Donald Trump’s official Energy Plan envisions cheap fossil fuel, profitable fossil fuel and abundant fossil fuel. The evidence shows that from now on, only two of those three goals can be met – briefly – at any one time.
While many of the Trump administration’s “alternative facts” have been roundly and rightly ridiculed, the myths in the America First Energy Plan are still widely accepted and promoted by mainstream media.
The dream of a great America which is energy independent, an America in which oil companies make money and pay taxes, and an America in which gas is still cheap, is fondly nurtured by the major business media and by many politicians of both parties.
The America First Energy Plan expresses this dream clearly:
The Trump Administration is committed to energy policies that lower costs for hardworking Americans and maximize the use of American resources, freeing us from dependence on foreign oil.
Sound energy policy begins with the recognition that we have vast untapped domestic energy reserves right here in America. The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. … We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure. Less expensive energy will be a big boost to American agriculture, as well.
This dream harkens back to a time when fossil fuel energy was indeed plentiful and cheap, when profitable oil companies did pay taxes to fund public infrastructure, and the US was energy independent – that is, when Donald Trump was still a boy who had not yet managed a single company into bankruptcy.
To add to the “flashback to the ’50s” mood, Trump’s plan doesn’t mention renewable energy, solar power, and wind turbines – it’s all fossil fuel all the way.
Nostalgia for energy independence
Let’s look at the “energy independence” myth in context. It has been more than 50 years since the US produced as much oil as it consumed.
Here’s a graph of US oil consumption and production since 1966. (Figures are from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, via ycharts.com.)
Even at the height of the fracking boom in 2014, according to BP’s figures Americans were burning 7 million barrels per day more oil than was being produced domestically. (Note: the US Energy Information Agency shows net oil imports at about 5 million barrels/day in 2014 – still a big chunk of consumption.)
OK, so the US hasn’t been “energy independent” in oil for generations, and is not close to that goal now.
But if Americans Drill, Baby, Drill, isn’t it possible that great new fields could be discovered?
Well … oil companies in the US and around the world ramped up their exploration programs dramatically during the past 40 years – and came up with very little new oil, and very expensive new oil.
It’s difficult to find estimates of actual new oil discoveries in the US – though it’s easy to find news of one imaginary discovery.
When I google “new oil discoveries in US”, most of the top links go to articles with totally bogus headlines, in totally mainstream media, from November 2016.
CNN: “Mammoth Texas oil discovery biggest ever in USA”
USA Today: “Largest oil deposit ever found in U.S. discovered in Texas”
The Guardian: “Huge deposit of untapped oil could be largest ever discovered in US”
Business Insider: “The largest oil deposit ever found in America was just discovered in Texas”
All these stories are based on a November 15, 2016 announcement by the United States Geological Survey – but the USGS claim was a far cry from the oil gushers conjured up in mass-media headlines.
The USGS wasn’t talking about a new oil field, but about one that has been drilled and tapped for decades. It merely estimated that there might be 20 billion more barrels of tight oil (oil trapped in shale) remaining in the field. The USGS announcement further specified that this estimated oil “consists of undiscovered, technically recoverable resources”. (Emphasis in USGS statement). In other words, if and when it is discovered, it will likely be technically possible to extract it, if the cost of extraction is no object.
The dwindling pace of oil discovery
We’ll come back to the issues of “technically recoverable” and “cost of extraction” later. First let’s take a realistic look at the pace of new oil discoveries.
Bloomberg sums it up in an article and graph from August, 2016:
This chart is restricted to “conventional oil” – that is, the oil that can be pumped straight out of the ground, or which comes streaming out under its own pressure once the well is drilled. That’s the kind of oil that fueled the 20th century – but the glory days of discovery ended by the early 1970s.
While it is difficult to find good estimates of ongoing oil exploration expenditures, we do have estimates of “upstream capital spending”. This larger category includes not only the cost of exploration, but the capital outlays needed in developing new discoveries through to production.
Exploration and development costs must be funded by oil companies or by lenders, and the more companies rely on expensive wells such as deep off-shore wells or fracked wells, the less money is available for new exploration.
Over the past 20 years companies have been increasingly reliant on a) fracked oil and gas wells which suck up huge amounts of capital, and 2) exploration in ever-more-difficult environments such as deep sea, the arctic, and countries with volatile social situations.
As Julie Wilson of Wood Mackenzie forecast in Sept 2016, “Over the next three years or more, exploration will be smaller, leaner, more efficient and generally lower-risk. The biggest issue exploration has faced recently is the difficulty in commercializing discoveries—turning resources into reserves.”
Do oil companies choose to explore in more difficult environments just because they love a costly challenge? Or is it because their highly skilled geologists believe most of the oil deposits in easier environments have already been tapped?
The following chart from Barclays Global Survey shows the steeply rising trend in upstream capital spending over the past 20 years.
Between the two charts above – “Oil Discoveries Lowest Since 1947”, and “Global Upstream Capital Spending” – there is overlap for the years 1985 to 2014. I took the numbers from these charts, averaged them into five-year running averages to smooth out year-to-year volatility, and plotted them together along with global oil production for the same years.
This chart highlights the predicament faced by societies reliant on petroleum. It has been decades since we found as much new conventional oil in a year as we burned – so the supplies of cheap oil are being rapidly depleted. The trend has not been changed by the fracking boom in the US – which has involved oil resources that had been known for decades, resources which are costly to extract, and which has only amounted to about 5% of world production at the high point of the boom.
Yet while our natural capital in the form of conventional oil reserves is dwindling, the financial capital at play has risen steeply. In the 10 year period from 2005, upstream capital spending nearly tripled from $200 billion to almost $600 billion, while oil production climbed only about 15% and new conventional oil discoveries averaged out to no significant growth at all.
Is doubling down on this bet a sound business plan for a country? Will prosperity be assured by investing exponentially greater financial capital into the reliance on ever more expensive oil reserves, because the industry simply can’t find significant quantities of cheaper reserves? That fool’s bargain is a good summary of Trump’s all-fossil-fuel “energy independence” plan.
(The Canadian government’s implicit national energy plan is not significantly different, as the Trudeau government continues the previous Harper government’s promotion of tar sands extraction as an essential engine of “growth” in the Canadian economy.)
To jump back from global trends to a specific example, we can consider the previously mentioned “discovery” of 20 billion barrels of unconventional oil in the Permian basin of west Texas. Mainstream media articles exclaimed that this oil was worth $900 billion. As geologist Art Berman points out, that valuation is simply 20 billion barrels times the market price last November of about $45/barrel. But he adds that based on today’s extraction costs for unconventional oil in that field, it would cost $1.4 trillion to get this oil out of the ground. At today’s prices, in other words, each barrel of that oil would represent a $20 loss by the time it got to the surface.
Two out of three
To close, let’s look again at the three goals of Trump’s America First Energy Plan:
• Abundant fossil fuel
• Profitable fossil fuel
• Cheap fossil fuel
With remaining resources increasingly represented by unconventional oil such as that in the Permian basin of Texas, there is indeed abundant fossil fuel – but it’s very expensive to get. Therefore if oil companies are to remain profitable, oil has to be more expensive – that is, there can be abundant fossil fuel and profitable fossil fuel, but then the fuel cannot be cheap (and the economy will hit the skids). Or there can be abundant fossil fuel at low prices, but oil companies will lose money hand-over-fist (a situation which cannot last long).
It’s a bit harder to imagine, but there can also be fossil fuel which is both profitable to extract and cheap enough for economies to afford – it just won’t be abundant. That would require scaling back production/consumption to the remaining easy-to-extract conventional fossil fuels, and a reduction in overall demand so that those limited supplies aren’t immediately bid out of a comfortable price range. For that reduction in demand to occur, there would have to be some combination of dramatic reduction in energy use per capita and a rapid increase in deployment of renewable energies.
A rapid decrease in demand for oil is anathema to Trumpian fossil-fuel cheerleaders, but it is far more realistic than their own dream of cheap, profitable, abundant fossil fuel forever.
Teaser photo: composite of Donald Trump in a lake of oil spilled by the Lakeview Gusher, California, 1910. The Lakeview Gusher was the largest on-land oil spill in the US. It occurred in the Midway-Sunset oil field, which was discovered in 1894. In 2006 this field remained California’s largest producing field, though more than 80% of the estimated recoverable reserves had been extracted. (Source: California Department of Conservation, 2009 Annual Report of the State Oil & Gas Supervisor)