The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Empire Strikes Back: Down with those Silly Environmental Policies!

I defined this image as "The most amazing graph of the 21st century," and I argued that the rapid inversion of the declining trend of crude oil production is the cause of the US government's currently aggressive foreign policy. But the vagaries of oil production in the US haven't ceased to amaze us. We are now seeing a desperate attempt to keep oil production growing, even at the cost of dumping everything done so far in terms of "green" policies to mitigate climate change and ecosystem disruption. It is a major historical change. 

Sometimes, things change so fast in our world that we are left bewildered at seeing the rapid disappearance of the world we had thought was normal. The Covid pandemic was a case in point. It changed our habits, how we see ourselves and others, and affected our fundamental rights. In less than a couple of years, it propelled us into a "new normal" that became the way things are and have to be. 

The wave of rapid changes is not over. Now, change is sweeping through energy and environmental policies, and not in a good direction. A recent article in "The Epoch Times" reports about a document approved by the House Natural Resources Committee with the title, "GOP-Led House Panels Shift Gears, Go Full Throttle for Domestic Energy Production." It is a true tsunami poised to propel us into another kind of "new normal." Here are some excerpts.

"Republicans made it clear that many initiatives passed under the Biden administration promoting electric vehicles, carbon capture, green energy, and environmental protection are on the proverbial chopping block.

"Among the proposals that will dominate the committee’s and its subsidiary panels’ agendas in the coming months are bills prohibiting restrictions on hydraulic fracking without congressional approval, expanding natural gas exports, repealing the IRA’s Green House Reduction Fund, and amending the Clean Air, Toxic Substances Control, Solid Waste Disposal, and National Gas Tax acts.

"Within the tranche of proposed legislation on the committee’s “unleashing American energy agenda” are bills calling for permitting reform, promoting development of “critical minerals,” and prohibiting the import of Russian uranium. 

"Current energy policies not only degrade the economy but imperil national security... We are exporting wealth from here in the United States, many times to our adversaries, because of a not-in-my-backyard mentality,

"Grijalva’s proposed amendment to incorporate a statement that the impacts of climate change be weighed in evaluating proposals was defeated on a 21–15 party-line tally."

And more like that.

Let's try to unravel this set of ideas. We can start with the key sentence: "prohibiting restrictions on hydraulic fracking." It means that the Republicans want to ramp up the production of natural gas and crude oil at all costs, and the hell with "Climate Change" and "environmental protection." These silly ideas came from those scientists who think they deserve a salary just because they spend their time scaring the public with invented catastrophes that never arrive. Who do they think they are? 

The Republicans seem to be riding a wave of public opinion that sees environmental policies in a bad light. Indeed, most people were never enthusiastic about making sacrifices for a nebulous entity called "the environment." But, today, the public's trust in science has taken a considerable beating from the Covid crisis, and it is becoming more and more difficult to convince people to act in the name of a "science" that they see with increasing suspicion. Independently of individual opinions, when things get tough, most people tend to agree that there is no space for niceties and luxuries, as environmental policies are usually perceived. 

Apart from dumping regulations, neither the Republicans nor the general public seem to be able to see the glaring contradiction in what they are planning to do. Increasing oil and gas production means that more oil and gas will be used and exported. But once oil is produced and burned, it is gone. Then, the country will be impoverished, having lost some of its natural resources. (Unless, of course, you think that oil and gas are an infinite resource.... and that's precisely what the US elites think.). This is a classic case of hastening one's own doom, but it is normal. It happens all the time. 

Besides, there is an even more worrisome point in these ideas. Can fracking production be actually increased? The sentence about prohibiting restrictions on hydraulic fracking actually smacks of desperation. During the past 10 years, an incredibly rapid increase in oil production was obtained without the need for such a radical legislation. So why is it needed now? It may be a way for senators to show their determination, but it is more likely that the fracking industry is in trouble, unable to recover after the drop caused by the Covid pandemic. 

Let's see some recent data from "Peak Oil Barrel." 

You see that the US oil production collapsed in 2020 due to the Covid epidemic. Then, it restarted growing but has yet to return to the record level of Nov 2019. During the years of fast growth, up to 2019, it had grown more than 1 million barrels per year, a nearly 10% increase. It was a rate never seen during the whole history of US oil production. But, during the current recovery, it has declined to about half that value. The forecasts see a further reduction to nearly zero growth so that the 2019 record may not be breached before December 2024 -- if ever. Note also how production went down for about 6 months before the Covid shock. Something was rotten in Texas already by then. 

What's happening? One thing is clear: the US oil industry can no longer sustain the incredible growth rate that had been the rule up to 2019. We may well be close to the second (and final) peak of oil production in the US (as also noted by others)

So, as in the old Chinese malediction, we live in interesting times. An empire that does not expand is a dead empire, and the American Empire needs energy to keep its expansion going. A war, after all, is just a continuation of the economy by other means: the market is the battlefield, and "programmed obsolescence" is assured by the competitor's products. During the past decade, the US empire has accumulated considerable economic potential through the "fracking miracle." This potential has been turned in large part into a military potential. It is now time to dissipate this potential; it is the primary reason for what we see in the world nowadays. It is a concept explored in depth by Ingo Piepers.

The American elites understand what's happening. Hence, the effort to prop up the oil industry at all costs. So, will the Empire succeed in surviving for some more years? The current war is not being fought on the battlefield but on the oil fields. The side that runs out of fuel first will be the loser. 

In the long run, anyway, the winner will also lose: at some moment, production by fracking will not just decline: it will crash in one of the most brutal Seneca Cliffs ever witnessed by humankind. But do not despair: humankind has been thriving before the age of oil, and it may well do the same afterward. It will just be a very different world for those who will survive to see it. 

Below is a post I published in 2015, where I compared the growth of shale oil production to that of cod fishing in the Atlantic. In both cases, producers were blinded by a false sensation of abundance generated by production growth. They didn't realize that the faster you extract it, the faster you run out of it. 

The shale oil "miracle": how growth may falsely signal abundance. 

Originally published on "Cassandra's Legacy,  February 24, 2015

Oil production (all liquids in barrels per day) in the US and Canada. (From Ron Patterson's blog). Does this rapid growth indicate that the resources are abundant and that all the worries about peak oil are misplaced? Maybe not...

Sometimes, we use a simple metric to evaluate complex systems. For instance, a war is a complex affair where millions of people fight and struggle. However, in the end, the final result is a yes/no question: either you win or you lose. Not for nothing, General McArthur said once that "there is no substitute for victory."

Think of the economy: it is an immense and complex system where millions of people work, produce, buy, sell, and make or lose money. IEventually the final result is a simple yes/no question: either you grow, or you don't. And what McArthur said about war can be applied to the economy: "there is no substitute for growth."

But complex systems have ways of behaving, surprising you that can't be reduced to a simple yes/no judgment. Both victory and growth may create more problems than they solve. Victory may falsely signal a military might that doesn't exist (think of the outcome of some recent wars....), while growth may signal an abundance that is just not there.

Look at the figure at the beginning of this post (from Ron Patterson's blog). It shows the oil production (barrels/day) in the US and Canada. The data are in thousand barrels per day for "crude oil + condensate," and the rapid growth for the past few years is primarily due to tight oil (also known as "shale oil") and oil from tar sands. If you follow the debate in this field, you know that this growth trend has been hailed as a great result and as the definitive demonstration that all worries about oil depletion and peak oil were misplaced.

Fine. But let me show you another graph, the US landings of North Atlantic Cod up to 1980 (data from Faostat).

Doesn't it look similar to the data for oil in the US/Canada? We can imagine what was being said at the time; "new fishing technologies dispel all worries about overfishing" and things like that. It is what was said, indeed (see Hamilton et al. (2003)).

Now, look at the cod landings data up to 2012 and see what happened after the great burst of growth.

This doesn't require more than a couple of comments. The first is to note how overexploitation leads to collapse: people don't realize that by pushing for growth at all costs, they are destroying the very resource that creates growth. This can happen with fisheries just as with oil fields. But, also note that we have another case of a "Seneca Cliff," a production curve where the decline is much faster than growth. As the ancient Roman philosopher said, "The road to ruin is rapid." And this is exactly what we could expect to happen with tight oil.


  1. Indeed, it is amazing to watch. I do suspect though, that the people with power and influence are never without a plan. Ratcheting down demand by "destroying demand" all the while making good profits on the mechanism of use appears to be where we are. As a thought piece, consider every government action the world over that makes no sense and then ask yourself if a destroying demand criteria is met? LOL, crazy times.

  2. how could we collapse knowing that there is less than a century of fossil fuels left i am 28 years so until fossil fuels run out i would be nearly 78 years old even the new report of the club of rome with the new model says that we have 50 years of fossil fuels left so why worry i would probably be death by then

    1. I find it more useful to think about 50% decline than running out. There will be a long tail of low productivity. Losing the first half will have big impacts on GDP unless replaced by renewables. If the decline is soon and sudden renewables may not come on line in time to offset the loss of fossils.

    2. I am 32 years old an I am not taking anything for granted. I don't expect to be able to retire the way the previous generations have as the wealth they have used to retire was created through oil powered economic growth. Plus we as a species seem hell-bent on destroying the ecosystems that sustain us. I'm not as pessimistic as Erik Michaels but I feel his message of "live now" makes a great deal of sense.

  3. Having listened to Art Berman on Nate Hagen's The Great Simplification, I have come to understand that the old definition of crude oil [including condensate] no longer applies to what is being extracted from the final hydrocarbon source rocks in the U.S., and that this is a problem with continuance of "power and influence", and diesel.

    1. I’ve learned from Art to focus on diesel rather than overall crude production because of the pivotal role it plays in the economy and, at present, the limited replacement by electricity.

  4. "An empire that does not expand is a dead empire, and the American Empire needs energy to keep its expansion going"

    Despite long columns of the Iraqi army's machinery were seen spectacularly destroyed, part of the theatrical 1991 Gulf War - that war has been mainly waged against civilians and civilian infrastructures.

    The 2003 US and British invasion of Iraq has been a war waged against civilians and civilian infrastructures, too.

    Syrian, Libyan, Yemenis and even Ukraine's wars - were and are inflicted today against civilians - primarily...

    This is not an Expansion for any empire to exercise but rather a savage and vicious Energy Musical Chairs Game.

    Once the world has been told that oil and other fossil fuels are trading fairly under the doctrine of what's called 'supply and demand', not on the basis the fuels are finite - the narrative - America needs expanding or dies - is false - if not a lie....

    Today, no one can tell how much oil Canada and Mexico import from war-torn nations daily - and then export what they import into the US.

    No one can tell how much gold-grade conventional oil the US imports from Canada, Mexico and war-torn nations daily...

    Therefore, no one can tell for sure how much oil the US actually produces...

    Hubert's 1956 prediction has been spot on...

    What is called "The most amazing graph of the 21st century" - in contrast - doesn't explain why oil-rich nations are becoming war-torn and energy-deprived - one after another - since Hubert's prediction and earlier...

    Russia and Ukraine are the latest ones of them...

    Therefore - the graph is indeed questionable and most likely fake...

    This far fake, well-connected social media voices in the ME have loudly started in the last two weeks conditioning the public to expect a war soon erupting between the oil-rich UAE and oil-rich Saudi Arabia...

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most.
    No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores.
    No system of energy can deliver sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.
    This universal truth applies to all systems.

    Energy, like time, flows from past to future".


  5. And how much oil, gas, coal, and two sticks to rub together does Italy have?

  6. if the usa runs out of crude oil or shale oil not only my country will collapse but the european union as well because my country the us export shale oil or crude oil to the eu union ?

  7. i don't believe that renewable energy will save our current population or economy renewable energy will be our demise and the death for all of us like ugo bardi says the parousia will come like a thief in the night i think that he also give up the hope for the renewable energy transition because it will come too late death to us all the wheat will grow on our belly and the wurms will have food !!

  8. even the people who made the earth4all must be stupid they say we won't see collapse until 2100 even that limits to growth say we would collapse in 2025 stupid scientists of the earth4all team not worthy to call themselfs club of rome members how can earth4all be si different of limits to growth hahaha !!

  9. Hello Ugo and all. This is the way limits always work ... there is plenty, until one day there isn't.
    Everything ... even water, air, and soil has a hard limit .
    It is unfortunate that we didn't figure that out until there were eight billion of us pushing every other animal over their respective limits. But we have, as you say, only the two modes. ArtDeco

  10. if we continue to use fossil fuels we all die if we use renewable energy we will all die the parousia will come for us all and the renewable energy transition will never work to save our 8 billion population certain death to all of us the limits to growth said we will collapse in 2025 and earth4all says that we will not collapse until 2100 to reports of the club of rome but there is a big difference does nobody finds this odd or weird it's like first be carefull we will collapse and 59 years later we will not collapse strange is it ?

  11. "Humankind has been thriving before the age of oil, and it may well do the same afterward. It will just be a very different world for those who will survive to see it."

    At the end of the day nobody survives. You pointed that out Ugo. The winner only lives longer.

    After the fall off Seneca's cliff the biosphere rebuilds for a couple of thousand years when all the memories of us are dust. What then? Do we have Conan the barbarian until the sun goes red giant? What will citizens think of science in the future mud huts?

    On my own website I speculate on this. I write a story of the future since people don't listen to reason in the present. Those that don't listen, get creative in dealing with those who do. Domination of ignorance is a story that never ends. The crazy never stops.

    I posted a chapter today.

  12. QUOTE: ***But do not despair: humankind has been thriving before the age of oil, and it may well do the same afterward.***

    Certain things are a bit different this time around. First, there are now about 8B of us around, as opposed to a mere 1B at the cusp of the age of oil. Second, how many of us still know or remember how to live without fossil fuels, like our forefathers before the age of oil? Third, how many of us would be willing to 'return' to a way of life without fossil fuels? Most of us will probably be dragged into it instead, kicking and screaming. Taking all these into consideration, the thought that we've thrived without oil before can offer little consolation, because there's probably no way we can return (very unwillingly) to that way of life "without taking some severe losses in the meantime, in population, in life expectancies, in standards of living, in the retention of knowledge and technology, and in decent behavior." (James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency; Chap 1, 'Sleepwalking Into the Future'.)

    QUOTE: ***Think of the economy: it is an immense and complex system where millions of people work, produce, buy, sell, and make or lose money. Eventually the final result is a simple yes/no question: either you grow, or you don't.***

    I wonder if we really can't have such a thing as a steady-state economy, which grows to a certain optimal state and remains in that state thereafter. No further growth. Certainly that's how all living things behave in Nature: they grow to a certain size, and then they stop growing. And if we look at the history of East Asia since around the 10th Century AD this region has also exhibited remarkable geopolitical stability, as Prof David Kang from the University of Southern California has pointed out.

  13. One potentially interesting comparison is what is the ercentage of diesel now, compared to what it was in 1970. Geological considerations, as well as the reality of fracking, suggests it will be lower. This is at its core a diesel crisis, and I am sure that Ugo is right, there is plenty gasoline now, in the world or in the USA. But not of the stuff that powers ships, mining heavy equipment, tractors, and trucks.

  14. seems every major war begins when someone needs more energy...what's going on today is for all the marbles. every country needs more energy.

    the last war. einstein was right.

    will not be surprised if/when a major event takes place and wipes out most of us. biowarfare most likely. they would rather not nuke and ruin infrastructure.

    we have 100 years of energy globally for a sub billion population...

    that would involve picking up the pieces, and trying to start over after most of us die, which could likely end in failure/collapse, could work out if cog has their shit together (doubtful but you never know) but the resulting lives for the average person would probably be akin to hell on earth slavery. if they have their shit together to keep everything running after most of us die, it's not back to business as usual , everyone have a bunch of kids and 50 years later we reach limits to growth again, kill mostly everyone again, start over again. no

    it would result in either collapse, or some kind of horror sci fi reality for anyone alive.

    or cooler heads prevail, we go off the seneca cliff, the end of globalism, every business gets destroyed, people start cheating, everyone continuously gets poorer, things get out of control and we have either an iron fist come down with shoot to kill orders if you don't fall in line, or the enforcers pack up and we get a lawless global failed state.

    probably not much fun coming, enjoy it now, not looking forward to it but there will be no reason to be bored..

    Jeff Hendricks

  15. No oil implies doing things otherwise. To make bread you need an oven. Gather wood, make bricks. Grain needs grinding... water or windmills? To get the grain you need to harvest and thresh, vast quantities of manual labour. To grow the wheat consider that a man and horse can plough an acre a day. An acre might produce 5 tonnes of grain. Then it needs to be sown. More manpower and horse power.
    We will all as oil diminishes find these things out.

  16. In regards to environmental regulations in general, I think what happened here in the USA, was that when the regulations were introduced, all the big polluters, that were able to, left for places with little or no regulation. I think they would have left anyway, if for no other reason than to take advantage of lower labor rates and such.

    I think we've all (All industrial humans, which is pretty much everybody alive today.) been pushed into a race to the bottom type thing.

    I guess.

  17. This report tells a lot for the nord stream bombing