Guest Post:Gregor Macdonald: What The End Of Cheap Oil Means

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Via Adam Taggart of Peak Prosperity,

On the heels of Chris' recent report clarifying the global net energy predicament, he and PeakProsperity.com contributing editor Gregor Macdonald sit down to talk in depth about the broken relationship between energy costs and economic growth.

For much of the twentieth century, the developed world saw a steady march upwards in wages and living standards, due primarily to huge quantities of cheap, high-yielding liquid hydrocarbon. As we find ourselves bumping along the plateau of Peak Oil's apex, suddenly we find that "growth" is a lot harder to come by.

Of course, if you follow the news today, this is not the story you are hearing. Talk of an energy bonanza and imminent energy independence (in the U.S.) are everywhere, thanks to gas fracking and tight oil production. What is missing from the headlines is the cost side of the equation and a blindness towards future demand. 

For certain, shale gas will be a boon for the U.S. and some other countries. But very little is transported these days by gas, and there are no mega-sized infrastructure projects underway to change that anytime soon. Extraction of new tight oil plays is increasing production, but not by enough to offset other field declines elsewhere in the world, and not at the prices we were used to over the past century. The era of cheap oil is over, and these higher permanent prices act as a boot on the throat of economic growth. Hence the mired global economy we have been experiencing in recent years.

Rather than fooling ourselves with fanciful "energy independence" pablum, we should be looking hard at what kind of future we want to have now that oil is no longer cheap. And we should be asking ourselves in regards to the remaining fossil fuels we're extracting: How can we put these non-renewable BTUs to their best use, before they become expensive, too?

I think the main conversation we are not having is that wages are very unlikely to ever return to a relationship to energy costs that would make the United States economy into a happy economic story once again. In other words, this whole idea that we will restore that unique relationship of high wages and low energy prices -- that is what we are not dealing with. So by telling ourselves the story that we are producing more energy, you can clearly see the cultural impulse there. The cultural impulse is there is to suggest "See? There is a chance, there is a chance we can get the energy cost down again and then there is a chance that that wages will come up again. That relationship got very skewed and kicked into a nasty bad place over the past decade. That is very much a way of thinking about what our economic story is, why we had the crisis, and why this supposed emergence from the crisis that we have been plodding our way through the past several years, why it feels so dis-satisfactory, why it feels so insufficient in many respects.

 

This goes back to the Industrial Revolution. What caused a revolution in British wages? The appearance of coal in the British economy. Why is that? Because not only did you have human workers making stuff, but also, now you had coal helping you make stuff. Coal was the slave labor that you did not have to feed or shelter or clothe or house. And you could get coal to work for you and you could work for you, and you put it all together and it becomes high wages, and you get to pocket those high wages.

 

So this is the dream that we once enjoyed, here in the States with our cheap oil and our high wages. And since oil became less cheap, the wages have stagnated, and I just do not see how we are ever going to get back to that relationship again. Maybe we will talk about this; I do have some hope that we could stabilize the relationship in a future world, which is more weighted towards the power grid in which some manufacturing returns to the United States. But I think the main thing is – you asked the question, what is the main thing we are avoiding? We are avoiding the very painful prospect  – likelihood – that we will not be able to return to high wages, low prices, cheap energy.

 

As you point out, one of the cruel things that we left in the wake of our higher rate of growth and our cheap energy era and our high wage era was the debt. We left a tremendous amount of debt. Of course there is the public debt, but I really think what has been governing the economy in the post-crisis era has been the intractable nature of the private debt. We have both done work on charting the course of the private debt and I am sure we would agree that there has been some deleveraging that has occurred, but it is not nearly the amount of deleveraging that the media either thinks or wishes has occurred.

 

When you compare private debt levels to assets in the United States, yes, we are off the peak, but we are only back to 2006 levels. Most of the people I know were worried about debt levels in 2006. So to “deleverage” back to 2006 levels is not an achievement.

 

This promise of greater energy supply is obviously dangling out the prospect that somehow that will translate into cheaper prices and that the debt can be serviced and possible extinguished or deleveraged. But as we are finding the process is grindingly slow, and that is a big reason why the economy is grindingly slow and just does not seem to make much progress.

 

These things can work for a short period in the short term, and that is what we have been doing in the last five to seven years. We have been adding either expensive or marginal sources to the liquid fuel supply, as you know. This process can be thought of as one where the older more cheap oil is continually swapped out for the more expensive, unconventional, more expensive oil, and that makes for some sort of new risks when it comes to how the global economy may slow or speed up and what it may do to oil prices.

 

Because what I think we are going to find, especially in resource plays like the tight oil resource plays: if price goes below what it is costing these companies to extract this oil, it is actually going to be quite easy for these companies to simply stop drilling; to just stop adding additional wells. Because if you look at the actual mechanics by which wells are currently being added, they are added on a highly discretionary basis. They go in, they produce a lot of oil for a short period of time, and then they go into steep decline.

 

I think what people do not understand is that the Bakken is not like a traditional oil field where you are developing the whole field at one time; you are really just sticking little pin pricks into the topography of the western Dakotas. It is not like a tar sands operation, in which you sink all of the steel in the ground first over a five- to six-year engineering project and then you try to get paid back for the steel that you sunk in the ground. This is more of an inch-by-inch incremental project in the Bakken.

 

So what it looks to me is if price goes below sufficient levels – and I currently put that if price goes below $80-$75 a barrel for any length of time – we will just lose supply much more quickly. I just do not think the market or the economy or Wall Street has gotten its head around the fact that a good chunk of our supply now is ready to go offline at the moment that price drops. And that is probably why price has been so sustainably high, because the global futures market for oil realizes that oil that you see now costs a lot more so it is not going to willing to sell you oil two years from now at $70 or $75 a barrel. It knows that the only way that $70 or $75 a barrel oil is available two years from now is if we are back into a deep recession. I mean a deep recession.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Gregor Macdonald (48m:43s):