Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Vulnerability of Oil

During the last century, Western culture imported from Asia a number of Oriental concepts of physiology which have influenced our understanding of medicine, analgesia and hand-to-hand combat.  One of these is the concept of "pressure points."  These points, identified by Asian medical practitioners and martial artists over several hundred years, have been held to be points on a human body where the skillful application of pressure or force could produce widespread bodily effects - for good or for ill - even over organs which did not seem to have a direct connection to the point on the body where external pressure or force was being applied.  The efficacy of the use of these pressure points has been debated between Eastern and Western practitioners of medicine and martial arts, as well as the mechanisms by which such points are supposed to work.  (For an interesting take on the subject, please see this.)  Nevertheless, it can no longer be disputed that there are localized regions of the human body where the application of external pressure or force can produce dramatic effects throughout the entire body.

The body is an integrated whole made of many, many individual cells.  And in the same way, human societies function as integrated wholes made of many, many people.  It is therefore not surprising to discover that entire societies have points where the application of force or pressure can produce widespread effects for good or for ill.  Moreover, as time passes, one or more of those pressure points may become especially sensitive to pressure.

Take a society's energy supplies for instance.  (And here I am getting back to the roots of this blog.)  When those supplies of energy (or other limiting natural resources) are abundant and easy to extract, it is possible for a society's economy to grow, and for its wealthiest members to grow ever richer as long as the rate at which they increase their riches is not so great that they impoverish everyone else in the society.  But suppose the supplies of energy become scarce or the cost of extracting those supplies grows to such an extent that it becomes a significant fraction of the total amount of energy contained in the supplies that are extracted.  Then there is the possibility of significant - er, ahem, drama - depending on how dysfunctional the wealthiest members of the society are.

For instance, the holders of concentrated wealth (and hence, of economic and political power) at the top of the society might be reasonable, moral, decent people.  In that case, they might choose to inform their society of the change in conditions, and to consciously lead their society toward a healthy, righteous, realistic adaptation to the changed conditions - an adaptation which was designed to be as healthy as possible for as many people as possible.

But suppose the people at the top of this society were disturbed and dysfunctional.  Then they might try to play a zero-sum game on everyone else in their society by continuing to try to increase their wealth and power at everyone else's expense.  And they might try to cover up the root cause of their society's impoverishment by scapegoating segments of their population in order to divide the lower rungs of their population against each other.  They might also try to mislead their population into believing that there was some magical formula which could make the good times of consumption and material excess last forever.  But while they continued to waste valuable time on these maladjustments to reality, that reality would continue to take ever-bigger bites out of their daily life.  In the end, they might wind up like the Norse who tried to colonize Greenland several hundred years ago.  (For a couple of perspectives on those Norse, you can refer to this and this.)

That seems to be the society we live in right now in the U.S.  We have a President who heads a regime of asset-strippers, most of whom also are enthusiastic in their support of our President's trashing of the environment and scapegoating, stereotyping and threatening of various nonwhite ethnic groups in the U.S. and abroad while they strip the assets of an entire nation right under our noses.  And among them are voices insisting that they have a magical formula that will return us to the good times of consumerism and material excess if only we follow their formula.  Some of those voices belong to the biggest players in the market of Big Oil, who have insisted that the U.S. can achieve "energy independence" if only this nation removes all environmental restrictions that stand in the way of maximum profits for Big Oil.

But is this claim reasonable?  Even as far back as 2013, the German Energy Watch Group had stated that the worldwide peak of conventional oil production had already happened by 2008, and this agency predicted that the global peak in total petroleum liquids production would have passed by 2016.  (What they say about the picture for coal production in the U.S. is also not very comforting.)  Moreover, a curious thing has happened throughout the world, and especially in the U.S.  Because of the huge amount of debt overloading the global financial system - especially in the U.S. - the ability of increasing numbers of the population to afford high-priced petroleum products has decreased, even as the costs of extracting petroleum have risen.  Some analysts indeed say that the costs which oil companies must pay to extract oil have risen above the level at which most consumers can afford to buy the products made from oil.  One such analyst used some rather colorful language last year to describe what was happening to oil producers when oil prices were between $20 and $30 a barrel.

Now we live in a time in which oil prices have recovered to the range of $53 to $55 per barrel, due primarily to OPEC announcements of production cuts.  However, oil inventories remain very high, and U.S. production has increased, moderating the effect of OPEC cuts.  In addition, there are signs that Russia is not complying with the OPEC agreements to cut production to prop up prices.  The factors which have been causing oil producers (including nations that depend on resource extraction for their revenue) to start bleeding to death in a time of low oil prices are still present.  (See this also.)  And there are signs that the current oil price rally will not last.  The problem is that oil producers cannot meet their obligations to stockholders (for private oil companies) or citizens (for resource extraction-dependent nations), or pay down the principal and interest on their debts, or cover their extraction costs, for anything under $45 to $50 per barrel.  This is why the oil producers cannot cut their production by very much even at low prices, for production cuts mean revenue cuts for these producers.

Which leads to a bit of a problem for these producers, many of whom were instrumental in bringing about a Trump presidency.  They might despise the economic status, environmental policy, language, or skin color of a great many people in the U.S., but there is one color they do like:

Many of us who are among scapegoated groups or who are on the lower rungs of American society or who don't want our environment destroyed have pieces of paper that look like this.  We may not have as many as the asset strippers at the upper rungs of society - but they need our pieces of paper in order to prop up their claims to wealth.  We can withhold this paper if we choose, and if we are willing to do the work needed to live without certain things.  How would things be if U.S. petroleum demand were to continue to decline in 2017 - not only because of the factors listed above, but also because the people at the top of American society had made the rest of us angry enough to engage in massive economic non-cooperation?  Let's say that the majority of us traded tire rubber for shoe leather for the majority of our trips, and that we worked out our anger by striding energetically down sidewalks instead of driving.  The oil majors were among the entities who helped to transform the United States from a one person, one vote society into a one dollar, one vote society.  How much pressure could we exert on these people by taking away a few of their dollars in order to sway some of their votes?

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