Saturday, December 08, 2007

Are the Wheels Coming Off the Bus?

Exploring the notion of "Peak Oil". Is "Hubberdt's Curve" for real?

With Joseph (right) in Sevilla, moments after delivering a muezzin's call to prayer from the Giralda Tower (formerly a minaret) at the cathedral

Clever... Real funny guys... Well, OK. Actually, it was just me who did it. Something I wouldn't even consider doing today... My best friend Joseph moved to Spain in 1989, with little more than the clothes on his back, a basic knowledge of Spanish, and a determination to marry the lovely madrileña he had fallen in love with back here. Shortly before that, you might say that we were as cocky, combative, parochial, and provincial as two Irish-Catholic Americans from Boston can commonly be.

No, something I wouldn’t consider doing today… It’s funny to look back sometimes and to reflect upon the fact that although things don’t look very different on the surface at first glance, the world is constantly changing and shifting under our feet as the years go by.

A simple change of scene can go a long way towards erasing provincialism. People who’ve spent a significant amount of time out of the country often point out to me that there is a certain (and predictable) way of presenting news stories here, and that the way the news is presented overseas can be quite different. A lot of things tend to go under-reported here, or even unreported altogether. There is a whole perspective out there that can be quite alien to our way of thinking, which is why we find ourselves puzzled when foreigners question what we consider to be our pure motives.

Joe and I have kept in touch, we’ve usually been able to get together at least once a year, and we often exchange views on world events and politics. When I look at a situation like Iraq, I tend to look at the origin of such a conflict in terms of a clash of civilizations and competing worldviews, with part of the world embracing globalization enthusiastically, even to the point of forcing it upon those who fear it and resist it. In analyzing conflicts, I tend to lay a heavy emphasis on ideology, religion, and mankind's seemingly endemic urge towards tribalism.

Joseph certainly doesn’t resist those ideas or reject them out of hand, but I think he gently tries to lead me towards considering an old axiomatic dictum – Follow the Money.

Joe's been asking lately what I think about the situation with Iran... My take is, the administration would probably like to strike Iran if they could (recent NIE estimate be damned), but that this congress would never go along with it. Joe's not so sure, I think, reasoning that there are iron laws of economics (that we are locked into) at play here.

In making his own way in Spain, Joe managed (impressively, I might add, as a non-citizen) to land a job as a sales rep for Alcon, and eventually worked his way up to the most senior executive levels of marketing management, handling hundreds of millions of dollars in budgets for a couple of different pharmaceutical companies. He now runs his own leadership and strategic management consulting company. ( And he did marry the girl :-) ) In other words, he’s level-headed, knows a thing or two about business, and the cash flows that businesses need to operate. Neither one of us is given over to conspiracy theories or overall cynicism... but have we been had?

One of the most dramatic effects of globalization over the last couple of decades has been the explosive growth of the economies of China and India, each of which have populations of over a billion people. I know it’s not fair to pull the ladder up behind us, but in a world where markets are driven by energy, energy driven by fossil fuels, how sustainable is this way of living?

The Fall of Saigon - A metaphor for the global economy?

Follow the money. Specifically, follow the money related to oil. Are we approaching the end of our way of living? Are the wheels about to come off the bus?
If current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continued poverty for much of the world.
--Royal Society of London and U.S. National Academy of Sciences'

It is impossible for the world economy to grow its way out of poverty and environmental degradation ... As the economic subsystem grows it incorporates an even greater proportion of the total ecosystem into itself and must reach a limit at 100 percent, if not before.
--Herman Daly

What has gone wrong? Why is the dream that should be in our grasp turning to a nightmare? The fundamental nature of our problem was dramatically articulated in 1968 by Kenneth Boulding in his classic essay "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth."' Boulding suggested that our problem results from acting like cowboys on a limitless open frontier when in truth we inhabit a living spaceship with a finely balanced life-support system.
-- David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule The World

We joke about having transferred from the Marine Corps to the Oil Corps, or the Petrol Battalion, and while we laugh at our jokes and we all think we're damn funny jarheads, we know we might soon die, and this is not funny, the possibility of death, but like many combatants before us, we laugh to obscure the tragedy of our cheap, squandered lives with the comedy of combat and being deployed to protect oil reserves and the rights and profits of certain American companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House and oblique financial entanglements with the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, and the commander in chief, George Bush, and the commander's progeny. We know this because Kuehn, one of our representatives from Texas, says, "All those old white f*****s from Texas have their fat hands in Arab oil. The motherf*****rs drink it like it's beer." And at this point we also know that the outcome of the conflict is less important for us-the men who will fight and die-than for the old white f*****s and others who have billions of dollars to gain or lose in the oil fields, the deep, rich, flowing oil fields of the Kingdom of Saud.
-- Anthony Swofford, Jarhead
Alarmist, crackpot conspiracy theories? A bit of both? I'll report, you decide.

British Comedian and Political Activist Robert Newman's History of Oil ( Part 1 of 9 )

The falling dollar, falling home prices, the subprime mortgage crisis, Tom Brady's girlfriend demanding to be paid in euros... WBUR On Point - debating the state of the economy with Dr. Doom. "Investment guru Peter Schiff, who CNBC has dubbed "Dr. Doom," has prophesied a flight from the dollar abroad and inflation, recession, even a depression at home. As the author of Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse, Schiff has a vested interest in gloom. Still, he's made money as a bear, and it may pay to listen to him now."

Extended excerpts from

Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists, bankers, and investors in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global "Peak Oil."

Oil will not just "run out" because all oil production follows a bell curve. This is true whether we're talking about an individual field, a country, or on the planet as a whole.

Oil is increasingly plentiful on the upslope of the bell curve, increasingly scarce and expensive on the down slope. The peak of the curve coincides with the point at which the endowment of oil has been 50 percent depleted. Once the peak is passed, oil production begins to go down while cost begins to go up.

In practical and considerably oversimplified terms, this means that if 2005 was the year of global Peak Oil, worldwide oil production in the year 2030 will be the same as it was in 1980. However, the world’s population in 2030 will be both much larger (approximately twice) and much more industrialized (oil-dependent) than it was in 1980. Consequently, worldwide demand for oil will outpace worldwide production of oil by a significant margin. As a result, the price will skyrocket, oil dependant economies will crumble, and resource wars will explode.

Peak Oil is also called "Hubbert's Peak," named for the Shell geologist Dr. Marion King Hubbert. In 1956, Hubbert accurately predicted that US domestic oil production would peak in 1970. He also predicted global production would peak in 1995, which it would have had the politically created oil shocks of the 1970s not delayed the peak for about 10-15 years...

Petrochemicals are key components to much more than just the gas in your car. As geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer points out in his article entitled, "Eating Fossil Fuels," approximately 10 calories of fossil fuels are required to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten in the US...

It's not just transportation and agriculture that are entirely dependent on abundant, cheap oil. Modern medicine, water distribution, and national defense are each entirely powered by oil and petroleum derived chemicals...

In addition to transportation, food, water, and modern medicine, mass quantities of oil are required for all plastics, all computers and all high-tech devices...

What about alternative energy systems like solar panels and wind turbines? Are they also manufactured using petroleum and petroleum derived resources?

When considering the role of oil in the production of modern technology, remember that most alternative systems of energy — including solar panels/solar-nanotechnology, windmills, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel production facilities, nuclear power plants, etc. all rely on sophisticated technology and mettalurgy.

In short, the so called "alternatives" to oil are actually "derivatives" of oil. Without an abundant and reliable supply of oil, we have no way of scaling these alternatives to the degree necessary to power the modern world.

Is the modern banking system entirely dependent on ever-increasing amounts of cheap oil?

The global financial system is entirely dependent on a constantly increasing supply of oil and natural gas. The relationship between the supply of oil and natural gas and the workings of the global financial system is arguably the key issue to understanding and dealing with Peak Oil. In fact this relationship is far more important than alternative sources of energy, energy conservation, or the development of new energy technologies...

The issue is not one of "running out" so much as it is not having enough to keep our economy running. In this regard, the ramifications of Peak Oil for our civilization are similar to the ramifications of dehydration for the human body. The human body is 70 percent water. The body of a 200 pound man thus holds 140 pounds of water. Because water is so crucial to everything the human body does, the man doesn't need to lose all 140 pounds of water weight before collapsing due to dehydration. A loss of as little as 10-15 pounds of water may be enough to kill him.

In a similar sense, an oil based economy such as ours doesn't need to deplete its entire reserve of oil before it begins to collapse. A shortfall between demand and supply as little as 10 to 15 percent is enough to wholly shatter an oil-dependent economy and reduce its citizenry to poverty.

The coming oil shocks won't be ... short lived. They represent the onset of a new, permanent condition. Once the decline gets under way, production will drop (conservatively) by 3% per year, every year. War, terrorism, extreme weather and other "above ground" geopolitical factors will likely push the effective decline rate past 10% per year, thus cutting the total supply by 50% in 7 years.

These estimate comes from numerous sources, not the least of which is Vice President Dick Cheney himself. In a 1999 speech he gave while still CEO of Halliburton, Cheney stated:

"By some estimates, there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves.That means by 2010 we will need n additional 50 million barrels per day."

Some geologists now believe 2005 was the last year of the cheap-oil bonanza, while many estimates coming out of the oil industry indicate "a seemingly unbridgeable supply/demand gap opening up after 2007," which will lead to major fuel shortages and increasingly severe blackouts beginning around 2008-2012. As we slide down the downslope slope of the global oil production curve, we may find ourselves slipping into what some scientists are already calling the coming "post industrial stone age."

Is the war in Iraq really a war for the world's last remaining significant sized deposits of oil?

Although the answer to this question should be obvious, broaching the issue in such a highly public forum would bring more skeletons out of Dick Cheney's energy task force closet than any sane member of the Senate, Republican or Democrat, would ever want to face.

Global oil discovery peaked in 1962 and has declined to virtually nothing in the past few years. We now consume 6 barrels of oil for every barrel we find. As mentioned previously, this is exactly what happened during the oil shocks of the 1970s - shortfalls in supply as little as 5% drove the price of oil up near 400%. Demand did not fall until the world was mired in the most severe economic slowdown since the Great Depression. The only thing that alleviated the economic crisis was the discovery of the world's last few "elephant" sized oil fields in the North Sea and Alaska as well as increased production from nations like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Once global oil production peaks (if it hasn't already) turning to new sources of supply won't be an option.

As affordable oil is necessary to power any serious attempt at at a global switchover to alternative sources of energy, these "extreme" prices will severely hamstring the ability of the market to handle these problems. The economic fallout from such high prices will likely raise geopolitical tensions (i.e. war) thereby futher hampering the development of large-scale alternative sources of energy.

It is becoming evident that the financial and investment community begins to accept the reality of Peak Oil, which ends the first half of the age of oil. They accept that banks created capital during this epoch by lending more than they had on deposit, being confident that tomorrow’s expansion, fuelled by cheap oil-based energy, was adequate collateral for today’s debt. The decline of oil, the principal driver of economic growth, undermines the validity of that collateral which in turn erodes the valuation of most entities quoted on Stock Exchanges. The investment community, however, faces a dilemma. It desires to protect its own fortunes and those of its privileged clients while at the same time is reluctant to take action that might itself trigger the meltdown. It is a closely knit community so that it is hard for one to move without the others becoming aware of his actions.

The scene is set for the Second Great Depression, but the conservatism and outdated mindset of institutional investors, together with the momentum of the massive flows of institutional money they are required to place, may help to diminish the sense of panic that a vision of reality might impose. On the other hand, the very momentum of the flow may cause a greater deluge when the foundations of the dam finally crumble. It is a situation without precedent.

Nearly all the work done in the world economy, all the manufacturing, construction, and transportation, is done with energy derived from fuel. The actual work done by human muscle power is miniscule by comparison. And, the lion's share of that fuel comes from oil and natural gas, the primary sources of the world's wealth.

In October 2005, the normally conservative London Times acknowledged that the world's wealth may soon evaporate as we enter a technological and economic "Dark Age." In an article entitled "Waiting for the Lights to Go Out" Times columnist Bryan Appleyard reported:

"Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don't seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things. "

US News and World Report recently published a six page article documenting the nightmarish scenarios soon to unfold across North America. According to the normally conservative publication, people in the northeastern US could soon be facing massive layoffs, rotating blackouts, permanent industrial shutdowns, and catastrophic breakdowns in public services as a result of shortages of heating oil and natural gas.

What all of this means, in short, is that the aftermath of Peak Oil will extend far beyond how much you will pay for gas. To illustrate: in a July 2006 special report published by the Chicago Tribune, Pullitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Salopek described the consequences of Peak Oil as follows:

. . . the consequences would be unimaginable. Permanent fuel shortages would tip the world into a generations-long economic depression. Millions would lose their jobs as industry implodes. Farm tractors would be idled for lack of fuel, triggering massive famines. Energy wars would flare. And careless suburbanites would trudge to their nearest big box stores, not to buy Chinese made clothing transported cheaply across the globe, but to scavenge glass and copper wire from abandoned buildings.

Journalist Jonathan Gatehouse summarized the conclusions of Oxford trained geologist Jeremy Leggett, author of The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Financial Catastrophe, in a 2006 Macleans article as follows, emphasis added:

. . . when the truth can no longer be obscured, the price will spike, the economy nosedive, and the underpinnings of our civilization will start tumbling like dominos. "The price of houses will collapse. Stock markets will crash. Within a short period, human wealth -- little more than a pile of paper at the best of times, even with the confidence about the future high among traders -- will shrivel." There will be emergency summits, diplomatic initiatives, urgent exploration efforts, but the turmoil will not subside. Thousands of companies will go bankrupt, and millions will be unemployed. "Once affluent cities with street cafés will have queues at soup kitchens and armies of beggars. The crime rate will soar. The earth has always been a dangerous place, but now it will become a tinderbox."

By 2010, predicts Leggett, democracy will be on the run. . . . economic hardship will bring out the worst in people. Fascists will rise, feeding on the anger of the newly poor and whipping up support. These new rulers will find the tools of repression -- emergency laws, prison camps, a relaxed attitude toward torture -- already in place, courtesy of the war on terror. And if that scenario isn't nightmarish enough, Leggett predicts that "Big Oversight Number One" -- climate change -- will be simultaneously making its presence felt "with a vengeance." On the heels of their rapid financial ruin, people "will now watch aghast as their food and water supplies dwindle in the face of a climate seemingly going awry." Prolonged droughts will spread, decimating harvests.

In other words, if you are focusing solely on the price at the pump, buying a hybrid car, or getting some of those energy efficient light bulbs, you aren’t seeing the bigger picture.

Is the Bush administration aware of this?

As mentioned previously, Dick Cheney made the following statement in late 1999 while still CEO of Halliburton:

"By some estimates, there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day. "

To put Cheney’s statement in perspective, remember that the oil producing nations of the world are currently pumping at full capacity but are struggling to produce much more than 84 million barrels per day. Cheney’s statement was a tacit admission of the severity and imminence of Peak Oil as the possibility of the world raising its production by such a huge amount is borderline ridiculous.

In light of this information, Cheney knew the only way for Western oil majors to stay oil majors was to use force to grab what's left in the Middle East and then give the contracts to pump that oil to the oil majors. Four years after the invasion of Iraq, this is exactly what is happening.

Lest there be any doubt about what was at stake, the man who was to become one of the most powerful proponents of the invasion of Iraq went on: "Oil is unique because it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear ... The Gulf War was a reflection of that reality."

Well, seven years on, Mr Cheney's solution to the impending oil crisis is well on its way to being implemented. In the aftermath of another war, Iraq's Council of Ministers is today expected to throw open the doors to the country's oil reserves - the third largest in the world - to private companies, the first time a major Middle Eastern producer has ever done so. Source
Not surprisingly, George W. Bush has echoed Dick Cheney’s sentiments. In May 2001, Bush stated, "What people need to hear loud and clear is that we’re running out of energy in America."

The problems associated with world oil production peaking will not be temporary, and past 'energy crisis' experience will provide relatively little guidance. The challenge of oil peaking deserves immediate, serious attention, if risks are to be fully understood and mitigation begun on a timely basis. . . the world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions were gradual and evolutionary. Oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary..

As one commentator recently observed, the reason our leaders are acting like desperados is because we have a desperate situation on our hands.

If you've been wondering why the Bush administration has been spending money, cutting social programs, and starting wars like there's no tomorrow, now you have your answer: as far as they are concerned, there is no tomorrow.

In 2003, the BBC filmed a three-part, relatively apolitical, documentary entitled "War for Oil" about the role the Bush administration's knowledge of Peak Oil played in their decision to invade and occupy Iraq. As the documentary explains, in private the Bush administration sees the war in Iraq as "a fight for survival." From a purely Machiavellian standpoint, they are probably correct in their thinking.


crystal said...

Great post, Jeff!

It's so scary. I can think of only one way for things to work out - for all the governments of the world to honestly put all their cards on the table and act together to share both the bad and good stuff. It will never happen. I guess for those who want survival at any cost, Bush seems like an effective president.

I heard once that the world would run out of water way before oil - is that true?

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Thanks for bearing with me through another ridiculously long post. I really do need to learn how to shorten them up somehow.

Are we going to run put of water first? There's another happy thought. :-) That's a really good question. I don't know. If the polar caps melt, I suppose there will be plenty of water. We just won't be able to drink any of it.

I think you're right. We as humankind don't seem to be able to get together on these matters. We seem to have an inability to face the consequences beyond our own generation, or perhaps that of out own children. That might not be enough lead time in this case.

What holiday cheer, eh? I'd better read that new encyclical on hope. ;-)

Garpu the Fork said...

Bleh. It sure ain't too pretty out there. But I wonder if this isn't just things getting worse before they get better? One can hope.

Dave Gardner said...

I recommend a great essay by Richard Heinberg with very thoughtful in-depth analysis of this subject. Competes with Jeff for length, but well worth the read!

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

Jeff said...

Hi Garpu,

Yes. If all this olds true, we'll all need to be ready to embrace quite a paradigm shift in order for things to get better, and a sense of hope will be a key part of that.


Thanks very much for taking the time to visit, and for the links.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing your film. Thanks for working so hard to raise awareness on these issues.