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Oil, gas, and the investment sinkhole problem

If we want to “grow” oil and gas production at all, businesses will need to keep investing increasing amounts of money (and energy) into oil and gas extraction, Tverberg writes. For this to happen, prices paid by consumers for oil and gas will need to continue to rise.

By Gail TverbergGuest blogger / February 27, 2013

An oil pump jack is shown across from a subdivision near Frederick, Colo. In some real sense, because of the sinkhole investment phenomenon, we are getting less and less back for every dollar invested, Tverberg writes.

Ed Andrieski/AP/File

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We are used to expecting that more investment will yield more output, but in the real world, things don’t always work out that way.

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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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In Figure 1, we see that for several groupings, the increase (or decrease) in oil consumption tends to correlate with the increase (or decrease) in GDP. The usual pattern is that GDP growth is a little greater than oil consumption growth. This happens because of changes of various sorts: (a) Increasing substitution of other energy sources for oil, (b) Increased efficiency in using oil, and (c) A changing GDP mix away from producing goods, and toward producing services, leading to a proportionately lower need for oil and other energy products.

The situation is strikingly different for Saudi Arabia, however. A huge increase in oil consumption (Figure 1), and in fact in total energy consumption (Figure 2, below), does not seem to result in a corresponding rise in GDP.

At least part of problem is that Saudi Arabia is reaching limits of various types. One of them is inadequate water for a rising population. Adding desalination plants adds huge costs and huge energy usage, but does not increase the standards of living of citizens. Instead, adding desalination plants simply allows the country to pump less water from its depleting aquifers. 

To some extent, the same situation occurs in oil and gas fields. Expensive investment is required, but it is doubtful that there is an increase in capacity that is proportional to its cost. To a significant extent, new investment simply offsets a decline in production elsewhere, so maintains the status quo. It is expensive, but adds little to what gets measured as GDP.

The world outside of Saudi Arabia is now running into an investment sinkhole issue as well. This takes several forms: water limits that require deeper wells or desalination plants; oil and gas limits that require more expensive forms of extraction; and pollution limits requiring expensive adjustments to automobiles or to power plants.

These higher investment costs lead to higher end product costs of goods using these resources. These higher costs eventually transfer to other products that most of us consider essential: food because it uses much oil in growing and transport; electricity because it is associated with pollution controls; and metals for basic manufacturing, because they also use oil in extraction and transport.

Ultimately, these investment sinkholes seem likely to cause huge problems. In some sense, they mean the economy is becoming less efficient, rather than more efficient. From an investment point of view, they can expect to crowd out other types of investment. From a consumer’s point of view, they lead to a rising cost of essential products that can be expected to squeeze out other purchases.  

Why Investment Sinkholes Go Unrecognized

From the point of view of an individual investor, all that matters is whether he will get an adequate return on the investment he makes. If a city government decides to install a desalination plant, the investor’s primary concern is that someone (the government or those buying water) will pay enough money that he can make an adequate return on his investment over time. Citizens clearly need water. The only question is whether citizens can afford the desalinated water from their discretionary income. Obviously, if citizens spend more on desalinated water, the amount of discretionary income available for other goods will be reduced.

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