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This post is a sort of addendum to the last post about King Romney’s Energy Plan. Here’s the excerpt of what I said from that post which needs more elaboration:

…Overlooking the catastrophic externality of climate change, notice that Romney is heralding America’s energy independence through his plan of ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ of fossil fuels. If you look at the following graph, you’ll see that there is no amount of drilling we could do within America to achieve fossil fuel energy independence:

As you can see, America hit peak oil around 1970 at 9.637 mbpd (million barrels per day), as predicted by Hubbert, and then in 1993 America’s domestic oil production was surpassed by consumption, a point from which we have never recovered. Even with the recent drastic drop in consumption due to an anemic economy, we are still importing around 10 to 11 MBPD while domestic production is somewhere between 7 to 8 MBPD. Domestic production would have to double from the current rate or total consumption, which sits currently at roughly 18 to 19 MBPD, would have to be halved while allowing for the requisite economic growth that we worship. That’s not going to happen. As Loren Steffy explains, “U.S. oil production gains are like water pumps on the Titanic“…

Of course EROEI should have also been mentioned in that discussion of King Romney’s frantic grab for what’s left of our bequeathment of the Earth’s ancient, high energy density, carbon-based fuel. A detailed report, entitled A New Long Term Assessment of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for U.S. Oil and Gas Discovery and Production, was published last year which sheds some light on this subject of what we are getting back from the investment spent extracting today’s fossil fuels. Here’s an abstract from the paper:

Oil and gas are the main sources of energy in the United States. Part of their appeal is the high Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) when procuring them. We assessed data from the United States Bureau of the Census of Mineral Industries, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Oil and Gas Journal for the years 1919–2007 and from oil analyst Jean Laherrere to derive EROI for both finding and producing oil and gas. We found two general patterns in the relation of energy gains compared to energy costs: a gradual secular decrease in EROI and an inverse relation to drilling effort. EROI for finding oil and gas decreased exponentially from 1200:1 in 1919 to 5:1 in 2007. The EROI for production of the oil and gas industry was about 20:1 from 1919 to 1972, declined to about 8:1 in 1982 when peak drilling occurred, recovered to about 17:1 from 1986–2002 and declined sharply to about 11:1 in the mid to late 2000s. The slowly declining secular trend has been partly masked by changing effort: the lower the intensity of drilling, the higher the EROI compared to the secular trend. Fuel consumption within the oil and gas industry grew continuously from 1919 through the early 1980s, declined in the mid-1990s, and has increased recently, not surprisingly linked to the increased cost of finding and extracting oil.

Now some graphs from the research:

eroi eroei discovery for US oil and gas

(source: Guilford, Hall, Connor, Cleveland “A New Long Term Assessment of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for U.S. Oil and Gas Discovery and Production.” Sustainability 2011, 3, 1866-1887)

As you can see from the above chart, we’ve been bouncing along a tight EROEI corridor of between 3 and 10 compared to the glory days of the first half of the twentieth century when the low hanging fruit didn’t require taking great risks and enormous expense, ultimately resulting in such catastrophes as the Gulf Oil Spill. With Romney at the helm, do you think that risk will be diminished?

Additional charts from 8020 vision:

eroi eroei production for US oil and gas

(source: Guilford, Hall, Connor, Cleveland “A New Long Term Assessment of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for U.S. Oil and Gas Discovery and Production.” Sustainability 2011, 3, 1866-1887)

The EROI for Production is trending lower too. Variations in any given year are largely dependent on how much drilling it takes to produce the oil.  Typically about 2 barrels of oil equivalent are consumed per foot of well drilled. In years where there was a lot of drilling, the EROI would be lower.

A more intuitive way to look at this trend is as dollars per barrel of oil. The chart below is from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) Annual Energy Review for 2011. It shows the cost to add each additional barrel of oil to US reserves.

expenditures per barrel of reserve additions, 1975 to 2008, cost per barrel of oil, chart

COE (crude oil equivalent) measures the cost of adding 5.8 million BTUs regardless of whether the resource is oil, natural gas, or natural gas liquids. (source: EIA, 2011 Annual Energy Review)

And analysis on Chris Nelder’s excellent blog further explains the cost of new oil today…

…Globally, Skrebowki estimates that it costs $80 – $110 to bring a new barrel of production capacity online. Research from IEA and others shows that the more marginal liquids like Arctic oil, gas-to-liquids, coal-to-liquids, and biofuels are toward the top end of that range.

My own research suggests that $85 is really the comfortable global minimum. That’s the price now needed to break even in the Canadian tar sands, and it also seems to be roughly the level at which banks and major exploration companies are willing to commit the billions of dollars it takes to develop new projects….

Globally, the cost of drilling a new oil well has gone parabolic:

Source: EIA

The cost of adding a new barrel of reserves — drilling to prove that the oil is there and economically recoverable, before actually producing it — has also jumped sharply:

Source: EIA

(It’s unfortunate that EIA doesn’t have more recent data than 2008 for this analysis, because the sharp downturn at the end of this chart owed mostly to the economic crash in the latter half of that year. Analogous recent data from the oil patch suggests that the curves in the above chart should have resumed their previous, pre-crash trajectory by now.)

As production costs push ever closer to the retail price ceiling, profit margins fall. Consider Canada as an example. Oil production there will likely turn a mere 5 to 8 percent annual return on equity for the next several years, according to analysis by ARC Financial. Under $60 a barrel, they note, “the industry is broadly unprofitable” and would not be able to attract reinvestment. Similarly, University of Alberta energy economist Andrew Leach noted this week that the average operating profit margin of Canadian-owned oil and gas assets is now 7.7 percent, while foreign-owned assets offer only a 5.5 percent margin. A far cry from the heady, ultra-profitable years of 2003 – 2005.

So while the press, ever-anxious to assign blame for high oil prices, highlights the enormous profits that oil companies are making, the fact is that much of those profits owe to producing oil from wells drilled in a much cheaper era and selling it in the new high-priced era.

This will not remain the case for many more years.

The 2014 – 2015 tipping point

Unconventional oil is currently just 3 percent of global supply. The IEA projects that it will make up 6.5 percent of supply by 2020, and 10 percent by 2035. As it gradually replaces cheap oil conventional oil, its real production costs will continue to push oil prices up. Eventually, those costs will cross with the pain tolerance limit of consumers.

Skrebowski sees rising costs outrunning the ability of economies to adapt to higher oil prices by 2014, producing an “economically determined peak” in oil production. After that point, prices will remain economically destructive, and render sustained economic growth impossible. At the same time, it will make new oil production harder to finance.

This matches well with numerous analyses of oil supply that project a major tipping point around 2014 – 2015. At that point, as I have reminded readers repeatedly, we will likely begin down the back of Hubbert’s Curve and see net losses in global oil supply every year.

“Unless and until adaptive responses are large and fast enough to constrain the upward trend of oil prices, the primary adaptive response will be periodic economic crashes of a magnitude that depresses oil consumption and oil prices,” Skrebowski concludes. “These have the effect of shifting consumption from incumbent consumers — the advanced economies — to the new consumers in the developing economies.”

As I detailed last month (”Oil demand shift: Asia takes over“) that is precisely what has been happening since 2005. The world’s emerging markets are buying their first cars and their first trucking fleets, and those vehicles have much better fuel economy than ours. They will be able to pay a price for oil that we cannot tolerate. From 2015 on into the future, fuel will become increasingly unaffordable for U.S. drivers…

The demise of America’s car culture is unavoidable and won’t be saved by the flag-waving, slogan-cheering rhetoric of any politician.