The stunning collapse in oil and metal prices since last summer (see yesterday’s post) has brought the cornucopians and abundantites crawling out of the wood work. From an (otherwise very good) article in The Economist of 17th January titled “Let there be light”.
An increase in supply, a surprising resilience in production in troubled places such as Iraq and Libya, and the determination of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies not to sacrifice market share in the face of falling demand have led to a spectacular plunge in the oil price, which has fallen by half from its 2014 high. This has dealt a final blow to the notion of “peak oil”. There is no shortage of hydrocarbons in the Earth’s crust, and no sign that mankind is about to reach “peak technology” for extracting them.
Frankly, this is just sloppy thinking from The Economist: the second sentence, which talks of a “final blow” to the notion of peak oil, doesn’t follow on from the first.
In short, the paragraph muddles the short term and the long term. Why is a fall in oil prices barely six months’ old a “final blow” to the notion of peak oil? And while fracking shows we are far from “peak technology”, it says nothing about price. Can tight oil keep coming to market for years to come at current prices? I think not. For a longer treatment of oil supply versus oil demand, see my more detailed post titled “Has Shale Killed Peak Oil“.
One of the most vocal advocates of the ‘peakist’ or ‘depletist’ hypothesis is Jeremy Grantham, who has used The Quarterly Letter of GMO as a platform for his views. The chart below is taken from The Third Quarter 2014 letter (click for larger image):
Grantham points out that in 1940 one hour’s work for an American engaged in manufacturing could buy 20% 0f a barrel of oil. At the twin peaks of oil abundance–1972 and 1999–the same wage could buy over a barrel of oil. But those days, he argues, are long gone. According to Grantham, this has implications for not only oil markets but also for the energy underpinnings of global economic and productivity growth.
Yesterday, I also argued that the rapid slowing to the Chinese economy was the likely culprit behind the havoc in commodity markets rather than a breakthrough in one particular extraction technology. As evidence, I noted how iron ore and copper prices had collapsed along with the oil price, despite the fact that you can’t frack for copper and iron ore.
The critical question now is what will happen to supply in the face of sluggish demand. Tight oil production is dramatically different from traditional oil production due to the accelerated nature of the depreciation schedule. Fracked fields deplete quickly, so to maintain production you must continually invest. If you don’t, aggregate production falls fast–that is, within a year or two. So we won’t witness a decade long excess capacity work-out as you would have seen in previous oil price busts: supply should adjust to demand at breakneck speed this time around.
Consequently, while we are not at “peak technology” for oil extraction, we possibly are at “peak cheap technology”. If so, forget all talk of “final blows” to peak oil.