By Art Berman: Oil Prices Lower Forever? Hard Times In a Failing Global Economy

Art Berman is an oil industry expert worth listening to. I missed this Forbes article he published in July 2016. Thanks to Alice Friedemann for reviving it.

This is one of the better summaries I’ve read on the history of, and relationship between, energy and the economy.

Economic growth, without unsustainable and dangerous debt, is no longer possible. I explored the implications of no growth in this essay.

Berman wisely concludes by saying our best course of action is to face the beast.

Facing the beast would require us to break through our inherited denial of reality.

I wish but I do not expect.


Energy is the economy. Energy resources are the reserve account behind currency. The economy can grow as long as there is surplus affordable energy in that account. The economy stops growing when the cost of energy production becomes unaffordable. It is irrelevant that oil companies can make a profit at unaffordable prices.

Energy underlies and connects everything. We need energy to make things, transport and sell things and to transport ourselves so that we can work and spend. We need it to run our computers, our homes and our businesses. It takes energy to heat, cool, cook and communicate. In fact, it is impossible to think of anything in our lives that does not rely on energy.

When energy costs are low, the costs of doing business are correspondingly low. When energy prices are high, it is difficult to make a profit because the underlying costs of manufacture and distribution are high. This is particularly true in a global economy that requires substantial transport of raw materials, goods and services.

And this is precisely the problem with the almost universally held belief that technology will make all things possible, including making a finite resource like oil infinite. Technology has a cost that its evangelists forget to mention.

The reality is that technology allows us to extract tight oil from non-reservoir rock at almost 3 times the cost of high-quality reservoirs in the past. The truth is that we have no high-quality reservoirs left with sufficient reserves to move the needle on the high global appetite for oil. The consequence is that to keep consuming and producing as we always have will inevitably cost a lot more money. This is basic thermodynamics and not a pessimistic opinion about technology.

Renewable energy will be increasingly part of the landscape but its enthusiasts are also magical thinkers.

In 2015, renewables accounted for only 3% of U.S. primary energy consumption. No matter the costs nor determination to convert from fossil to renewable energy, a transition of this magnitude is unlikely in less than decades.

Solar PV and wind provide much lower net energy than fossil fuels and have limited application for transport–the primary use of energy– without lengthy and costly equipment replacement. The daunting investment cost becomes critically problematic in a deteriorating economy.  Although proponents of renewable energy point to falling costs, more than half of all solar panels used in the U.S. are from China where cheap manufacturing is financed by unsustainable debt.

The future for oil prices and the global economy is frightening. I don’t know what beast slouches toward Bethlehem but I am willing to bet that it does not include growth.The best path forward is to face the beast. Acknowledge the problem, stop looking for improbable solutions that allow us live like energy is still cheap, and find ways to live better with less.

By Gail Tverberg: Why Energy-Economy Models Produce Overly Optimistic Indications

Gail Tverberg’s essay today provides an excellent summary of why collapse of civilization is inevitable and not too far in the future.

I remain fascinated by how almost all experts, leaders, and citizens deny what is going on.

Here are a few key ideas from the essay:

Producers and consumers of energy products are both important

  • Energy prices can be too high for consumers
  • Energy prices can be too low for producers

Both problems are equally important

  • World economy cannot operate without both being satisfied
  • Either a too low or a too high price is a problem


We often hear about “Supply and Demand.” A better name for “demand” might be “amount affordable.”

The situation we have now is very much like a Ponzi Scheme. We need to keep adding more debt to keep wages and commodity prices high enough. At the same time, interest rates need to stay very low, to keep payments manageable, and keep the whole system from collapsing.

The balance sheets of insurance companies, banks, and pension plans include much debt. If these institutions are to make good on their promises to those with bank accounts, insurance policies, and pension plans, it is necessary for this debt to be repaid with interest. Back many years ago, debt jubilees were often given to selected debtors. These are out of the question now, because banks, insurance companies, and pension plans depend upon the future payments that this debt represents.

Growing debt is one of the waste outputs. Since we voluntarily seek out debt, we think of debt as an input. But if we think about the situation, debt is really is an adverse output. Required interest payments tend to pull funds out of the system that could otherwise be used to pay workers. Also, the rising use of debt tends to concentrate the ownership of “tools” among the already wealthy. Debt can grow for a while, but it has limits, because of the adverse impacts it creates for the economy.

Growing wage disparity occurs because of the increased specialization required by ever-rising use of tools and technology. Some people receive the benefit of advanced education and learning to use tools such as computers; others receive much less benefit. As a result, their wages lag behind. Wage disparity is another limit of the system. If a large share of the workers cannot afford to buy the output of the economy, “demand” falls too low, and commodity prices tend to fall.

Trying to run the economy on solar electricity alone (or solar plus wind plus water) is a futile exercise. One reason is that it would require massive changes to allow long-haul trucks and airplanes to operate on electricity.

Also, electricity is a high-cost energy product. Today, our economy operates on a mix of high and low cost energy products, with low cost energy products keeping the average cost down. Trying to run the economy on electricity alone is a bit like trying to run the economy using only PhDs. In theory it could be done, but it would be expensive to have PhDs waiting on tables in restaurants and delivering mail.

There is a different kind of EROEI that seems to me to be at least as likely, or more likely, to be the first limit that we will reach. That is the return that workers who are selling their labor simply as labor (without advanced education or supervisory responsibility) obtain. If these workers find that their wages drop too low, this will be a limit on the operation of the economy. Low wages will prevent these workers from buying houses and cars. If the wages of the large number of non-elite workers fall too low, commodity prices will tend to fall, and the system will tend to collapse because producers cannot make a profit at such a low price.

Biologists have been studying the return on the labor of animals for many years, because their populations tend to collapse, when animals are forced to expend too much labor in finding food. EROEI based on wages of non-elite workers would seem to be a closer parallel to the animal return on labor than fossil fuel EROEI.

We have multiple problems:

Problem 1. No dissipative structure can last forever.

Problem 2. As a dissipative structure, our economy seems to be reaching its end.

  • Partly because of slowing growth in energy consumption
  • Partly because of growing wage disparity.

Problem 3. We have ramped up recycling of debt as assets to an amazing level.

  • This debt recycling prevents debt jubilees
  • Leads to the likelihood that insurance companies, banks, and pension plans will fail, if the economy fails

Problems appear to be not far in the future:

Financial system is likely to be center of the storm

  • Most EROEI analysts miss this point

Economy cannot shrink without debt defaults

Economy doesn’t have the ability to go backward

  • Transition to using horses for transportation would be difficult

Theory says that new somewhat similar dissipative structures are likely to eventually form

  • Depends on how many can survive the coming contraction
  • Also, how depleted resources are
  • If contraction too severe, no new economy may be possible

On the Tragedy of Trends

Tim Garrett, the world’s most under appreciated scientist, makes a persuasive case that wealth is proportional to energy consumption. More specifically, US$1 (1990) = 10 mW. This makes intuitive sense because energy is required to make and/or maintain everything that we assign a monetary value to.

Yesterday the Visual Capitalist published some charts showing energy consumption trends for the US.


In the following discussion I deliberately ignore the chart’s forecast for the future because it comes from the deeply in denial Energy Information Administration (EIA), which bases its forecasts on expected demand rather than geologic and thermodynamic reality. In other words, the EIA makes forecasts based on what we will likely desire, rather than what is likely to be available, or what we will likely be able to afford.

I also ignore changes in energy efficiency because I think we have already harvested all of the low hanging fruit and recent efficiency gains are in the noise.

By applying Garrett’s theory we can draw some illuminating conclusions:

  1. The total wealth of the US peaked around 2000 and has been in slow decline since.
  2. The wealth of individuals peaked around 2000 after 3 decades of little growth, has been in steep decline since, and today is about 15% lower on average than 1970.
  3. The contribution of renewable energy to our wealth has been and remains insignificant. Doubly so if you consider the fossil energy required to manufacture, install, and maintain renewable energy equipment.

The actual decline in wealth for the majority of citizens will be larger than these charts suggest because of the widening wealth gap, which has resulted from the low interest rates employed to offset declining net energy. Low interest rates increase the opportunity for the rich to profit from the bubbles created by low interest rates.

I expect trends in other industrialized countries will mirror those of the US, and in many cases will be worse because the US is so well-endowed with natural resources and its reserve currency.

It is clear why social unrest is increasing in most countries.

No one is to blame for these trends. They are simply a consequence of the scientific laws of geology and thermodynamics. It is true however that low and middle income citizens are carrying a disproportionate share of the impact because governments did not implement tax policies to prevent a predictable wealth gap increase caused by low interest rates.

Our inherited denial of reality prevents most people from understanding what is going on, and thus most people seek someone to blame.

Awareness and understanding could lead to cooperation and voluntary lifestyle changes.

Denial and blame will likely lead to tragedy.

By Tim Morgan: A World Economy Snapshot

Another brilliant must read essay by Tim Morgan. There is not one economist in a thousand that understands the relationship between energy and wealth, and yet it’s the most important thing required to understand our economy today.

Think about it. How can it be that well-educated intelligent experts understand everything except obvious facts that imply bad news?  Nothing other than inherited denial can explain this powerful and destructive human behavior.

World trend ECoE is estimated at 7.8% in 2015 – up from 6.4% in 2010 – and is projected to rise to 10.0% by 2021. The latter corresponds to an EROEI of just 9:1 which, if you understand EROEI, spells very big trouble. ECoEs are already high enough to help explain why the world economy is now stuck in “secular stagnation”.

ECoE is best understood as an economic rent. It is a “cost”, but not in the conventional sense of that word because, of course, no money actually leaves the system. Rather, a rising ECoE compels us to spend more on energy and, therefore, less on everything else.

This shows up most obviously in household budgets as a rise in the cost of essentials, which leaves the individual or household less to spend on everything else. Again taking Britain as an example, the cost of household essentials rose by 48% between 2006 and 2016, far outstripping much smaller increases in wages (+21%) and general CPI inflation (+25%). At the level of national economies, much the same occurs, with the cost of essentials outpacing both income and broad inflation as ECoE increases.

This is one reason why seemingly-positive data on the economy as a whole increasingly clashes with individual experience – the data says the economy is growing, but the individual feels poorer, not wealthier. An increasing ECoE – and its transmission through the cost of essentials – helps explain this apparent contradiction. As neither conventional economics nor governments understand this mechanism, policymakers find themselves baffled by trends which do not seem to accord with the data available to them.

So global GDP increased by an aggregate of $20.1tn in the ten years culminating in 2015. But, as you will also see, world debt increased by far more – $76.5tn – over the same period. This means that, aggregated over a trailing ten-year (T10Y) period, $3.81 was borrowed for each $1 of reported growth in GDP.

Obviously, this trajectory is not sustainable – over ten years, economic growth of 22% was far exceeded by an increase of 45% in debt. If the projected increase of $23tn in GDP between 2015 and 2021 happens, and is accompanied by borrowing at the same ratio as the T10Y number (of $3.81 per growth dollar), debt would increase by $87tn, or 36%, over that period.

Ominously, the T10Y measure has been rising steadily – back in 2010, the T10Y ratio was only $2.84 of borrowing for each growth dollar. Even at the $3.81 multiple, however, the ratio of world debt-to-GDP would rise from 216% to 244% – and even this number requires acceptance that reported GDP numbers are an accurate reflection of underlying output.

It seems pretty clear that the enormous rate of borrowing in recent years has flattered GDP by creating “growth” that is really no more than the spending of borrowed money. This, of course, brings forward consumption at the cost of increased liabilities in the future.

On this basis, underlying world GDP in 2015 was $95tn, 17% below the reported $114tn. Just as important, trend growth is far lower when measured on an underlying basis, where world economic output is growing at about 1.2% annually.

This figure is nowhere near a consensus in the range 3-4%. That consensus rate of growth may be deliverable – but only if we carry on spending borrowed money.

A world in denial

Logically, the practice of inflating GDP by spending borrowed money cannot continue indefinitely. This is not a “new normal”, but a “new abnormal”. Most obviously, the aggregate amount of debt is rising much more rapidly than economic output, making the debt burden ever harder to support. Since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008, the economy has only managed to co-exist with this debt mountain at all thanks to the slashing of interest rates to near-zero levels.

ZIRP (meaning “zero interest rate policy”) has its own costs, some of which are only now gaining recognition. Savers have suffered very seriously from monetary policies designed to keep borrowers afloat, which, perhaps, is why the concept of “moral hazard” seems to have fallen out of the vocabulary. Last summer, after the most recent cut in interest rates, the deficit in British pension funds rose to £945bn, more than 50% of GDP, and evidence of pension value destruction has emerged on a worldwide basis. Ultra-cheap money keeps afloat businesses which in normal times would have gone under, creating space for new, vibrant enterprises – so the necessary process of “creative destruction” has been stymied by monetary manipulation.

In short, we are living in an unsustainable “never-never-land”, in which cheap debt both misrepresents and undermines real economic performance.

Tribes Trump Reality: War is Probable

About 100,000 years ago a small tribe of hominids experienced a rare double mutation for an extended theory of mind plus denial of reality, which switched having a more powerful brain from being a reproductive fitness disadvantage into a strong advantage, thus enabling the mutations to fix in the gene pool. That species then used its unique brain to take over the planet and to grow itself into a severe state of overshoot.

This first and only extended theory of mind to emerge in a brain increased the effectiveness of social cooperation through improved morality, communication, planning, and the invention and transmission of new technologies.

The denial of reality mutation was required to mute the awareness of mortality and its negative impact on reproductive fitness that the extended theory of mind enabled. The inherited denial of mortality caused each tribe to create a life after death story. Over time these stories were elaborated into what we now call religions (and political parties) which serve to define, unite, govern, and entertain tribes.

The tribe with its story was and is central to the success of the species. For most of history it mattered not whether the story was true. Today the survival of the species has bumped up against the laws of physics and truth does matter. This is a wicked predicament because tribes can’t easily change their stories, and inherited denial of reality tends to block unpleasant truths from being added to the stories.

Today we have two angry bickering tribes within the most powerful country on earth. Each tribe comprises about 50% of the population. Neither tribe has a story grounded in reality or truth. Each thinks the other is the cause of the very real thermodynamically based pain it is experiencing. Neither understands what is going on. Inherited denial of reality blocks each from learning what is going on.

The best and perhaps only method for uniting and distracting these two tribes would be to identify a third tribe as a threat. Fighting that third tribe will unfortunately accelerate the depletion of low-cost oil which caused the pain in the first place. So it may be necessary to identify a fourth tribe as a threat. And so on.

This will probably not end well.

It’s Time to Get Real: Trump’s a Symptom, Not the Problem

I’ve lost patience with the widespread whining about Trump.

Trump’s a symptom, not the problem.

Unless we acknowledge and respond to reality there will be many more and worse Trumps to follow.

Lower and middle class citizens around the world are angry for good reasons:

  • Their incomes have been stagnant or falling despite governments telling them the economy is strong.
  • Their cost of living for things that matter has been rising despite governments telling them inflation is low.
  • They see the upper class getting richer and not being punished for crimes.
  • They carry a high debt load and see that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.
  • For the first time in a long time they worry that the future may be worse than the present.
  • They sense that something is broken and that leaders are not speaking the truth.

Their anger has resulted in:

  • Brexit
  • Trump
  • blame of others
  • extreme parties gaining power around the world
  • social unrest in many countries
  • war drums

The economic stresses experienced by many citizens (and by most countries) are real and have been caused by the depletion of low-cost oil.

The tricks of increasing debt and lowering interest rates have reached their limits and no longer work to mask the depletion of low-cost oil.

Governments have responded with reckless financial policies that guarantee a high-speed crash into a brick wall.

There is no solution to the depletion of low-cost oil.  It is not possible to operate our civilization as currently configured without low-cost oil. There is no substitute for oil.

We need to understand and accept that there will be much less of everything in the future.

We were lucky to witness the peak of human prosperity, and unlucky to witness the beginning of its decline.

No one is to blame. It’s reality.

We need a new story to unite us.

We need new government priorities focused on ensuring the necessities of life are available in the future.

We need to slow down as we approach the brick wall.

We need to stop wasting the precious oil that remains.

We need to get real and vote for wise people who understand what is going on.

We need to break through our inherited denial of reality.

By Tim Morgan: Perfect Storm Gets Nearer: Surplus Energy Economics Update


Here is the latest brilliant post by Dr. Tim Morgan, ex Global Head of Research at Tullett Prebon and author of the best financial research reports ever published from inside the finance industry, especially his last report from 2013 “Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance, and the End of Growth“.

What is Surplus Energy Economics?

Very briefly, SEE says that the economy is an energy system, not a monetary one. Prosperity is determined by surplus energy – that is, the energy available after the deduction of the energy which is always used up whenever we access energy.

Our entire history can be seen in this way. As hunter-gatherers, all the energy that people obtained from food was consumed obtaining that food, so there was no surplus, no economy and no society.

Agriculture was the “first great breakthrough” because it created the first energy surplus. Put simply, the greater efficiency of farming compared with hunter-gathering, plus the use of animal labour, enabled twenty people to be fed by the labour of nineteen, freeing the twentieth to do other things. This first energy surplus was small, and most people continued to undertake subsistence activities. But there was now an economy of sorts, and a society developed in parallel with it. People could now, for the first time, invest, sacrificing current consumption to create capital assets (such as barns, bridges, agricultural implements and rudimentary workshops) which would improve their lot in the future.

A vastly bigger energy surplus was created when we learned to tap fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas. This triggered two centuries of exponential growth, not just in economic output, but in population numbers and energy consumption as well. So sophisticated have economies become that, most notably in the West, very few people are engaged in producing food.


The end of growth?

For decades, people have speculated about the relationship between exponential growth and a finite planet. This debate rages on, but the balance is tilting, in two very obvious ways.

First, we are discovering the limitations of the earth as an ecosystem and, second, the surplus energy which has driven growth in economic output and population numbers is coming under mounting pressure.

Where fossil fuels – still well over 80% of our energy consumption – are concerned, two factors are in play. Depletion is robbing us of the gigantic, ultra-low-cost sources of energy which hitherto powered economic growth. Technology is endeavouring to offset this, both increasing the efficiency with which we access conventional fuels, and enabling us to tap energy from renewable sources.

Technology will doubtless continue to progress, but we are in danger of complacency over technological solutions. Renewables still account for barely 3% of global energy consumption, and no-one has yet worked out how to power a 747-size jet using renewables, or how to extract 1 tonne of ore from 500 tonnes of rock without using fossil fuels.

We should be optimistic about renewables, but also realistic. Renewables can supply energy more cost-effectively than fossil fuel sources discovered and brought on stream today. But my interpretation of the thermodynamic balance is that renewables are not going to take us back to an age of vast, low-cost, high-surplus energy from giant fields.


What next?

If the surplus energy interpretation of the economy is correct, growth should continue to prove elusive. But our system is so predicated on growth – a topic for another article – that we cannot accept even stagnation, let alone adjust to decline.

So we have been faking growth by borrowing. By 2008, the debt mountain had become so big that we could no longer afford to pay a normal rate of interest on it, so the authorities adopted ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) in order to prevent the economy being engulfed. But ZIRP, and other forms of monetary manipulation, cannot resolve the situation, and have their own costs. At zero- or near-zero rates, the economy cannot function normally, and it certainly cannot provide for the future, which is why huge deficits are now imperilling pension provision.

In theory, we might go on faking growth for many more years yet, and I’m pretty sure the authorities will be mightily tempted to try. But this would result in a further escalation of debt, which would also mean that raising interest rates significantly – let alone restoring them to something resembling normality – would become out of the question (which may already be the case). Comparing 2020 with 2015, and taking inflation out of the equation, the world seems likely to grow its GDP by close to $10tn, but to add at least $50tn to its $151tn non-financial debt mountain.

If (or, rather, when) debt escalation reaches crisis point, some kind of write-off might be tried, unless the authorities decide to unleash high inflation in an attempt to destroy the real value of debt. Inflation, which has been described as the “hard drug” of our economic system, can very rapidly get out of control.

So here we have some pointers to the future – debt escalation, and/or hyper-inflation, both of which would be insane choices, but neither of which are beyond the short-termism of the political class.

Ultimately, and whichever folly is chosen, faith in fiat currencies is likely to collapse, to which I will only add that there are already at least two major currencies that I, for one, would not want to hold. In the normal course of events, inflation strips money of its value, but this tends to be gradual – we have little widespread (though plenty of local) experience of what happens when a fiat currency falls apart.

People cannot be expected to accept any of the post-growth consequences described here with a resigned shrug. They are not doing so now – instead, and naturally, they are beginning to blame, and repudiate, established political leaderships, and this was the most significant trend to emerge in 2016.

If the economy – and, in the first instance, the financial system – does start to implode, governments are highly likely to resort to coercion, spouting precious claptrap about “the national interest” as they try to maintain their hold on power.