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Part 6 of 7: 2017, When The Wheels Finally Come Off

Kunstler  |  Howard Kunstler

The Oil Quandary

The reports of Peak Oil’s death are exaggerated, to borrow a gag from Mr. Twain. It’s just been playing out in ways that many of us didn’t quite anticipate and it is still at the heart of our economic predicament — which is that you can’t rationalize an annual debt growth rate of 8 percent if your actual economic growth rate is under 4 percent (paraphrasing Chris Martenson at Peak Prosperity.com).

We haven’t run out of oil, but we have run out of oil that is rationally economical to pull out of the ground. The so-called “shale oil miracle” extended the oil age a few years by debt-financed legerdemain. Yes, we drove US oil production way up, almost back up to the 1970 peak production level around 10 million barrels-a-day (b/d). The trouble was that the companies producing it didn’t make a red cent in the process. They just ran up a huge amount of debt to pursue the shale project. The pursuit was on wholeheartedly beginning around 2006, because 1) the Peak Oil story was scaring folks, including folks in the oil industry, and 2) the market price of crude oil soared after 2004 and shale looked like a possibly winning venture — especially since conventional exploration in recent years was turning up almost nothing of significance.

From 2004 the price of oil skyrocketed from around $40-a-barrel until 2008, when it reached a high point of about $140-a-barrel. Then, of course, the price crashed catastrophically for a year, along with Wall Street and the economy. But, by then, the fracking industry was all ramped up in the Bakken fields of North Dakota and the Eagle Ford range of Texas. Plus the industry was learning some additional new fracking tricks to goose more oil out of the “tight” rock. So they were full of confidence, despite the price crash. Then, in 2009 the oil price turned sharply upward again — with central bank ZIRP and QE and other maneuvers to prop up the economy with more debt at lower interest rates. And the price of oil just climbed and climbed again back into the $110-plus range in 2011, and lingered there until 2015, when it crashed again.

Of course, most of the producers weren’t making any money even at the $110-a-barrel, but they expected improved technology to mitigate that eventually. In the meantime, they just produced too much shale oil and the market was flooded and OPEC got into the act and pumped all-out trying to crash the price further to put the US shale producers out of business, and then nobody made a red cent fracking for shale oil. So, you can see there was a pattern.

The pattern nicely describes the dynamic advanced by Joseph Tainter in his seminal work, The Collapse of Complex Societies: namely that over-investments in complexity lead to diminishing returns. That is, as you keep making your systems extra-hyper-complex, you get less value back for doing it, until you get to the point where there’s no benefit whatsoever, and then the system implodes. And that is exactly what has happened with oil and the economy that was engineered to run on it, and the financial system that evolved to manage the wealth it used to produce.

A few other things happened the past few years on the oil scene. The American oil companies bowed out of Arctic drilling. The Canadian Tar Sands went bust. The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi choked off Libyan production, which was offset by Iran coming back onto the international market, which was offset by political mischief in Nigeria that choked off production, which was offset by increased Iraqi production, which was offset by the collapse of Venezuela. Most of the world’s oil producers had entered decline anyhow.

Don’t be fooled. The low prices at the gasoline pumps only mean that US oil companies are going broke fast, as are American “consumers.” There’s a basic equation I’ve repeated a few times on this blog: oil over $75-a-barrel destroys industrial economies; oil under $75-a-barrel destroys oil companies. That’s were things stand when the energy return on investment falls to 5-to-1, as is the case with shale oil. Steve St. Angelo over at the SRSRocco Report makes the excellent point that it takes at least 30-to-1 energy return on investment to maintain plain vanilla modern life. Anything below that and parts of the economy have to be sacrificed. Trucking, air travel, commuting, theme park vacations, your job…. It’s just another way of describing the pernicious effects of the diminishing returns of over-investments in complexity.

In the fall of 2016, OPEC members tried again to agree on an oil production output limit, as they have done many time before. Each time, they all managed to cheat in order to sell greater volumes of oil and make more short-term money — a classic Tragedy of the Commons story. Consequently, the price of oil went up to about $53-a-barrel by Christmas 2016. Don’t expect that to last. Unless, of course, there is a geopolitical event somewhere out on the oil scene, most likely in the Middle East, though Venezuela’s economy is approaching total collapse. The forecast here is for oil prices to follow the stock markets down in the first quarter of 2017. A lot of junk bonds in the oil space will default as a result, leading to a general crisis in shale oil investment.

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