Why The Coming Oil Crunch Will Shock The World

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by Chris Martenson, Peak Prosperity:

And why we need a new energy strategy — fast

My years working in corporate strategy taught me that every strategic framework, no matter how complex (some I worked on were hundreds of pages long), boils down to just two things:

  1. Where do you want to go? (Vision)
  2. How are you going to get there? (Resources)

Vision is the easier one by far. You just dream up a grand idea about where you want the company to be at some target future date, Yes, there’s work in assuring that everybody on the management team truly shares and believes in the vision, but that’s a pretty stratightforward sales job for the CEO.

By the way, this same process applies at the individual level, too, for anyone who wants to achieve a major goal by some point in the future. The easy part of the strategy is deciding you want to be thinner, healthier, richer, or more famous.

But the much harder part, for companies and individuals alike, is figuring out ‘How to get there’. There are always fewer resources than one would prefer.

Corporate strategists always wish for more employees to implement the vision, with better training with better skills. Budgets and useful data are always scarcer than desired, as well.

Similar constraints apply to us individuals. Who couldn’t use more motivation, time and money to pursue their goals?

Put together, the right Vision coupled to a reasonably mapped set of Resources can deliver amazing results. Think of the Apollo Moon missions. You have to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there to succeed. That’s pretty straightforward, right?

So, it should be little surprise that the opposite, a lack of Vision and/or Resources, leads to underperformance — and, eventually, decline. Think Kodak or Xerox. Or third-generation family wealth that has dwindled away to nothing. In a changing world, refusing to change with it is a losing strategy.

A great strategy aligns people’s interests and motivations with the available resources. More importantly, it provides a meaningful framework for action, one that gives a sense of purpose that will motivate everyone through difficult or trying times.

The grand goal of defeating the Nazis provided sufficient motivation for people to buy war bonds, scrimp on consumption, plant victory gardens, and go without nylon. A large part of our national resources were dedicated to the larger strategy of winning the war. Because of the strategy everyone shared, practically nobody complained of this repurposing as a ‘time of sacrifice’ or as an imposed burden.

Given the right framework and the means to achieve it, people will literally crawl through mud in freezing temperatures — and find it deeply satisfying. But given zero context or insufficient resources, people quickly become demoralized or rebellious (just observe how quickly most folks get royally pissed off at having to sit on the tarmac for a few extra minutes before their airplane takes off.)

Strategy matters. A lot.

A Nation Adrift, A World In Denial

Here’s why I’m harping so much on strategy: the US is operating without a viable one.

We neither have a compelling Vision of where we want to go, nor any sense of the Resources required to change with the many transitions underway around us.

The current ‘strategy’ (if we can be so generous as to call it that), is nothing more than “business-as-usual” (BAU).

The US is assuming it is always going to have more cars and trucks on the road this year than last year, more goods sold, a larger economy, more jobs, and the world’s most powerful military. That’s the BAU model. And it has largely worked for the past century.

But it can’t work going forward. And the longer we pursue it, the more of our future prosperity we ruin.

Why? Because the future of everything is dependent on energy. More specifically: net energy.

Having a powerful military consumes a tremendous annual quantity of energy. The US military eats up 100 million barrels of oil each year. By itself, America’s Department of Defense is the 34th largest consumer of oil in the world.

In total, the US consumes over 7 billion barrels of oil each year. And that represents only 37% of the nearly 100 quadrillion of BTUs of America’s annual energy consumption (the rest coming from natural gas, coal, and other sources). For comparisons sake, the rest of the world consumes another 450 quadrillion BTUs.

And world energy demand just keeps on insatiably growing year over year. The (notoriously conservative) EIA predicts it will jump by 28% over the next two decades.

Will our energy production be able to keep up? As I’ve been warning for years, it will be very challenged to do so — or, to do so at prices anywhere near as low as today’s.

Putting Our Plight Into Concrete Terms

Putting those staggering figures aside for a moment, let’s focus on one — just one! — of the crises ahead of us when it comes to our future energy needs.

The nations of the world have made the truly regrettable decision to build so much of their infrastructure using concrete reinforced with steel (re-bar, mesh, etc.). As I’ve explained in detail in previous articles, because the steel rusts over time, the concrete is busy being destroyed from the inside out — something we can detect easily enough by the cracks and spalling (sheets flaking off) so readily apparent on every bridge that’s more than a couple of decades old.

This has created a ticking time bomb. The world’s crumbling concrete buildings, bridges and roadways will have to be entirely replaced in just 40 to 100 years of their original construction dates. Where will all of the energy come from for that?

Also, note that China has poured more steel-reinforced concrete over just the past few years than the US did in the entire 20th century(!). All of this, too, will need to be replaced later this century.

Given that the sand required for all of the world’s *current* concrete projects is now in very short supply, where all the sand will come from for all that future concrete and cement work? Who ever thought we could run out of sand?

But such are the unpleasant surprises that crop up during the late stages when running an exponential economic paradigm (i.e., “Growth forever!”).

Fooling Oursevles

And it certainly doesn’t help that we’re remaining willfully blind to our situation.

It’s probably safe to say that the majority of the population in the US is confident that the “shale revolution” has assured America’s energy security for a long time to come. Heck, the governor of Texas recently tweeted this to the world:

This is wrong on so many levels.

Yes, Texas produces oil and natural gas. But the US is still a net oil importer to the tune of about 3 million barrels per day. The US is not independent with respect to oil. And it won’t be until it produces another 3 million barrels per day (and that’s making the generous assumption that consumption remains flat).

Further, to claim that the US will NEVER AGAIN depend on foreign oil is beyond bizarre. As I’ve been explaining for years, shale fields deplete and decline ferociously. Even the hyper-bullish EIA thinks that the shale fields will peak out in 2025 (I think earlier) and then go into permanent decline.

In my world, NEVER AGAIN is a lot farther out into the future than 2025. But Mr. Abbott has apparently ingested one too many petroleum sales pitches and received a terribly inaccurate impression about the true state of the US’ energy predicament.

Much more likely is that US shale production does not EVER exceed US consumption before peaking out. So it would be more accurate to tweet the US is now and will ALWAYS AND FOREVER be dependent on foreign oil.

Finally, even if the US were a net oil exporter (highly unlikely), we’d still be tied to the world price for oil. Should foreign cartels decided to limit production and spike the price, that would still effect the US. So we still wouldn’t be “independent” of their influence.

But sadly, Mr. Abbott speaks for the nation in that tweet. We’re “swimming in energy” and need not have any worries. The drum of our chest-thumping will scare them away.

In other word:, there’s no strategy beyond BAU.

There’s no acknowledgement of the challenges we face in the coming decades, of declining net energy per capita. Of greater competition between the developed and developing nations for the remaining BTUs.

There’s no compelling Vision to marshall the public towards that fits the realities of the future. We could, and should, be working on solutions for entering a “post-growth” era with grace. Or at a minimum, aggressively using today’s Resources to create a new energy infrastructure that plans for the inevitable decline of fossil fuels.

We could be doing so much better than this.

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