Monday, October 6, 2014

Tech Talk - The Price of Power, and its consequences

The changing colors of the leaves carry the message that winter will soon be here, and so it is time to stock the yard with wood to carry us through until spring. In Missouri I just found wood, cut to the length I need, and stacked, for $110 a cord and (since it has to be cut) it will arrive next week. Only the chimney then needs a quick sweep, and we’ll be ready for another season. (We burn just under a cord of wood a month, and this keeps the electricity bill sensible).

At one time the wood was insurance, in case of an extended power outage (and we had one that lasted three days, one winter) but we enjoy the heat from the tile stove, and so it is now part of our life. And with the continued risk of a loss of power, the insurance remains comforting.

Driving back from Maine a couple of weeks ago, gas prices fell over $0.25 a gallon along the 1,300 mile trip, another benefit of living in the Mid-West. But at both ends of the drive, the impact of fuel prices continues to slow economic growth, as it does nationally. Gail Tverberg has written of the inter-relation between the economy and fuel prices, most recently on Monday. However we disagree on one point, since she anticipates a potential significant drop in oil prices, which I do not.

In the early days of The Oil Drum I remember walking through the streets of Denver to a meeting with two other contributors, and suddenly realizing that I, the more technically based of the three, was by far the most pessimistic. Increasingly I am realizing that while this pessimism has not ameliorated, the current relative abundance of oil and gas in the United States has given many folk an undeservedly complacent view of the next few years.

Ron Patterson recently pointed out that if one discounts US production, the rest of the world has seen a decline in production, with non-US production now down around 2 mbd from its all-time peak. (If one also removes Saudi Arabian and Russian production from the mix, the decline gets closer to 3 mbd). Now to assume that this is totally due to a loss in production capacity would be a mistake. Saudi Arabia continues to adjust the volume of their production to try and keep global prices relatively stable, dropping production by 400 kbd in August. In the immediate short-term that was not enough for their purpose, and they are now lowering price a little, perhaps in order to sustain their market share. The cuts were in the range of $0.20 to $1.20 a barrel). Although it could also be a way of trying to sustain global growth at a time of weakness.

Figure 1. Global Production without including the United States – as plotted by Ron Patterson. I added the trend line at the end of the top plot.

These flutterings at the margin however don’t help my concerns, because they are focused only on the short-term, and don’t consider the overall situation. If the production from the rest of the world is declining at around 700 kbd, and Saudi Arabia will only produce to a maximum of 10 mbd, and Russia appears to be in that plateau that precedes decline, even without the loss in funding that recent US Government mandates will impose, then that leaves the growth in US production as being the only source to match both the decline in global production, and the continuing demand for more oil which together total around 1.7 mbd. And US production projections, even at their most optimistic can’t do this, even for one more year.

Figure 2. Projected Growth in US production (EIA)

The mathematics are, of course, not absolute numbers but remain somewhat flexible. There could be a sudden cessation of conflict in Libya and full production might return; all conflict might end in Iraq and production development might surge at the investment opportunity; and sanctions might disappear against Iran – but somehow I don’t see any of these happening.

The argument of the Cornucopians, that one can either find a substitute for the fuel in some other resource, or that technology will suddenly become available to allow unanticipated levels of production from the existing reserves and resources is, perhaps why I – knowing a fair bit about the technology – am more of a pessimist than many others.

The analogy that I use may be a little crude – but you can’t have a baby in a month by making nine women pregnant. You can’t create new technology out of thin air by suddenly investing a few billion in a bunch of scientists pulled from lists on the Internet either. There are not that many folk who are sufficiently expert to be useful, particularly in the fields that relate to the production of fossil fuels. Many of those who do exist are, like me, coming to the end of their professional lives, so that the skill sets and knowledge bases that they have built are disappearing. Many of the doctorates that we see today are based more on computer modeling than on hands-on experimentation and engineering. And unfortunately the knowledge that we have about the nature of the rocks at depth, their behavior and how to change the way in which they yield their fluids still leaves a lot to be desired, when it comes to validating the models that are produced.

But even if such new technology were developed it would take decades to see it adopted in sufficient volume across the world that it would have a significant impact on global fuel production. It was for this reason that, back in 2005, the Hirsh Report discussed the need for a twenty-year lead-time to develop new technology that could replace our needs for fuel. The time that they suggested that we had available now is beginning to seem very optimistic, while the moves to ameliorate the problem have been judged less critical and thus no longer receive the attention and funding that the have in the past.

And so, when the crisis comes, and this is increasingly likely to come in the next two years, there will be no good answers, just tightening supplies and rising prices. This is perhaps why I am beginning to think that the next President of the United States still may well be, despite all the gaffs, Brian Schweitzer.


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