Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 12, No. 12, December 2016
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Why Lower Gasoline Prices Begin the End of the World Oil Age

John G. Howe

This article was originally published in
Solar Car and Tractor and Per Capita Oil, September 2016

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Traditional economics teaches that increasing cost caused by the declining supply of an essential commodity will be supported by fewer wealthy consumers. Further reflection and twenty-twenty hindsight shows what actually occurred in the past decade while the world consumed another 300 billion barrels of oil (about one-fourth of the total 1.2 trillion barrels used to date in the entire oil age).

Let’s start with thirteen poorly understood facts: (The numbered figures are from the attached power-point summary of the book, The End of Fossil Energy, 5'th ed.)

1. In 2015 Americans motored to a new record high of 3.148 trillion miles. Lower gasoline prices enabled this increase after a long period of increasing price and stable mileage since Americans first exceeded 3.0 trillion miles in 2007 (ref: USA Today, page 1, March 3, 2016, from the Federal Highway Administration).

2. American gasoline consumption’s share of this profligate use of the most convenient form of finite fossil fuel remained stable for the last ten years at about 3.5 billion barrels of oil per year (see Figure 11). This is the same as all the oil used by China or Western Europe (see Figure 4). Total U.S. oil consumption is twice as much used just for gasoline at over 7 billion barrels per year. Americans use one-fourth of the world’s oil with only four percent of the population.

3. Another fact quantifying this gross anomaly is the per capita average of 22 barrels of oil per person of oil per person per year consumed by every single American. This is more than seven times the world average, exclusive of the U.S., of 3 barrels per person per year (see Figure 3). Gasoline consumption alone in the U.S. is 11 barrels per person per year. Anyone who questions this egregious rate of consumption needs only to drive on one of our congested or grid-locked urban highways. Think of every vehicle-trip, coming or going, frivolous or not, as another nail in the coffin of the short industrial age.

4. During the first half of the oil age, until 2005, world extraction of oil increased to match and satisfy steadily increasing demand with little change in price. U.S. and world economic growth, food production, and population continued in direct proportion to oil availability (see Figures 5 and 6).

5. Then, beginning in 2005, the price of oil began to increase sharply as a peaking of the annual world extraction rate could no longer supply the steady increase in demand. The term, “Peak Oil”, as long predicted by M. King Hubbert, became popular. World oil supply leveled off in the near term, especially as major conventional sources like the North Sea, Mexico, and the North Slope began to taper. At that time, oil availability was expected to begin to decline, with dire shortages by 2010. It didn’t happen. “Peak Oil was dead”.

6. Instead, for the next ten years the dominant world consumer bloc, U.S. gasoline customers, went deeply into debt to continue supporting the mobile lifestyle that Americans take for granted. A good example is the interstate highway system that is the ubiquitous backbone of American mobility and suburban culture. The U.S. military-industrial complex ensured that adequate world oil continued moving in our direction, especially if middle east suppliers wavered geopolitically.

7. For a typical family of four using an average of eleven (42 gallon) barrels per person per year just for gasoline, eleven barrels per person amounts to 1,850 gallons of gasoline per family. When gasoline reached $3.00 per gallon, $5,500 of the family budget was spent to provide the prodigious quantity of energy to maintain an historically unprecedented mobile lifestyle. Less was left for mainstream domestic manufacturing, job growth, and commerce as diminished discretionary spending was accommodated by discount stores and foreign goods made by workers living on 3 barrels of oil per person per year as in China.

8. With one family breadwinner bringing home $15,000 per year from an eight-dollar an hour job, welfare, or social security check, the average expense of $5,500, just for gasoline, as well as other oil-related expenses, became more and more difficult. The result was exploding consumer debt; for instance, a trillion dollars for credit card charges, a trillion dollars for automobile loans, and 1.3 trillion dollars for student loans. In some parts of the country, two tanks of fuel oil at $2.50 per gallon added another $1,250 to the already strained family budget.

9. In the same ten year period, beginning in 2005, the increased cost of gasoline, supported by continued desperate American consumption, subsidized ever-more costly methods of non-conventional oil extraction such as horizontal “fracking”, deep off shore, tar-sands oil and remote polar sources (see Figure 12).

10. Continuing with Figure 12, we see that in mid-2014 the price of oil suddenly dropped from over $80 per barrel to the $40 range. Arguably, this was triggered by the Saudis tiring of losing market share to the increasing contribution from more expensive non-conventional sources, but the potential for the price collapse was there as American purchasing power became more stressed.

11. The recent sustained two-year drop in price is directly paralleled by a similar drop in U.S. and world rotary rig count (per Baker-Hughes reports). In the same time-frame, marginal, highly leveraged producers ceased to be profitable and faced bankruptcy. In future hindsight, this extended period of reduced extraction will look like the tipping point of the oil age. But instead of a classic bell-shaped Hubbert’s curve, oil extraction will be an extended plateau and a sharper cliff.

12. Oil is the backbone for all other energy sources especially food, our very personal, number one ,daily necessity for life. Nothing grows without a growing supply of energy. Meanwhile, population numbers continue to increase on the premise that ever-increasing affordable energy will somehow be available when new offspring mature to become significant consumers and parents of exponentially more mouths to feed. Additional immigrants aspiring to our energy-intensive way of life also add to the growth problem, not by dire need or compassion, but simply as more numbers to consume energy and be fed.

13. Economically, interest is nothing but an expectation of further growth; that is, original principal plus increased value. Our entire financial system is predicated on future expansion to support the interest. Yet without oil-based energy, growth cannot continue. For oil extraction, the promise of cheap oil is necessary to raise the substantial investment for further extraction. After two years of low prices, any remaining lending sources are becoming very scarce.

These are all reasons we have truly entered the beginning of the end of the short two-lifetime-long oil age we take for granted. Many have argued this will be the greatest crisis ever to confront modern civilization.

Since we now have passed two years of a temporary glut and low energy prices, the pendulum must soon swing the other way. The extravagant party of gasoline consumption cannot continue. Figure 9 shows several scenarios for the U.S. oil age at the egregious rate of 22 barrels per person per year, without factoring in the increased population expected in the same time frame. By no stretch of optimism can there be more than fifty billion barrels of increasingly expensive domestic oil in the U.S. that can be supported by ever-decreasing income. A quick Google search shows the U.S. far down the list of nations with recoverable oil reserves.

If we continue at our present consumption rate of seven billion barrels per year, we have only (50 divided by 7) seven years of domestic oil left in the tank. If we continue to access, as now, half of our seven billion barrels per year from non-domestic suppliers, some friendly, some not, some equally desperate to continue a tenuous relationship; we have enough domestic oil left for (50 divided by 3.5) fifteen years of business as usual. This is grade school arithmetic.

Our only hope to extend the oil party a few more years is to focus on the “elephant in the room”: gasoline consumption. National coupon gasoline rationing would equitably, rich or poor, get us out of our two-ton steel chariots and encourage a whole new way of life. Figures 13 and 14 show the positives for this plan. Even longer-term climate change would be diminished as shown in Figure 15.

Anything else: electric vehicles, magical breakthroughs, divisive wealth disparity, localized food production, bio fuels, stock markets, or political promises, cannot make a dent in the seven to fifteen year time frame we have left. Nation-wide gasoline rationing will only happen with a broad understanding of the facts and our precarious place in history. Will you help network this story? It’s up to you!


John Howe a retired engineer, farmer, speaker, and author who has focused on every aspect of the beginning of the end of the short fossil-fuel industrial age, especially searching for quantitative facts and possible solutions. He has built and tested solar-powered cars and tractors as examples of successors for the petroleum-fueled machines we take for granted today, and now attempts to educate the main-stream public about all issues related to our urgent need for action. This is one of his presentations:

Source: Triple Crisis of Civilization, 2 February 2015

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