The Fugue of Techno-Narcissism

I recently saw a story hit the newswires, claiming that U.S. oil production (from Bakken shale) could surpass Saudi Arabia by 2017

Years ago, I looked into shale and found that the amount of “net energy” input to extract and convert shale deposits into oil was very high. The mantra for years has been that, as the price of oil/energy gets high enough, it will become economically feasible to make oil from U.S. (Bakken) shale. But the problem is EROEI – energy return on energy invested. Last I checked, it takes about 1 bbl of oil energy to extract 8 bbls of U.S. crude oil. It takes roughly 1 bbl to produce 4 bbls of Canadian tar sand oil. Shale is a far less efficient process than sand – perhaps approaching 1:3 EROEI. And this, in short, is the theory of peak oil. We’re getting desperate for cost-effective energy.

There will always be billions of bbls of oil out there, but the cost to extract it (relative to supply-demand) will continue to rise, until EROEI approaches 1:1, at which point there will be little use for oil. The “low hanging fruit” (relative to demand) we’ve enjoyed for 100 years is now gone. If regenerative / sustainable energy alternatives are not in place as we approach smaller EROEI fossil ratios, economics and commerce will slow considerably (and perhaps has already). The global economy as we know it relies on cheap energy, yet the cost of that energy is increasing far faster than average inflation (which is troubling since energy is a core % of many inflation indicators). This was / is a central peak oil theory prediction and it seems to be holding true.

There’s an equal if not greater problem – the environmental damage of shale extraction. Canadian tar sand extraction is a terribly dirty process. I’m told that shale extraction is worse.  When we combine the cost of extraction with the environmental damages, I don’t see where Yergin and Goldman Sachs get their rosy predictions. In the WSJ article, I find at least two glaring misstatements by Yergin. Not surprising, given that he’s one of the oil industry’s highest paid PR gurus.

Anyway, the ever colorful James Kunstler penned a reply to Yergin and Goldman which I want to pass along. Enjoy.

This much can be stated categorically about the USA these days: the more distressed our economy gets, the more delusional thinking you will encounter. People want to assign the cause of their misery to this or that (socialism, abortion, Jews, the New World Order). People want to believe that their world is a safe place with bright prospects (climate change is a myth, we have a hundred years of shale oil). The realm of oil is especially ripe for misunderstanding, since we depend on the stuff so desperately, and the world’s geology is complex indeed, and then you have to bring math and money into the picture. But it’s another thing when professional propagandists take the stage and attempt to systematically mislead the public.

Such is the case with two ersatz bombshells zinging across the web-waves this past week, fired off by two of the foremost professional liars on the scene. The first comes from the oil industry’s leading prostitute, Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), owned by the mammoth HIS consulting company. CERA is the main public relations shop for the oil industry. Its mission is to blow smoke up America’s ass in order to keep investment dollars flowing into oil companies because oil companies prefer to use other people’s money to perform their risky operations. They make a lot of money themselves, and accumulate it diligently, but they are not so foolish as to squander it on dry holes and adventures in alchemy.


So, last week Daniel Yergin came out with a blast in the Wall Street Journal affecting to debunk peak oil. His own theory is much like Irving Fisher’s economic theory set out October 21, 1929 that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”  Three days later, the markets crashed and the Great Depression commenced. Yergin says we’ve hit a permanent plateau for oil production. He is pimping for a bonanza in shale oil, tar sands, and other innovative ventures in picking “fruit” that is not hanging so low anymore. He says:
“Meeting future demand will require innovation, investment and the development of more challenging resources. A major reason for continuing growth in petroleum supplies is that oil previously regarded as inaccessible or uneconomical is now part of the mix, such as the “presalt” resources off the coast of Brazil, the vast oil sands of Canada, and the oil locked in shale and other rocks in the U.S.”
Spoken like a true PR whore. Translation: give us money. Calling all investors. Give your dollars to the folks working the Bakken play, or Eagle Ford down in Texas. These shale plays represent oil that is trapped in “tight,” low-permeability rock that has to undergo fracturing operations (“fracking”) before you can drain it out. It costs a lot more to get oil this way than by sticking a pipe in the ground and running a pump-jack to get it out the old-fashioned way. There are more than a few dirty secrets about the shale oil plays, but the biggest one is that you have to throw a huge amount of capital and steel at it to keep it running as an ongoing enterprise, and that money – other people’s money – will be in shockingly short supply in the years head.


Those troubles distant rumblings you hear in places like Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain – that’s the sound of the world’s money whooshing into a black hole, which is what happens when debts are not repaid. Something very similar is happening in the USA, where all the unresolved mega-borrowing of the past thirty years is whirling down the drain, never to be seen again, and a craven corporate oligarchy (there, I said it) is working tirelessly to hoard the last remaining vestiges of money before it either deflates across that event horizon, or inflates away to nothing by digital multiplication. In either case the result is the same: you’re broke.


Here’s the truth about the US shale plays: they will never amount to more than about one million barrels-a-day (m/b/d) in production under any circumstances (the nation uses 19 m/b/d); and even more probably the money will not be there to keep the shale oil coming very many years into the future. You can take that to the bank (if your money has any value when you get there, and if the bank has not cratered).


In our fugue of techno-narcissism, America wants to believe that we can just keep on being what we used to be, pizza, DisneyWorld, WalMart, and all. So, the second big buzz of the week came courtesy of Goldman Sachs, in a sloppy press release saying America would be the world’s top oil producer in 2017, at 10.9 m/b/d. The effrontery of these thieving pricks! They apparently pulled the information out of chief Goldman flak Lucas Van Praag’s ass.

One might infer that Goldman Sachs is campaigning to raise money for the oil industry by suggesting a bonanza is underway. It’s a crude ruse. The actual “confidential” report – as opposed to the brief summary in the media – shows that Goldman Sachs arrives at this position by referring to non-oil substances as oil. Neat trick. Be sure to call Goldman Sachs to invest your remaining savings in algae secretions and ethanol.


No doubt, though, that these two PR offensives will accomplish their secondary mission: to gird the hopes and wishes of the political right-wing, who are hell-bent on keeping this country from entering a plausible future. Watch these idea take flight and wonder that you live in such credulous nation.

2 thoughts on “The Fugue of Techno-Narcissism

  1. The Kunstler analysis is sniping, ill-informed technically and lacking in support for its assertions. The ad hominem attack (Daniel Yergin is a slut so he must be lying) is a logical fallacy that has been recognized at least since Aristotle. Shale oil from the Bakken and Eagle Ford alone are rapidly approaching 1 million barrels per day and have not yet begun to slow that climb. The lead author has heard that oil shale (different from oil-bearing shale of the Bakken and Eagle Ford) is even dirtier than oil sand, but provides no basis for this assertion. It is most likely taken from ardent opponents, who can only cite decades old studies and ignore current technological developments. Anyone interested in more modern data is directed to the COSTAR website listed in my header to get results of the last five Oil Shale Symposia (2006-2010). The views citer here are mine and do not reflect positions of the Colorado School of MInes.

    Jeremy Boak, Director
    Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research
    Colorado School of Mines

  2. edited 31 Oct: Jeremy confirms in e-mail to me that he is speaking of LIQUID OIL in shale strata. My post refers to heat extraction of oil from hard shale itself, roughly similar to the extraction of oil from Canadian “tar sands.” As for liquid oil in shale strata, I totally agree with Jeremy, and have known about this as fact for years. And my assertion stands: we are many years away from deriving any kind of significant oil from heat-extracted shale, if it ever really happens at all.

    As for liquid oil mined from shale strata, Jeremy is correct — we may in a few years exceed 1M bbl/day. This may help offset U.S. imports a tiny bit, but in the global picture, it does next to nothing to offset the growing realities of peak oil. Cheap, concentrated fossil energy is the foundation of contemporary economic and population growth. As fossil energy costs continue to climb, and as we approach 9 billion people competing for that increasingly scarce energy, economic growth must slow (unless and until a cheap, renewable energy source is discovered). The Western lifestyle we have created — a lifestyle that 3B industrializing people now aspire to (China, India, etc.) — is soon to be a historical memory. Perhaps history will record the 20c Western lifestyle as the pinnacle of human economic achievement – the 100 year blip of history when humanity had access to unlimited, effectively free energy.

    *ClearView Energy Partners (


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