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Is the world economy suffering from 'high-priced fuel syndrome'?

The major issue for many countries is that oil is becoming too expensive for the economy to afford, Tverberg writes.

By Gail TverbergGuest blogger / September 27, 2012

In this April 2010 file photo, An oil rig is seen in the Gulf of Mexico near the Chandeleur Islands, off the Southeastern tip of Louisiana. Tverberg writes that the global economy suffers from a 'high-priced fuel syndrome."

Gerald Herbert/AP/File

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Governments and economists around the world have not figured out that what the world economy is suffering from, to varying degrees, is “high-priced fuel syndrome“.

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Gail Tverberg, an actuary with a background in math, analyzes energy and financial matters from a perspective that the world has limited resources. For more of Gail's posts, click here.

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High-priced fuel syndrome has a number of symptoms:

  • Slow economic growth, or contraction
  • People in discretionary industries laid off from work
  • High unemployment rates
  • Debt defaults (or huge government intervention to prevent debt defaults)
  • Governments in increasingly poor financial condition
  • Declining home and business property values
  • Rising food prices
  • Lower tolerance for immigrants
  • Huge difficulty in funding retirement programs, programs for disabled, and regular pension plans
  • Rising international tensions related to energy supply

The countries with the most problem with high-priced fuel syndrome are the industrialized countries that are big importers of oil. This is the case because oil has been a particularly high-priced fuel in the past few years. Importing high-priced oil adds challenges of its own, since funds used for imported oil flow out of the country. 

While oil is the biggest culprit in high-priced fuel syndrome, high-priced fuels of other sorts can play a role as well. Natural gas is recently high-priced in Europe and Japan, but not the USA. The higher natural gas price contributes to a higher average energy cost level for these countries.  High-priced renewables, such as off-shore wind and solar photovoltaic, can be expected to act in a similar fashion, because they add to the price challenge customers face.

At this point, Europe is hardest-hit by high-priced fuel syndrome. In part this is because Europe is a big importer of both oil and gas,  and both are high-priced. European countries have also encouraged the use of high-priced renewables, adding to their difficulties.

While many people have laughed at the issue of the world “running out of oil” (or natural gas, or some other substitute fuel), it seems to me that they have basically missed the point. There is always lots of fuel in the ground, or available through devices we create that produce “renewable” fuel. The major issue is that the fuel becomes too expensive for the economy to afford.

The United States, Europe, and Japan were industrialized back when fuels were cheap, in the pre-1972 era (Figure 1, above). The cost structure of government welfare programs (such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment) also assume that the economy will continue as it did with low-priced fuels. Substituting ever more-expensive fuels can be expected to push a country toward economic contraction, reduction in programs that the economy can no longer afford, and the symptoms listed above.

Why We are Encountering Rising Fuel Prices

When companies begin extracting oil (or natural gas, or coal), they start with the easiest, cheapest-to-extract first. In Figure 2, oil (or natural gas or coal) extraction starts at the top of the triangle, and gradually works down the triangle.

As we require more and more fuel, we gradually seek out less-desirable sources of fuels. These fuels tend to be slower to extract, and are more expensive for what we get. They are often more polluting as well.

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