The Economics of Oil, Part I: Supply and Demand Curves (Detached Comment Thread)

(This is a post with the old comment thread for the post above...sorry to make you click back and forth...the new link is here.)

I'd like a time machine to see into the future. If 'oil' includes oil substitutes the supply curve has to get
steeper as EROEI --> 1 and the demand curve has to shift left due to recession induced lower income. In other words one set of forces tends to raise the price and another wants to reduce it. My guess is that it will never sustain over $200 per barrel.

I don't understand why you've picked $200/barrel.

Pretty much all of Europe's road transport fuel is taxed to the point where it would appear to be refined from $200 oil and Europe's economy hasn't fallen into a black hole in the last 20 years.

I'm thinking $1,000/barrel is more of an interesting breaking point.

I guarantee I'll still be driving my car at $500/barrel oil with today's salary.


Today's salary will not be the same when oil is $200/barrel.

Also, at some point, animal and human power becomes cost competitive with oil. That might be $1000/barrel. It will also depend on the application. Tractors are cheaper than agricultural laborers right now -- that seems to be changing.

Of course, no matter how hard slaves flap their arms for however little pay, they will never be able to power airplanes, so oil will become a magical tool for the ruling wizard class.

Today's salary will not be the same when oil is $200/barrel.

Something's gotta give along the way. I wonder where the breaking points are going to be. Housing bubble? Military costs? Medical costs? Weather/Hurricane/Climate costs? Social unrest?

When will the price of our lifestyles cause upheaval in those lifestyles? When will the market for 5000 sq ft environment blisters cause people without homes to finally pick up stones and rocks and Molatov cocktails and declare independence from the oppression of the petro-fired System of Systems?
When it does, at what point will they realize that fully 50% of them are only alive simply due to the cashflow of that System? Will the last gasoline be used to burn the last checkpoint? Or will the checkpoints prevail, with half of the people standing guard over the other half who are working in the fields?

Dire prediction? I don't think so. The market loves to create demand once it finds the most popular product. When the most popular product becomes violence, the market will sell to both sides every time until the "market clears".

Yeah, I think that is a good term. I'll say it again. "The Market Clears". Think of humans as being yeast, growing across the planet, consuming everything in the Earth market. Eventually, "The Market Clears".

Perhaps there is something wrong with waiting for the market to decide.

Human and animal power will never again be competitive with machinery except in cases where flexibility (for example, mobility) is key. Even machines powered by bio-diesel are more cost-competitive and efficient than human beings in converting food (for example, sunflower oil) to work. Solar electric devices are even more so. Someone with a small engine and a few liters of oil, or with a solar cell and motor, will be able to outwork someone pedaling hard.

Remember, people have to eat all year round, and they need to eat even more when they are working. The caloric efficiency of human beings isn't that great (maybe 20-25%?).

One exception might be concentration camps, where the human beings in question are being worked to death.

It depends on how you measure efficiency. If you're talking about time efficiency, then I agree with you. If you're talking about energy efficiency, then I have to disagree. It is more energy efficient to make something by hand than using a machine.

- Scott
"Try sour grapes; you might like them."

Yes, but it isn't black and white. Even for energy efficiency, there are degrees of mechanization which enhance human productivity with very little resource consumption when compared with their use. Windmills to pump water, drills to get water, make holes in wood, saws, etc. Simple machinery can be more efficient than hand labor alone. The target resource consumption vs. future usefulness is what I refer to as Net Creativity. The most useful way I know to determine sustainability of a particular machine is whether or not the resources to build it can be made/obtained within a reasonable time and distance/transportation constraint, such as within 6 months and within a national border.
Animal power is often a poor substitute for machines. You don't have to feed the machines when they aren't being used. The ox doesn't work as hard as a horse, but can be milked most of the year. Humans are notoriously unreliable, especially if entertained and infatuated with machines. Proper application of machinery to enhance human ergonomics is something we have learned through overmechanization that can be very effectively applied to Descent Planning.

You won't have much luck milking an ox. An ox is a castrated bull.

I'd have to second that price limit. I'm not sure on the specific price, but since oil is a/the foundation upon which the economy is built, a sustained limit in supply would move the demand curve left, and eventually (after initial inflationary effects) cause major deflation, lowering the 'price' of oil, but not relative to gdp (or whatever macroeconomic measure is most appropriate). This sound like the correct logic?

Also, thanks for the article! I have an engineering and sociology background, so explanations of the economic side of this debate is always helpful. Clear and succinct.


The x-axis is the price, and the y-axis is the demand.

Is that the right way round?

We can still get absolute oil shortages if behavior changes overnight. In the 70s they talked about the 'rolling reserve'. Drivers responded to potential shortages by trying to keep their gas tanks as full as possible. A real shortage was thus created. There is a lot of air in all the gas tanks out there.

There shortage came because of government meddling, rationing and/or price controls. After the second oil shock there was no government meddling, and hence no shortage. Just high prices.

You may be right but I can't remember all the details back that far. However, when you consider the process flow between the well heads and the gas tanks, the only thing that can change quickly is driver behavior. The flow through the refineries can't change quickly enough to respond panic buying. Shortages would result.

Now, I don't have any firsthand experience as didn't live in the US and wasn't even born yet, so I know only what I have read and been told.

And that is that there were no shortages in 1979 while there were shortages in 1973. In the US.

Funny that I have no idea how it was in Sweden. :)

But most people I've asked don't even remember the oil crises, so they can't have been very dramatic. What people remember is the huge conflict over the deployment of mitigation in the form of a massive nuclear rollout.

I was around then. I remember a Time magazine in 1973 with pictures of long queues at gas stations in the US. Drivers emptied the gas stations in a couple of days. This has stayed with me to this day, and I make sure our gas tank is filled at the first sign of trouble. My advice - fill your tank and keep it filled because that's what everybody else will try to do. Get in first.

Well I would, if I had a tank.

But I drive electric.

Smart move. I tried out a Vectrix electric scooter in London recently when they were demonstrating them. It was a bit pricey but a perfectly good replacement for a conventional oil burner.

keeping your tank full may be a good policy, but is sure as hell doesnt change the supply or demand. how long will that last tank "fix" maintain the addiction ?

For me, enough to escape from my city and come back later.

I've not decided yet if I am a dommer or a cornocupian :) But it is always good to have an escape route.


Oh boy, oh boy....:-)
At last a piece I could sink my teeth into!

This article by Robert Smithson is a little masterpiece, and while it seems brief and self explanatory, it explains SO MUCH that so many seem to find unexplainable. A keeper. But the struggle is now about something bigger, far bigger, even than "price" and "quantity" of energy. What price for control of the future, for HUMAN DIGNITY?

The closing line is exactly on:
"Each boom in the oil price sows the seeds of its own destruction."

The interesting thing that is always overlooked and underexamined even by the economists however is this one.


Of so many things discussed here at TOD since I first started reading and posting here, the question of liberty has been the least seriously discussed, and when it is, it is usually as something to be made fun of. Liberty is seen as something the right wingers use as an excuse to invade Iraq or Granada or Panama, or something some poor dumb joe six pack uses to defend his right to be assured of driving a giant pick up truck into infinity. Liberty, which was once considered valuable enough to die for is now considered a joke, or a concept of the immature who do not understand the OBLIGATION that each person owes to the world, to give away all individual choice, supposedly so that the world may survive, and not fry in the horrors of ecological catastrophe and global heating, as humankind starves away in an energy deprived world.

But liberty is less a joke when it's yours at stake, isn't it? Imagine the intellectuals who will so gladly proclaim that "only legislation" or compulsion can make the simple masses do right by the world having their own liberty challenged. We saw the reaction on the campuses of America and France in the 1960's.

Now let us go back to the economic topics so perceptively discussed by
Robert Smithson, and ask in the literal sense, "What price liberty?"

I speak of this in relation to recent history. During the so called California energy crisis of a few years ago, the thing that seemed to absolutely grate on the pride of the Silicon Valley business class was the way in which the fate of their business could be decided by the electric power providers. Companies such as Dell and Apple and Sun Micro and the thousands of high tech companies that KNEW technology first viewed the energy crisis that could shut them down with brownouts and blackouts as a technical issue, and found it very annoying. This should not be that difficult to find a way out of, to fix, with alternative and better engineering and design, they reasoned. For the first time, wealthy and powerful people and companies felt powerless, at the mercy of forces outside themselves. Their liberty to continue their businesses and live as they had lived was threatened. Many of the founders and funders of the "high tech" revolution of the last 30 years began to look at the REAL construction of energy, not just oil or gas or coal, but energy in the largest sense.

Imagine their fury however, when they found that it was NOT a technical issue in the true sense, but that they had been being held hostage and caught in the schemes of firms such as Enron, Aquilla, Calpine, Duke Power, Williams, Dynergy, and the people who ran them. The wealth, power and LIBERTY of the richest and brightest class of talent in the world had been put at risk by the games of thugs, theives, con men, and petty traders. Can you imagine the rage?

The high tech billionaires fought to build their firms to give themselves LIBERTY through wealth. In the world today, money has replaced clashing armies and swords. That is the secret of the success of free enterprise. Every person can play at being king or queen, or prince or princess, legally, through wealth. He or she can build a fiefdom, a fuedal realm in business, and control it, pulling the strings, and managing the work of others, sometimes thousands of others. Would not any ancient king have dreamt of the power and access that Microsoft can buy?

Imagine the rage of these people being treated like a lowly middle class rent payer by the utilities, having their power shut off or browned down at the will of the energy utilities, no explanation given. All they had built was being put at risk!

In interviews in the media, in the directives and memos of these business power brokers, one could hear the absolute FURY, and the pledge that they would take control, and NEVER be put in this position again.

But, how do you price something like that, how do you put a price on rage and revenge? What would the venture capital billionaires and the silicon valley powers pay to be freed, to return to a state of liberty from the energy providers? How do you calculate the value of freedom economically? It is a fundamental question.

Within months, silicon valley began to come alive. Office space is again at a premium, and technicians and young talent are returning. New start ups are going public, new publications emerging, thousands of websites, patents, and technical papers written.

This is what the media has been calling the "greening of silicon valley" and the "clean power" revolution. The growth of PV solar, nano solar, advanced batteries, plug hybrid drivetrains are now the new high tech products to be developed. Billions are pouring in. Whatever the price that the prideful and rich silicon valley entreprenuers and investors will pay for liberty, it looks as though it will exceed billions.

"Each boom in the oil price sows the seeds of its own destruction."

True. But the energy industry has gone further than a "boom in the oil price."
They have managed to slap the wealthiest most technically astute most decisive class of people in the world in the face, to spit on their freedom and liberty, and in the case of Enron, to laugh on tape about it, to humiliate the buyers of energy, to be listened to later, over and over and over.

Now, as Robert Smithson points out, the breakpoint is price. Because the technology is ready. The alternatives exist. And America's talent pool has the bit between the teeth. These are people who are already rich beyond the dreams of most humans. They are not in this for the money alone. The money is simply the way to fuel the development. They are in this for freedom, for liberty, for CONTROL of their destiny and the destiny of their rich and privilaged families.

And while the poor may be swayed by the humiliation of the idea of liberty, make no mistake, the rich and powerful will not laugh away theirs. They will not laugh at the tools that can free them from the monopoly control of the current entrenched and corrupt energy oligarchs. THEY WILL FIGHT, with all the tools at their disposal, and the tools are very powerful.

Alvin Toffler described this 30 years ago when he wrote a chapter heading in his book "The Third Wave".

"The Coming Super-Struggle" he called it. But this was not a struggle simply between groups of people. As he described it, it would be a struggle between "radically different ways of wealth production." What PRICE will be payed for control of the future, for destiny, for liberty? And remember, on the demand side, the wealthy and powerful technicians DO NOT accept that they will have to do on less. They believe that they simply have to find ways to produce alternatives that allow them to HAVE MORE. They do not view the winning of the superstruggle, the fight for the future as the opportunity to see their children grow up to walk in ox shiit down on the farm.

THAT will be the fate of the losers of the superstruggle.

The interesting thing is, more and more of the public agree with them, and are choosing sides. Few are prepared to be consigned to the role of yeoman farmer and laborer. They will be willing to PAY, and pay through the nose, if that's what it takes, to retain liberty and dignity.

Each boom in the oil price, each slap in the face of the public has the same effect with the middle class that it had with the wealthy powerful technicians of "sows the seeds of its own destruction."

The difference is, the wealthy silicon valley entreprenuers and technicians possess the skill, the will, the money and the knowledge to do something about it. HOW MUCH WILL THEY PAY FOR LIBERTY? How do you put an economiic price on dignity? Is FREEDOM worth a few extra pennies a kilowatt? A dime extra? a half dollar extra? At what price does "the market clear" when the commodity is MORE than energy, much more?

It is important not to be one who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. We will pay, in dollars or in freedom. It is ours to choose the price of our freedom and dignity. I will now request that Mr. Smithson attempt to price that into his portfolio, as we all must price it into ours.

Thank you.
Roger Conner Jr.

Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

Roger, that is a wonderfully passionate, well-written editorial. Kudos.

I might expand to a conclusion - The entire political/economic/media system in the USA seems to be completely dedicated to carefully regulating the rate at which the water bathing the frogs increases in heat. Most of the other frogs surrounding us have no real understanding their liberty is gone, only an uneasy feeling. By the time they start talking about it to each other, they will already be walking in ox shit behind barbed wire.

That was interesting. You're obviously passionate on the subject of liberty/freedom/dignity (as am I, but in a slightly different context I think, having spent 20 years with a gun in my hands on behalf of the USA ). I'll have to re-read this a couple times in order to digest it. It's also been a long time since I read Toffler.

Btw, are you familiar with "Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures "; by Marvin Harris? I think you would find his research intriguing - Available at Amazon.

Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

Roger, I have been following your post for well over a year now and they still puzzle me. Most of your posts are like the one above, all about "freedom and liberty!" What the hell am I missing here? How do you make the connection between one cubic mile, (of oil), and freedom?

The line below your signature implies that we are not at that point yet, but one cubic mile from it. What the hell does that mean? Are you implying that when that one cubic mile is gone we will have freedom?

HOW MUCH WILL THEY PAY FOR LIBERTY? How do you put an economic price on dignity? Is FREEDOM worth a few extra pennies a kilowatt? A dime extra? a half dollar extra? At what price does "the market clear" when the commodity is MORE than energy, much more?

Liberty? Roger, the question is not what will they pay for liberty? The question is what will they pay for SURVIVAL! And yes the commodity is more than energy but there would be no commodity without energy. The body is more than just blood but the body could not survive for one minute without blood. And energy is the lifeblood of our society.

You have, in many posts in the past, derided those of us who do not believe that the world's massive population cannot survive the disappearance of fossil fuels for very long. You asked me once, after I posted a link to David Price's essay on Energy and Human Evolution, why I just didn't commit suicide, or something to that effect. Implying of course that you could not understand how one with such a pessimistic outlook as mine could possibly go on living. Obviously you are not a doomer. But now I find it absolutely shocking that survival doesn’t seem to concern you at all. You seem to take survival as a given. To you it is not about survival at all, it is about FREEDOM!

In the arrangements of nature, freedom is relegated to an operational position that is secondary in importance to survival…. In a competitive world of limited resources, total freedom of individual action is intolerable.
- Garrett Hardin, The Ostrich Factor, page 140

Ron Patterson

I think I am beginning to agree with Darwinian. I have a lot of "liberal" friends whose concern for "liberty" has more or less evaporated as they face the "fear of terrorists" that is so constantly thrown at them by the MSM.

Even in this obviously trumped-up situation, it seems to be easy to lead people into concern for survival over liberty by merely introducing a little fear.

"Liberty" seems to be the concern of certain classes of people who for one reason or another don't concern themselves with survival. Furthermore, the word seems to have a lot of different meanings-- for example, many seem to associate "liberty" with ownership of more and better guns, even though the evidence that violence, or the threat of violence promotes either freedom or liberty is rather weak.

NeverLNG, please do not misunderstand what I am talking about here. I am not talking about civil liberties such as those given us in the Bill of Rights. I am all for the Constitution and do not believe those freedoms guaranteed there need to be compromised because of peak oil or anything else, at least not yet. Well, that is except where they conflict with survival as I point out below.

What I am talking about, and what Hardin was talking about, is the freedom to reproduce until we are drowning in a sea of humanity. And also the freedom to use, and use up, our natural resources until there is nothing left for our children and grandchildren.

Basically I am concerned with the chaos and anarchy that will hit the world in one or two decades from now. I can almost guarantee you that liberty and freedom will be the last thing on anyone’s mind then. We will all be concerned with survival. I find it absolutely astonishing that some people believe this will be a good thing, which this will be a time of a new awakening, a new Renaissance so to speak.

No, no hell no! It will be a time of absolute hell on earth. To think it will bring on a new Renaissance is nothing more than a new form of religion because it can only be believed on faith.

Ron Patterson

Philosophers separate the terms Liberty and Freedom. I believe that is goes something like, I may have the Freedom to travel to New York, but I lack the Liberty, because I do not have the money. If that is the case, then there would be a careful definition of terms to reduce ambiguity.

"Liberty" seems to be the concern of certain classes of people who for one reason or another don't concern themselves with survival. Furthermore, the word seems to have a lot of different meanings-- for example, many seem to associate "liberty" with ownership of more and better guns, even though the evidence that violence, or the threat of violence promotes either freedom or liberty is rather weak.

Or a class of people that equate 'liberty' with the right to work for advertising companies selling oil, then giving a tithe to Greenpeace while they drive to the grocery store in a (tax deductible) Cadillac Escalade that is used for their home "business" of selling overpriced lipstick or hotdogs to 4 of their closest friends.

Liberty is a statutory right which is determined in scope by society. The only natural right we have is the right to Try to live. Everything else is determined by agreement between individuals and the groups they wish to belong to. At what point is the contract broken? When does the individual get the right to decide that society is failing to live up to its side of the contract (I (state your name), agree to behave in society as long as society behaves toward me, my children, and the world that is necessary for us to try to live.)

At what point is it ok to misbehave? At what point does the failure of society to behave break the contract? That can only be determined by thinking individuals. If society has become a group of unthinking yeast, hasn't it already broken the contract by conducting a war on the individual (there's a quote to this effect by a certain presidential candidate)?

If you give everyone a gun and tell them to shoot anyone they choose, then everyone will either be a better neighbor or a better shot. Both are useful skills. Now, try and build a society without doing that. How do you equalize all the disparate individuals so that they don't feel exploited by the various groups and bullies and intellectual or financial elite? What guarantee do people have that society isn't going to vote to kill every redheaded child? A constitution? A piece of paper? No, you have the threat that each individual actually will try to live when pushed into a corner. The purpose of society is to prevent people from being pushed into corners by government, groups, or gurus. That's why our constitution is one of limiting the rights of bullies. It's why the government is supposed to act toward protecting the commons, the right to assemble, and the right to free speech.
When government acts in concert with groups (corporations) to rape, pillage, overthrow by force, suppress dissidence, and devalue the life (put too much money into circulation) of laborers, then it is violating the trust between individuals and society. If the individuals aren't aware of this intrusion, then there is no more valid contract with society, since it is the same as being mentally retarded or drunk on oil.

Good luck to you all. I've got farming to do.


"The land and the people will go on." -Pearl S. Buck, "The Good Earth"

I have a lot of "liberal" friends whose concern for "liberty" has more or less evaporated as they face the "fear of terrorists" that is so constantly thrown at them by the MSM.


This is where the animal nature of our make up comes into the light.

Deep inside we are all animals, all with a reptile brain.
We fear fear.
We fear terror.
We fear being caged up.
We fear losing our freedoms and our way of life.

Those who operate the manipulation knobs in the MSM control room know this.

It doesn't matter if you are "liberal" or "conservative", if you are high school drop out or a PhD in quantum dynamics. At the end of the day we are all animals. All ready to salivate at the ring of the bell and the wave of the flag.

Darwinian, thanks for an interesting and challenging reply...first to your question....
"The line below your signature implies that we are not at that point yet, but one cubic mile from it. What the hell does that mean? Are you implying that when that one cubic mile is gone we will have freedom?"

That's funny and ironic! I had not thought of it being taken that way....:-)

Actually, turn what you just said around. What I mean is when the one cubic mile of oil is replaced by energy that is not oil, we will have freedom, or at least freedom from this slavish worship of oil.

The line comes from my reading of and fascination with a great post by Khebab back at the start of this year:

My argument is that long before it is imperative for us to replace as much as possible of the one cubic mile of oil with alternatives for the purpose of survival, (the concern you stress in your post) we MUST replace it for the concern of self deternimation, dignity and freedom (both individually and as a nation) Some points:
The one cubic mile consumed yearly is for the WORLD, not just the U.S.
Thus, the amount we need to replace is closer to one quarter cubic mile to completely free the U.S. from oil slavery.

But we do not have to replace that much, IF we are smart. Imagine we could cut consumption by conservation and efficient design, i.e., be at about European per capita consumption per we are talking about replacing one eighth cubic mile. It gets better....if it is national freedom we want, we only have to replace what we import, which is slightly over half....leaving us with not a lot over one sixteenth cubic mile of oil per year to replace. But we would still be slaves to the domestic oil industry, which I find more and more unacceptable each day.

The problem of course is LIQUID FUEL, which is VERY DIFFICULT to easily replace, there is no denying that. The above numbers are not to prove that it would be easy. It would take cleverness, discipline and the WILL TO FREEDOM to do. But technically, it is not at all undoable. And remember, if we are only half successful, we change the bargaining position of the energy buyer vis a vie the energy producer. THAT is the goal, to achieve and aspire to a state of choice, i.e., freedom in our energy. That is what the alt energy firms around the world are aspiring to. We will still use oil, and a pretty fair volume of it. What the advances mean are a return of CHOICE and CONTROL. Call it energy self determination. The difference I think between "doomers" and the rest of us is that the former consider it technically impossible while the latter consider it technically doable, (maybe not easy, and at a price, but technically doable.)

Your sentence,
"You have, in many posts in the past, derided those of us who do not believe that the world's massive population cannot survive the disappearance of fossil fuels for very long."

First, if I have "derided" anyone, or IF it has been percieved that way, I offer my apology. That was not the intention. I have strongly differed with those who see absolute catastrophe and collapse as inevitable. For instance, in your sentence above are the words, "the disappearance of fossil fuels". I simply see that as a fantastical notion, something that is not going to happen in any near term scenario. Peak, yes, in fact we may already be there. Decline in production, yes, it is very possible and potentially soon. "the disappearance of fossil fuels"? Is that really a usable notion at all?

And yes, I have asked on some occasions how anyone who was so absolutely convinced that (a) doom was the only possible outcome, (b) no option would work and (c) humans are so inately stupid and evil they could not possibly arrive at a constructive solution, could get up and face the day. It was not intended as an insult, it just baffles me.

Someone on this string mentioned the frog in hot water analogy. Leaving aside the threat to our nations survival for a moment, let's look at how the water is already starting to boil the frog as it relates to liberty, self determination, and yes, dignity.

(a) We have already prostituted our foreign policy for oil.
(b) We accept treatment and terms from certain nations, (o.k., no names, initials KSA) that we would not accept from nations who did not control the worlds largest oil reserves.
(c) We are now down to sending our ambassadors out to beg, and sell our freedom in the world to get oil
(d) We live with a continuing flood of our money out of the nation at the impoverishment of our citizens to get more and more oil
(e) We tolerate sneering deceitful treatment of our businesses and individuals by the energy producers, both foriegn and domestic, because, we "have no choice" but to buy their products" or so we say.
(f) And WORST OF ALL, we live in a state of absolute BLINDNESS, meaning absolute fear, of when the bottom may drop out. As Matthew Simmons said, we have no plan B. We simply HOPE the production is out there for us. If it's not, we simply beg and suffer. IS THIS ANY WAY FOR DIGNIFIED HUMANS TO LIVE, YEAR AFTER YEAR?

NOW, we have the other shoe falling: Some seem more willing to give away their rights to travel, their rights to a secure and comfortable home, their rights to choose from a variety of careers, than to make the effort to make alternatives work. Before we choose drudgery and slavery, would it not behoove us to at LEAST make the effort to cut into that cubic mile of oil the world consumes a year? What has happened to our DIGNITY, our willingness to at least try? What else would we be doing anyway?

I assure you, some, as I described in my original post, value their dignity and their liberty. The will try. And if they succeed they will win. They will deserve the victory. We need for them to at least be fellow Americans. The idea of national security may seem like an old fashioned joke to some. To many in the world, the struggle is still real, nationalism is still a driving force.

You say,
"To you it is not about survival at all, it is about FREEDOM!"

Well, look at the big picture: In the long view, I will not survive. Death is the assured outcome.

But it is possible I can live my remaining years with some dignity and freedom of action. I can live my life with the freedom to seek or invent alternatives.

That " total freedom of individual action is intolerable" as Garrett Hardin says, is without doubt absolutely correct, whether resourses are limited or not.

But as W.H. Auden once described the goal of great cultures, "Greatness is defined by variety achieved with unity retained."

Or as the founders of YAHOO said, "You Always Have Other Options."
Retaining freedom of response is ESSENTIAL to survival, it does not detract from it.

Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

Roger, thanks for your very courteous reply. Your post deserves a more in depth reply than I am prepared to offer at the moment, after having had too large a Sunday dinner with too many glasses of wine. ;-) Please forgive me. I am saving your post and will reply at a later date.

Thanks again,

Ron Patterson

WOW Roger!

What an inspiring post. Darn near the passion of a "Give me liberty or give me death" visceral approach to the issues of our time.

I pray that you are correct in the will of the rich to fight for energy change. I also feel this way. But as a mere working slave, have very little influence!

'Each boom in the oil price sows the seeds of its own destruction'

This has always been the case in the past but is it necessarily going to be true in the future?

Certainly I can see a recession now or in the next few years still resulting in this pattern. But jump forward to say 2020, when say maximum production is down to 60mbd. Will it still hold?

In spite of all the alternatives on the supply side like CTL, biofuels and so on, they won't be enough. Supply of liquid fuels will fall.

Demand is another thing altogether. There are plenty of things to do that can reduce demand radically. For example, as a response to the last oil crisis Sweden cut oil demand by 40-50 % in something like 5 or 10 years. And we still drive the most gas guzzling cars in Europe.

So we can make it.

If it weren't for China et al. Not only are we going to have to deal with falling supply, which we probably could deal with through efficiency and technology, without too god-awful long term price increases. But we also have to accomodate the swiftly rising energy needs of 2-3 billion people.

We could probably deal with that or with peak oil, but not with both at the same time.

Not without very big problems.

Still, we don't have much of a choice, so let's get going.

I don't think that it won't be true in the future. The question, however, is whether we'll be able to come up with an alternative.

- Scott
"Try sour grapes; you might like them."

Thanks for your post Robert. Most people here, however, do have a college degree and understand the economics of the oil industry.

I personally am not a 'doomer' and believe adaptation can occur but I do not believe it will be market lead. The level of decline in conventional oil assets could be too severe (5% p.a.).

The alternative fuels you discuss were evaluated by Robert Hirsch in his report for the EIA. He found that when they are fully untilised they could replace approx 25m barrels per day of oil. In the long term this 25m bbd plus a little deep water and new conventional might take the supply to 40m bbd. This reality is simply too extreme for the market to respond too. Peak Oil is not an adjustment in the oil market, made possible by the laws of supply and demand, but a global emergency that will require a global warlike response by governments around the world.

...I do not believe it will be market lead.

Interesting. I think the opposite! IMO no 'controlling authority' is going to prepare us for peak oil (unless you assign Iraq to that).

I actually want it left to the market because the price will balance supply and demand if left alone. If the US were to dramatically cut back oil use through regulation or rationing then the price would drop and demand would pick up elsewhere. You can't win. The oil price is actually a very efficient market because there are a large number of producers and consumers. If supply is fixed then demand must give.

Expect companies to respond first because they count the dollars carefully. Last year, Wal*Mart committed to halving the fuel consumption of its truck fleet over 5 years. Joe Sixpack will do the same when he has to.

The SUVs will go one way or the other. No politician can take on every interest group in the country including voters by creating an artificial shortage. They will sensibly decide to leave it to the market.

In the case of the US, we are an oil importer, and so it creates a special case. I don't think it is a good choice to leave it to the free market. Here is why:

Last year prices were twice as high as the prior 5 year average. This resulted in nearly a trillion extra dollars being transported out of the consumer countries into the hands of the producing countries.

That one trillion could have replaced a substantial percentage of the US automotive fleet with much more efficient vehicles. Now consumers are paying out that extra trillion a year AND they must pay for the new vehicles as well.

From the standpoint of maintaining the highest standard of living, acting before prices skyrocket is the wiser course.

(There is an argument that prices bring on more supply. But this is only true when there are new inexpensive supplies to find. Again, since the supply depletes, action that lowers rate of consumption is always best).

Jon Freise
Analyze Not Fantasize -D. Meadows

I actually want it left to the market because the price will balance supply and demand if left alone.

What this discussion ignores is the time factor involved. A human being will die of thirst without water in about 3 days and die of starvation in probably 6 or 8 weeks. These are very short time intervals. If the national food and water distribution systems are put at risk because of shortages of energy, very serious problems will result, possibly including lack of water, food, medical resources,etc. All the kinds of supplies and services needed in a very short time frame. The market place may take years to respond to the 'signals' sent by prices. People on TOD have been pointing out over and over the real possibility that the depletion rates of oil and natural gas are likely to totally outstrip the relatively sluggish response of the market. And then there is the as yet unresolved question of even if it is possible to replace the energy of fossil fuels in a realistic way.

Are you sure about that 6-8 week number?
I was wondering how long the trapped & possibly alive Utah miners can last without food. MSM never mentions that factor.

Of course without oxygen the time to demise is a lot shorter than that for water or food.

I've heard you can live about two weeks without food.

Buf I guess you can make it for longer if you're overweight, and as these people are American...

Thanks for this tutorial, we are missing a TOD contributor with a good background in economy.

And over the long-term, high oil prices will tend to encourage consumers to either reduce energy consumption or shift to other forms of energy. Similarly, investment in either inhospitable areas or in developing technologies will result in greater quantities of oil or synthetic crude coming on to the market. Each boom in the oil price sows the seeds of its own destruction.

I agree but it seems to be more complicated than that. Two days ago, a CNBC analyst interviewed Daniel Yergin and asked the following question:
Where is the demand destruction? Where is the increase production because you can sell it at $70?

and Yergin said:

Delays and rising costs are now the name of the game

What you are describing is a kind of business cycle:

high prices -> more exploration -> more supply -> lower prices

But there are also other cycles:

high prices -> investment in alternatives -> more supply -> lower prices
high prices -> lower demand -> -> more supply -> lower prices

From the viewpoint of an investor, price instability is probably a major risk factor. In a free market, Alternatives are economically viable if oil stays above a certain value so that market substitution can occur.

"In a free market, Alternatives are economically viable if oil stays above a certain value so that market substitution can occur."

This is the exact issue I wanted to ask about.

investment in alternatives -> more supply -> lower prices -> bankrupt alternatives

So when can a directly competing alternative replace a fossil energy source in the free market?

Pre Peak? No, the fossil fuel source EROI is lower, so it has lower production cost, so it cannot be replaced.

On Peak? No, the prices are high enough, but volatile and EROI is still lower so it is the alternatives that get wiped out.

Post Peak? Yes, finally prices are high and fossil EROI is dropping allowing replacement.

But then we are in a race condition - the fossil source is depleting, EROI is falling, society net energy is contracting while trying to ramp up the alternative. If the alternative does not ramp up faster than decline -> collapse of economy.

I think of that last piece as "The Fossil Fuse". Once it gets lit, you have that much time to transition, or collapse.

Is this a reasonable view?

Jon Freise
Analyze Not Fantasize -D. Meadows

At last some erudite discussion of real world economics instead of the net energy, EROEI claptrap usually seen on this site. Economics fails in dealing with a finite resource allocation over the long term, but that doesn't mean it is irrelevant to peak oil and its mitigation. Now let's see some discussion on why the market fails to price various forms of energy according to their energy content. Each energy form has an independent supply/demand curve. But there doesn't seem to be a very good market mechanism that ties them together which results in the energy market values in one form being grossly different from another form. This is especially true when one form is finite and another form is not. When the finite form and the relatively unlimited forms of energy are lumped together, mistakes in analysis of the problem run rampant IMO. This is the root fallacy of net energy and EROEI. Finite forms of energy can not be lumped together with relatively unlimited forms in a comparative analysis. They are fundamentally different. Energy is not finite. According to Einstein, Energy equals Mass times the speed of light squared. This is an very large sum and is the reason solar energy is infinite for all practical purposes. To measure energy in terms of a finite form such as fossil fuel and expect to reach a conclusion about energy availability is folly IMO.


Practical -"Now let's see some discussion on why the market fails to price various forms of energy according to their energy content."

I think it relates to the concept of "utility" and marginal utility. Let's look at 2 equal motel rooms. One on the Maine Coast and one in Cancun. Why is the Maine room rent higher in the summer than the room in Cancun? Why are they not priced by their "value content?" But, in the winter, the Maine room is worthless and the Cancun room is very expensive. Because of their utility, which is subject to short-term fluctuations, i.e., weather. So oil and gasoline are more expensive in the summer than natural gas. And, during a cold winter, natural gas becomes relatively more expensive. Again, a short-term utility effect. However, there are also thousands of long-term utility effects mixed in with every form of energy.

"Now let's see some discussion on why the market fails to price various forms of energy according to their energy content."

Odum discusses this issue (he worked on creating an accounting systems that worked on energy content). Energy is priced by how expensive it was to create, not by how much surplus was generated. Or to say it another way, the money price of energy is the I part of EROI, plus a little profit for the producer.

Odum makes the ironic point that the very best energy sources have the very lowest price! The energy sources that society should value most, it values least. Thus we spend our best energy sources like water, and do nothing to preserve them.

Your efforts via biofuel suffer from this. Essentially because the EROI of oil is so much better than biofuel, biofuel won't be competitive until the last barrel of oil is gone. But by then it will be too late to transition and everyone is toast.

Fossil fuels are essentially a one time capital grant. Renewables are like the companies gross revenue. No rational company would spend its saved capital pretending it was revenue.

I think we (society) ran into problems when we let companies earn a profit by how much oil was used up. It would be like giving accountants a bonus based on how much spending the company did (even if that spending was a total waste). Instead of jealously guarding the companies hard won profits, the accounting department would be motivated to spend and spend. Could a company survive such a policy? I don't think so.

And so here we are. Spending our oil capital as if it was a renewable flow of energy (like PV or corn). It isn't. Of course, try to pry that revenue flow out of the oil companies hands. Not a chance.

Jon Freise
Analyze Not Fantasize -D. Meadows

Garbage. You confuse resources with production rates. There is no "infinite" source of power, not even of energy. What we need to measure is power (Watts), which is the flow rate of energy (Watt-hours). An oil field may contain tremendous amount of energy, but if it's locked up in the rock like an oil shale, the the rate at which the power can be extracted may be very slow. If it takes more energy to get out than the produced oil contains, what economical sense does that make? Which part of EROEI don't you understand?

At present the world uses, on average (2004) 1.5 10^13 Watts, so to balance supply and demand you have to produce oil, electricity, nuclear, whatever, at at least that rate. I say "at least", because although conversion between the fuel types (or energy carriers if you prefer) is possible, it is lossy.

Look further down the threads and you will see a report that the US has had to limit power output from one of it's nuclear plants this summer because of too high coolant temperatures. France have also had to do this in the past. So much for "infinite" mass into energy power sources.

The cooling problem is the same for coal plants as for nuclear and it is solved by either adding cooling towers or using a larger heat sink, for example the sea. All our nukes are on the coast and obviously never have this problem.

The Browns Ferry Nuclear plant in North Alabama does not use cooling towers. It simply takes cooling water from Wheeler Lake on the Tennessee River and dumps the water back into the lake a little further downstream.

Ron Patterson

A good idea, as long as the lake doesn't get too hot. Harder for a lake to heat up than a river, but even harder to heat the sea. :)

Well, it's really a lake on the river. It is a huge man made lake on the Tennessee River created by the Wheeler Dam. Even in the lake the water is always flowing, much slower than if it was just a river, but still flowing.

Ron Patterson

That was then Khebab, this is now (quite possibly IMO):

high prices -> more exploration -> but still no increased supply -> high prices


high prices -> lower demand-> but depletion continues -> still high prices

And then throw in the Geopolitical constraints of the Export Land Model, Russia, Resource Nationalisation.

Peak Oil may kick conventional economics and supply-demand curves into the dustbin of history.

I think we're seeing a case for which economic theory isn't prepared. Before this point in history, things didn't seem like they could really run out. If a resource became limited in one region, it could be acquired somewhere else. This increased its price, but that was expected and could be explained. Now, we have a case where resources of various kinds are simply running out, and there isn't any more to be found.

- Scott
"Try sour grapes; you might like them."

I disagree. Maybe econ 101 level theory is not prepared to deal with resource depletion, but scarcity and shortages are not unstudied economic concepts. Resource constraints do not negate economic theory... they just make it a great deal more complicated.

There is some discussion at Mish's Market Traders site on the Energy and Energy Stocks bulletin Board about crude oil contracts dated in excess of 3 years.
I figure we will pull out of Iraq and am trying to figure how that will impact the prices of these contracts.

From the initial posting:
"J.P. Morgan was chosen to head up the “new” infantile Iraqi Central Bank. They quickly moved to “collateralize” Iraqi assets [what else does Iraq have that the world needs besides OIL?] to rebuild [or redistribute the rubble, perhaps?] the country.

Funny, isn’t it; that this “COLLATERALIZATION” just happened to coincide with an “explosion” in trading volume of “LONG DATED” [greater than 3 years maturity] crude oil futures contracts."

The link:


Oil demand and supply may be inelastic in the short-term, but in the long-term, they are remarkably elastic. Hurricane Katrina does not cause a long-term change in consumer behaviour; but if long-term expectations for oil prices rise, then both the demand and supply curves will shift.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the study of the results of the 1970s oil shocks. In the US the government responded by introducing a 56mph national speed limit, and mandating strict new efficiency standards.

The importance of public policy in this example cannot be overstated. Recall that Congress actually banned the construction of natural gas-fired generating stations during this period. Not only did Congressional actions result in energy savings directly, they also reinforced public perception that conservation was the best strategy for dealing with this period of turmoil. Accordingly, the public on balance went with the flow and ratcheted back energy use.

Starting in 1982, energy consumption rebounded. Yes, energy prices began their slide then, but the gradual dismantling of Ford-Carter era policies reinforced that trend. These changes encouraged the public to believe that the U.S. was out of the woods, energy-wise, and that voluntary conservation was no longer necessary. Stripped of its patina of necessity, energy conservation became downright undesirable.

Price elasticity is as much a function of public perceptions as it is a simple balancing of supply and demand. Right now the energy debate is being framed in supply-only terms. There is no urgency to that discussion. It is just a matter of agreeing that a subsidy is needed, whether for ethanol or CTL, and setting a politically expedient level. Does that arid discussion inspire you to drive less or carpool or buy a smaller, more efficient vehicle? Not likely.

So the public will drive on, irrespective of high prices. This inelasticity is guaranteed to persist until Congress and the President acknowledge that the problem is serious and pass legislation that limits energy use, period.

Democratic governments function reasonably well when resource availability is expanding. How well they allocate resources to the citizenry when energy availability declines is a question that will soon be answered.

Friedrich Schiller: Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.

“The world is consuming more oil than it is producing.” --The Economist, July 14-20 print edition.

Wow, that’s a shockingly foolish statement.

No, it isn't. It's the very cusp of truth.

The "world" is indeed "producing" oil at a rate much, much slower than it is consuming it.

Oil is "produced" by geological forces that care not one bit about our sacred supply and demand curves. It happens over millions of years.

Consumption happens at a much faster pace. It happens over decades.

Woe to us all.

Sorry, I take the Economist, and sometimes they are more than a little dim. This is one of them
Bob Ebersole

Sorry, I take the Economist, and sometimes they are more than a little dim

Agreed, Bob. One recent article in The Economist stated that "greater adoption of GMO corn and wheat, for example, could improve yields". A typical myth based on cheap oil. TE easily falls into the Trap of Technology Promises, which replaces labor and good management practices with chemicals and petroleum-based machinery (not just in agriculture). Anyone see the problem here?.....Anyone?....Bueller?

Saying "The market will clear" is a great way to simplify a description of the famine, blackouts, brownouts, violence and political instability. I love it. I might even make it into a camo T-shirt.


"When discussing the plight of the family farm, there are plenty of economists who say there are too many farmers, but none of them say there are too many economists." --Wendell Berry

Folks, I am leaving this comment thread here, but there's something funky going on with the post, so I am creating a new thread up above this on the front page.

Sorry to make you click back and forth.

Also here's a new reddit link:

if you are so inclined...

And over the long-term, high oil prices will tend to encourage consumers to either reduce energy consumption or shift to other forms of energy.

About these "other forms of energy".

Electrified rail and electrified road transport being the first candidate.

At some point, someone will work out that overhead electrification for rubber tyred vehicles is cheaper per mile than diesel. At that point we may well see large scale construction of standardised electric gantries & lines that trolleybus operators and truckers will pay (possibly per mile with a kWh charge) to use. At first it won't be universal so trucks will be dual capable.

In Glasgow in Scotland, pre 1960 there was significant over head electric provision all over the city. This ran one of Britain's largest trolleybus network (in parallel with a very large tram network).

There is no reason that it can't be rebuilt but this time with significant A-road, and perhaps motorway provision as well for truck hauling capability.

We'll still have major overland road transport in 100 years time, it'll just look a bit different from today.



I have taken some micro and macro economics courses, but am by no means an economist.

Lets agree that:
1) At any given time Oil "supplied" = Oil "demanded" = Oil "produced" i.e. that we are using the economists definition of these words, understanding that there are other definitions extant in the language

2) Oil sells for a particular price at any given time. I know there are several standards traded in the markets, but lets simplify it to pick 1 as they seem closely related to each other.

This being said it seems to me that there is little point in saying much about supply and demand curves unless they have some predictive or explanitory power with respect to the amount of oil produced at some time, or its price. i.e. can we use them to decide what level of taxation would reduce global carbon emmisions a certain amount, or explain why oil consumption was growing at about 6% year over year just prior to the 1973 embargo?

Wherever I have looked for this info. I have failed to find it, so I was wondering if you could provide [a link to] actual supply - demand curves for oil for any time in say the last 100 years, or speculative curves for any time in the future, and the data / methods that were used to construct them.


there is little point in saying much about supply and demand curves unless they have some predictive or explanitory power

I disagree, respectfully.
There is something important to say about the P & Q curves.
Their point and purpose is to brainwash you.
And they (P/Q curves) are very effective at doing so.

1. First off, a P&Q graph "frames" your thought processes into a two dimensional plane.

2. Second, a P&Q graph fools you into seeing this as a simple algebra problem or geometry problem: Where do the lines intersect?

3. Third, the Q value along the x-axis is a physical quantity. Quantity can be counted and cannot be fudged with. Either you have 500 refrigerators or you don't. Sounds simple and logical (as long as the thing being Quantified is above ground).

All this fools your brain into believing the thing along the y-axis, P is a physically real thing. It's not. It's pure hot air. "Price" is a free wheeling noise we humans make. It has no basis in physical reality.

But how can that be, you might ask. After all:

y=mx + b

so the Price thing "must" be a function of the physically real Quantity thing.

If you buy into that, you've been fooled by the frame.
If I'm a salesman at a warehouse full of refrigerators, I can arbitrarily drop my price at a whim and offer the Quantity at a great sales price ... one that may be too good for you to refuse. It's all a ruse.

**I posted this on the old thread and wasn't sure if I should also post it here, so sorry if you see this twice. Step Back, you bring up price as the dependent variable as shown on the Y axis of a SD graph. My earlier comment addresses the question about why "price" is shown on the vertical axis, when it really should be "quantity".

A very minor quibble and a question:
It is disconcerting to me to see the x-axis as the vertical axis. Is that a common usage in economics?

Yes, unfortunately it is. This can be traced back to Alfred Marshall's 1890 textbook, Principles of Economics. From what I understand, he considered it more intuitive to do it this way, but it has caused a lot of confusion since.

This is a very interesting post. Unfortunately, I am running behind on project work or I would add to the discussion. Instead, I will point you to a couple of useful links:

Note the reverse "L-Shaped" supply curve shown in the second linked article. I mentioned verticalization of the supply curve in an earlier post, but haven't looked into this in detail. I would be interested in finding empirical research that supports this (for oil or other non-renewable resources).