Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age - part I

Guest post by Louis Arnoux

This three-part post was inspired by Ugo’s recent post concerning Will Renewables Ever ReplaceFossils? and recent discussions within Ugo’s discussion group on how is it that “Economists still don't get it”?  It integrates also numerous discussion and exchanges I have had with colleagues and business partners over the last three years.


Since at least the end of 2014 there has been increasing confusions about oil prices, whether so-called “Peak Oil” has already happened, or will happen in the future and when, matters of EROI (or EROEI) values for current energy sources and for alternatives, climate change and the phantasmatic 2oC warming limit, and concerning the feasibility of shifting rapidly to renewables or sustainable sources of energy supply.  Overall, it matters a great deal whether a reasonable time horizon to act is say 50 years, i.e. in the main the troubles that we are contemplating are taking place way past 2050, or if we are already in deep trouble and the timeframe to try and extricate ourselves is some 10 years. Answering this kind of question requires paying close attention to system boundary definitions and scrutinising all matters taken for granted.

It took over 50 years for climatologists to be heard and for politicians to reach the Paris Agreement re climate change (CC) at the close of the COP21, late last year.  As you no doubt can gather from the title, I am of the view that we do not have 50 years to agonise about oil.  In the three sections of this post I will first briefly take stock of where we are oil wise; I will then consider how this situation calls upon us to do our utter best to extricate ourselves from the current prevailing confusion and think straight about our predicament; and in the third part I will offer a few considerations concerning the near term, the next ten years – how to approach it, what cannot work and what may work, and the urgency to act, without delay.

Part 1 – Alice looking down the end of the barrel

In his recent post, Ugo contrasted the views of the Doomstead Diner's readers  with that of energy experts regarding the feasibility of replacing fossil fuels within a reasonable timeframe.  In my view, the Doomstead’s guests had a much better sense of the situation than the “experts” in Ugo’s survey.  To be blunt, along current prevailing lines we are not going to make it.  I am not just referring here to “business-as-usual” (BAU) parties holding for dear life onto fossil fuels and nukes.  I also include all current efforts at implementing alternatives and combating CC.  Here is why.   

The energy cost of system replacement

What a great number of energy technology specialists miss are the challenges of whole system replacement – moving from fossil-based to 100% sustainable over a given period of time.  Of course, the prior question concerns the necessity or otherwise of whole system replacement.  For those of us who have already concluded that this is an urgent necessity, if only due to CC, no need to discuss this matter here.  For those who maybe are not yet clear on this point, hopefully, the matter will become a lot clearer a few paragraphs down.

So coming back for now to whole system replacement, the first challenge most remain blind to is the huge energy cost of whole system replacement in terms of both the 1st principle of thermodynamics (i.e. how much net energy is required to develop and deploy a whole alternative system, while the old one has to be kept going and be progressively replaced) and also concerning the 2nd principle (i.e. the waste heat involved in the whole system substitution process).  The implied issues are to figure out first how much total fossil primary energy is required by such a shift, in addition to what is required for ongoing BAU business and until such a time when any sustainable alternative has managed to become self-sustaining, and second to ascertain where this additional fossil energy may come from. 

The end of the Oil Age is now

If we had a whole century ahead of us to transition, it would be comparatively easy.  Unfortunately, we no longer have that leisure since the second key challenge is the remaining timeframe for whole system replacement.  What most people miss is that the rapid end of the Oil Age began in 2012 and will be over within some 10 years.  To the best of my knowledge, the most advanced material in this matter is the thermodynamic analysis of the oil industry taken as a whole system (OI) produced by The Hill's Group (THG) over the last two years or so (http://www.thehillsgroup.org). 

THG are seasoned US oil industry engineers led by B.W. Hill.  I find its analysis elegant and rock hard.  For example, one of its outputs concerns oil prices.  Over a 56 year time period, its correlation factor with historical data is 0.995.  In consequence, they began to warn in 2013 about the oil price crash that began late 2014 (see: http://www.thehillsgroup.org/depletion2_022.htm).  In what follows I rely on THG’s report and my own work.

Three figures summarise the situation we are in rather well, in my view.

Figure 1 – End Game

For purely thermodynamic reasons net energy delivered to the globalised industrial world (GIW) per barrel by the oil industry (OI) is rapidly trending to zero.  By net energy we mean here what the OI delivers to the GIW, essentially in the form of transport fuels, after the energy used by the OI for exploration, production, transport, refining and end products delivery have been deducted. 
However, things break down well before reaching “ground zero”; i.e. within 10 years the OI as we know it will have disintegrated. Actually, a number of analysts from entities like Deloitte or Chatham House, reading financial tealeaves, are progressively reaching the same kind of conclusions.[1]

The Oil Age is finishing now, not in a slow, smooth, long slide down from “Peak Oil”, but in a rapid fizzling out of net energy.  This is now combining with things like climate change and the global debt issues to generate what I call a “Perfect Storm” big enough to bring the GIW to its knees.

In an Alice world

At present, under the prevailing paradigm, there is no known way to exit from the Perfect Storm within the emerging time constraint (available time has shrunk by one order of magnitude, from 100 to 10 years).  This is where I think that Doomstead Diner's readers are guessing right.  Many readers are no doubt familiar with the so-called “Red Queen” effect illustrated in Figure 2 – to have to run fast to stay put, and even faster to be able to move forward.  The OI is fully caught in it.

Figure 2 – Stuck on a one track to nowhere

The top part of Figure 2 highlights that, due to declining net energy per barrel, the OI has to keep running faster and faster (i.e. pumping oil) to keep supplying the GIW with the net energy it requires.  What most people miss is that due to that same rapid decline of net energy/barrel towards nil, the OI can't keep “running” for much more than a few years – e.g. B.W. Hill considers that within 10 years the number of petrol stations in the US will have shrunk by 75%…  

What people also neglect, depicted in the bottom part of Figure 2, is what I call the inverse Red Queen effect (1/RQ).  Building an alternative whole system takes energy that to a large extent initially has to come from the present fossil-fuelled system.  If the shift takes place too rapidly, the net energy drain literally kills the existing BAU system.[2] The shorter the transition time the harder is the 1/RQ.  

I estimate the limit growth rate for the alternative whole system at 7% growth per year.  
In other words, current growth rates for solar and wind, well above 20% and in some cases over 60%, are not viable globally.  However, the kind of growth rates, in the order of 35%, that are required for a very short transition under the Perfect Storm time frame are even less viable – if “we” stick to the prevailing paradigm, that is.  As the last part of Figure 2 suggests, there is a way out by focusing on current huge energy waste, but presently this is the road not taken.

On the way to Olduvai

In my view, given that nearly everything within the GIW requires transport and that said transport is still about 94% dependent on oil-derived fuels, the rapid fizzling out of net energy from oil must be considered as the defining event of the 21st century – it governs the operation of all other energy sources, as well as that of the entire GIW.  In this respect, the critical parameter to consider is not that absolute amount of oil mined (as even “peakoilers” do), such as Million barrels produced per year, but net energy from oil per head of global population, since when this gets too close to nil we must expect complete social breakdown, globally. 

The overall picture, as depicted ion Figure 3, is that of the “Mother of all Senecas” (to use Ugo’s expression).   It presents net energy from oil per head of global population.[3]  The Olduvai Gorge as a backdrop is a wink to Dr. Richard Duncan’s scenario (he used barrels of oil equivalent which was a mistake) and to stress the dire consequences if we do reach the “bottom of the Gorge” – a kind of “postmodern hunter-gatherer” fate.

Oil has been in use for thousands of year, in limited fashion at locations where it seeped naturally or where small well could be dug out by hand.  Oil sands began to be mined industrially in 1745 at Merkwiller-Pechelbronn in north east France (the birthplace of Schlumberger).  From such very modest beginnings to a peak in the early 1970s, the climb took over 220 years.  The fall back to nil will have taken about 50 years.

The amazing economic growth in the three post WWII decades was actually fuelled by a 321% growth in net energy/head.  The peak of 18GJ/head in around 1973, was actually in the order of some 40GJ/head for those who actually has access to oil at the time, i.e. the industrialised fraction of the global population.

Figure 3 – The “Mother of all Senecas”

In 2012 the OI began to use more energy per barrel in its own processes (from oil exploration to transport fuel deliveries at the petrol stations) than what it delivers net to the GIW.  We are now down below 4GJ/head and dropping fast.

This is what is now actually driving the oil prices: since 2014, through millions of trade transactions (functioning as the “invisible hand” of the markets), the reality is progressively filtering that the GIW can only afford oil prices in proportion to the amount of GDP growth that can be generated by a rapidly shrinking net energy delivered per barrel, which is no longer much.  Soon it will be nil. So oil prices are actually on a downtrend towards nil. 

To cope, the OI has been cannibalising itself since 2012.  This trend is accelerating but cannot continue for very long.  Even mainstream analysts have begun to recognise that the OI is no longer replenishing its reserves.  We have entered fire-sale times (as shown by the recent announcements by Saudi Arabia (whose main field, Ghawar, is probably over 90% depleted) to sell part of Aramco and make a rapid shift out of a near 100% dependence on oil and towards “solar”.

Given what Figure 1 to 3 depict, it should be obvious that resuming growth along BAU lines is no longer doable, that addressing CC as envisaged at the COP21 in Paris last year is not doable either, and that incurring ever more debt that can never be reimbursed is no longer a solution, not even short-term.  

Time to “pull up” and this requires a paradigm change capable of avoiding both the RQ and 1/RQ constraints.  After some 45 years of research, my colleagues and I think this is still doable.  Short of this, no, we are not going to make it, in terms of replacing fossil resources with renewable ones within the remaining timeframe, or in terms of the GIW’s survival.

Part 2 – Enquiring into the appropriateness of the question

Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff

Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.  His profile is available on Google+ at: https://plus.google.com/u/0/115895160299982053493/about/p/pub

[1] See for example, Stevens, Paul, 2016, International Oil Companies: The Death of the Old Business Model, Energy, Research Paper, Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House; England, John W., 2016, Short of capital? Risk of underinvestment in oil and gas is amplified by competing cash priorities, Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions, Deloitte LLP.  The Bank of England recently commented: “The embattled crude oil and natural gas industry worldwide has slashed capital spending to a point below the minimum required levels to replace reserves — replacement of proved reserves in the past constituted about 80 percent of the industry’s spending; however, the industry has slashed its capital spending by a total of about 50 percent in 2015 and 2016. According to Deloitte’s new study {referred to above], this underinvestment will quickly deplete the future availability of reserves and production.”

[2] This effect is also referred to as “cannibalising”.  See for example, J. M. Pearce, 2009, Optimising Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies to Suppress Energy Cannibalism, 2nd Climate Change Technology Conference, May 12-15, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.  However, in the oil industry and more generally the mining industry, cannibalism usually refers to what companies do when there are reaching the end of exploitable reserves and cut down on maintenance, sell assets at a discount or acquires some from companies gone bankrupt, in order to try and survive a bit longer.  Presently there is much asset disposal going on in the Shale Oil and Gas patches, ditto among majors, Lukoil, BP, Shell, Chevron, etc….  Between spending cuts and assets disposal amounts involved are in the $1 to $2 trillions.

[3] This graph is based on THG’s net energy data, BP oil production data and UN demographic data.


  1. I find in this article too many crass claims and too few simple facts, and even those questionable.
    Take graph 1. It suggests, that in 2015, i.e. a year ago, the EROI of oil were 1.17. In fact it was always more than 5, in most cases even more then 10, afaik, even for the "new sources", i.e. tar sands &c.
    Concerning the energetic cost of the transition: In a first approximation, energy investment in renewables and saving has paid for itself within a year. This means, that if we transform 10 % of our energy infrastructure to renewables and saving per year, we have to use 10 % of our available power for it. This is certainly a lot. But it is certainly doable, if we want. The latter, of course, is the nub of the matter.
    I have the feeling i have to wade through a rhetoric jungle to search for valuable information. May be a matter of taste, i admit.

    1. It is important to not confuse EROi or EROEI at the well head and for the whole system up to the end-users. The Hill's Group people have shown that the EROIE as defined by them passed below the critical viability level of 10:1 around 2010 and that along current dynamics by circa 2030 it will be about 6.89:1, by which time no net energy per barrel will reach end-users (assuming there is still an oil industry at this point, which a number of us consider most unlikely, at least not the oil industry as we presently know it). Net energy here means what is available to end-users typically to go from A to B, the energy lost as waste heat (2nd principle) and the energy used by the oil industry having been fully deducted - as such it cannot be directly linked in reverse to evaluate an EROI.
      Re the necessary energy investments to build-up a renewable capacity, Parts 2 and 3 will elaborate on the matter. Let's just say for now that we are talking here of whole system replacement, globally, and not just considering the energy embodied in the implementation of this or that bit of renewable technology - the pictures look very different at the micro and macro levels.

    2. I conclude that a huge lot of people will have to find other ways to go from A to B. If this was accepted, and done sooner, then there is still a lot of oil that can be used for other purposes.

    3. the certainty that we will be going from a to b is a critical part of our problem.

      Somehow, our collective psyche sees transport as "wealth producing"--ie, we travel to "work" and bring back wages. In the minds of the vast majority, it is the act of travelling that is key to it all. So we have millions of personal vehicles all rushing from "A to B", each with an importance of purpose, primarily in increase personal prosperity, while consuming collective (finite) energy.

      Thus in any forecasts about our "downsized future" we will still have access to some form of wheeled transport to facilitate our continued commercial existence. So it is in our interests to believe in Musk's fantasies, ignoring the basic fact that electric vehicles require a hydrocarbon infrastructure in which to function.

      I live in the UK, nowhere is more than 80 miles from the sea---yet I can be certain that my great grandparents never saw it. For the simple reason that they didn't possess enough surplus energy (money) to get there, or support themselves there. Along with most of their contemporaries, they rarely went anywhere they couldn't walk to.

      That past is our future.
      Travel must have a purpose, and if there isn't one, mass travel will cease. There will not be 20 mile commutes to work, or 1000 mile vacations because the means or purpose will not be available

    4. Thanks Michael,
      Let's wait for parts 2 & 3. The old way of doing things is dying, however, the future may not be as clear cut as what you seem to imagine.

  2. Thank you, Ugo and Louis !!
    Finally, a well-known scientist writes about the EPT-Modell. As a physicist working in normal industry i have been afraid, to speak free about the ETP-Model, because i have to work with customers and collegues and because discussions about the ETP_Model could disturb the company processes. Since 18 months i have been convinced that the thermodynamic approach of the Hills group is valid and now only about 9 years of oil are left at static consumption. It is absolutely necessary, that this knowledge spreads to the public. I do not know, how chaotic the public reaction will be, but we have to spread this knowledge to prepare the whole infrastructure to create a functioning world for our children. Again, many thanks !

    1. Thank you in turn ;-)) Yes, for many years too (decades in fact) and like many others I have been constrained by business taboos and battled to remain able to speak straight - it has often cost me dearly, including financially.
      However, like you, I think that this is a kind of "elephant in the room" that is too big and too dangerous to be brushed under the carpet. And I do think that it is still possible to lead it out before it does too much damage.

  3. looks as if we Diner Doomsters have been right all along

    I wish it were not so, but years ago every twist and turn in the maze of logic brought me back to the same cliff edge.---Just like everybody else I was truly scared of the height, so turned away and hoped, if not for myself, then for my grandchildren.
    There was little point in discussing it with anyone, few wanted to know. the subject was a guaranteed conversation killer.

    the certainty of living in a political/economic dreamworld was clarified by a recent headline that Saudi Arabia would become an oil importer by the 2030s--as though oil on the scale that Saudi uses to support itself could suddenly be magicked from some hitherto unknown source, and that by another miracle of economics, there would be money available to pay for it.
    Then a more recent headline--"that IF Saudi had no oil by 2020",


    was even more terrifying. Where did IF suddenly come from? To add to the scare, there was a stupid grin on the face of the "energy minister" who uttered those words, that they would have other sources of revenue to replace oilflow. The certainty persists that their gold plated lifestyle is forever. When the Saudi people realise that they are 30m people living in a desrt that has the resources to support 1m, all hell is going to break loose, long before 2030

    But our politicos are no better.
    The millions who scream adulation for Trump, and his promise to "make America great again" have a childlike belief that prosperity can be voted into office. But Trump or Hillary won't make a scrap of difference, both promise the impossible, because our energy legacy has finally been spent.

    But the American people have the same mindset as the Saudis. They too are convinced of the American dream, and when it fail to materialise, all hell is going to break loose there too. Well before 2030.
    I'm putting a guess on it at 2022/3, with USA violence kicking off nationwide after neither Trump nor Hillary have delivered, and there is a growing awareness of the real mess we're in

    1. Hello Norman,
      Thanks. Here in the EU I encounter frequently small entrepreneurs battling to survive, with a sharp critical mind, who intuit a fair amount of what we are talking about here - there are not cognisant of thermodynamics but they can intuit from what they are experiencing daily.
      I agree that in the main politicians are blind to the "elephant in the room" and unable to act. Instead I think that the ball is in the entrepreneurial camp. Some of us are mounting an Initiative to try and show what we think is doable.

    2. Specifically on that note, The Solar Impulse 2 is taking off on the final leg of its round the world adventure from Cairo Egypt heading to Abu Dhabi tonight at 22:00 UTC. I think their team of engineers must be amongst the finest and most knowledgeable in the world with regards the thermodynamic limitations of what may or may not be doable with solar energy. They have certainly amassed some very real world experience on what it takes to live in a different and much more energy constrained paradigm.

  4. Ugo, thank you for hosting this article. Please add a short bio for Dr. Arnoux. I and I am sure many other visitors you hope will read this have no idea who he is, or what his expertise and intellectual pedigree are.

    Figure 2 states that 88% of our energy is used wastefully. I would like some explication of that. I presume that in the future installments, redirecting the use away from waste will be critical to making whatever modest transition remains possible. I fear that will take a lot of political will, not much in evidence among current leaders. In that light, small preparations for families and small communities of the type discussed at the Doomstead Diner or by Dr. Geoffrey Chia may be the best some of us can do.

    I, too, am very glad that the ETP model is making some headway in the world. Thank you, Dr. Arnoux, for this article, I very much look forward to the next two in the series.

    1. Thanks Jeff. I have put a short bio on my G+ account. Yes, the ETP model is very important (and elegant ;-)).

      Re the 88%, see for example: Murray, James, and King, David, 2011, “Oil’s tipping point has passed, The economic pain of a flattening supply will trump the environment as a reason to curb the use of fossil fuels” in Nature, 26 January, Vol. 481.

      They say: "Globally we get 55 × 10^18 joules of useful energy from 475 × 10^18 joules of primary energy from fossil fuels, biomass and nuclear power plants. The difference is due to energy losses and inefficiencies in the conversion and transmission processes. By increasing the efficiency, we could get the same useful energy by burning less fuel."

      In matters of transport, the ratio is even worse - see for example Amory Lovens in Reinventing Fire, 2011. Leaving aside matters of friction, etc., I put the efficiency of going from A to B at roughly 5% (taking into accounts energy used from exploration, through well head to the A point)

  5. Very good synopsis LA! I am looking forward to the next 2 parts. On a Hopeful Level, I wrote a plan for transition over on the OFW commentariat, which has not been too well received since that commentary now has as many nihilist near term human extinction people as NBL does. lol.

    Curious as to how plausible the commentariat here on CL views this?

    From the OFW commentariat:

    Energy Problem Solutions

    I detailed in a prior post how to substitute distributed intermittent electric power for the current centralized on demand power grid for the public at large, as well as how to distribute out your factories and manufacturing in the places you can actually collect large amounts of renewable energy. Such places are near large hydro facilities, near the ocean where you can capture steady Wave Action and Wind Power, in the Desert where you can capture reliable Solar Power and in geological hot spots like Iceland and Yellowstone where Geothermal power can be captured in large quantities necessary for manufacturing.

    However, these are not your only problems of course, the biggest one being transportation.

    For this, you need to refurbish and upgrade the current rail systems. Main long distance lines need to be electrified, with the power supplied all along the line through large solar and wind arrays. Trains may not run continuously on these lines, they may have to wait for power to be supplied to the section of track they are on. In the FSoA, these are only the main E-W and N-S rail lines.

    Subsidiary lines which run off these routes can be run with Diesel-Electric Locomotives, utilizing biodiesel. This brings goods within around a 300 mile radius to most locations in the FSoA.

    Final transportation of goods is done with either animal power or small electrics which can be charged along the distribution route from wind and solar arrays. Again, the transporter may have to wait a day or two to get enough power to continue with the journey to the final destination.

    For Ocean Transport of goods between continents, we need to go back to smaller ships, primarily Sail. However, there should be little need to move many goods between continents since all necessary items should be produced locally, such as food, clothing and shelter building materials.

    The next area we are highly dependent on FF for is Agriculture, both for fertilizer and pesticides and for the machines necessary for large scale till farming of annuals. We need to convert to growing mostly perennials on small plots of land cultivated through permaculture by individuals. These biomes should be set up so there are competing insect predators to replace the pesticides. Along with the permaculture biomes, we need to set up large scale hydroponics and aquaculture farms that are water and fertilizer conservative, and we need to recycle humanure into these facilities as fertilizer.

    Most metals and other basic elements can be acquired scavenging from the debris left over from the Age of Oil. What does need to still be mined can be done with electric heavy equipment periodically as power is available. Large scale smelting of metal can be done with Solar Thermal plants, utilizing large fresnel lenses to concentrate heat.

    Precursors for organic molecules we currently get from Oil can be grown and converted and polymerized as necessary, utililizing renewable electric production.

    Now, will this syste support the current 7.2B people? That is doubtful, but I do think it could support 700M.

    The system will not be built from the top down, it has to build from the bottom up. As the grand monetary system collapses, individual communities will need to set up their own systems for internal commerce. Communities will need to be self-sufficient in food production for probably 50 years minimum before a larger food trading and distribution scheme could be worked out.

    OK, feel free to hack on this.:)


  6. Hi DD,

    Thanks for this.
    I tend to think that Gail is not familiar enough with the thermodynamics of large, complex systems operating far from equilibrium, especially that of the Globalised Industrial System (GIW). However, I admire her ways of nonetheless analysing critically the statistics she is handling to arrive at what are often in my view very sharp conclusions.

    I agree that it is now unlikely that the GIW can avoid a substantial crash - more on this in Parts 2 & 3. So, the pressure is on for paradigm change. In my view (and that of others like Murray and King) a key point is to shift from over 88% wasteful uses of primary energy to over 80% productive uses - i.e. emulating what nature does in ecosystems. Technically my colleagues and I have found that this is doable with existing technology, but integrated in novel ways (new IP there). This enables tapping into the over €5 trillion/year currently lost as waste heat. However, this means deploying highly distributed point-of-use systems in novel types of energy networks (it's possible to recycle current power grids in the process). Current "smart grids" are nowhere near able to do this. There are a number of stumbling blocks to scaling them to large enough scales. We have found ways of sorting out these blocks.

  7. This is an excellent paper. I would like your help in a paper to the Massachusetts Legislature on energy transition.

    1. Hi Bill,
      Thanks. OK. I need your email. Contact me at louis.a.r.arnoux@gmail.com

  8. Everything seems so normal. Weather is a bit weird, job sitution a bit bad, but Netflix still makes series, planes fly to the south for holidays. Someone compared the situation to that of the Wily E Coyote, who has run of the cliff but has not looked down.

    Once we do look down and see nothing beneath our feet, it's going to hurt.

    1. This bounty will cost:
      Renewable forms of energy are growing far faster than anyone expected. But so is the use of oil, coal, and natural gas”


      Despite such advances, the allure of fossil fuels hasn’t dissipated. Individuals, governments, whole societies continue to opt for such fuels even when they gain no significant economic advantage from that choice and risk causing severe planetary harm. Clearly, something irrational is at play. Think of it as the fossil-fuel equivalent of an addictive inclination writ large. “


  9. Myself, and some of my colleagues were sitting in an oyster bar in Toronto in May of 2004. That was when Matt had stated that he had recently taken a considerable beating on his stock holdings in Shell Oil. Shell had, out of blue, reduced their reserve estimates by 20%, and the stock had crashed. After voting to pay the bar bill for our partner, we got into a heated discussion as to how much oil was actually available in the world to be extracted. Roy had quipped that "wouldn't it be a bitch to wake up one morning, and find that the last 10 gallons of oil on the planet was in the tank of your car". Matt had replied, "nonsense, there is probably centuries of oil remaining", Roy came back with, "where did you hear that, Shell"? We spent the next two years looking for the answer to that question.

    We finally had to admit to that no one really knew. Having worked with many of these outfits over the years we were very well aware of their propensity to invent information that might enhance their business. As a collection of, "if you got a problem we can find the answer" engineers, we set out to figure it out for ourselves.

    We soon determined that counting barrels was only a reliable indicator if you were an oil company selling barrels of oil. We began looking for another methodology with which to solve the problem. A fledgling Etp Model appeared as a thermodynamic approach. After attempting to market the study, and finding ourselves on the front steps of a few oil companies we retired it to the file cabinet. A few years later someone said, "we should at least tell people what we have discovered. Let's put up a web site".

    Being in the last decade of the oil age is not exactly where I intended to be 20 years ago. But, on the other hand it is not surprising. The world has been pumping the hell out of this resource of a 150 years. It is a little amazing that we have made it this far. We found the answer to the question that we originally proposed because we really wanted to know what it was. Now that the bell is tolling many will be asking, "how could we not have known"? Perhaps, it is just that we really didn't want to know?

    BW Hill

    1. Hello Bedford,

      Many thanks for this bit of history on how you and your mates arrived at the Etp model and above all for having taken the trouble in the first place. Yes, we engineers have this can do take. And yes, most decision-makers don't want to know. I began to learn this over 45 years ago as a budding engineer ;-)) In Parts 2 & 3 I expand on this "don't want to know" and "Someone Else's Problem Field" syndromes… In our team we are working on solution we are convinced can work, at least for survivors, but that is another story ;-))

    2. The link "http://www.thehillsgroup.org/" doesn't work.
      There are only some chinese signs on the page.
      Something broken?

  10. Thanks for the time line. I've had a feeling that because of the energy cliff (EROI) a transition might be much faster than people expect. Not to mention the other dangers, i.e. Export Land Model (producers stop exporting and use oil within their own country), plus war, terrorism, electromagnetic pulse, etc.

    In my book "When trucks stop running" I wrote the following about EROI, but I wonder if we'll ever know whether it was 14, 10, or 7...

    Charles Hall, one of the founders of EROI methodology, initially thought an EROI of 3 was enough to run modern civilization, which is like investing $1 and getting $3 back. But after decades of research, Hall concluded an EROI of 12–14 might be necessary to sustain culture and the arts, 12 to provide health care, 9 or 10 for education, 7 or 8 to support a family of workers, 5 to grow food, and so on down to a 1.1 EROI to extract oil, where all you “can do is pump it out of the ground and look at it” (Lambert et al. 2014). Murphy (2011) found that so much net energy is provided by any energy resource with an EROI of 11 or higher, that the difference between an EROI of 11 and 100 makes little difference. But there is such a large, exponential difference in the net energy provided to society by an EROI of 10 versus 5, that the net energy available to civilization appears to fall off a cliff when EROI dips below 10 (Mearns 2008). Weissbach et al. (2013) found that it is not economic to build an electricity generating power source with an EROI of less than 7.

    Yet another "Alice"...Alice Friedemann

    1. Hello Energyskeptic,
      Thanks. Yes, it takes much higher EROIs to not only retain some form of prosperous civilisation but to also sort out the mess created by BAU. Parts 2 & 3 expand on this.

  11. Thank you LA, I look forward to Parts 2 and 3. Your work seems to corroborate my own, which is based on laying out the Energy Invested and Energy Returned (NOT occurring at the same time!) in a spreadsheet mapped out over 50 years or so, so that it covers a couple of solar panel lifetimes.

    There is an "available energy barrier" to the manufacture of new renewable infrastructure which simply cannot be overcome with fossil energy subsidies in a post-Peak environment. It would have been possible if we had started the transition a few decades ago, but it is now no longer possible to complete the transition.

    As this barrier is not even mentioned by the BAU crowd, let alone realised how important it is, what will happen is politicians will be forced to decide whether to keep civilisation running now, or whether to build more solar panels for the future. No politician will ever get elected on a "less now" ticket if another politicians is still promising "more now", however impossible that will be to deliver.

    Then we will be into the scarcity contagion scenario described by Korowicz. I don't see a total wipe-out of the human population, because many in the third world haven't even bought their first litre of gasoline yet, and will know how to survive without electricity. But for the modern industrial man it will be grim times indeed.

    1. Thanks Palloy,
      I agree with you that many more people in the so-called "lesser developed" countries stand to survive it all - they have been doing so for millennia.

  12. Kindly provide the empirical breakdown in percent (or energy equivalent) terms for the four categories of exploration, extraction, transport and processing & distributing end-products represented by the yellow arrow in Figure 1 for the observed years 1920, 2015 and for the forecast year 2030?

    1. Hello Anonymous,
      Please visit Bedford Hill's website and get the Hill's Group report. It's all in there, and more...

    2. There is no empirical evidence. Hallmarks of science are replication and falsification.

      It is an absurdity to posit that in 1920 an oil well in Tyler, Texas delivered 70% net energy to the "globalized industrial world" [GIW] yet in 2015 an oil well in San Angelo, Texas delivered 17% net energy to GIW.

      Are you cognizant that refining (processing) oil is substantially more energy efficient in 2015 than in 1920? I would posit that improvements in refining EROI have more than offset the decline in well head exploration and extraction EROI.

      On your side of the pond, EU refineries are 93% energy efficient in 2015. You will be hard pressed to demonstrate that EU refineries were more than 70% energy efficient in 1920.


    3. Hello Anonymous,
      Of course, oil refineries are fairly efficient. In its report the Hill's Group stresses that much. I and others say ditto. This is not what we are talking about here. We are considering the whole system, from oil exploration to end-users. The matter is that relative to the early stages in the development of the oil industry, the total energy costs of producing the energy reaching end-users has been increasing steadily barrel after barrel and we are now getting close to a point when no significant energy will reach end-users. We expect that the industry will breakdown well before this critical point is reached.

    4. The Hill Group provides no empirical evidence in support of the model capable of falsification or replication. It is pseudo-science. Period.

      If an oil well EROI declines from 100 to 10, then net energy has declined from 99 net units out of 100 gross units to 90 net units. If a refinery process has improved efficiency from 70% (3 EROI) to 93% (14 EROI), then net energy has increased from 70 net units out of 100 gross units to 93 net units.

      There is more net energy available with a well head EROI 10 and refinery EROI 14 (call it the 2015 empirical approximation), than a well head EROI 100 and a refinery EROI 3 (call it the 1920 approximation).

    5. Hi Anonymous,
      Just noted your additional comment. The Hill's Group provide abundant empirical evidence. I think that you are getting confused handling EROI values for various items. I do not know you background, however, you do not seem to be that familiar with thermodynamics.

  13. Hi Thomas,
    Thanks. I share your sentiment. It seems to me that the longer people remain blind or sleep walk the harder and more abrupt the fall is likely to be.

  14. Re Net energy of oil per head. Exponential doubling of population growth seems to have outstripped growth of net energy from oil. Also the USA strategic military planning seem to have the idea that they can change the distribution of who gets the last oil. 20 years of middle east war, occupation of Afghanistan despite the costs, and military buildup all around Russia seems to be a fair indication of their global oil grab intentions. So if they are "successful" , how much extra time do they get for their industrial support base? How much can they monopolize remaining oil to their military industrial complex? Perhaps the net results for the US military endeavors past and future are negative, given the expenditure and embedded oil consumption it uses up.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I tend to think that recent military endeavours of all kinds are highly negative. Wars use up ute amounts of energy. Please see the work of Joseph Tainter on this.

  15. #ExxonKnew, perhaps the Pentagon already knows a bit about this too, and maybe a few other large nations with a large oil endowment, who are going to be playing patty-cake with the world. Bake it as fast as you can. Typical politicians comprehending this? No chance. Its contrary to global religion of progress and capitalism. If they are smart enough, they are paid to keep quiet.

  16. Hi Again Michael,
    Based on my experience to date, I doubt that they know directly about the thermodynamics of both the oil industry and of the globalised industrial world. Even if wanting to keep quiet, there would be signs transpiring given the urgency of the situation. However, I think that some, indirectly, have read the writing on some walls, e.g. rulers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

  17. You are doing some interesting and important work. I happen to be an attorney and an accountant. We are the worst at using defined acronyms. You would do yourself and us a favor by writing in whole words, especially for those of us not familiar with your work. You are correct, people do need to be aware of this and act accordingly. But we need to communicate effectively. Again, thank you. Kevin.

    1. Hello Anonymous Kevin,

      Thanks. Amusingly, indeed, I got this practice of defining a term, putting the abbreviation between brackets and then using the abbreviation in the following text by working intensely with lawyers and attorneys in a past life ;-))

  18. Thank You, Dr. Arnoux and Thank You, Mr. Hill, and most sincerely.
    I appreciate the numerous helpful contributions in the comments section, and I also understand the tendency to reject information like this.
    In 1974, at my high school in Yokohama Japan, one of the Marianist Brothers introduced us to The Limits to Growth, and it seemed obviously reasonable, considering all that we were going through at that moment. (I had just gotten there from rural Texas, myself.)
    Seneca's Cliff seemed such a long way off back then, but I think the 2014 peak in CO2 production corresponds to the peak economic activity in the standard model, and right on time, too.
    I am a Family Physician in Public Health in Austin Texas, with a 21 or 27 mile round trip bike commute, depending on which location. I have an organic vegetable garden in what was a "back yard", and over the past 3 years I have worked out a 3-bed/3-year and 5-bed/5-year succession/rotation vegetable gardening system, which keeps all beds in production year round, builds soil, avoids build-up of insects, bacteria, fungi and viruses in the beds, and produces food. It is so much more work than people imagine, yet it is also a satisfying process for a member of our species, a transformation into oneself. People doing this together transform into community, too.
    I am now seeking to share this subtropical succession-rotation gardening protocol, which is available at this blog entry: Liberty Garden July 4, 2016, with a photograph of gardener and garden, taken by Mrs. Gardener.

  19. Hello John,

    Many thanks for this. I have visited your blog: very impressive! Here we are attempting to develop a food garden on a terraced mediterranean hill side that does not seem to have been cultivated since medieval times. The ground is rather poor, so progressively building up masses of compost to improve it. Yes, multi-year rotations are essential. I am going to have a good look at how you do it; we are on a learning curve ;-))

  20. Great article, Dr. Arnoux.

    My name is Loren Soman, but online I am known as Futilitist. I have been studying resource issues and closely tracking the plight of our species since the early 1980's. In early 2005 I became convinced that a near term, rapid collapse was unavoidable.

    I was banned from theoildrum in 2012 for suggesting (okay, insisting) that civilization faced a near term, RAPID collapse. My very first comment there concerned thermodynamics, too. I don't think the world was ready to hear the truth.

    Then I was banned from the Doomstead Diner for suggesting that even they were seriously underestimating the nature of rapid collapse. They weren't ready to hear the truth, either.

    Then I was banned from the various science forums for suggesting that anything might interfere with BAU.

    Then I was banned from peakoilbarrel for suggesting that they were soft pedaling collapse. I also mentioned that collapse had already begun around the end of June, 2014, when the oil price began to plunge. It was during one of my arguments at peakoilbarrel that I was first introduced to the Etp model.

    Now peakoil.com is trying to ban me for suggesting (okay, insisting) that the Etp model is valid and that civilization is already in collapse. I am also harassing them with the Korowicz paper. Everyone who is not afraid to contemplate rapid collapse should read it.

    The idea of apocalypse (social collapse) is very unpopular. It is one of the strongest social taboos that exists. People are simply hard wired to deny the truth. There is some interesting game theory, and evolutionary logic as to why humans behave this way. Denial is not necessarily as counter to self preservation as it might seem. In fact quite the opposite. Most people are aware that something is very wrong, at least on a subconscious level. But acknowledging this openly is not safe. We have zombie movies and prepper shows as a way to collectively deal with the angst of the topic, as we instinctively position ourselves socially to maintain the best individual and group advantage until it is time to fight. Anyway, it all gets rather complicated, but suffice it to say that we can count on human nature to accelerate collapse because we will turn on each other instead of honestly facing the dilemma. We can't handle the truth. The widespread ability to handle the truth has never evolved in humans. Why would it?

    Anyway, it is great to see some people finally coming around, I guess. Too bad about the timing, though.

    And thanks again to BWHill for making such an elegant model. It is great to see it getting the attention it deserves.


    1. Hi Loren,

      Thanks for your comments. Yes, the idea of collapse remains taboo in numerous circles and understandably is rather unpalatable. However, increasingly the awareness of the dangers appears to be progressing rapidly, all the way notably among very wealthy people who now constitute a booming market segment for underground luxury bunkers where, as the marketing goes, they could survive 5 years without going back to the surface in case of heavy turmoil… I would like to stress though that as a scientist I steer away from putting forward any "truth"; this I leave to religions. I focus on researching what is wrong, erroneous, false, or aberrant, in order to contribute delineating provisionally a space or field of what might be possible.
      I have seen your "futilist" comments here and there. I have no doubt that they are well intentioned. However, the fact that you have been banned from a number of places might signal that the way you engage may grate on people. My experience, for whatever it may be worth, is that with a bit of time and patience, step by step, a creative dialogue can be developed. Most of the people I meet and encounter are eager to figure things out by themselves; and doing this through discussions (and not "telling the truth") is a great and fun way, I think.

  21. Dr. Arnoux

    You say most of the people you meet and encounter are eager to figure things out by themselves. Lucky for you. Most of the people I encounter in online discussion forums are not like that at all. Perhaps it depends to some extent on exactly what it is that eager people are trying to figure out for themselves. I have been trying to talk realistically about the inevitable collapse of civilization. I don't know what you discuss with people.

    Your assessment of my "futilist" comments (it's Futilitist, thanks) "here and there" is grossly unfair. I am frankly very surprised by your attack. I don't deserve it at all.

    You clearly don't believe that a near term rapid collapse and massive human die-off is unavoidable. You seem to be trying to suggest that there is some useful way to react to the dilemma. I think that is very unrealistic.

    And I think you are hopelessly naive about human nature. There is no fun way to discuss the collapse of civilization. That is what we are talking about, right?

    By the way, have you read the Korowicz paper?


    1. Futilitist,

      You say:"Your assessment of my "futilist" comments (it's Futilitist, thanks) "here and there" is grossly unfair. I am frankly very surprised by your attack. I don't deserve it at all."

      That tone of comment is precisely why you have been banned from so many forums. I has little to do with your ideas, whether they be right or wrong or even if most people are in denial of reality and find your views frightening or unpalatable. People simply get tired of the way you engage with them.

      Perhaps the problem is not with everyone on all the forums that banned you?


    2. @ Futilitist

      if you run into an asshole in the morning, no big deal, you just ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day long, you're the asshole.


  22. "Is that so?" Yes, believe it is, although you are being pretty vague about which part of my comment you are referring to.

    I have never had any interactions with you before. I left a nice comment for you saying "Great article". For some unknown reason, you chose to personally attack me. When I responded with shock and surprise, you come back with "Is that so?"

    Is this an example of how "with a bit of time and patience, step by step, a creative dialogue can be developed"? Are we having fun?

    Have you read the Korowicz paper?


    1. Hi,
      No "attack", simply a gentle nudge to may be consider what you are doing.
      "Is that so" is a well known Zen koan.

  23. the THG website seems to have been hacked, as someone has already mentioned the web address only features strange and chinese characters.

  24. When you refer to the unavoidable waste heat of oil burning, are you referring to the fact that burning a fossil fuel involves about 30% endothermic input before the 70% can be captured as exothermic? i don't see that stated but I assume that is what you are stating on a net thermodynamic capture of the available energy.

  25. Hello sv koho,

    I refer to the 2nd principle of thermodynamics. This applies to all energy conversions, not just oil-derived fuels.

    1. Hello Dr., I would like to ask you question no one is talking about, how many people will perish in the collapse? 5-10 years from now.

  26. exellent analysis for the most part.
    the only part i disagree with entirely in the climate change.
    humans are not likely responsible for any measureable amount of climate change.
    global warming now called climate change is just a ruse invented by the elite globalist because they are all well aware of this peak oil/eroi crash phenomena and are thus creating a climate change scam whereby they convince you to do without fossil fuels and pays enormous amounts for alterative fuels for several reasons. one of which ,its a extra tax on you for them to be able to use remaining fossil fuels.plus it is a mechanism of control for them as well. etc etc



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)