The Precariat , Trump and cheap-to-extract Energy

When job figures in the US came out in early November 2016 the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent and hardly anyone worried. For economists a 5% unemployment rate is a really good figure. But remember the new definition of who is employed? Employment in most developed nations these days is "at least one hour of work done in the past week by a person aged 16 or older". So the "employed" includes all those who lack job security, and those with intermittent employment or underemployment and the resultant precarious existence.

This is what the Democrats missed. There is many a commentator who has observed that the urban privileged are completely out of touch with those who experience the worry of a day to day precarious existence, always uncertain whether they can pay their bills. This is the precariat. Professor Guy Standing, in a book published well before Brexit and Trump's election warned that the rapid growth of the precariat is producing instabilities in society. He warns it is a dangerous class because it is internally divided, leading to the villainisation of migrants and other vulnerable groups. And, lacking agency, its members may be susceptible to the siren calls of political extremism.

Something familiar there? While they might not call it the precariat, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage all appeal to this group. So while the question is legitimate, the solutions of Trump and Farage are wrong, wrong, wrong.

The tragedy is that just as politicians miss the precariat, economists miss energy. And strangely they are related. Here is how:

Oil is a remarkably dense energy source with one barrel of oil supplanting eleven years of human labour. Graph its use with the rise in GDP and they are in complete lockstep. The economy as it is currently structured is utterly dependent on growing supplies of cheap to extract energy. Only a fool would deny it is extremely unwise to build an economic system that relies on ever growing expansion in oil supply. In real terms energy supply is already on the decline due to the expanding internal energy requirements of the oil industry.


The cost of oil exploration and extraction is rising and with it debt

Actuary Gail Tverberg writes that peak oil didn’t play out as expected because we didn’t factor in the financing of the oil industry. As the cheap-to-extract oil ran low, the cost of extracting non-conventional oil grew higher. This meant the firms had to go into more debt in the form of bank debt, bonds and derivatives. Eventually the debt overwhelms the oil companies and the layoffs begin. In order to pay interest on all their debt, indebted firms have had to keep wages low. The same happens for all firms that extract commodities, because they all require cheap-to-extract energy. The last step is that these low wages reduce the general demand for goods.

Nicole Foss points out that if demand collapses, the money supply declines and a deflationary spiral begins that few notice. 18 months after the decline in oil prices started, by February 2016 Bloomberg Business reported there had been 250,000 oil jobs lost and apparently each of these jobs supports over three basic wage jobs.

Tverberg says, "Why is the price of oil so low now? In fact, why are all commodity prices so low? I see the problem as being an affordability issue that has been hidden by a growing debt bubble. As this debt bubble has expanded, it has kept the sales prices of commodities up with the cost of extraction, even though wages have not been rising as fast as commodity prices since about the year 2000. Now many countries are cutting back on the rate of debt growth because debt/GDP ratios are becoming unreasonably high, and because the productivity of additional debt is falling."

So the drop in oil prices leads us to an underlying problem. The world is reaching the limit of its debt expansion. This is what is called Debt Deflation.

So even though we are living in a time of energy constraints, our blinkers don't allow us to see that. Risk analyst David Korowicz wryly observes,"The irony is that people may rarely notice they are living under energy constraints. Energy retraction from the global economy can be achieved by production declines or collapses in demand, though as we have seen, they are deeply inter-related. We may experience energy use collapse not as an energy constraint, but as a systemic banking collapse and vanished purchasing power."

So here is the source of the vanished purchasing power of the precariat. In a post election blog energy analyst Richard Heinberg observes that the problems won't go away when Trump is elected. In the face of the door being closed to national action on climate change, build community resilience is his message. "The most promising responses to our twenty-first century crises are showing up at the community level anyway. It’s in towns and cities across the nation, and across the world, where practical people are being forced to grapple with weird weather, rising seas, an unstable economy, and a fraying national political fabric."

None of these arguments will be known to the incoming president, though some advisors may try to educate him.Good luck to them. He is an anti-science president. If he slaps tarriffs on as he has promised, purchasing power will decline still further and accelerate the already active deflationary spiral.


Trump's attitude to women seems the same as his attitude to the environment – if it's there, it is there for my use. Coal stocks soared on his election and renewables dropped. However, oil stocks didn't rise much, possibly a sign that reality of constraints are already priced into the market. 

An interesting question with Trump is how committed he actually is to his own ideas, from the potentially sensible to the crazy.   He is a “top of the head” sort of a guy, who changes position and contradicts himself on exposure to new things (or simply because he finds himself in a new context). Is the Presidency just a vanity project for him, in which he will blow with any policy wind he encounters? His victory speech, and his abandonment of the “Lock her up” approach, suggested that.

At the worst, if his “vision” as expressed during the campaign carries through, the US (and to a lesser extent the world) are in for an appalling time – racist, misogynist, anti-environment, pro-individualist, pro-violence and so on. And if the Republican Party as a whole gets the bit between its teeth, the US Government will be gutted and corporates will simply finish their take over. At the best, there’s no doubt he has created more space for these sorts of behaviours at the fringes in the short term. In between, as seems more likely, the direction as a whole will probably be negative, but it’ll be muddled and maybe not so fast moving.

There are a few bright spots, less likelihood of a war with Russia and above all, an increased energy and commitment of climate change activists. Our lives depend on it. He has focussed our minds. There is no spare planet. Somehow we must find a way.

The energy return cliff and the end of growth

When we first started talking about peak oil (I heard about in 2004) we were worried about the price of oil going over $100 a barrel.

Many people say “They will find something”  They hear a radio item about shale gas being plentiful and are happy. Or others might dismiss it as a plot by the left. As oil gets discovered in so many new corners of the globe, people now say the concern about peak oil was unnecessary. But actually, because of climate change, almost all those resources have to be left in the ground!


Once a barrel of oil would be enough energy to extract 100 barrels of oil. But nowadays we need much more energy to get energy.

Then we had the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and all got busy worrying about housing bubbles, derivatives, debt bubbles, too big to fail banks and bailouts. This is all important stuff. The price of oil declined as the global economy declined and now keeps repeating these waves. Affordability oil became the issue.

In 2012 that same brother in law commented that my worry about oil was unfounded as the oil price hadn’t gone up as much as forecast and “they were always finding something”.

Now I realise what is happening and there is no better little book to explain it than the one former Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons recommended in a recent talk run by the local Quakers. The book that blew her mind was The Perfect Storm – Energy, Finance and the End of Growth by Tim Morgan, Global Head of Research at finance broker Tullett Prebon. It is freely downloadable at I have printed it off and had it bound.


The Net Energy Cliff according to Tim Morgan

Morgan says: There are four factors bringing down the curtain on growth. The economy as we know it is facing a lethal confluence of four critical factors – the fall-out from the biggest debt bubble in history; a disastrous experiment with globalisation; the massaging of data to the point where economic trends are obscured; and, most important of all, the approach of an energy returns cliff-edge.

When oil bubbled from the ground in Saudi Arabia a century ago, only one barrel of oil was required to extract 100 barrels of oil. The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) was 100:1. But for tar sands it is 20:1, North Sea oil today 5:1, shale oil 5:1 or less and biofuels 3:1. He says below an EROEI of 15 the profitability falls off a cliff. For decades EROEIs are declining. Few discoveries today offer much more than 10:1. So as time passes economies are spending a larger percentage on energy. At the household level when petrol and power costs rise we have less and less for other essentials. A nasty little graph  of oil’s dying EROEI is shown at

The economy is a surplus energy equation not a monetary one. Too much energy has to be reinvested into energy extraction and too little energy is left for the essentials of food, government services, housing and investment.

The interesting thing is that Tim Morgan works for Tullett Prebon. It is the messenger which is unusual saying all these things. It isn’t Richard Heinberg or some sandal wearing, folk dancing greenie. In a way Tullett Prebon seems to be taking over where Matt Simmonds left off.

I think the most scary thing in his whole book is the graph of the energy returns cliff. While we blithely go into debt to build motorways and while we waive civil rights to protest at sea about deep sea oil drilling, it must be worthwhile paying attention to what this energy firm is saying.


Official report on Oil Prices and Transport Sector Resilience suppressed by Brownlee and Joyce

Yes we have had an official Government report called Oil Prices and Transport Sector Resilience in Nov 2009. This unsigned report had to be ferreted out by the wonderful Thames-based Dennis Tegg, who blogs so responsibly on the topic of peak oil. Our unique vulnerability on many fronts is described in the report. Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce apparently don't believe an informed public is going to be useful for their oil friendly and lignite friendly agendas! The road transport lobby is no doubt also doing some effective lobbying to bend their ears.

There is another report, the one written by Clint Smith for the Parliamentary Library in Oct 2010. and to date is still on their website. It is excellent.

And of course there is a report commissioned by NZ Transport Authority from 2008 which was never given much airtime. It was 148 pages long.

And during January Australia suppressed its long and comprehensive report on peak oil too.

The Minister of Defence is also turning a deaf ear to military reports overseas and neglecting to commission a report for our country's security. Like the others he has his head firmly in the sand. When a US CNA Military Advisory Board Report on peak oil came out last year, calling for a 30 percent reduction in US oil use over ten years to reduce "grave national security risks",  I wrote to our Minister of Defence, Wayne Mapp, to find out whether he had seen it and asking under the Official Information Act for copies of all reports on oil, and the implications for security that he had received. He replied that he hadn't.

No wonder we have seen all this rush for deep sea oil exploration and lignite production in Southland. Tag Oil in early January spoke of the potential to build thousands of oil wells in the largely untouched region of New Zealand, and said that New Zealand could become the Texas of the South. This was repeated by MPs and Ministers. The dangerous and resource intensive practice of fracking continues. So widespread is the local concern, even the Christchurch City Council has asked for a moratorium on fracking.