Catastrophism is popular. I can see that with the “Cassandra’s Legacy” blog. Every time I publish something that says that we are all going to die soon, it gets many more hits than when I publish posts arguing that we can do something to avoid the incoming disaster. The latest confirmation of this trend came from three posts by Louis Arnoux that I published last summer (link to the first one). All three are in the list of the ten most successful posts ever published here.
Arnoux argues that the problems we have today are caused by the diminishing energy yield (or net energy, or EROI) of fossil fuels. This is a correct observation, but Arnoux bases his case on a report released by a rather obscure organization called “The Hill’s Group.” They use calculations based on the evaluation of the entropy of the extraction process in order to predict a dire future for the world’s oil production. And they sell their report for $28 (shipping included).
Neither Arnoux nor the “Hill’s Group” are the first to argue that diminishing EROEI is at the basis of most of our troubles. But the Hill’s report gained a certain popularity and it has been favorably commented on many blogs and websites. It is understandable: the report has an aura of scientific correctness that comes from its use of basic thermodynamic principles and of the concept of entropy, correctly understood as the force behind the depletion problem. There is just a small problem: the report is badly flawed.
When I published Arnoux’s posts on this blog, I thought they were qualitatively correct, and I still think they are. But I didn’t have the time to look at the details of the report of Hill’s group. Now, some people did that and their analysis clearly shows the many fundamental flaws of the treatment. You can read the results in English by Seppo Korpela, and in Spanish by Carlos De Castro and Antonio Turiel.
Entropy is a complex subject and delving into the Hill’s report and into the criticism to it requires a certain effort. I won’t go into details, here. Let me just say that it simply makes no sense to start from the textbook definition of entropy to calculate the net energy of oil production. The approximations made in the report are so large to make the whole treatment useless (to say nothing of the errors it contains). Using the definition of entropy to analyze oil production is like using quantum mechanics to design a plane. It is true that all the electrons in a plane have to obey Schroedinger’s equation, but that’s not the way engineers design planes.
Of course, the problem of diminishing EROEI exists and can be studied. The way to do that is known and it is based on the “life cycle analysis” (LCA) of the process. This method takes into account entropy indirectly, in terms of heat losses, without attempting the impossible task of calculating it from first principles. By means of this method we can see that, at present, the EROEI of oil production is not so bad as described by Hill/Arnoux. It still provides a reasonable energy return on investment (EROEI) as you can read, for instance, in a recent paper by Brandt et al
In the last 10 years the global credit market has grown at 12% per year allowing GDP growth of only 3.5% and increasing global crude oil production less than 1% annually. We’re so used to running on various treadmills that the landscape doesn’t look all too scary. But since 2008, despite energy’s fundamental role in economic growth, it is access to credit that is supporting our economies, in a surreal, permanent, Faustian bargain sort of way. As long as interest rates (govt borrowing costs) are low and market participants accept it, this can go on for quite a long time, all the while burning through the next higher cost tranche of extractable carbon fuel in turn getting reduced benefits from the “Trade” creating other societal pressures.
Society runs on energy, but thinks it runs on money. In such a scenario, there will be some paradoxical results from the end of cheap (to extract) oil. Instead of higher prices, the global economy will first lose the ability to continue to service both the principal and the interest on the large amounts of newly created money/debt, and we will then probably first face deflation. Under this scenario, the casualty will not be higher and higher prices to consumers that most in peak oil community expect, but rather the high and medium cost producers gradually going out of business due to market prices significantly below extraction costs. Peak oil will come about from the high cost tranches of production gradually disappearing.
I don’t expect the government takeover of the credit mechanism to stop, but if it does, both oil production and oil prices will be quite a bit lower. In the long run it’s all about the energy. For the foreseeable future, it’s mostly about the credit.
In the end, it is simply dumb to think that the system will automatically collapse when and because the net energy of the oil production process becomes negative (or the EROEI smaller than one). No, it will crash much earlier because of factors correlated to the control system that we call “the economy”. It is a behavior typical of complex adaptative systems that are never understandable in terms of mere energy return considerations. Complex systems always kick back.
The final consideration of this post would simply be to avoid losing time with the Hill’s report (to say nothing about paying $28 for it). But there remains a problem: a report that claims to be based on thermodynamics and uses resounding words such as “entropy” plays into the human tendency of believing what one wants to believe. Catastrophism is popular for various reasons, some perfectly good. Actually, we should all be cautious catastrophists in the sense of being worried about the catastrophes we risk to see as the result of climate change and mineral depletion. But we should also be careful about crying wolf too early. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Hill&Arnoux did and now they are being debunked, as they should be. That puts in a bad light all the people who are seriously trying to alert the public of the risks ahead.
Catastrophism is the other face of cornucopianism; both are human reactions to a difficult situation. Cornucopianism denies the existence of the problem, catastrophism denies that it can be solved or even just mitigated. Both attitudes lead to inaction. But there exists a middle way in which we don’t exaggerate the problem but we don’t deny it, either, and we do something about it!