answering to “widespread concerns that current trends in resource-used are unsustainable, but possibilities of overshoot/collapse remain controversial”. This study tells us that, based on a well-known prey-predator model to which they add “wealth and economic inequality”, a total collapse is “very difficult to avoid” (figure 2).
Source: The Conference Board, January 2014
Source: NASA, 2014
1. - The tragic fate of the fat caribou, or why we have to fear the reindeer of St Matthew more than the wolves of Wall-Street
During World War II, the US Coast Guard decided to install long range aids to navigation in St Matthew Island, a remote rock in the Bering Sea in Alaska, and to stock emergency food source there. In August the same year, they released 29 reindeer (known as caribou in North America) on the island as a backup food source for the 19 men stationed there. As World War II drew to an end, the Coast Guard left the island and, by the same token, the population of reindeer growing unchecked as their only predators, the 19 men on duty there, were sent back home. It followed a dramatic boom & burst of population dynamics (figure 1). From 1944 to 1966 the number of these herbivores, which did not have to worry anymore about any predator and ate all the available lichen, increased from 29 to 6,000. In 1957, their body weight was found to exceed that of reindeer in domestic herds by 24.5 percent among females and 46.6 percent among males. Then, the following winter, as they faced a limited food supply to sustain their number and their massive body weight, they underwent a crash die-off, the population falling from 6,000 to 42 (figure 3).
There is a lot of food for thought in this story. First, as the NASA study suggests, when one species (for example the top 1 oercent living in the Galapogos, another rock ,as I put it in a paper issued last year “Why Kings of Galapagos are long equity under (mild) Mugabenomics?”) thrive to the abject detriment of another one (the lichen, or the “bottom” 99%), bad things eventually happen.
Source: The Conference Board, TED, January 2014
Second, and more generally, the point of this story boils down to the mundane fact that resources are everything, and when they vanish, the transition from a given state to another one, namely from unchecked growth and exuberance to complete obliteration, is dramatic most often than not. This holds all the more true for the key resource, i.e. oil, which brings us to the second chapter of our tale.
2. - The peak-oil: a conspiracy theory or a mandatory mathematical truism?
Most of the discussions on oil hover around the question of “reserves”. I am going here to state the obvious but the key argument to keep in mind is that these reserves are meant for one and only purpose: oil production. ….woooh!, that’s new, next please! Okay, but bear with me. Till someone proves me I am wrong, I assume that the volume of Earth is finite, so that oil reserves are finite. Now, for a given stock of non-renewable resource, all production functions obey to the same law: they start from zero, grow to a maximum and decline to zero in a “bell-shape” way (figure 4). Now, the area under this curve is called the integral of the production function and it is strictly equal to the oil reserves. Because oil reserves are finite, the integral is necessarily convergent and because they are non-renewable the production function (the derivative function of the oil reserve) cannot have another form than a bell shape. You can stretch it, you can squeeze it, but the general form is this one and not any other. This is mathematical certainty like 2+2=4. The peak-oil is a mandatory mathematical truism, not a “conspiracy theory”.
Obviously, the key question is: the “peak-oil”, is it for now?
Well, running the risk of stating one obvious thing after another, I assume that we all agree that a compulsory task to perform before extracting oil from the ground is to find it. This has profound implications as this makes us certain that a peak is mandatory given the resource potential of the oil field. It also tells us that the higher the proven reserves and the bigger they are with respect to production, the closer the peak of oil production (remember: the integral is the area under the production curve). If I take the example of the United-States, as evidenced by King Hubbert, there is a 35-year lag between discovery and production (figure 5). If evidence proves Hubert peak was a bit bad on timing, possible production curves, based on the world ultimate reserves. i.e. total extractable petroleum, suggest that the peak is now.
Source: Laherrere, 2003
This is old story and, as the world still goes around, one could dismiss all this analysis. However, what is new is that business conditions are becoming more challenging for the oil majors as figure 7 suggests. Indeed since 2009, the capital expenditures of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron have increased by 39-89 percent while their production has stalled. This is the balance-sheet-based proof that the peak-oil is happening now.
Source: Wall Street Journal
Now, the last point on the peak-oil, and this is key to understand the third and last chapter of our tale. We have to keep in mind that when we hear that we still have for 20 or 30 years of oil ahead of us it does not mean that we live the “good life” for the next 2 to 3 decades with constant consumption and then, the year after, we fall straight to zero consumption in a crash die-off as our reindeer herd experienced. Actually, consumption will be following the bell-shaped production function, it will be a slow death, and in the meanwhile, as the oil majors experience, the massive rise of capital expenditure will be weighting on the marginal energy return of energy. Indeed, according to Kopits, total upstream industry spendind since 2005 has been USD 4 trillion (about USD 2.5 trillion spent on legacy crude oil production), and legacy oil production has declined by 1 mmb/d since 2005. By comparison, between 1998 and 2005 the industry spent USD 1.5 trillion on upstream development and added 8.6 mmb/d to total crude production. This declining energy return in energy production, which is nothing but the by-product of declining/exhausting oil reserves and the very fact we are experiencing the peak-oil, drives the whole economy down.
Indeed, though we live in the age of the “information technology” it is worthwhile to remember that the information society is an energy ogre (not mentioning the globalisation mantra which gives a central role to the transport industry which consumes two-third of total oil). For example, according to ASU engineer Eric Williams 227 to 270 kilograms (or 500 to 594 pounds) of carbon dioxide are emitted in manufacturing a laptop computer. Mark Mills , the CEO of the Digital Power Group, teaches us that a medium-size refrigerator will use about 322 kW-h a year whereas the average iPhone uses about 361 kW-h a year once the wireless connections, data usage and battery charging are tallied up.
3. - There is something deeply wrong about macro-economic theory
So how all this relates to the “secular stagnation” scenario and all the fall in total factor productivity. Well, this is where things get a little bit technical and where our tale comes (finally!) to an end.
Most economists are big fan of more or less complex equations designed to explain everything in a highly stylised fashion. In this quest, in order to explain the origin of economic growth, they use the so-called Cobb-Douglas production function which states that GDP (Y) is a function of technology (A), capital (K) and labour (L). More precisely, the Holy Grail equation takes this form: Y = A * Ka * Lb, with “a” and “b” the elasticity of production to capital and labour. Total factor productivity is for instance derived from this equation.
Now, as the purpose of this equation is to explain the origin of economic growth, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the Neanderthals. While we are planning to go in the wild to bring back some proteins to the tribe, we look around us. We do find sturdy arms, sturdy legs and few well-functioning brains. In a word, we find “labour”. Do we find “capital”? A broad and outstanding No! However, as the time goes by, our species is evolving. We will find primal energy in the form of fire, and then, at a very latter stage fossil energy and we will understand how to use it. “Capital” will appear at a much latter stage based on accumulated labour (whatever it is “inspiration”, aka knowledge, or “transpiration”, aka sweat and hard work) and the use of energy around us.
The point is very simple: the central equation explaining economic growth is plain wrong and we need to transform it in order to make capital an inner feedback loop to the system as it is mentioned in the Report to the Club of Rome (2003) or suggested by Jean-Marc Jancovici . How to do this?
Well in order to make things simple, let’s assume that returns to scale are constant (if I multiply resources by 2, output will be increased by 2, which fares as a reasonable assumption) so that we get b = 1-a, and therefore Y = A * Ka * L1-a. Now, let’s make the capital K dependent on energy (E) and labor (L) (or accumulated labor, (integral of L), so that K = c * E * L (with “c” a constant and simply labour which does not change the qualitative properties of the model). Our equation becomes: Y = A * ba * Ea * L.
Add to this new equation a reasonable assumption about the dynamics of labour (I assume a logistic function for the dynamics of the population with a sharp increase followed by an asymptotic rise) and the knowledge we have gained over the shape of the oil production function and thus of the dynamics of how available reserves evolve, we can build a toy-model and easily simulate the path of the economy (figure 8) on an oil(energy)-dependent computer. This toy-model clearly shows how sensitive an economy can be to the downward shift in oil-production during and after the peak-oil.
Do not get me wrong here. I do not believe that the Stone Age ended because we were short of stones. My point comes down to say that we are smack in the middle of an energetic transition, that this transition has a much more profound current negative effect that many can believe and that the world as we know is coming to an end, evolving towards “something else”. The hope here is that, flawed economic models, lack of political will to manage this energetic transition or ideological foolishness from the Talibans of the “all-green” regarding the nuclear energy as “evil”, will not drive us toward the tragic fate of the reindeer herd of St Matthew Island and other unfortunate raging bulls (figure 9). Indeed, the NASA research suggests that high wealth inequality is sufficient to create a total collapse. Add inequality regarding access to energy, water and food (agriculture is oil-dependent too) on the top of that, and we have a Mad-Max-Moment ahead of us. In this state of urgency, do we attend a rise in global capex in renewable energy that could make us more optimistic? Well, unfortunately not. Global investment in renewable energy fell 11 percent in 2013 to USD 254 billion according to Bloomberg New energy Finance. This is the second decline in renewable investments since 2001. So, yes the crash die-off of our fat caribous is unfortunately still a scenario.
Source: Joel Guglietta
Joel Guglietta is Managing Director of OCTIS Asset Management in Singapore