What Peak Oil?

Is peak oil imminent? Lots of people seem to think so.

The data (released by BP a company who have a vested interest in oil scarcity) don’t agree. Proved reserves keep increasing:

The oil in the ground will run out some day. But as the discovery of proven reserves continues to significantly outpace the rate of extraction, the claims that we’re facing immediate shortages looks trashy.

Some may try to cast doubt on these figures, saying that BP are counting inaccessible reserves, and that we must accept that while there are huge quantities of shale oil in the ground, the era of cheap and readily accessible oil is over. They might cite the idea that oil prices are much higher than they were ten years ago. Yet this is mostly a monetary phenomenon resulting from excessive money creation beyond the economy’s productive capacity. Priced in gold, oil is still very cheap — almost as cheap as it has ever been:

The argument that the vast majority of counted reserves are economically inaccessible is fundamentally flawed. In the long run there is only one equation that really matters in determining whether oil is extractable, and that is whether there is a net energy gain; whether energy-in exceeds energy-out. If there’s a net energy gain, it’s feasible. Certainly, we are moving toward a higher cost of energy extraction. Shale oil (for example) has a lower net energy gain than conventional oil, but still typically produces five times as much energy as is consumed in extraction.

But the Earth’s extractable hydrocarbons will eventually dry up, whether that’s in 500 years or 200 years. If we want humanity to have a long-term future on Earth, we need to move to renewables; solar, hydroelectric, thorium, synthetic hydrocarbons. And the market will ensure that, eventually — as the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, more and more of us will adopt it. I don’t buy the myth that markets are stupid — if humanity needs renewable energy (I believe we do) the market will see to it (I believe that is slowly happening). Markets are just the sum of human preferences.

According to the International Renewable Energy Institute:

Power from renewable energy sources is getting cheaper every year, according to a study released Wednesday, challenging long-standing myths that clean energy technology is too expensive to adopt. The costs associated with extracting power from solar panels has fallen as much as 60 percent in just the past few years.The price of  from other renewables, including wind, , concentrating solar power and biomass, was also falling.

So no. I’m not lying awake at night worrying about imminent peak oil. There’s plenty of extractable oil, and renewable energy will eventually supplement and replace it. But will politics get in the way of energy extraction? The United States has huge hydrocarbon reserves, yet regulation is preventing drilling and shipment, leaving America dependent on foreign oil. And the oil companies themselves are largely to blame — after Deepwater Horizon, should anyone be surprised that politicians and the public want to strangle the oil industry?

If there’s an imminent energy crisis, it will be man-made. It will come out of the United States’ dependency on foreign oil. Or out of an environmental catastrophe caused by mismanagement and graft (protected cartels like the energy industry always lead to mismanagement). Or out of excessive red tape. Or war.

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Are Corporations People?

I have always found something inherently creepy about Mitt Romney — indeed, in a choice between Obama and Romney with a gun to my head, the gun looks like an increasingly attractive proposition. Most puzzling is his defence of corporate personhood:

Corporations are people, my friend… Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people

Do corporations breathe? Do they eat, sleep, feel and think? Do they require housing? Do they have families? Or medical care? Do they pay income tax? Do they have DNA? Eyes? Ears? Teeth? Has Texas ever executed one?

No. Corporations are not people. Corporations are composed of people, and for a very good reason. From Wikipedia:

Limited liability is a concept whereby a person’s financial liability is limited to a fixed sum, most commonly the value of a person’s investment in a company or partnership with limited liability. In other words, if a company with limited liability is sued, then the plaintiffs are suing the company, not its owners or investors. shareholder in a limited company is not personally liable for any of the debts of the company, other than for the value of their investment in that company.

Corporations essentially exist to allow groups of people to act collectively, without taking personal responsibility if the entire thing goes down like a lead balloon. Sure, if an employee of a corporation behaves in a criminal manner, they are sometimes jailed. Yet corporations — ever since the birth of the modern corporation through Standard Oil — have created what is known as the agency problem. Corporations allow their owners to win, without the possibility of deep losses. And what does this mean in terms of responsibility? It means that things like the BP Oil spill are much, much more likely. Because if you can’t get hurt, you’re not going to exercise diligence in the same way you would if you could get more hurt. This is why the juggernauts of global industry — the titans of Wall Street in particular — blow up so frequently and so violently. Corporations are firewalls, spinning mammoth profits through risky bets, but allowing management and shareholders to hide behind them when their risky behaviour comes home to roost. And what happens if the house falls down? The creditors — or more frequently in recent years since we adopted this perverse bailout culture, the taxpayer — take the hit. The philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote on his Facebook page:

Hammurabi’s code, ~3800 years ago, removed the agency problem as a condition for transaction: “If a builder builds a house and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner – the builder shall be put to death. If it causes the death of the son of the owner , a son of that builder shall be put to death.” Everything in past 100 years has been to shield managers from liabilities. Think of Fukushima.

Either limited liability should be abolished  — corporations could still exist, but their owners and management are personally responsible for any debts and destruction incurred — or their behaviour should be taxed punitively to encourage individual and small business initiatives — the real wealth creators, job creators and innovators — over large scale destructo-juggernauts. At the very least, we should completely stop bailing them out when they blow up. That’s responsibility.

Corporations are certainly not free market entities. Their very reason for existence — limited liability — is created through government fiat. Capitalism and markets existed long before the creation of limited liability, and surely will exist for a long time after its demise.