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The U.S. Energy-Independence Fantasy, Part I: Demand

Articles & Blogs - US Commentary

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In the 21st century Corporate Media, where “black is white” and “up is down”; perverse reporting of economic data is par for the course. However, nowhere will one find a larger mass of hyperbole and deception than with respect to the epic myth of supposedly emerging U.S. “energy independence.”

First let’s outline this simplistic fantasy. Some intrepid talking-head in the mainstream media points out that U.S. oil production has been “steadily rising” and U.S. oil demand has been “steadily falling”. The data is then plotted on a chart, the lines are extrapolated into the future, and then the talking-head points to the projected intersection-point, and exclaims “Look, soon the U.S. will be energy independent.”

It’s a delightful tale for small children, and would likely make a fine “Disney movie.” Unfortunately it’s a fantasy which cannot be rationally incorporated into the real world. Debunking the myth requires breaking it down into its components.

The starting-point is to explain something scrupulously avoided by all the talking-heads clucking about “energy independence”: why U.S. oil demand is falling. The dynamic is very simple: when economies grow, oil-demand grows. There has never been an exception to this principle since our economies became dependent upon oil…until the “U.S. recovery” of 2009-13.

Since U.S. oil demand peaked in the middle of last decade at more than 20.5 million barrels per day; it has plummeted by roughly 10% to approximately 18.5 mbpd currently. This collapse in U.S. oil demand has only been equaled once previously since the Second World War: during the Great Stagflation of the 1970’s.

What is important to note, however, is that severe recession also marked the one sustained effort by the U.S. government and U.S. auto industry to radically improve “energy efficiency”. While the U.S. has talked about greater efficiency in the decades which followed, in all the decades of (actual) economic growth which occurred since then, U.S. oil demand has steadily risen until 2007.

Since that point, U.S. oil demand has plummeted to a 16-year low. It plummeted all through the (official) Great Recession, and has kept falling throughout this (supposed) Recovery. Has there been some great “energy efficiency revolution” which the U.S. government forgot to tell everyone about?

Apparently not. In fact, President Obama recently announced a new plan to attempt to “double U.S. energy efficiency” over the next two decades. This follows his “new plan” to increase energy efficiency in 2011, and his “new plan” to increase energy efficiency in 2009. One presumes the Obama regime would not find it necessary to announce new “energy efficiency” initiatives (like some solar-powered cuckoo-clock) if the old plans were actually accomplishing anything.

Thus the equation is simple: shrinking oil demand = shrinking economy. This was pointed out in a previous commentary from March of last year, and recently echoed by noted energy expert, Chris Martenson. After studying global economic data, Martenson was unequivocal: “without growth in oil consumption, GDP doesn’t advance.”

This is reinforced by data from the U.S. government showing less and less people working every month – in a chart now familiar to all regular readers. It’s reinforced by data showing U.S. retailers selling less and less goods every month (in this consumer economy).

Industrialized economies do not grow without increased oil demand. Consumer economies do not grow without selling more goods. And no economy of any kind can grow when there are less and less people working.


We get a feeble attempt by the propaganda machine to “explain” this falling demand – across the dying economies of the Western world.

the economic crisis had played a role in curbing OECD demand but the main reasons were more efficient cars and the increasing use of electricity and gas instead of oil in areas outside transportation.

In fact a bigger reason for the drop-off in demand has been the collapse in automobile sales and usage. In the U.S.; in less than 15 years demand has fallen by nearly 40%. Total miles driven in the U.S. (per capita) has fallen to lows not seen since the mid-1990’s. Obviously new vehicles can’t increase overall fuel efficiency significantly when so few are being sold/driven. In the U.S., at least, “can’t afford to drive” is a more dominant explanation for the collapse in gasoline (and oil) demand than “more-efficient cars.”

This is supported by global data. The United Nations estimates that the global supply of automobiles is expected to triple by 2050, with 80% of that growth occurring in “developing economies” (i.e. growing economies). Meanwhile, the UN is hoping that vehicle efficiency can be increased by 50% over that same time-span.

Obviously a (projected) 300% growth in automobile supply totally overwhelms a comparatively meager 50% increase in efficiency. In economies which are actually growing; GDP and income growth totally dominate “improvements in fuel-efficiency.” It’s only in the shrinking economies of the West where the “can’t afford to drive” dynamic dominates.

Furthermore, decades of previous history show us that improvements in fuel-efficiency tend to be merely brief adjustments by the auto industry to sudden price-shocks in the price of oil (and gas). Absent such price-surges; history shows that the auto industry devotes virtually all technological advances to improved performance – not increased fuel-efficiency. The only rational reason for expecting continued improvements in fuel-efficiency would be if oil/gas prices spiral higher and higher.

For all those readers mentally “projecting” U.S. oil demand to continue falling rapidly, understand what this necessarily implies: the U.S. economy continuing to steadily shrink. However, there is one sector of the U.S. economy where oil demand is surging: the oil industry itself.

While automobile manufacturers have made modest improvements in energy efficiency; these gains are microscopic in comparison to the exponential plunge in energy-efficiency from the world’s oil industry. The leading authority here is Chris Martenson, and his superb “Crash Course” presentation.

Martenson pointed out that when the world first began oil production on a large scale (and supply was plentiful) that oil producers could produce approximately 100 barrels of oil for every barrel they consumed in production. Martenson refers to this ratio as the “Energy Surplus”.

He then points out that with the rising specter of Peak Oil this Energy Surplus has totally collapsed. New oil production from “non-conventional sources” typically requires 1 barrel of oil to produce not 100 barrels of oil, but less than two barrels. The decline in this ratio from 100:1 to (less than) 2:1 reflects a 98% decline in energy efficiency by the oil industry.

While the supply-side fantasies of The Great U.S. Oil Myth will be dealt with primarily in Part II; it must be noted that the U.S. mainstream media has been trumpeting “rising U.S. oil production”. What never gets mentioned is the massive increase in oil-demand from Big Oil. One can only shudder to think how far U.S. oil demand would have fallen without the increased demand from a very ‘thirsty’ oil industry.

Yes, Big Oil will continue increasing oil production. Yes, Big Oil’s profits will continue to increase. Yes, the rate of environmental devastation from this non-conventional oil production will continue to increase exponentially. But with the Energy Surplus having nearly vanished it won’t add any (significant) quantities of oil to actually be used by the global economy.

Big Oil is “producing more oil” simply so it can produce more oil.

Meanwhile, for the first time in history oil demand in “developing economies” has exceeded total demand in the industrialized economies. Future trends in oil demand will be established in the Eastern Hemisphere and/or the Southern Hemisphere – not the West.

Part II of this series will expose U.S. oil mythology on the supply-side, and put the concept of “U.S. energy independence” into its proper (absurd) context.

Comments (2)Add Comment
written by David Gierl, May 21, 2013
Chris Martenson's complete Crash Course can be found at
written by Andrew Fischer, May 20, 2013
Looking forward to Part II!

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