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Oil Glut: IT’S THE DEMAND, STUPID!

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on March 5, 2017

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I ran across a chart on Bloomberg which is perhaps the best demonstration to date that the Oil Economy is in Full On Collapse mode now.  The chart is of Oil Inventory in storage, and covers the last 35 years since 1982 of Oil Inventory in the FSoA, and is the Header Pic for this article.

Do you note the Hockey Stick nature of this graph?  For 35 years until 2014, Oil Inventories were kept within a very narrow range.  Supply & Demand were kept in balance by the folks in control of both the extraction of Oil and the production of money.  A more or less steady "growth" rate of the entire system was maintained, as oil output and population increased, the money supply increased in tandem with it, a couple of percentage points ahead which provided return on investment for those in charge of creating the money in the first place.  For everyone else, this appeared as Inflation as the cost of housing, food and just about everything else besides techological gizmos kept spiralling upward.

However, even through all the recessions through the 1980s to today, Oil Inventories always stayed inside this narrow range.  That includes the Great Recession following the 2008 Financial Crisis.  Something CHANGED in 2014 though, and my good friend Steve Ludlum of Economic Undertow pegged it to the month more than 2 years in advance with his "Triangle of Doom".  What changed at this time was that the cost of extracting oil went higher than the price the customers could afford to burn it at.  The price crashed, from over $100/bbl down to $40/bbl or so.

Charts by Steve Ludlum of Economic Undertow

August 2012 Prediction

April 2015 Reality

At this price, virtually nobody extracting oil makes a profit.  A few folks like the Saudis still have Legacy fields they can extract oil at a profit at $20/bbl, but across the whole of Saudi ARAMCO their costs are a good deal higher than that.  Here in Amerika, the Frackers may have got their extraction costs down to $60/bbl in some of their better fields, but they're still not making a profit at $50/bbl.  Just not bleeding money quite so fast,and if they are TBTF, then Wall Street keeps rolling over their loans to keep them floating another day.  This is better in the short term than having to write down $Billions$ in losses, which then would make the bank itself insolvent.

So what has occured here in the Oil Trading market since 2014?  Well, Oil Traders keep holding back selling until they can make a profit.  But in the $50 range they mostly can't, so the oil stays in a tank somewhere while they wait for the price to go back up, but it doesn't.  Meanwhile, the Extractors of Oil all around the world keep extracting, because they have to do that to pay their bills.  Crude keeps piling up because Konsumers refuse to burn the shit fast enough, because they can't AFFORD to burn it faster!

Until they lower the price DRASTICALLY, the glut will continue to accumulate.  Eventually here, they will run OUT of tanks to store this shit in, and it does cost money every day to keep the Oil you bought at one price stored in a tank somewhere to sell on another later date at the higher price you hope for.  NOBODY wants to "buy high, sell low"!  That's a recipe for Bankruptcy of course.  So they keep the oil in the tanks, and they keep filling up more and more.

http://mothership.sg/wp-content/uploads/bfi_thumb/singapore-oil-tankers-31i6wvxb4bmus6w8k6y496.jpg

Oil Tanker Parking Lot off Singapore

Inevitably, a LIQUIDATION SALE has to come here.  There is not endless room for storage of this stuff above ground, and besides that it's expensive to store all that oil. Whoever owns it is bleeding red ink as long as they hold onto it.

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/Jl31yVfJqW8/maxresdefault.jpg

Now, whenever you read any of the Oil pundits, they will tell you the reason for the glut is either OPEC members cheating on their quotas, Iranians bringing more Oil online or FSoA shale frackers drilling more wells.  But is the total global production really up all that much?  No, in fact it's been going down since it peaked in August of 2015.  So if it's not the supply going up, why the glut?

IT'S THE DEMAND, STUPID!

Because they massage the figures everywhere else in the economy to show "growth" and nobody wants to admit being in a recession, Oil inventory keeps growing.  This figure you can't massage (well not too much), because the stuff is a physical quantity that has to be stored in…something.  So they have to know where they are going to put it.

Oil is a Global Commodity, in which the FSoA is among the largest consumers but it's not the only consumer.  Europe as a whole consumes a lot, China consumes a lot also.  All the consumption is not Happy Motoring either, a lot of it is industrial consumption.  Globally in aggregate, if the economy was truly growing we would be consuming more Oil, not less.

Sometimes when I make the Demand Argument with respect to both the price and the glut, critics will tell me, "But RE, the traffic is just as bad as ever and everybody in my neighborhood is still driving gas guzzling SUVs!".  Well, that may be true in your neighborhood, but in somebody's neighborhood somewhere it's definitely NOT true.

My best guess is most of the reduction in demand is coming from southern Europe, where they have been in severe recession for years now.  This is probably also bleeding into the Chinese manufacturing sector with declining demand for their toys.  So then they use less Oil in the manufacturing process.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-NvN1KaOxdJ4/UuGKXYTpM1I/AAAAAAAAKB8/j009d-0L_2c/s1600/Italy_Oil_Gas.png

With a declining amount of total production, along with a Hockey Stick graph of skyrocketing inventory, the only answer can be declining global demand for Oil.  In order to get the demand up, they have to drop the price down.  But they're already losing money at the current price in the $50 range.  So the traders keep hanging on for the day the demand will magically rebound here and the consumers will step back up to the pump and pay the prices they need to make a profit.  There is however no reason at the moment to believe that the consumers will magically get more money to pay more for the oil, they already have trouble paying for it at the price it is selling for now.

http://www.artberman.com/wp-content/uploads/Chart_World-Con-Uncon-1.jpg

Unlike the magical world of Money where you can conjure as many digibits as you want out of thin air and which takes virtually no room to store inside a laptop, Oil is a physical commodity which must be burned to have value.  If it's not burned as fast as it is pumped, then it's going to lose value.  The traders don't want to recognize the loss of value though, because they will take a serious bath.  A bloodbath.  They don't have to take the write down though until they actually sell the stuff.  So they don't sell, they keep it stored on a tanker somewhere and pay the daily storage fees out of more borrowed money, which the banks keep lending them because they will go tits up when the traders they lent money to go tits up. No matter how much money they lend to keep storing the Oil though, eventually they're going to run out of room.  Then EVERYBODY will HAVE to stop pumping Oil until they work through the glut.  Given there is double the normal inventory, this could take a little while.  Can any Oil Producing nation go even a week without the revenue from their Oil?

This condition of extreme glut has to break, and the only way to break it is a major reduction in the price.  When that comes, there will be carnage all across the energy and banking industries.  I don't know how long before the last storage tank and VLCC tanker will be full up, but I can't imagine it is too far off.  The End Game Approaches.

http://archive.globalgamejam.org/sites/default/files/uploads/2011/9387/The%20End%20Game.png?1296396579

Why Demand is Collapsing for Everything

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Published on Our Finite World on May 6, 2015

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Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called, Glut of Capital and Labor Challenge Policy Makers: Global oversupply extends beyond commodities, elevating deflation risk. To me, this is a very serious issue, quite likely signaling that we are reaching what has been called Limits to Growth, a situation modeled in 1972 in a book by that name.

What happens is that economic growth eventually runs into limits. Many people have assumed that these limits would be marked by high prices and excessive demand for goods. In my view, the issue is precisely the opposite one: Limits to growth are instead marked by low prices and inadequate demand. Common workers can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that the economy produces, because of inadequate wage growth. The price of all commodities drops, because of lower demand by workers. Furthermore, investors can no longer find investments that provide an adequate return on capital, because prices for finished goods are pulled down by the low demand of workers with inadequate wages.

Evidence Regarding the Connection Between Energy Consumption and GDP Growth

We can see the close connection between world energy consumption and world GDP using historical data.

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

 

 

 

 

This chart gives a clue regarding what is wrong with the economy. The slope of the line implies that adding one percentage point of growth in energy usage tends to add less and less GDP growth over time, as I have shown in Figure 2. This means that if we want to have, for example, a constant 4% growth in world GDP for the period 1969 to 2013, we would need to gradually increase the rate of growth in energy consumption from about 1.8% = (4.0% – 2.2%) growth in energy consumption in 1969 to 2.8% = (4.0% – 1.2%) growth in energy consumption in 2013. This need for more and more growth in energy use to produce the same amount of economic growth is taking place despite all of our efforts toward efficiency, and despite all of our efforts toward becoming more of a “service” economy, using less energy products!

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

 

 

 

 

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

 

 

 

 

To make matters worse, growth in world energy supply is generally trending downward as well. (This is not just oil supply whose growth is trending downward; this is oil plus everything else, including “renewables”.)

Figure 3. Three year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Three-year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

 

 

 

 

There would be no problem, if economic growth were something that we could simply walk away from with no harmful consequences. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there are only two options–win or lose. We can win in our contest against other species (especially microbes), or we can lose. Winning looks like economic growth; losing looks like financial collapse with huge loss of human population, perhaps to epidemics, because we cannot maintain our current economic system.

The symptoms of losing the game are the symptoms we are seeing today–low commodity prices (temporarily higher, but nowhere nearly high enough to maintain production), not enough good paying jobs for common workers, and lack of investment opportunities, because workers cannot afford the high prices of goods that would be required to provide adequate return on investment.

 

How We Have Won in Our Contest with Other Species–Early Efforts 

The “secret formula” humans have had for winning in our competition against other species has been the use of supplemental energy, adding to the energy we get from food. There is a physics reason why this approach works: total population by all species is limited by available energy supply. Providing our own external energy supply was (and still is) a great work-around for this limitation. Even in the days of hunter-gatherers, humans used three times as much energy as could be obtained through food alone (Figure 1).

Figure 1

 

 

 

 

Figure 4

 

 

 

 

Earliest supplementation of food energy came by burning sticks and other biomass, starting one million years ago. Using this approach, humans were able to gain an advantage over other species in several ways:

  1. We were able to cook some of our food. This made a wider range of plants and animals suitable for food and made the nutrients from these foods more easily available to our bodies.
  2. Because less energy was needed for chewing and digesting, our bodies could put energy into growing a larger brain, thus giving us an advantage over other animals.
  3. The use of cooked food freed up time for such activities as hunting and making clothes, because less time was needed for chewing.
  4. Heat from burning plant material could be used to keep warm in cold areas, thereby extending our range and increasing total human population that could be supported.
  5. Fire could be used to chase off predatory animals and hunt prey animals.

Our bodies are now adapted to the need for supplemental energy. Our teeth our smaller, and our jaws and digestive apparatus have shrunk in size, as our brain has grown. The large population of humans that are alive today could not survive without supplemental energy for many purposes, such as cooking food, heating homes, and fighting illnesses that spread when humans are in as close proximity as they are today.

Our Modern Formula For Winning the Battle Against Other Species

In my view, the formula that has allowed humans to keep winning the battle against other species is the following:

  1. Use increasing amounts of inexpensive supplemental energy to leverage human energy so that finished goods and services produced per worker rises each year.
  2. Pay for this system with debt, because (if supplemental energy costs are cheap enough), it is possible to repay the debt, plus the interest on the debt, with the additional goods and services made possible by the cheap additional energy.
  3. This system gradually becomes more complex to deal with problems that come with rising population and growing use of resources. However, if the output of goods per worker is growing rapidly enough, it should be possible to pay for the costs associated with this increased complexity, in addition to interest costs.
  4. The whole system “works” as long as the total quantity of finished goods and services rises rapidly enough that it can fund all of the following: (a) a rising standard of living for common workers so that they can afford increasing amounts of debt to buy more goods, (b) debt repayment, and interest on the debt of the system, and (c) and an increasing amount of “overhead” in the form of government services, medical care, educational services, and salaries of high paid officials (in business as well as government). This overhead is needed to deal with the increasing complexity that comes with growth.

The formula for a growing economy is now failing. The rate of economic growth is falling, partly because energy supply is slowing (Figure 3), and partly because we need more and more growth of energy supply to produce a given amount of economic growth (Figure 2). With this lowered world economic growth, the amount of goods and services being produced is not rising fast enough to support all of the functions that it needs to cover: interest payments, growing wages of common workers, and growing “overhead” of a more complex society.

Some Reasons the Economic Growth Cycle is Now Failing

Let’s look at a few areas where we are reaching obstacles to this continued growth in final goods and services. An overarching problem is diminishing returns, which is reflected in increasingly higher prices of production.

1. Energy supplies are becoming more expensive to extract.

We extract the easiest to extract energy supplies first, and as these deplete, need to use the more expensive to extract energy supplies. We hear much about “growing efficiency” but, in fact, we are becoming less efficient in the production of energy supplies.

In the US, EIA data shows that we are becoming less efficient at coal production, in terms of coal production per worker hour (Figure 5).

Figure 5. US coal production per worker, on a Btu basis based on EIA data.

 

 

 

 

Figure 5. US coal production per worker, on a Btu basis based on EIA data.

 

 

 

 

With oil, growing inefficiency is shown by the steeply rising cost of oil exploration and production since 1999 (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing trends in world oil exploration and production costs per barrel.

 

 

 

 

Figure 6. Figure by Steve Kopits of Douglas-Westwood showing trends in world oil exploration and production costs per barrel.

 

 

 

 

Thus, it is for a fairly recent period, namely the period since about 2000, that we have been encountering rising costs both for US coal and for worldwide oil extraction.

The extra workers and extra costs required for producing the same amount of energy  counteract the tendency toward growth in the rest of the economy. This occurs because the rest of the economy must produce finished products with fewer workers and less resources as a result of the extra demands on these resources by the energy sector.

2. Other materials, besides energy products, are experiencing diminishing returns. 

Other resources, such as metals and other minerals and fresh water, are also becoming increasingly expensive to extract. The issue with mineral ores is similar to that with fossil fuels. We start with a fixed amount of ores in good locations and with high mineral percentages. As we move to less desirable ores, both human labor and more energy products are required, making the extraction process less efficient.

With fresh water, the issue is likely to be a need for desalination or long distance transport, to satisfy the needs of a growing population. Workarounds again involve more human labor and more resource use, making the production of fresh water less efficient.

In both of these cases, growing inefficiency leaves the rest of the economy with less human energy and less energy products to produce the finished goods and services that the economy needs.

3. Growing pollution is taking its toll.

Instead of just producing end products, we are increasingly finding ourselves fighting pollution. While this is a benefit to society, it really is only offsetting what would otherwise be a negative. Thus, it acts like overhead, rather than producing economic growth.

From the point of view of workers having to pay for higher cost energy in order to fight pollution (say, substitution of a higher cost energy source, or paying for more pollution controls), the additional cost acts like a tax. Workers need to cut back on other expenditures to afford the pollution control workarounds. The effect is thus recessionary.

4. The amount of “overhead” to the world economy has been growing rapidly in recent years, for a number of reasons: 

  • The amount of overhead is growing because we are reaching natural barriers. For example, population per acre of arable land is growing, so we need more intensity of development to produce food for a rising population.
  • With greater population density and increased bacterial antibiotic resistance, disease transmission becomes a more of a problem.
  • Increasing education is being encouraged, whether or not there are jobs available that will make use of that education. Education that cannot be used in a productive way to produce more goods and services can be considered overhead for the economy. Educational expenses are frequently financed by debt. Repayment of this debt leads to a decrease in demand for other goods, such as new homes and vehicles.
  • We have more elderly to whom we have promised benefits, because with the benefit of better nutrition and medical care, more people are living longer.

5. We are reaching debt limits.

As economic growth has slowed, we have been adding more and more debt, to try to mitigate the problem. This additional debt becomes a problem in many ways: (a) without cheap energy to leverage human labor, there are not many productive investments that can be made; (b) the addition of more debt leads to a need for more interest payments; and (c) at some point debt ratios become overwhelmingly high.

At least part of the slowdown in economic growth that we are seeing today is coming from a slowdown in the growth of debt. Without debt growth, it is hard to keep commodity prices high enough. Investment in new manufacturing plants is also affected by low growth in debt.

Reasons for Confusion in Understanding Our Current Predicament

1. Not understanding that all of the symptoms we are seeing today are manifestations of the same underlying “illness”. 

Most analysts think that the economy has stubbed its toe and has a headache, rather than recognizing that it has a serious underlying illness.

2. Academia is focused way too narrowly, and tied too closely to what has been written before. 

Academics, because of their need to write papers, focus on what previous papers have said. Unfortunately, previous papers have not understood the nature of our problem. Academics have developed models based on our situation when we were away from limits. The issues we are facing cover such diverse subjects as physics, geology, and finance. It is hard for academics to become knowledgeable in many areas at once.

3. Models that seemed to work before are no longer appropriate.

We take models like the familiar supply and demand model of economists and assume that they represent everlasting truths.

Figure 7. (Source 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 7. (Source 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.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, as we get close to limits, things change. Both wage levels and debt levels have an impact on demand; the quantity goods available is also affected by diminishing returns. The model that worked in the past may be totally inappropriate now.

Even a complex model like the climate change model being used by the IPCC is likely to be affected by financial limits. If near-term financial limits are to be expected, IPCC’s estimate of future carbon from fuels is likely to be too high. At a minimum, the findings of the IPCC need to be framed differently: climate change may be one of a number of problems facing those people who manage to survive a financial crash.

4. Too much wishful thinking.

Everyone would like to present a positive result, especially when grants are being given for academic research will support some favorable finding.

A favorite form of wishful thinking is believing that higher costs of energy products will not be a problem. Higher cost energy products, whether they are renewable or not, are a problem for many reasons:

  • They represent growing inefficiency in the economy. With growing inefficiency, we produce fewer finished goods and services per worker, not more.
  • Countries using more of the higher cost types of energy become less competitive in the world market, and because of this, may develop financial problems. The countries most affected by the Great Recession were countries using a high percentage of oil in their energy mix.
  • The amount workers have available to spend is limited. If a worker has $100 to spend on energy supply, he can buy 100 times as much in energy supplies priced at $1 as he can energy supplies priced at $100. This same principle works even if the cost difference is much lower–say $3.50 gallon vs. $3.00 gallon.

5. Too much faith in, “We pay each other’s wages.”

There is a common belief that growing inefficiency is OK; the wages we pay for unneeded education will work its way through the system as more wages for other workers.

Unfortunately, the real secret to economic growth is not paying each other’s wages; it is growing output of finished products per worker through increased use of cheap energy (and perhaps technology, to make this cheap energy useful).

Increased overhead for the system is not helpful.

6.  An “upside down” peak oil story.

Most people in the peak oil community believe what economists say about supply and demand–namely, that oil prices will rise if there is a supply problem. They have not realized that in a networked economy, wages and prices are tightly linked. The way limits apply is not necessarily the way we expect. Limits may come through a lack of good paying jobs, and because of this lack of jobs, inability to purchase products containing oil.

The connection between energy and jobs is clear. Good jobs require the use of energy, such as electricity and oil; lack of good-paying jobs is likely to be a manifestation of an inadequate supply of cheap energy. Also, high paying jobs are what allow rising buying power, and thus keep demand high. Thus, oil limits may appear as a demand problem, with low oil prices, rather than as a high oil price problem.

In my opinion, what we are seeing now is a manifestation of peak oil. It is just happening in an upside down way relative to what most were expecting.

Conclusion

One way of viewing our problem today is as a crisis of affordability. Young people cannot afford to start families or buy new homes because of a combination of the high cost of higher education (leading to debt), the high cost of fuel-efficient new cars (again leading to debt), the high cost of resale homes, and the relatively low wages paid to young workers. Even older workers often have an affordability problem. Many have found their wages stagnating or falling at the same time that the cost of healthcare, cars, electricity, and (until recently) oil rises. A recent Gallop Survey showed an increasing share of workers categorize themselves as “working class” rather than “middle class.”

It is this affordability crisis that is bringing the system down. Without adequate wages, the amount of debt that can be added to the system lags as well. It becomes impossible to keep prices of commodities up at a high enough level to encourage production of these commodities. Return on investment tends to be low for the same reason. Most researchers have not recognized these problems, because they are narrowly focused and assume that models that worked in the past will continue to work today.

 

 

 

 

Demand Destruction

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on February 26, 2015

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With this Rant, the Diner breaks through the 88,888 Listen Barrier on Diner Soundcloud!

To paraphrase Doc Brown, “When this Baby hits 88,888 Listens, you are going to see some SERIOUS SHIT! 😀

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Snippet:

http://i1.wp.com/helpfulcolin.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Bath-Tub-Overflow.png?resize=672%2C372…Given it is an Epic Fail to try to blame the Saudis for the price crash, the next place the economistas go is to our own Home Grown Frackers, and the idiots on Wall Street and at Da Fed who funded that White Elephant with gobs of cheap credit thrown at Junk Bonds any dimwit with a drilling rig was issuing out. Problem with that idea is that even with drilling rigs being shut in here and production plateauing, the fucking oil price is still dropping and the storage tanks for the stuff are filling up to overflow level. They aren’t producing much more of the stuff, they keep dropping the price, nevertheless the storage tanks keep filling up. This is some kind of big fucking MYSTERY to the economistas and prop desk traders.

The obvious answer here is that if there isn’t too much supply being dropped on here, then the problem has to be on the DEMAND end. As in, J6P simply is not BUYING the Oil in the same quantity at the same rate he was just 1 year ago. Steady Supply, Price Going Down, Inventory Going Up, you are left with only one variable in this bathtub problem, which is that the fucking DRAIN is STOPPED UP!

Now, why oh why would J6P all of a sudden STOP buying gas, even at the new Low Low prices every day of $2/Gallon?  Actually, it’s gone even below $2 in quite a few places. According to Da Goobermint, our Economy is recovering, the UE rate is like 7%, so WTF don’t these assholes start BUYING MORE GAS?

For the rest, LISTEN TO THE RANT!!!

Oil: $20 or $80?

Off the keyboard of Michael Snyder

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Published on The Economic Collapse on February 15, 2015

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Why The Price Of Oil Is More Likely To Fall To 20 Rather Than Rise To 80

This is just the beginning of the oil crisis.  Over the past couple of weeks, the price of U.S. oil has rallied back above 50 dollars a barrel.  In fact, as I write this, it is sitting at $52.93.  But this rally will not last.  In fact, analysts at the big banks are warning that we could soon see U.S. oil hit the $20 mark.  The reason for this is that the production of oil globally is still way above the current level of demand.  Things have gotten so bad that millions of barrels of oil are being stored at sea as companies wait for the price of oil to go back up.  But the price is not going to go back up any time soon.  Even though rigs are being shut down in the United States at the fastest pace since the last financial crisis, oil production continues to go up.  In fact, last week more oil was produced in the U.S. than at any time since the 1970s.  This is really bad news for the economy, because the price of oil is already at a catastrophically low level for the global financial system.  If the price of oil stays at this level for the rest of the year, we are going to see a whole bunch of energy companies fail, billions of dollars of debt issued by energy companies could go bad, and trillions of dollars of derivatives related to the energy industry could implode.  In other words, this is a recipe for a financial meltdown, and the longer the price of oil stays at this level (or lower), the more damage it is going to do.

The way things stand, there is simply just way too much oil sitting out there.  And anyone that has taken Economics 101 knows that when supply far exceeds demand, prices go down

Oil prices have gotten crushed for the last six months. The extent to which that was caused by an excess of supply or by a slowdown in demand has big implications for where prices will head next. People wishing for a big rebound may not want to read farther.

Goldman Sachs released an intriguing analysis on Wednesday that shows what many already suspected: The big culprit in the oil crash has been an abundance of oil flooding the market. A massive supply shock in the second half of last year accounted for most of the decline. In December and January, slowing demand contributed to the continued sell-off.

At this point so much oil has already been stored up that companies are running out of places to put in all.  Just consider the words of Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn

“I think the oil market is trying to figure out an equilibrium price. The danger here, as we try and find an equilibrium price, at some point we may end up in a situation where storage capacity gets very, very limited. We may have too much physical oil for the available storage in certain locations. And it may be a locational issue.”

“And you may just see lots of oil in certain locations around the world where oil will have to price to such a cheap discount vis-a-vis the forward price that you make second tier, and third tier and fourth tier storage available.”

[…] “You could see the price fall relatively quickly to make that storage work in the market.”

The market for oil has fundamentally changed, and that means that the price of oil is not going to go back to where it used to be.  In fact, Goldman Sachs economist Sven Jari Stehn says that we are probably heading for permanently lower prices

The big take-away: “[T]he decline in oil has been driven by an oversupplied global oil market,” wrote Goldman economist Sven Jari Stehn. As a result, “the new equilibrium price of oil will likely be much lower than over the past decade.”

So how low could prices ultimately go?

As I mentioned above, some analysts are throwing around $20 as a target number

The recent surge in oil prices is just a “head-fake,” and oil as cheap as $20 a barrel may soon be on the way, Citigroup said in a report on Monday as it lowered its forecast for crude.

Despite global declines in spending that have driven up oil prices in recent weeks, oil production in the U.S. is still rising, wrote Edward Morse, Citigroup’s global head of commodity research. Brazil and Russia are pumping oil at record levels, and Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran have been fighting to maintain their market share by cutting prices to Asia. The market is oversupplied, and storage tanks are topping out.

A pullback in production isn’t likely until the third quarter, Morse said. In the meantime, West Texas Intermediate Crude, which currently trades at around $52 a barrel, could fall to the $20 range “for a while,” according to the report.

Keep in mind that the price of oil is already low enough to be a total nightmare for the global financial system if it stays here for the rest of 2015.

If we go down to $20 and stay there, a global financial meltdown is virtually guaranteed.

Meanwhile, the “fracking boom” in the United States that generated so many jobs, so much investment and so much economic activity is now turning into a “fracking bust”

The fracking-for-oil boom started in 2005, collapsed by 60% during the Financial Crisis when money ran out, but got going in earnest after the Fed had begun spreading its newly created money around the land. From the trough in May 2009 to its peak in October 2014, rigs drilling for oil soared from 180 to 1,609: multiplied by a factor of 9 in five years! And oil production soared, to reach 9.2 million barrels a day in January.

It was a great run, but now it is over.

In the months ahead, the trickle of good paying oil industry jobs that are being lost right now is going to turn into a flood.

And this boom was funded with lots and lots of really cheap money from Wall Street.  I like how Wolf Richter described this in a recent article

That’s what real booms look like. They’re fed by limitless low-cost money – exuberant investors that buy the riskiest IPOs, junk bonds, leveraged loans, and CLOs usually indirectly without knowing it via their bond funds, stock funds, leveraged-loan funds, by being part of a public pension system that invests in private equity firms that invest in the boom…. You get the idea.

As all of this bad paper unwinds, a lot of people are going to lose an extraordinary amount of money.

Don’t get caught with your pants down.  You will want your money to be well away from the energy industry long before this thing collapses.

And of course in so many ways what we are facing right now if very reminiscent of 2008.  So many of the same patterns that have played out just prior to previous financial crashes are happening once again.  Right now, oil rigs are shutting down at a pace that is almost unprecedented.  The only time in recent memory that we have seen anything like this was just before the financial crisis in the fall of 2008.  Here is more from Wolf Richter

In the latest reporting week, drillers idled another 84 rigs, the second biggest weekly cut ever, after idling 83 and 94 rigs in the two prior weeks. Only 1056 rigs are still drilling for oil, down 443 for the seven reporting weeks so far this year and down 553 – or 34%! – from the peak in October.

Never before has the rig count plunged this fast this far:

Fracking Bust

What if the fracking bust, on a percentage basis, does what it did during the Financial Crisis when the oil rig count collapsed by 60% from peak to trough? It would take the rig count down to 642!

But even though rigs are shutting down like crazy, U.S. production of oil has continued to rise

Rig counts have long been used to help predict future oil and gas production. In the past week drillers idled 98 rigs, marking the 10th consecutive decline. The total U.S. rig count is down 30 percent since October, an unprecedented retreat. The theory goes that when oil rigs decline, fewer wells are drilled, less new oil is discovered, and oil production slows.

But production isn’t slowing yet. In fact, last week the U.S. pumped more crude than at any time since the 1970s. “The headline U.S. oil rig count offers little insight into the outlook for U.S. oil production growth,” Goldman Sachs analyst Damien Courvalin wrote in a Feb. 10 report.

Look, it should be obvious to anyone with even a basic knowledge of economics that the stage is being set for a massive financial meltdown.

This is just the kind of thing that can plunge us into a deflationary depression.  And when you combine this with the ongoing problems in Europe and in Asia, it is easy to see that a “perfect storm” is brewing on the horizon.

Sadly, a lot of people out there will choose not to believe until the day the crisis arrives.

By then, it will be too late to do anything about it.

Eight Pieces of Our Oil Price Predicament

Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

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Published on Our Finite World on October 22, 2014

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Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

A person might think that oil prices would be fairly stable. Prices would set themselves at a level that would be high enough for the majority of producers, so that in total producers would provide enough–but not too much–oil for the world economy. The prices would be fairly affordable for consumers. And economies around the world would grow robustly with these oil supplies, plus other energy supplies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way recently. Let me explain at least a few of the issues involved.

1. Oil prices are set by our networked economy.

As I have explained previously, we have a networked economy that is made up of businesses, governments, and consumers. It has grown up over time. It includes such things as laws and our international trade system. It continually re-optimizes itself, given the changing rules that we give it. In some ways, it is similar to the interconnected network that a person can build with a child’s toy.

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Thus, these oil prices are not something that individuals consciously set. Instead, oil prices reflect a balance between available supply and the amount purchasers can afford to pay, assuming such a balance actually exists. If such a balance doesn’t exist, the lack of such a balance has the possibility of tearing apart the system.

If the compromise oil price is too high for consumers, it will cause the economy to contract, leading to economic recession, because consumers will not be forced to cut back on discretionary expenditures in order to afford oil products. This will lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors. See my post Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem.

If the compromise price is too low for producers, a disproportionate share of oil producers will stop producing oil. This decline in production will not happen immediately; instead it will happen over a period of years. Without enough oil, many consumers will not be able to commute to work, businesses won’t be able to transport goods, farmers won’t be able to produce food, and governments won’t be able to repair roads. The danger is that some kind of discontinuity will occur–riots, overthrown governments, or even collapse.

2. We think of inadequate supply being the number one problem with oil, and at times it may be. But at other times inadequate demand (really “inadequate affordability”) may be the number one issue. 

Back in the 2005 to 2008 period, as oil prices were increasing rapidly, supply was the major issue. With higher prices came the possibility of higher supply.

As we are seeing now, low prices can be a problem too. Low prices come from lack of affordability. For example, if many young people are without jobs, we can expect that the number of cars bought by young people and the number of miles driven by young people will be down. If countries are entering into recession, the buying of oil is likely to be down, because fewer goods are being manufactured and fewer services are being rendered.

In many ways, low prices caused by un-affordability are more dangerous than high prices. Low prices can lead to collapses of oil exporters. The Soviet Union was an oil exporter that collapsed when oil prices were down. High prices for oil usually come with economic growth (at least initially). We associate many good things with economic growth–plentiful jobs, rising home prices, and solvent banks.

3. Too much oil in too short a time can be disruptive.

US oil supply (broadly defined, including ethanol, LNG, etc.) increased by 1.2 million barrels per day in 2013, and is forecast by the EIA to increase by close to 1.5 million barrels a day in 2014. If the issue at hand were short supply, this big increase would be welcomed. But worldwide, oil consumption is forecast to increase by only 700,000 barrels per day in 2014, according to the IEA.

Dumping more oil onto the world market that it needs is likely to contribute to falling prices. (It is the excess quantity that leads to lower world oil prices; the drop in price doesn’t say anything at all about the cost of production of oil the additional oil.) There is no sign of a recent US slowdown in production either.  Figure 2 shows a chart of crude oil production from the EIA website.

Figure 2. US weekly crude oil production through October 10, as graphed by the US Energy Information Administration.

Figure 2. US weekly crude oil production through October 10, as graphed by the US Energy Information Administration.

4. The balance between supply and demand is being affected by many issues, simultaneously. 

One big issue on the demand (or affordability) side of the balance is the question of whether the growth of the world economy is slowing. Long term, we would expect diminishing returns (and thus higher cost of oil extraction) to push the world economy toward slower economic growth, as it takes more resources to produce a barrel of oil, leaving fewer resources for other purposes. The effect is providing a long-term downward push on the price on demand, and thus on price.

In the short term, though, governments can make oil products more affordable by ramping up debt availability. Conversely, the lack of debt availability can be expected to bring prices down. The big drop in oil prices in 2008 (Figure 3) seems to be at least partly debt-related. See my article, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis. Oil prices were brought back up to a more normal level by ramping up debt–increased governmental debt in the US, increased debt of many kinds in China, and Quantitative Easing, starting for the US in November 2008.

Figure 3. Oil price based on EIA data with oval pointing out the drop in oil prices, with a drop in credit outstanding.

Figure 3. Oil price based on EIA data with oval pointing out the drop in oil prices, with a drop in credit outstanding.

In recent months, oil prices have been falling. This drop in oil prices seems to coincide with a number of cutbacks in debt. The recent drop in oil prices took place after the United States began scaling back its monthly buying of securities under Quantitative Easing. Also, China’s debt level seems to be slowing. Furthermore, the growth in the US budget deficit has also slowed. See my recent post, WSJ Gets it Wrong on “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True”.

Another issue affecting the demand side is changes in taxes and in subsidies. A change toward more taxes such as carbon taxes, or even more taxes in general, such as the Japan’s recent increase in sales tax, tends to reduce demand, and thus give a push toward lower world oil prices. (Of course, in the area with the carbon tax, the oil price with the tax is likely to be higher, but the oil price elsewhere around the world will tend to decrease to compensate.)

Many governments of emerging market countries give subsidies to oil products. As these subsidies are lessened (for example in India and in Brazil) the effect is to raise local prices, thus reducing local oil demand. The effect on world oil prices is to lower them slightly, because of the lower demand from the countries with the reduced subsidies.

The items mentioned above all relate to demand. There are several items that affect the supply side of the balance between supply and demand.

With respect to supply, we think first of the “normal” decline in oil supply that takes place as oil fields become exhausted. New fields can be brought on line, but usually at higher cost (because of diminishing returns). The higher cost of extraction gives a long-term upward push on prices, whether or not customers can afford these prices. This conflict between higher extraction costs and affordability is the fundamental conflict we face. It is also the reason that a lot of folks are expecting (erroneously, in my view) a long-term rise in oil prices.

Businesses of course see the decline in oil from existing fields, and add new production where they can. Examples include United States shale operations, Canadian oil sands, and Iraq. This new production tends to be expensive production, when all costs are included. For example, Carbon Tracker estimates that most new oil sands projects require a price of $95 barrel to be sanctioned. Iraq needs to build out its infrastructure and secure peace in its country to greatly ramp up production. These indirect costs lead to a high per-barrel cost of oil for Iraq, even if direct costs are not high.

In the supply-demand balance, there is also the issue of oil supply that is temporarily off line, that operators would like to get back on line. Libya is one obvious example. Its production was as much as 1.8 million barrels a day in 2010. Libya is now producing 800,000 barrels a day, but was producing only 215,000 barrels a day in April. The rapid addition of Libya’s oil to the market adds to pricing disruption. Iran is another country with production it would like to get back on line.

5. Even what seems like low oil prices today (say, $85 for Brent, $80 for WTI) may not be enough to fix the world’s economic growth problems.

High oil prices are terrible for economies of oil importing countries. How much lower do they really need to be to fix the problem? Past history suggests that prices may need to be below the $40 to $50 barrel range for a reasonable level of job growth to again occur in countries that use a lot of oil in their energy mix, such as the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Figure 4. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

Figure 4. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

Thus, it appears that we can have oil prices that do a lot of damage to oil producers (say $80 to $85 per barrel), without really fixing the world’s low wage and low economic growth problem. This does not bode well for fixing our problem with prices that are too low for oil producers, but still too high for customers.

6. Saudi Arabia, and in fact nearly all oil exporters, need today’s level of exports plus high prices, to maintain their economies.

We tend to think of oil price problems from the point of view of importers of oil. In fact, oil exporters tend to be even more affected by changes in oil markets, because their economies are so oil-centered. Oil exporters need both an adequate quantity of oil exports and adequate prices for their exports. The reason adequate prices are needed is because most of the sales price of oil that is not required for investment in oil production is taken by the government as taxes. These taxes are used for a variety of purposes, including food subsidies and new desalination plants.

A couple of recent examples of countries with collapsing oil exports are Egypt and Syria. (In Figures 5 and 6, exports are the difference between production and consumption.)

Figure 5. Egypt's oil production and consumption, based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 5. Egypt’s oil production and consumption, based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 6. Syria's oil production and consumption, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Figure 6. Syria’s oil production and consumption, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Saudi Arabia has had flat exports in recent years (green line in Figure 7). Saudi Arabia’s situation is better than, say, Egypt’s situation (Figure 5), but its consumption continues to rise. It needs to keep adding production of natural gas liquids, just to stay even.

Figure 7. Saudi oil production, consumption and exports based on EIA data.

Figure 7. Saudi oil production, consumption and exports based on EIA data.

As indicated previously, Saudi Arabia and other exporting countries depend on tax revenues to balance their budgets. Figure 8 shows one estimate of required oil prices for OPEC countries to balance their budgets in 2104, assuming that the quantity of exported oil is pretty much unchanged from 2013.

Figure 8. Estimate of OPEC break-even oil prices, including tax requirements by parent countries, from APICORP.

Figure 8. Estimate of OPEC break-even oil prices, including tax requirements by parent countries, from APICORP.

Based on Figure 8, Qatar and Kuwait are the only OPEC countries that would find $80 or $85 barrel oil acceptable, assuming the quantity of exports remains unchanged. If the quantity of exports drops, prices would need to be even higher.

Saudi Arabia has set aside funds that it can tap temporarily, so that it can withstand a lower oil price. Thus, it has the ability to withstand low prices for a year or two, if need be. Its recent price-cutting may be an attempt to “shake out” producers who have less-deep pockets when it comes to weathering low prices for a time. Almost any oil producer elsewhere in the world might be in that category.

7. The world really needs all existing oil production, plus more, if the world economy is to grow.

It takes oil to transport goods, and it takes oil to operate agricultural and construction equipment. Admittedly, we can cut back world production oil production with lower price, but this gets us into “a heap of trouble”. We will suddenly find ourselves less able to do the things that make the economy function. Governments will stop fixing roads. Services we take for granted, like long distance flights, will disappear.

A lot of people have a fantasy view of a world economy operating on a much smaller quantity of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there is no way we can get there by way of a rapid drop in oil prices. In order for such a change to take place, we would have to actually figure out some kind of transition by which we could operate the world economy on a lot less fossil fuel. Meeting this goal is still a very long ways away. Many people have convinced themselves that high oil prices will help make this transition possible, but I don’t see this as happening. High prices for any kind of fuel can be expected to lead to economic contraction. If transition costs are high as well, this will make the situation worse.

The easiest way to reduce consumption of oil is by laying off workers, because making and transporting goods requires oil, and because commuting usually requires oil. As a result, the biggest effect of a cutback on oil production is likely to be huge job layoffs, far worse than in the Great Recession.

8. The cutback in oil supply due to low prices is likely to occur in unexpected ways.

When oil prices drop, most production will continue as usual for a time because wells that have already been put in place tend to produce oil for a time, with little added investment.

When oil production does stop, it won’t necessarily be from high-cost production, because relative to current market prices, a very large share of production is high-cost. What will tend to happen is that production that has already been “started” will continue, but production that is still “in the pipeline” will wither away. This means that the drop in production may be delayed for as much as a year or even two. When it does happen, it may be severe.

It is not clear exactly how oil from shale formations will fare. Producers have leased quite a bit of land, and in some cases have done imaging studies on the land. Thus, these producers have quite a bit of land available on which a share of the costs has been prepaid. Because of this prepaid nature of costs, some shale production may be able to continue, even if prices are too low to justify new investments in shale development. The question then will be whether on a going-forward basis, the operations are profitable enough to continue.

Prices for new oil development have been too low for many oil producers for many months. The cutback in investment for new production has already started taking place, as described in my post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. It is quite possible that we are now reaching “peak oil,” but from a different direction than most had expected–from a situation where oil prices are too low for producers, rather than being (vastly) too high for consumers.

The lack of investment that is already occurring is buried deeply within the financial statements of individual companies, so most people are not aware of it. Dividends remain high to confuse the situation. By the time oil supply starts dropping, the situation may be badly out of hand and largely unfixable because of damage to the economy.

One big problem is that our networked economy (Figure 1) is quite inflexible. It doesn’t shrink well. Even a small amount of shrinkage looks like a major recession. If there is significant shrinkage, there is danger of collapse. We haven’t set up a new type of economy that uses less oil. We also don’t have an easy way of going backward to a prior economy, such as one that uses horses for transport. It looks like we are headed for “interesting times”.

Peak Oil Demand Destruction

Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

Published on Our Finite World on April 11, 2013

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

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.

Peak demand is very much related to jobs. Peak oil demand occurs when a country is not competitive in the world market-place, and because of this, loses industry and jobs. One reason this happens is because the country’s energy cost structure is not competitive in the world market-place. With the run-up in oil prices starting about 2003, oil is by far the most expensive of the traditional energy sources we have available today. Countries that use a large percentage of oil in their energy mix can be expected to have a hard time competing, because of oil’s higher cost.

Figure 3. Oil consumption as percentage of energy consumption for selected countries, based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.Figure 3. Oil consumption as percentage of energy consumption for selected countries, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Anything else that is done which raises costs for businesses will also have an impact. This would include “carbon taxes,” if competitors do not have them, and if there is no tariff on imported goods to reflect carbon inputs.

High-cost renewables can also have an adverse impact, regardless of whether the cost is borne by businesses, consumers or the government.

  • If the cost is borne by businesses, those businesses must raise their prices to keep the same profit margins, and because of this become less competitive.
  • If the cost is borne by consumers, those consumers will cut back on discretionary expenditures, in order to balance their budgets. This is likely to mean  a cutback in demand for discretionary goods by local consumers.
  • If the government bears the cost, it still must pass the cost back to businesses or consumers, and thus reduce competitiveness because of higher tax costs.

This importance of competitiveness holds, no matter how worthy a given approach is. If costs were “externalized” before, and are now borne by the local system, it makes the local system less competitive. For example, putting in proper pollution controls will make local industry less competitive, if the competition is Chinese industry, acting without such  controls.

One issue in competitiveness is wage levels. Wages in turn are related to standards of living. In a global economy, countries with higher wage levels for workers, and higher benefit levels for workers (such as health insurance and pensions) will be at a competitive disadvantage. Countries that use coal as their prime source of energy will be at an advantage, because workers’ wages will tend to “go farther” in heating their homes and buying electricity.

Countries that are warm in the winter will be at a competitive advantage, because homes don’t have to be built as sturdily, and don’t have to be heated in winter. Workers can commute by bicycle even in the coldest weather.

Energy usage (all types combined, not just oil) is far higher in cold countries than it is in warm wet countries. Countries that extract oil also tend to be high users of energy.

Figure 4. Per capita energy consumption for selected countries for the year 2010, based on EIA data.Figure 4. Per capita energy consumption for selected countries for the year 2010, based on EIA data.

The difference in per capita energy usage among the various countries is truly astounding. For example, Bangladesh’s per capita energy consumption is slightly less than 2% of US energy consumption. This difference in energy consumption means that salaries can be much lower, and thus products made in Bangladesh can be much cheaper, than those made in the United States. This is part of our competitiveness problem, even apart from the energy mix problem mentioned earlier.

In my view, globalization brought on many of our current problems. Perhaps globalization could not be avoided, but we should have foreseen the problems. We could have put tariffs in place to make a more level playing field.  See my post, Twelve Reasons Why Globalization is a Huge Problem.

Inadequate world oil supply isn’t exactly the problem. The issue is far more that the price of oil extraction is rising.  The price of oil extraction is rising for a variety of reasons, an important one being that we extracted the easy to extract oil first, and what is left is more expensive to extract. Another issue is that oil exporters now have large populations that need to be kept fed and clothed, so they don’t revolt. This is a separate issue, that raises costs, even above the direct cost of extraction. There is no reason to believe that these costs will level off or fall, no matter how much oil the US produces using high-priced methods, such as fracking.

When oil prices rise, wages don’t rise at the same time. In fact, in the US there is evidence  that wages stagnate when oil prices are high, partly because fewer are employed, and partly because the wages of those employed flatten.

Figure 5. High oil prices are associated with depressed wages. Oil price through 2011 from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy, updated to 2012 using EIA data and CPI-Urban from BLS. Average wages calculated by dividing Private Industry wages from US BEA Table 2.1 by US population, and bringing to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban.Figure 5. High oil prices are associated with depressed wages. Oil price through 2011 from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy, updated to 2012 using EIA data and CPI-Urban from BLS. Average wages calculated by dividing Private Industry wages from US BEA Table 2.1 by US population, and bringing to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban.

The countries that are most affected by rising oil prices are the countries that use oil to the greatest extent in their mix of energy products. In Figure 3, that would be the PIIGS. The rest of the US, EU-27, and Japan would be next in line.

When oil prices rise, consumers need to balance their budgets. The price of oil products and food rises, so they cut back on discretionary items.  Their smaller purchases of discretionary goods and services means that workers in discretionary sectors get laid off.

Businesses find that the price of oil used in manufacturing and shipping their products has risen. If they raise the sales price of the goods to reflect their higher costs, it means that fewer people can afford their products. This too, leads to cutbacks in sales, and layoffs of workers. Sometimes businesses decide to outsource production to a cheaper country, or use more automation, as a way of mitigating the cost increases that higher oil prices add, but automation or outsourcing also tends to reduce US wages.

The net effect of all of these changes is that there are fewer workers with jobs in the countries with high oil usage. This reduces the demand for oil in the high oil usage countries, both from business owners making goods and from the consumers who might use gasoline to drive their cars. This price mechanism is part of what leads to the oil consumption shift we see in Figure 1.

We are dealing with is close to a zero-sum game, when it comes to oil supply. The amount of oil that is extracted from the ground is almost constant (very slightly increasing for the world in total). If prices stayed at the low level they were in the past (say $20 barrel), there would not be enough to go around. Instead, higher prices redistribute oil to countries that can use it manufacture goods at low overall cost. Workers in factories making these goods are then able to afford to buy goods that use oil, such as a motor scooter.

Citigroup recently released a report titled, “Global Oil Demand Growth, – the End is Nigh.” Its subtitle says,

The substitution of natural gas for oil combined with increasing fuel economy means oil demand is approaching a tipping point.

This is out-and-out baloney, for a number of reasons:

1. There are way too many of “them” compared to the number of “us,” for energy efficiency to make even a dent in our problem.

2. When we look at past oil consumption, changes in vehicle energy efficiency did not make a big difference.

3. Substituting natural gas for oil still leaves cost levels for the US, Europe, and Japan very high, compared to those for the rest of the world, where little energy is used.

4. There are really separate markets in many parts of the globe. Our market is collapsing because of high price. Perhaps increased efficiency and natural gas substitution will help low-cost producers until they reach a different limit of some sort.

Let’s look at these issues separately.

There are way too many of “them” relative to us, for energy efficiency to even make a dent in our problem.

If we look at world population, this is what we see:

Figure 6. World population split between US, EU-27, and Japan, and the Rest of the World.Figure 6. World population split between US, EU-27, and Japan, and the Rest of the World.

Using a ruler, we could probably make fairly reasonable projections of future population for each of these groups.

If we look at per capita oil consumption for the two groups separately, there is a huge disparity:

Figure 7. Per capita oil consumption separately for the group US, EU-27, plus Japan, and for the rest of the world, based on BP's 2102 Statistical Review of World Energy, and population statistics from EIA (since 1980) and Angus Maddison data. (earlier dates).Figure 7. Per capita oil consumption separately for the group US, EU-27, plus Japan, and for the rest of the world, based on BP’s 2102 Statistical Review of World Energy, and population statistics from EIA (since 1980) and Angus Maddison data. (earlier dates).

Per capita oil consumption for the EU, US, and Japan group peaked in 1973–a very long time ago. In recent years, it has been drifting down fairly rapidly, just to keep up with a slight per capita rise in oil consumption of the Rest of the World. Even with recent changes, per capita oil consumption of the EU, US and Japan group is more than 4.5 times that of the rest of the world.

If cars were made more efficient, more people could afford them. The market for cars is unbelievably huge, compared to today’s market, if costs could be brought down. Furthermore, gasoline accounts for less than half of US oil consumption. Even if efficiency were improved to allow cars to use half as much fuel, it would save a little less than one-fourth of current oil consumption. How far would this oil go in satisfying the needs of 6 billion other people–and growing every year?

When we look at past oil consumption, changes in vehicle energy efficiency did not make a big difference.

If we look at per capita oil consumption in the US, split between gasoline and other oil products, we see that the big drop in oil consumption came from the drop in other oil products–that is the commercial and industrial part of US oil consumption.

Figure 8. US per capita consumption of oil products, split between gasoline and other. Total consumption from BP's 2012 Statistical Review of  World Energy. Gasoline consumption from EIA. (Amounts include biofuels.)Figure 8. US per capita consumption of oil products, split between gasoline and other. Total consumption from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Gasoline consumption from EIA. (Amounts include biofuels.) Difference by subtraction.

The amount of fuel used for gasoline has stayed in the 10 to 12 barrels a year per capita band, since 1970, in spite of huge improvements in vehicle efficiency.

I recently wrote a post called Why is US Oil Consumption Lower? Better Gasoline Mileage? In it, I looked at the decrease in US oil consumption between 2005 and 2012. I concluded that the majority of the decrease in consumption was due to a drop in commercial use. Only 7% was due to an improvement in miles per gallon for gasoline powered vehicles.

Substituting natural gas for oil still leaves the US (as well as Europe and Japan) very high priced, compared to the rest of the world, that doesn’t use much energy.

Living in the US, Europe or Japan, it is  hard to get an idea of the cost structure of the rest of the world. We are so far above the cost structure of the rest of the world that substituting natural gas for oil would do little to fix the situation.

Figure 9. Photo I took of an auto-rickshaw while visiting India in October 2012. A total of 10 of us (including driver) traveled for several miles in a three-seated version of one of these. Those of us on the edges held on tightly to the frame, because there was not room for all of us.  Figure 9. Photo of an auto-rickshaw I took while visiting India in October 2012. A total of 10 of us (including driver) traveled for several miles in a three-seated version of one of these. Those of us on the edges held on tightly to the frame, because there was not room for all of us.

We can also debate how much substitution of natural gas will actually do, and in what timeframe. In the US, natural gas is temporarily very cheap. But it costs more to extract shale gas than the market currently pays, in many areas. Also, a recently University of Texas study showed that Barnett Shale was past peak production, if prices do not rise.

There are really separate markets in many parts of the globe. Our market is collapsing because of high price. Perhaps increased efficiency and natural gas substitution will help low-cost producers, until they reach a different limit of some sort.

When a country is not competitive, it is not just oil consumption that drops, but consumption of other energy products as well.  If we look at the per capita energy consumption of the US, EU-27, and Japan combined, we see that non-oil energy consumption per capita reached its peak in 2004, and is now declining (Figure 10, below).  If consumers are too poor to buy oil products, they are also too poor to buy products made with other types of energy.

Figure 10. Per capita consumption for the sum of the EU-27, US, and Japan, based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of  World Energy.Figure 10. Per capita consumption for the sum of the EU-27, US, and Japan, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The Rest of the World followed a very different pattern of energy consumption. Non-oil consumption soared, on a per capita basis. Oil consumption also increased on a per capita basis.

Figure 11. Per capita energy consumption for the Rest of the World, based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.Figure 11. Per capita energy consumption for the Rest of the World, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

More detailed data shows that the big increase in non-oil consumption was a huge rise in coal consumption, after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in December 2001.

How does peak oil demand work out in the end?

I would argue that lack of competitiveness in world markets is a limit that the US, EU-27 and Japan are hitting right now, but at slightly different rates. EU-27 now seems to be ahead in the race to the bottom, partly because its combined currency. I wrote a post in March 2012 called Why High Oil Prices Are Now Affecting Europe More Than the US, explaining the situation.

It seems to me, though, that a big piece of the problem with lack of competitiveness gets transferred to the governments of the affected countries. This happens because collection of tax revenue lags, because not enough people are working, and those who are working are earning lower wages. At the same time increased payouts are needed to stimulate the economy, and to provide benefits to the many without jobs.

Governments increase their debt to meet the revenue shortfall. They reduce interest rates to record-low levels, to stimulate the economy.  They also use Quantitative Easing, or “printing money” to try to lower long-term interest rates, and to try to make their exports more competitive. Unfortunately, these actions do not solve the basic structural problem of high and rising world oil prices, and the fact that these rising prices make their economies increasingly less competitive in the world marketplace.

One possible way I see of the current situation working out is that the total energy consumption (including all types of energy products, not just oil) of the EU, US and Japan will continue to fall, as high-priced oil continues to erode our competitive position in the world marketplace.

Figure 12. One view of future energy consumption for the EU-27, US, and Japan. Historical is based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Figure 12. One view of future energy consumption for the EU-27, US, and Japan. Historical is based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The slope of the decline is based on the type of decline experienced by the Former Soviet Union, in the years immediately following its collapse. This pattern might reflect a combination of different patterns for different countries. Greece and Spain, for example might continue to fall quite quickly. The US might lag the EU in the speed at which problems take place. The likely path seems downward, because any action taken to fix the government gap between income and expense can be expected to have a recessionary impact, and thus have an adverse impact on energy consumption.

The Rest of the World is now growing rapidly, but at some point they will start reaching limits. One of these limits will be lack of an export market. Another will be lack of spare parts, because businesses in the US, Europe and Japan are failing for financial reasons. Some of these limits will relate to pollution and lack of fresh water. The effect of these limits will also be to raise costs. For example, a shortage of water can be worked around through desalination, but this raises costs. Lack of spare parts can be worked around by building a new plant to make the spare part. Pollution problems can be mitigated by pollution controls, but these add costs. These higher costs, when passed on to consumers will also lead to a cutback in demand for discretionary goods, and the same kinds of problems experienced in oil exporting nations. Thus, these countries will also have “Peak Demand” problems, because of rising prices, related to limits they are reaching.

I don’t know exactly how soon the Rest of the World will hit limits, but given the interconnectedness of the world system, it would seem to be within the next few years. Figure 13 shows one estimate of how this may occur.

Figure 13. One view of energy consumption for the Rest of the World. Historical data is based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.Figure 13. One view of energy consumption for the Rest of the World. Historical data are based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Here again, individual countries may do better than others. Countries with little connectedness to the world system (for example, countries in central Africa) may have fewer problems than others. Of course, their energy consumption (of the type measured by the EIA or BP) is very low now. They may use cow dung and fallen branches for fuel, but these are not counted in international data.

Figure 14, below, shows the sum of the amounts from Figures 12 and 13. Thus, it gives one estimate of  future world energy consumption based on Peak Demand considerations.

Figure 14. One view of future energy consumption for the world as a whole. History is based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.  Figure 14. One view of future energy consumption for the world as a whole. History is based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that world CO2 emissions are likely to start falling quite rapidly, because of Peak Oil Demand. World CO2 emissions could quite possibly drop below 20% of current levels before 2050. In the scenario I show, energy consumption drops faster than forecasts such as those put out by the Energy Watch Group. Such forecasts do not take into account financial considerations, so are likely overstated.

The downside of Peak Oil Demand is that the world we live in will be very much changed. Population levels will likely drop, indirectly because of serious recession, job loss, and cutbacks in government benefits. The financial system will need to be completely revised, because debt financing will make sense much less often than today. In fact, in a shrinking world economy, money can no longer act as a store of value. There no doubt will be some people who survive and prosper, but their lives will likely be very different from what they are today.

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