Monday, August 25, 2008

Demand Destruction & Brittle Systems

I've seen a number of comments, both at The Oil Drum and elsewhere, suggesting that the US is now less susceptible to supply disruptions because we have reduced our demand for oil by several hundred thousand barrels per day over the past year. In general, I get the sense that people think we can insulate ourselves from supply disruptions, from our dependence on potentially unreliable foreign sources of oil, by improving our efficiency and eliminating "unnecessary" oil consumption. In my opinion, this is backward. In this post, I will argue that, because the demand that is destroyed first in a free market is the demand that is easiest to eliminate, the resulting consumptive system is more inelastic, more brittle, and more susceptible to systemic shock from supply disruption. I will approach this argument by outlining what makes a system either resilient or brittle and why market-driven demand destruction creates a more brittle system. I will conclude with a few thoughts on how we can increase the resiliency of our energy-driven economy in a future environment of declining energy supplies.

model of market-driven demand destruction illustrating theory that the lowest elasticity demand is destroyed first, resulting in more inelastic remaining demand

Figure 1: A hypothetical model of market-driven demand destruction illustrates the theory that the lowest elasticity demand is destroyed first. This results in the remaining demand being, in aggregate, more inelastic. "E" figures are meant only as relative measures of demand elasticity and are not meant as actual values for price elasticity of demand.

What Makes Systems Resilient or Brittle?

A system is brittle if it is unable to effectively absorb shock. Consider a plate glass window in comparison to a trampoline net. The plate glass window can take a significant shock without budging, but at some point it can no longer absorb an impact and fractures. It is brittle. The trampoline net, on the other hand, will be moved by even a minor impact, but because of its ability to deform and stretch, it will not fracture (or tear) until far greater stress is applied then is needed to break the glass window. The trampoline is resilient. These same qualities of "brittle" and "resilient" apply to economies and financial markets.

The Problem with Brittle Systems

When an economic or financial system is brittle, it is less able to absorb the impact of a shock or ongoing stress--say, a geopolitical disruption to oil supplies, or the ongoing, grinding problem of geological peak oil. When a system is resilient it tends to be able to absorb such impacts, giving the underlying system time to reorganize to eliminate or mitigate the stress event. When a system is brittle, however, it is more likely to shatter, after which point it can no longer bounce back to its original shape. When an economic system shatters, we call it "collapse"--the system enters a downward spiral into depression and dissolution. This is one of the "worst case scenarios" for the impact of peak oil--that it will overstress a brittle global economic system and act as the catalyst for economic, even societal collapse.

For this reason, it is important to understand what makes our economic system brittle or resilient, and how our personal economic choices and political/policy choices can influence the character of the system. In this post, I will look specifically at the how crude oil demand destruction changes the systemic elasticity of demand for oil, and how this makes our economic system more brittle.

Why Demand Destruction Makes a System More Brittle

The basic mechanism underlying this theory is that, when forced to eliminate consumption of oil, individuals, and the market in aggregate, will eliminate the most discretionary consumption first. As a result, the remaining consumption will be more valuable to the individual, firm, or economy in terms of GDP or quality of life produced per barrel of oil consumed. This remaining demand is more inelastic. When the oil demand--whether it is for a family, industry, or nation--becomes more inelastic there is greater exposure to supply disruptions.

For example, the US economy that consumed roughly 20 million barrels of oil per day in 2007 was less vulnerable to a theoretical geopolitical disruption removing 5 million barrels of oil per day from the world market (say, war with Iran) than a future US economy that only consumes 10 million barrels per day due to market-driven demand destruction. The reason is that, presumably, that future US economy cut the least valuable, most discretionary 10 million barrels per day of consumption, and the remaining 10 million barrels per day of demand is far more inelastic.

Is Market-Driven Demand Destruction an Example of a Market Failure?

The tendency of a free market to cut the most elastic demand first seems to be an example of market failure--that is, where the market action produces a long-term result that runs counter to the goals of the market mechanism. One of the classic causes of market failure is where the market acts to optimize short-term benefit, but in the process creates significant long-term problems that aren't adequately accounted for due to inability to incorporate these long term costs in the analysis of present decisions.

We saw exactly this in the rush to extend credit to increasingly low income home buyers resulting in today's "credit crunch," and I predict that we are currently seeing a similar market failure in the market's destruction of the most elastic demand first. The result will be an increasing vulnerability to future supply disruptions--unfortunately, this will come exactly as the likelihood of more severe supply disruptions increases, as I discussed in my recent article on Geopolitical Feedback Loops.

Measuring Inelasticity: Is it Purely a Price Issue?

The standard measure of demand elasticity is as a function of price. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a good measure of the impact on systemic resiliency. Even if prices are going down, demand inelasticity can be increasing if the cause for the price drop is that high prices have caused an economic downturn that is eliminating the most elastic oil demand. There are indications that this is exactly what is happening at present--high prices are creating demand destruction, at least in the US, but the demand that is being eliminated appears to be the most elastic consumption. A better measure of the impact of demand inelasticity on systemic resiliency may be price as a percentage of median disposable income.

Comparing the Credit Default Swap system to Demand Destruction

It is useful to compare the process of increasing inelasticity of demand due to market-driven demand destruction with the systemic brittleness created by the mushrooming market for credit default swaps. I've written a brief explanation of this shadowy corner of the financial world in Financial Wizardry & Collapse. In brief, by spreading the risk of default on corporate bonds very thinly and widely, the global financial system becomes superficially more resilient as it is better able to absorb a handful of major failures. However, because the system is so interconnected, at some tipping point of numerous defaults, the entire system would crash at once. The result is a system that is actually far more brittle.

The credit default swap (CDS) system is in some ways useful in understanding how to reduce the brittleness caused by market-driven oil demand destruction. In the CDS system, individual corporations or issuers essentially bet on the viability of corporate bonds--they have the power to choose their level of exposure. Of course, in seeking to maximize profits, there is a trend to maximizing revenues by maximizing exposure to systemic default. Participants can, however, participate in the system while maintaining a safe, low level of overall exposure--a level where they could absorb the impact of simultaneous default of every position they hold. The lesson, roughly applied to energy demand inelasticity, seems to be to minimize the exposure to supply disruptions of the most inelastic sources of consumption.

For example, if winter heating by heating oil is a very "important" (and thereby inelastic), source of consumption, it would make sense to move that use to a more reliable source of energy (say, passive solar design and added insulation) before converting gas-powered commuter cars to plug-in electric. This also applies to electricity and natural gas use--for example, the electricity used to pump water out of aquifers for a farmhouse is likely a very inelastic source of demand; replacing this source of energy consumption with rainwater harvesting would improve the aggregate elasticity of demand.

This seems to run counter to what the market and non-market incentives (subsidies & R&D funding) are pushing for--one reason why I think this process demonstrates a market failure--and may be a good candidate for a centrally-planned policy push. This is just one example of how the US could actually increase systemic resiliency by substituting renewable, domestic, alternative energy sources and conservation measures for the most inelastic sources of oil demand (the red section of the Figure 1, above), while retaining the more elastic and discretionary sources of oil consumption to buffer supply shocks.

What About Efficiency?

Do improvements in efficiency have the same effect as involuntary, market-driven demand destruction? Maybe. If the pace of efficiency measures decreases the scarcity of oil, then the result will be a less brittle system. However, this tends to act as a negative feedback loop, as the exact stimulus that drives investment in efficiency (high prices & scarcity) will also be eliminated by efficiency gains rapid enough to decrease the overall scarcity of oil.


As a result of recent demand destruction, the US economy is becoming increasingly susceptible to shocks caused by supply disruptions. The global economy appears to be following suit to some degree, though the process of demand destruction in the growing economies of China, India, Russia, and elsewhere in the developing world is currently less clear than the picture in the US. It appears that the process of demand destruction in the US is a classic example of market failure--not that it is a failure to reduce apparently "unnecessary" or frivolous consumption, but rather that by relying on market signals alone we are increasing the inelasticity of remaining demand and setting ourselves up for catastrophic system failure. While anathema to the orthodoxy (though certainly not orthopraxy) of American capitalism, it is time to consider how we must use non-market mechanisms to plan for increasing our systemic resiliency.

While this may be unlikely to happen at a national level, the need to increase resiliency is scale-free: individuals, communities, bioregions, and nations can all benefit by the increase of resiliency at any level. I have previously addressed one way to increase resiliency--by addressing the Problem of Growth that tends to "eat up" systemic resiliency. In this post I also recommended policy programs that would first transition our most inelastic demand to reliable, domestic, and renewable sources of energy.

If there is a "so what?" point to this post, that is it: rather than work to create viable, stable, renewable substitutes to the more elastic components of oil demand, we would be better served by focusing subsidies and research grants on replacing our most inelastic demand first. Implement policy and subsidy as necessary to replace or eliminate the most inelastic sources of demand first--the exact opposite of what the market would do, but the best way to increase systemic resiliency.

This post also appears at The Oil Drum.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Geopolitical Disruptions: Building a Theory of Disruptions to Oil & Resource Supply

The peak and gradual decline in world oil production is beginning to spawn a set of geopolitical positive-feedback-loops that seem likely to exacerbate depletion and accelerate the effective rate of decline of world oil production. Rather than isolated incidents, these geopolitical feedback loops are the direct result of geological peaking in oil production. Unlike geologically driven peaking, however, the effective rate of decline caused by geopolitical feedback loops has the potential to continually accelerate. This post will lay out a theory to better understand the impact of this system of geopolitical phenomena.

While geological peaking presents a significant challenge (black line = geologically determined oil production rate), it also acts as a catalyst for a system of geopolitical feedback loops that may catastrophically exacerbate the situation (red line = potential impact of accelerating geopolitical feedback loops on oil production rate)

I've discussed the impact of various types of geopolitical disruptions to oil production previously at The Oil Drum. One of these geopolitical phenomena, the Export Land Model (ELM), has been well developed by TOD members Westexas and Khebab (see their Iron Triangle post and Wikipedia article). While I think that ELM is already proving to be the most significant of the geopolitical factors--especially in the earlier phases of peak oil--I think that it is important to place ELM into the context of a larger set of geopolitical pheonomena. In part, this is the case because of a similarity between the various geopolitical forces at work. In part, it is because these forces tend to act as alternatives to one another, and their full implications cannot be properly understood in isolation.

In this post, the first part in a series, I hope to lay the framework of a theory for better understanding these phenomena, for extrapolating trends, and for predicting their future impact. It is also important to place the problem of geopolitical disruptions in context, and to highlight the danger of dismissing these phenomena as isolated and separate "above ground factors." The next post in this series will review and update the set of geopolitical feedback loops currently in action, looking not only at disruptions to oil production, but also at the larger issue of resource production, including gas, coal, fertilizer, metals, etc. The final post will discuss the interrelationship between the various geopolitical forces at work as well as the potential approaches to "solve" this system of problems.

Building a Theory of Geopolitical Disruptions to Resource Supply

Since this theory is still very much in formation, I'll proceed by asking a series of questions, followed by my best answer at present. I hope that readers will help to both refine these answers, as well as propose additional questions that must be addressed:

1. Are Geology and Geopolitics Separate?

When considering peak oil, it is tempting to look at the issue as a purely a matter of depletion due to geology and production economics. While peak oil certainly begins with the study and understanding of geological depletion, it spawns a set of exacerbating geopolitical factors that are critical to understanding the ultimate scope and impact of peak oil.

Some commentators consider "above ground factors" to be separate, stand-alone phenomena that are neither related to nor driven by the geological peaking of oil production. This is a critical mistake. Rather than being merely isolated phenomena, these geopolitical forces are best viewed as phenomena that would not exist but for geological constraints. Without geological constraints on oil production--specifically without geographical constraints on where remaining viable oil reserves are located--oil producers would produce sufficient oil from geopolitically stable locations. In reality, resources are almost always subject to uneven geographical distribution.

For economic and political reasons, consuming nations tend to produce domestic supplies first. When consuming nations produce oil in foreign nations, regions with geopolitical stability and stable legal systems to protect property interests are favored, so oil from these countries tends to be produced first. As a result, when the world has produced roughly half of its reserves, and when world production approaches peaking, the majority of remaining reserves (especially the majority of economically viable reserves) tend to be located outside consuming countries in the least geopolitically and legally stable regions.

This, roughly, is why "our oil" is increasingly likely to be located "under their sand." As a result, today's increasing geopolitical problems in oil and resource production are a direct result of geological factors combined with picking the low hanging fruit first. If it had made more sense to produce oil from offshore Nigeria, Azerbaijan, or the Arctic first, and save Texas and Alaska oil for later, we would have done that. But because that wasn't what made sense, today's geopolitical problems are a direct result of geography when viewed from a macro perspective. Additionally, this process of explaining why geopolitical problems exist today also demonstrates that it is useful to view geopolitical problems as a global system of phenomena, not as isolated events.

2. Are Geopolitical Disruptions Feedback Loops?

It seems that geopolitical forces act as positive feedback loops. I'll detail the feedback inside and between various geopolitical forces in my next post, but for now I'll outline the general concept: 1) global scarcity of oil, energy, or other resources increases the likelihood of disruption to the supply of that resource (for various reasons that I've discussed before and will outline in more detail in the next post in this series); 2) when these disruptions occur, they further increase the global scarcity of the resource, increasing the effect noted in #1 and creating a positive feedback loop.* For that reason, I call this set of exacerbating factors "geopolitical feedback loops" as they are subject to positive feedback both from their own operation and from the rate of geologically-driven depletion. I think that term is appropriate, but admittedly a bit cumbersome--I'll shorten it to "GFL" for now.

*Some GFLs may not be positive feedback loops--the Export Land Model, for example, is probably a positive feedback loop to the extent that the drop in net exports from one exporter causes global prices to rise enough to make that exporter's export revenues increase despite the decline in net export volume. However, it would be a negative feedback loop if the rise in domestic consumption due to high export revenues (the system's output) has the result of decreasing export revenues (feeding the system's output back into the system in an inverted manner) and thereby causing a decrease in domestic consumption (acting to re-establish equilibrium).

Oil supply scarcity drives geopolitical supply disruptions which, in turn, drives scarcity in a positive feedback loop

3. How Does the "Rate" of Disruption from Geopolitics and Geology Compare?

There are also critical differences between the rate of geological depletion and the potential rate at which geopolitical disruptions cumulatively impact oil supply rates. Unlike depletion, whereby oil production from a given field or set of fields decreases rapidly after peaking before beginning to "tail off" and decrease more slowly (the black line in the graphic above), geopolitical forces may disrupt production catastrophically, or may disrupt production at a rapidly accelerating rate (the red line in the graphic above).

This is not to say that GFLs will have a greater impact than geology--while it is certainly possible that a single geopolitical disruption will dramatically outpace geological depletion over a short time period, geological factors will likely be the main determinant of oil production declines during the initial phases of peak oil. However, depending on our society's ability to mitigate Peak Oil with substitute energy sources and to adapt to a lower energy world, it also seems likely that geopolitical disruptions will eventually overtake depletion as the most significant problem. Because geopolitical disruptions will have a disproportionately greater impact in an environment of increasing oil scarcity, as well as due to factors involved in secondary and tertiary recovery methods, the right half of the global oil production curve will not look like the left--when the impact of GFLs are added to the rate of geological decline, the drop in global oil production may be much faster than generally expected.

4. Along What Timeline Will Geopolitical Disruptions Unfold?

Geological forces do not require an actual peak in global oil or energy production to begin to form positive feedback loops--rather, the catalyst for positive feedback is the onset of diminishing marginal returns in investment in energy, where energy begins to become more expensive in relative terms. While global oil and energy supplies may not have peaked, we have almost certainly crossed the threshold of more expensive energy. Also unlike depletion, geopolitical feedback loops may disrupt production in a region that is still far from geological peaking. For this reason, it is reasonable to expect GFLs to increasingly disrupt global oil production alongside an increase in the scarcity of oil, and before an actual peak in global production. Annecdotal evidence supports this view of the the timing of geopolitical disruptions: while some degree of scarcity of oil has coincided with geopolitical disruptions in the past, increasing scarcity over the past decade has coincided with easily observable increases in geopolitical disruptions. While I think the general issue of timing is obvious, one critical unanswered question remains: how fast will geopolitical disruptions impact overall production rates?

5. Will the Aggregate Effect of Geopolitical Disruptions be Smooth or Unpredictably "Bumpy"?

Unlike geological depletion, geopolitical disruption is uniquely susceptible to "black swan" events--things that simply cannot be predicted. This is problematic because, unlike geological depletion which can be understood as a slow but compounding process, geopolitical disruptions may appear non-existent, but then suddenly exert a huge toll on global production. This makes predictions of future oil production levels even more uncertain than predictions that account for only geological factors, and increased uncertainty in estimating future oil production makes selecting and mobilizing the necessary political will for various mitigation options more difficult.

Some GFLs, such as the Export Land Model, will likely produce fairly smooth and predictable effects. Others, like the increased motivation to target oil production infrastructure, will likely produce relatively smooth aggregate effects, but will be subject to significant and sudden disruptions--for example, if al-Qa'ida successfully destroys the export terminal at Ras Tanura, or if Iran blockaded the Strait of Hormuz. The critical unanswered question here is whether, in aggregate, the impact of GFLs will be predictably smooth (as assumed in the graphic at the top of this post) or unpredictably volatile.

6. Is the System of Geopolitical Feedback Loops Solvable?

Because individual geopolitical disruptions can be "solved", there is a tendency to think of them as separate from geological challenges (and thereby a convenient alternate explanation for those who don't like the implications of geological depletion). Additionally, there is a tendency to think that because individual problems are solvable, the system of geopolitical forces can also be solved as a whole (specifically, solved by the same tool-set of security, military force, etc.). In reality, while the occurrence of individual events and geopolitical disruption in individual regions is highly uncertain (and too complex to predict mathematically), the increasing scarcity of oil and other resources caused by geological factors creates an ever increasing catalyst to geopolitical disruption.

In the face of geological depletion, geopolitical disruption is not a question of if, but a question of where and how fast. If a single geopolitical disruption--say, a militant group attacking a pipeline--can be solved, why can't the larger system also be solved? In theory, it can, but there are systemic problems to solving the larger system. In general, this is because the "solutions" to the individual problems are actually to overwhelm and repress the root cause locally--something which will become increasingly difficult globally.

For example, the Nigerian rebels can, theoretically, be defeated by overwhelming government force, but this does not solve their grievance--that their ethnic group is being oppressed and resources that are rightfully theirs are being appropriated. Rather, it relies on overwhelming military force and expenditure to repress it (and, it should be noted, this "solutions" is being discussed theoretically, as the massive military force and expenditure by Nigeria's government at present is failing miserably to repress rebel attacks on oil infrastructure). It seems, at least to me, far more likely that the world can concentrate resources to temporarily repress geopolitical flare-ups regionally, especially in the earlier phases of peak oil. However, if global resources are spread thin, it is impossible to address every trouble spot simultaneously. Because of this, it seems unlikely that there would be enough pressure at individual points to repress disruptions across the entire system.

Finally, while many geopolitical problems can be repressed by favoring one side in a dispute as leverage against the other (the Exploitation Model), it is often not fundamentally possible to actually resolve the issue by making all parties happy (thereby eliminating the root cause of the geopolitical disturbance) because the minimum demands of opposing groups are often mutually exclusive. I've written about this problem of Mutually Exclusive Overlap before, and I think that it makes the global system of geopolitical feedback loops an inevitability. However, while I think that the broader system is not "solvable," I do think that it is possible to buffer their effect, a topic I will discuss in a later post.

7. Is Price the Sole Catalyst of Geopolitical Disruptions?

While demand destruction and economic troubles may grant a temporary reprieve from increasing geopolitical tensions (because they may temporarily reduce the underlying catalyst of scarcity), the steady march of resource depletion will eventually catch up and cause geopolitical tensions to escalate again unless a truly economical, scalable substitute for fossil fuels is built out sufficient to negate depletion and accommodate continued economic and population growth. In that sense, if peak oil is not a problem for humanity, neither will we suffer the exacerbating effects of geopolitical feedback loops. However, to the extent that peak oil presents a serious problem, it will be increasingly exacerbated by geopolitics.

Additionally, demand destruction is particularly inefficient at buffering these geopolitical feedback loops because the lowest value consumption tends to be "destroyed" first. In a demand destruction scenario, when consumers are forced to reduce consumption out of economic necessity, they will choose to first eliminate the consumption that is least necessary to the maintenance of their quality of life. As a result, as demand destruction gradually decreases consumption, the consumption that remains is, by process of elimination, increasingly inelastic. For this reason, demand destruction actually exacerbates the positive-feedback nature of these geopolitical phenomena.

A pipeline bombing, cartel action, or rise in domestic consumption that removes 500,000 barrels of oil per day from the international market exerts far more leverage on a future United States that consumes only 10 million barrels (due to demand destruction) per day of oil than it does on today's United States that consumes roughly 20 million barrels per day. However, if this same future United States only consumes 10 million barrels per day of oil due to the development of economically viable substitutes and voluntary efficiency measures, then this would not be the case. I'll address this point in more detail in my discussion on buffering GFLs in a later post. In general, if scarcity is the underlying catalyst to geopolitical disruptions, I think that price is not the best indicator of that scarcity--rather, price of a barrel of oil as a percentage of purchasing power parity may be more appropriate.

8. Are Geopolitical Feedback Loops "Scale Free"?

A scale free system (aka a fractal) is one that exhibits the same behavior at all levels. Do GFLs operate as a scale free system? Assuming that, at a point in the future where total oil production is rapidly declining, there would be a world wide catalyst for geopolitical disruption to oil supplies, would it also be true that a region where oil production is rapidly declining will see a regional catalyst before world supply begins to decline? The answer is still unclear. Mexico, for example, is already well beyond its peak in oil production--ahead of the global process of peaking. Does this mean that internal pressures in Mexico are greater than elsewhere, that the driving forces behind geopolitical feedback loops are greater than elsewhere, or that the attacks on Mexico's gas pipelines can be attributed to GFLs being more advanced in Mexico than elsewhere? We don't know.

In theory, it seems reasonable to suggest that a country experiencing the problems with its own early peak may experience greater geopolitical pressures than others, but it is far from clear that this is the case in Mexico where oil export revenues are still rising, and where there are ample alternative explanations for the gas pipeline attacks. Additionally, other countries where production peaked well before global production (e.g. the US, Norway, UK, though arguably not Indonesia) haven't experienced a localized rise in geopolitical tensions. There are many complicating factors (especially when viewing the US and UK and their position on the world stage), but this is a possibility to keep track of as some regions progress past peak before others.

9. How Should Quantitative Data be Integrated in this Model?

One criticism of this model of geopolitical feedback loops is, quite understandably, its lack of hard, quantitative data at its base. In one sense, the subject matter is fundamentally less suitable to quantitative, data-driven analysis than the core issue of geological depletion. Some exceptions stand out--the Export Land Model, mentioned above, is a prime example of a geopolitical feedback loop that is well suited to data-driven analysis.

Even ELM, however, presents problems for data-driven analysis. For example, when an exporting state that currently subsidizes domestic fuel prices decides to cut that subsidy when export revenues begin to decline, or if a state decides to buy domestic political support by using some of its export revenues to boost subsidies, how do we integrate the impact of this fundamentally political maneuver with the more pure analysis of net export declines? Similarly, it is quite challenging to gather accurate data of nationalist sentiment (and the degree to which this sentiment may lead to violence), the ability to mobilize political will to conserve resources for future generations, the degree to which resources motivated a military "adventure"--all of these demonstrate the challenge of bringing data-driven analysis to inherently "fuzzy" topics.

Perhaps the most important question is the degree of importance of data-driven analysis to this topic. Will the quest for mathematical analysis of these topics provide more predictive power for a given amount of effort, or will it create a misleading appearance of accuracy and predictive ability while actually creating faulty conclusions? If quantitative analysis is appropriate here, how, specifically, should it be carried out? This question, in particular, is one where I hope the many TOD readers with experience in this area will weigh in.

I plan to begin to introduce some quantitative data in the next post in this series by attempting to tally the amount of production currently shut-in or otherwise disrupted due to the various categories of GFLs around the world. I expect it will be difficult to accurately track this data over time (at least when compared with our ability to track actual oil production), but it seems like the best place to start with quantitative analysis, and may provide some insight into the rate and timing of geopolitical impacts on oil production.

10. Is the Potential for Financial Crash a Geopolitical Feedback Loop?

It's purely artificial to separate the financial impact of peak oil from the geopolitical impact--in fact, there are broad areas of overlap between the realm of finance or macroeconomics with geopolitics. How should these issues be integrated into this model, if at all? It is unclear to me whether financial markets are an exacerbating or mitigating factor in the context of broader geopolitical disruptions.

In one sense, the financial turmoil caused by high oil prices makes it more difficult to raise capital necessary to exploit new technologies, develop substitutes for oil, and to produce more economically challenging oil reserves. Likewise, price volatility and peak oil combine to exacerbate both financial and geopolitical issues. However, it can also be argued that financial turmoil mitigates the geopolitical problems of peak oil by destroying demand and reducing scarcity (though, as mentioned above, this is a double edged sword because it may increase inelasticity of the remaining demand).

I hope that readers can propose the best way to integrate models and predictions of financial turmoil (such as Gail the Actuary's recent financial market predictions) with this model of geopolitical feedback loops.


I've recently finished the book "We Think" by Charles Leadbeater. This book is an outstanding discussion of the advantages and pitfalls of collaborative innovation. I'm not proposing that the theoretical framework I'm setting forth in this and later posts is in any way gospel truth--it is an initial effort to tackle a very complex system of problems, and certainly needs further development. The Oil Drum is, in many ways, an ideal example of a "we-think" collaborative environment, and I hope that the amazing breadth and depth of knowledge of TOD readers will help to further develop this theory. Developing a better understanding of the impact of a system of geopolitical feedback loops in resource production is a critical first step in both improving our ability to predict future energy and resource supplies, and in understanding how to best act to mitigate resulting problems. Hopefully my answers to the above questions begin to lay out a foundation for a broad theory of geopolitical disruption to resource supply. In the next post I will look at several discrete geopolitical phenomena within this analytical framework, but for now my hope is to start a discussion of the overarching issues raised in this post.

This post also appears at The Oil Drum, where readers may be interested in following the comments (over 170 so far).

Monday, August 11, 2008

Georgia, the New Map, and Oil Pipelines

I thought I would talk briefly about the current situation in Georgia/South Ossettia between Georgia and Russia. The news seems to be ignoring the critical aspect of this situation--that it is a symptom of the larger issue of the decline of the Nation-State.

In a recent diary entry, Jerome a Parils makes a good point that neither side here has any claim to a "moral high ground"--this isn't an issue of principle about supporting territorial integrity or supporting a national group, but rather an issue of realpolitik. It's also been building for quite some time. Stratfor has been screaming about the impending war in Georgia for years (they must be quite pleased to sound less like they've been crying wolf right now). I wrote about Georgia in the context of enveloping Central Asia's resources by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization back in 2006. The US has long maintained a sizable signals intelligence ground station in Georgia, and has been advising Georgia on fighting Islamist rebels in the Pankisi Gorge region. This is something to watch for--one angle the US may use to argue the moral high ground approach is that they need to ensure the "territorial integrity" of Georgia in order to deny a training ground to Islamist "terrorists" in the Pankisi Gorge (sound familiar?).

It's also important to ground what's happening in Georgia in the larger context of the decline of the Nation-State system. I wrote and presented a paper about this at the 2006 Yale Journal of International Law conference which some people may find worth reading, and highly recommend Philip Bobbitt's "Shield of Achilles" for an in-depth look at the topic. The basic issue is not that the "state" is going away, but that the constitutional basis of a "state" in providing for the welfare of a contiguous "nation" is increasingly invalid, leading to the rise of the "market-state" (where the constitutional basis for the state comes from its ability to provide market opportunity to those within its borders) and a growing conflict with disenfranchised and marginalized nations (and other non-state groups) that exist wholly or partially within the borders of the new market-state.

This "market-state"/"nation" conflict is the new lever of choice in the new "great game." Where it serves Russia's interest, they will support a non-state "national" group against the integrity of a "market-state" (Georgia). Where it is against their interest, they will support the "market state" (here, Russia) against separatist "national" groups (e.g. Chechnya, Dagestan, and a dozen other internal problems--Siberia, for example, has some serious separatist problems). Similarly, the US will support the "market-state" where it must (as in Georgia, Iraq, Pakistan, etc.) and will support non-state "national" groups where it serves its interest (Kosovo, the Ahwaz rebels in the Iranian province of Khuzestan where most of Iran's oil is, the Baluch rebels in the East of Iran, but not the same rebels in the SW of Pakistan, etc.). Where this "market-state"/"national" conflict overlaps with key resource production or exportation infrastructure, look for increasing problems, in part because the conflict between nations and state will intensify, and in part because growing resource scarcity will make resource infrastructure an increasingly popular and effective target within the context of these struggles...

Just for context, here is the route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that connects Caspian Sea oil with the West (it was also bombed, probably, last week by Kurdish separatists in Turkey, so is currently shut down):

Russia also bombed the trunk pipeline from the BTC and associated export port to Georgia's black sea coast, thereby requiring all Azerbaijani oil to transit Russia. Before this bombing, a portion of the oil carried by the BTC could have been re-directed via the Black Sea without transiting Russia:

Monday, August 04, 2008

Brazil to the Rescue

Yet another in the series of "X to the Rescue." It's not news that there's been a lot of hype--some of it warranted--about recent oil discoveries off the coast of Brazil. My goal here is not to explain how challenging these oil finds are (as in how many thousands of feet of sea water, rock, and salt deposits lie on top of the oil), how speculative the reserve estimates are, or how long it will take to bring these fields (such as the headliner "Tupi" field) online. Rather, my goal is just to compare PetroBras (Brazilian state oil company) statements about Tupi with Brazilian internal consumption:

PetroBras plans to start production from their Tupi field in 2009. They plan to produce up to 30,000 barrels per day that year, increasing to 100,000 barrels per day in 2010. It plans to order 28 new drilling rigs between 2013 and 2017, so presumably it plans to increase output over that period.

In 2007, Brazil was a net importer of crude oil, importing 30,000 barrels per day. Between 2006 and 2007, Brazil's internal consumption rose 90,000 barrels per day. Brazil's car sales were up over 24% in the first half of 2008, so there is at least some reason to think that internal oil consumption will keep rising as fast or faster than in the past. If Brazil's rise in internal consumption keeps pace with last year for 2008, 2009, and 2010, they will more than consume all the new oil from Tupi and related fields internally, and place increasing demands on the world export market.

I have little doubt that Tupi and other new Brazilian fields will be good for Brazil, but I think it is a mistake to think that they will significantly impact the world oil market over the next decade.


I'll be back to regular postings starting this week. Over the next few weeks I have a series on geopolitical feedback loops in oil production planned that will all feed in to my presentation on the topic at the Association of Peak Oil & Gas conference in Sacramento this September 21st. I'll be speaking in one of the Sunday panels, which all look like they will sell out based on early registration numbers. I also have planned a series on various aspects of demand destruction.