"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The shale oil "miracle": how growth may falsely signal abundance

Originally published on "Cassandra's Legacy" on Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Oil production (all liquids in barrels per day) in the US and Canada. (From Ron Patterson's blog). Does this rapid growth indicate that the resources are abundant and that all the worries about peak oil are misplaced? Maybe not....


Sometimes, we use a simple metric to evaluate complex systems. For instance, a war is a complex affair where millions of people fight, struggle. suffer, and kill each other. However, in the end, the final result is seen in terms of a yes/no question: either you win or you lose. Not for nothing, General McArthur said once that "there is no substitute for victory".

Now, think of the economy: it is an immense and complex system where millions of people work, produce, buy, sell, and make or lose money. In the end, eventually, we think that the final result can be described in terms of a simple yes/no question: either you grow, or you don't. And what McArthur said about war can be applied to the economy, as well: "there is no substitute for growth".

But complex systems have ways to behave and to surprise you that can't be reduced to a simple yes/no judgement. Both victory and growth may well create more problems than they solve. Victory may falsely signal a military might that doesn't really exist (think of the outcome of some recent wars....), while growth may signal an abundance which is just not there.

Take a look at the figure at the beginning of this post (from Ron Patterson's blog). It shows the oil production (barrels/day) in the US and Canada. The data are in thousand barrels per day for "crude oil + condensate" and the rapid growth for the past few years is mostly due to tight oil (also known as "shale oil") and oil from tar sands. If you follow the debate in this field, you know that this growth trend has been hailed as a great result and as the definitive demonstration that all worries about oil depletion and peak oil were misplaced.

Fine. But let me show you another graph, the US landings of North Atlantic Cod, up to 1980 (data from Faostat).

Doesn't it look similar to the data for oil in the US/Canada? We can imagine what was being said at the time; "new fishing technologies dispel all worries about overfishing" and things like that. It is what was said, indeed (see Hamilton et al. (2003)).

Now, look at the cod landings data up to 2012 and see what happened after the great burst of growth.

I don't think this requires more than a couple of comments. The first is to note how overexploitation leads to collapse: people don't realize that by pushing for growth at all costs, they are destroying the very resource that creates growth. This can happen with fisheries just as with oil fields. Then, note also that we have here another case of a "Seneca Cliff," a production curve where the decline is much faster than growth. As the ancient Roman philosopher said, "The road to ruin is rapid". And this is exactly what we could expect to happen with tight oil

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