Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Invest, invest, invest! Consume, consume, consume! No! No! No!

The first time it got really blatant for me was in September, 2001. That was when George Bush stood atop a demolished fire truck at ground zero and implored New Yorkers to go shopping and spend their money to restart the New York economy.

In our world maniacally driven by economics and money, the generally perceived solution to any problem has become spend, spend, spend. You can solve any problem by throwing money at it. The necessary assumption that is always demanded is that the future for which we are investing is limitless. Limitless growth. Limitless population. Limitless resources. Limitless oil.

If the economy softens it's because people aren't going to the mall and wasting their money on plastic trinkets from Shanghai. When they go to the supermarket they aren't picking up that cut of spring lamb flown in from New Zealand or those oranges flown in from South Africa. They aren't buying a new car every model year, for heaven's sake.

And when it comes to tightening in the oil market, we don't have a supply problem. We have an investment problem. The oil companies - especially those dastardly national oil companies that now control the bulk of the world's oil resources like Saudi Aramco, Pemex, Petrolios di Venezuela and Petrobras - are not investing enough in bringing new oil to market. The oil exploration companies are not invest enough in new exploration for increasingly illusive deposits of oil. Oil companies are not investing enough in new refineries. Not enough is being invested in new bulk oil carriers to move that oil from increasingly remote sources to increasingly thirsty markets.

Politicians dream of - and expect oil company execs to do the same - vast resources of untapped oil out there someplace if only the oil companies and exploration companies and shipping lines and pipeline builders would all get off their wallets and invest, invest, invest.

But those to whom those governments and politicians turn for the fuzzy statistics that support their limitless belief in limitless growth and limitless resources are increasingly injecting sanity, not money, into their efforts. Fatih Birol, chief economist to the International Energy Agency (IEA), is the latest to opt for rational sanity rather than unquestioning faith. Perhaps he is tiring of being mistakenly identified as Faith Birol.

In a stunning departure from the IEA norm he has conceded, in an interview with George Monbiot of the Guardian, that we are headed for global peak oil by 2020, just eleven years away. Personally, I believe that is still a little far out. But that happens to most people as they come to grips with peak oil. They cling to the most optimistic estimates, the ones furthest out in the future. Over time, as they re-examine the foundations of the limitless faith without the benefit of their rose-coloured glasses, they gradually accept that the peak will be - for geologic, geopolitical and economic reasons - much sooner rather than later. I have become comfortable with the appearance that we passed peak in the spring of 2005 and have been bumping along on the gradual down-trend of the peak oil plateau.

Geology is the ultimate constraint that defines peak oil. Eventually it becomes abundantly clear that we simply cannot find enough new oil to offset the escalating declines in existing oil fields. But peak availability will, and even now is, ultimately negatively impacted by other above ground factors.

Back to where we began, investment. As an industry matures the stewards of that industry increasingly and more obsessively look ahead. They are trying to determine at what point it is unwise to continue investing because the life expectancy of their enterprise has shortened to the point that further investment cannot be recouped. Quite simply, you get no return from your investment when growth stops. That is what the stewards are trying to identify as they look ahead, the point at which growth will stop and their enterprise will go into decline.

Banks are no longer willing to invest in sub-prime mortgages because they can no longer see increasing real estate prices in the future. They see a future in which housing prices - read equity - will decline faster than the "homeowner" can pay down their mortgage. No growth, no equity. Real estate ceases being an asset and becomes a liability.

Oil companies and exploration companies have for years been experiencing lower and lower returns on their investment. Exploration investment continued to increase for years while the discoveries of new oil deposits - the return on their investment - continued to decline. In fact global oil discoveries actually peaked in the sixties, over four decades ago.

That was acceptable for a long time, if you continued to have faith that the big discoveries were still out there and all you had to do was find them. But what happens when reality bites? When you lose the faith? When you realize that the big discoveries you keep throwing money into finding simply are not there to be found?

Oil companies, whether independent or nationalized, seem to have come to that point. Unused oil rigs are rusting in junk yards. Exploration rigs are abandoned if they are not being taken up for exploration for those middle east nations still willing to pour money into looking for new oil deposits. Reluctance grows to invest in pipelines to bring oil from increasingly remote and smaller fields to ocean oil terminals.

As long as credit is available people as individuals seem to be willing to spend money they do not have and may not have in the future. That willingness has built America as the world's greatest consumer nation. It has also made America the world's most indebted nation, and a nation increasingly unlikely to ever be able to discharge its massive global debt. Only now that credit is no longer available are they beginning to trim back. They are suddenly, one at a time, sitting at kitchen table looking at the pile of bills and asking themselves, "How the hell am I ever going to pay all of this?"

Corporations cannot afford themselves the freedom to wantonly spend themselves into unmanageable debt. That does not mean that their debt cannot become unmanageable. It can and definitely does as the economic environment in which they operate changes abruptly, outside of their control. That is the point at which corporations hail a cab, trundle on over to Pennsylvania Avenue and hang about on the steps of congress, cap in hand.

But the money that is magnanimously place in their proffered cap by congress is not going into new business development, not going to discharge debt. It is going into the coffers in a vain attempt to stay afloat, to survive. It is a lifeline.

As oil company executives pour over their charts and graphs detailing the company's projected future, they are increasingly willing to see the truth in those charts. The days of growth in oil deposits, in development, in profits, is rapidly coming to an end. The reality is that most of their growth in recent decades has been a result of merger and acquisition, in purchased reserves, not in newly discovered fields. It is the illusion of growth in a reality of decline.

Governments continue to chant: "Invest! Invest! Invest!" So far they have not heard, or have chosen to ignore the response: "No! No! No! There is nothing to invest in!" The oil companies are increasingly investing in buying back shares, artificially inflating dividends, as they prepare for their foreseeable demise. They are increasingly investing their money in wind, solar, geothermal and other alternatives as they prepare for the end of economically recoverable oil. They have been sucked into heavily investing in new exploration before, in the seventies and eighties after the peak in global discovery, only to see the price of crude fall through the floor.

Oil companies have access to far better data than we in the peak oil community have. We can see what is coming, and how quickly. That fuzzy view that we have is crystal clear to them. We can see the cloud of dust coming down the road. With their magnified clarity of vision they can see, in the midst of the dust, the four horsemen of the apocalypse confidently and arrogantly galloping toward them.

No comments: