Oil Economics Made Easy

Afterburn Society: Beyond Fossil Fuels

Richard Heinberg (2015)

Film Review

Afterburn Society is about the economics of energy, specifically the energy produced by fossil fuels. The subject of economics is like bad-tasting medicine for a lot of people. However Post Carbon Institute Fellow Richard Heinberg’s jargonless, down-to-earth delivery makes the experience quite painless and even pleasurable.

Heinberg begins by tracing the history of agriculture and manufacturing. Prior to the late 19th century, there were only two sources of energy. People either relied on their own muscle power or they employed traction animals or slaves (ironic, isn’t it, how fossil fuels replaced slavery?).

In contrast, our modern-day food industry relies heavily on fossil fuels to run farm machinery, for plastic packaging (derived from oil), to transport food to market, for nitrogen fertilizer (derived from natural gas) and as a source of herbicides and pesticides (derived from oil).

It takes 350 gallons of oil a year to feed one American and seven Calories* of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Heinberg goes on to explain the law of diminishing returns as it pertains to oil production. Over the last eight years investment in oil production has soared, while output per dollar invested has steeply declined. From 1997-2005, oil companies spent $1.5 trillion to produce 86 million barrels of oil a day. Between 2005-2013, they spent $4 trillion to produce 3 million barrels a day.

Industry data reveals conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and has been declining ever since. Most of the new oil production has come from more costly and risky technologies, such as fracking and deep sea oil drilling. The use of these new technologies has increased the cost of oil extraction. This, in turn, has led the price of oil to skyrocket from $27 a barrel in 2000 to $100 a barrel in 2014.

The higher price of oil means a higher return for oil companies. This, in turn, enabled more costly and controversial technologies, such as fracking and deep sea oil drilling have come onboard. They only became economically viable when the price of oil passed $70-80 a barrel.


Oil production costs aren’t only increasing in dollar terms, but in terms of the energy required to extract new oil. Heinberg predicts that by mid-century, it will require as much energy to extract a unit of oil and natural gas as that unit will produce when it’s burned. At that point, fossil fuels will cease to be a viable energy source, though they may continue to be useful in producing plastics, synthetic fabrics and other petroleum byproducts.

Overall surplus energy will steeply decline when this happens, as renewable energy technologies have a much lower EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) than fossil fuels. For example, solar energy has an EROEI of 2.5-5 to 1 (2.5-5 units returned for every unit invested), in contrast to oil’s EROEI of 30 to 1. Biofuels, with an EROEI of 1 to 1, are even worse. Their only purpose is to return a profit to government subsidized biofuel merchants like Archer Daniels Midland. They’re useless as an energy source.

The steep decline in surplus energy will translate into major social change, as nearly all of our energy use will be geared towards producing new energy (i.e. food production).

The Recent Drop in Oil Prices

In my view, the only shortcoming in this presentation was Heinberg’s failure to address the steep drop in oil prices that began in June 2014 (from $100 to $48 a barrel, recently leveling off around $60 a barrel). He does discuss it in a December 19, 2014 article The Oil Price Crash of 2014

In brief he attributes the temporary price drop to a decrease in demand (due to deepening recession in China, Japan and Europe), coupled with increasing supply (due to the frantic pace of fracking in the US). Normally when there’s a mismatch in supply and demand, it falls on Saudi Arabia (the world’s top oil exporter) to ramp down production. This time the Saudis have refused to cut back production.

Their motivation is a matter of speculation. According to Heinberg, the most likely reasons are a desire to destroy the US fracking industry (small fracking companies are going bankrupt in droves – they’re up to their eyeballs in debt and fracked oil is only profitable above $70-80 a barrel) – and to punish Russia and Iran (whose economies are totally dependent on oil and gas exports) for meddling in Syria and Iraq.

*A measure of energy, a Calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Centigrade.

4 thoughts on “Oil Economics Made Easy

  1. The author’s point on biofuels is important — these count as “renewable” but should not be confused with solar or wind power. Those who have studied biofuels say they are as environmentally destructive as fossil fuels and possibly more additive to global warming; thus they provide no solution, even before we get to the poor economics.

    Unfortunately, countries like Denmark are getting high marks for increasing their use of renewable energy, but are much more dependent on biofuels than solar or wind. There is less there than meets the eye.


    • Thanks so much for pointing this out, SD. The biofuels scandal helps to underscore the fallacy of “market-driven” solutions to climate change, ie the belief that making the right purchasing choices is going to stop climate change. Carbon trading – which has most turned into another lucrative speculation opportunity for banksters – falls in the same category. Neither reduce carbon emissions.


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