Category Archives: Peak Oil

The EIA Sees Our Energy Future – Which Doesn’t Look That Much Different from Today

Exams finished (I’ve been exercising my brain cells by doing some data analysis and computer courses with the UK’s Open University), so I have at last had a chance to blog.

Let’s kick off with a report I usually try to catch each year: the US government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA)‘s “Annual Energy Outlook 2015“, which looks out to 2040.

If you keep up with media reports, the backdrop to the 2015 Outlook would be something like this:

US oil production has pushed up toward 10 million barrels per day (bpd) and is a whisker away from overtaking Saudi Arabia; five LNG export terminals have been approved and are under construction because the US is so awash with natural gas (due to the fracking boom) that it needs to export it; solar PV panel price falls coupled with efficiency gains have brought the levelised cost of solar PV down so substantially that solar energy is now making a major contribution to electricity generation in an ever-growing number of American states; Texas has become a wind-energy king second only to Denmark; and Elon Musk is bringing power to the people (literally) in the form of a new generation of home super batteries.

Wow, sexy stuff! So I guess we are going to see the EIA predicting radical changes to the energy mix in 2040, especially as many of the trends I just highlighted are only getting started. Right? Let’s look at EIA’s flagship chart (page 17 of the report, click for larger image on all charts):

US Primary Energy Consumption jpeg

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Charts du Jour, 6 April 2015: US Natural Gas Production

The US government agency The Energy Information Administration reported natural gas production numbers for January 2015 on 31 March (numbers are reported with a two month lag).

US dry gas production was up 8.9% year on year in January, and the 12-month moving average was 6.1% higher year on year, the highest growth since October 2012 (click for large image; source: here).

US Dry Gas Production Jan 2015 jpeg

Meanwhile, natural gas prices have continued to trend down and are now reaching around $2.5 per million British thermal units (Btu). This is not far off their 2012 lows (source: here).

Henry Hub Prices Mar 15 jpeg

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Chart du Jour, 1 April 2015: Were the 1950s So Good?

Sometimes it is best just to pilfer other people’s work– any other action feels rather pointless. This from Andy Skuce’s blog Critical Angle (click for larger image):

CO2 Sources copy

Bang! Marty McFly goes back to 1955 to persuade Doc to save the world from fossil fuel emissions (one can but dream).

Then again can we ask ourselves whether the relatively low energy intensity economies of the 1950s had a higher level of well-being than those that exist now (of course development has widened and population has grown). I’ll let my readers have a think about that.

Anyway, check out the Critical Angle blog here.

US Crude Oil Production for January 2015 (and Calling the Top)

Time for a switch in focus, from the philosophical yesterday to the prosaic today. It’s that time of the month for some hard numbers from “frack land”, i.e., the good old USA. What is more, I am going to stick my neck out today and call the top for US crude oil production.

The US government agency the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports monthly crude oil production with a 2 month lag; January 2015 data were published on 30 March. January saw oil production averaging 9.2 million barrels per day, a rise of 14.8% year on year. Over the previous month, production was down slightly. Nonetheless, we did see a month-on-month decline in November only for production to power to a new record again in December.Yet I’m still calling the top.

True, growth has far exceeded what I expected when I started writing this blog. The production surge is indisputable (here, click for larger image).

US Oil Production jpeg

The reason why I didn’t expect to see output rise so far so fast was due to the high production declines rates exhibited by tight oil plays, leading to what many call the ‘Red Queen’ syndrome: the need to run faster and faster just to stand still. So a mea culpa on my side: the US shale oil industry did run faster and faster. With global crude oil prices locked above $100 barrel for three long years, we got both a lot more rigs and, critically, more efficient rigs as fracking technology advanced. This was enough to overwhelm the naturally high depletion rates. Continue reading

Wantability, Well-Being and Risk

I’ve been mulling a name change for the blog for some time. The name the “The Rational Pessimist” was a riposte to Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist“. Ridley’s book is a paean to global free markets and human innovation–and in parts is correct. Since the industrial revolution commenced, technology coupled with capitalism has lifted the bulk of the world’s population out of a Hobbesian life that was “nasty, brutish and short”. But where I differ from Ridley is in believing that a 200-year data set of economic growth can fully capture all future risk.

Ridley’s book is Panglossian. He believes that every problem we face–from climate change to resource depletion–is relatively minor, just waiting to be solved by a technological fix. For him, price always trumps scarcity. Whenever something looks like it is running out, the magic of markets will  always lead to new discoveries or acceptable substitutes.

As an economist by training, I accept that the everlasting dance between supply, demand and price is something of beauty. But I also believe that it has its limitations. A backward-looking empirical observation that things haven’t run out is different from a forward-looking theoretical prediction that things won’t ever run out. North Sea oil is running out regardless of price, and a global supply of oil is not qualitatively different from a local one.

Of course, technology may provide a perfect, or dare I say it better, substitute for fossil fuels. But then again it may not. That is uncertainty, and the consequences of that uncertainty is the concept of risk.

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Charts du Jour, 18 March 2015: Shale and Seneca’s Cliff

In the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca:

Increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was musing on the accelerated rate of decline and fall of empires a couple of thousand years ago. The chemist and scholar of the post-growth world Ugo Bardi has borrowed the philosopher’s name for his idea of a Seneca Cliff–the precipice over which our complex society will likely (according to him) tip and fall.

While such ideas gained considerable traction a few years ago (fanned by rocketing fossil fuel prices and the impact of the Great Recession), they are now deeply out of fashion. Doesn’t Bardi know that we live in an age of abundance, or so the shale oil and gas story goes.

Befitting the name of his blog, Bardi remains a committed Cassandra, warning all those who will listen. To my shale oil production chart of yesterday, Bardi responds with this first (all is well in the world of cod):

Cod Landings jpeg

And then this (perhaps it was not as well as it seemed):

US Cod Landings Latest jpeg

Full blog post by Bardi on this theme is here. But does the argument “so goes cod, so will go shale” hold true?

This is certainly the view of the geoscientist J. David Hughes, who maintains a web site called ““. On it, you will find a number of Hughes’ reports published under the imprint of the Post Carbon Institute, the latest going under the title of “Drilling Deeper‘. The full report is 300 pages long, but Hughes concludes that the US Energy Information Administration has built a production forecast on the back of a series of three false premises. Further, based on these, the US economy has taken as truisms a series of false promises (click for larger image).

False Premises and Promises jpeg

Should Hughes’ analysis be correct, then Seneca’s Cliff may beckon. Within a decade we will know one way or another. Never forget: Cassandra was proved right in the end.

Charts du Jour, 17 March 2015: Pump Baby Pump (but Don’t Drill)

I regularly report on the Energy Information Administration‘s monthly US oil production statistics, which show no slowdown in output as yet (see here for latest numbers). Bloomberg, however, has a series of multimedia offerings giving more colour as to what is going on.

First, a nice chart juxtaposing production and rig count numbers (source: here).

Active Oil Rigs jpeg

And for a great animated graphic showing rig count through time and space, this offering (again from Bloomberg) is superb. Below is my screen shot, but to get the full effect click this link here.

Watch Four Years jpeg

Finally, an animation explaining why the crashing rig count has yet to stop production rising. In Bloomberg‘s view, the divergence between rig count and production has many months to run.

National Geographic recently had an article titled “How Long Can the US Oil Boom Last?” which emphasises the longer view. They argue that the US fracking boom is a multi-year phenomenon not a multi-decade one.

But in the long term, the U.S. oil boom faces an even more serious constraint: Though daily production now rivals Saudi Arabia’s, it’s coming from underground reserves that are a small fraction of the ones in the Middle East.

Both the EIA and the International Energy Agency see US oil production peaking out by the end of the decade regardless of short-term oil price fluctuations. Nonetheless, both organisations have underestimated the upswing in tight oil production to date. Overall, it is very difficult to gauge where US production will be in five years time. This is a bigger story than the current spectacular rig count crash, and one I intend to return to in future posts.