Morgan goes a step further though. He says cheap energy has been central to the extraordinary economic growth generated since the Industrial Revolution. And without that cheap energy, future growth will be permanently impaired.
It’s a bold view that’s solidified my own thinking that higher energy prices are here to stay. And the link between cheap energy and economic growth is fascinating and worth exploring further today. Particularly given the implications for the world’s fastest-growing and most energy-intensive region, Asia.
Morgan begins his book outlining four key challenges facing economies today:
- The biggest debt bubble in history
- A disastrous experiment with globalisation
- The massaging of data to the point where economic trends are obscured
- The approach of an energy-returns cliff edge
The first three points aren’t telling us much new so we’re going to focus on the final one.
Here, Morgan makes a key distinction between what he terms the money economy and the real economy. He suggests economists around the world have got it all wrong by focusing on money as the key driver of economies.
Instead, money is the language rather than the substance of the real economy. The real economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary one, and economic growth as well as the increase in population since 1750 has resulted from the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of energy.
Morgan goes on to say that the era of surplus energy, which has driven economic growth since 1750, is over.
The key isn’t to be found in the theories of “peak oil” proponents and the potential for absolute declines in oil reserves. Instead, it’s to be found in the relationship between the energy extracted versus the energy consumed in the extraction process, also known as the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) equation.
The equation maths aren’t difficult to understand. If the EROEI is 10:1, it means that 10 units are extracted for every 1 unit invested in the extraction process.
From 1750-1950, the EROEI of oil discoveries was very high. For instance, discoveries in the 1930s had 100:1 EROEIs. That ratio declined to 30:1 by the 1970s. Today, that ratio is at about 17:1 with few recent discoveries above 10:1.
Why Shale (Fracking) won't help: Estimates suggest that the physical depreciation of shale deposits are increasing, and not, as expected, decreasing as additional knowledge is accumulated about the structure and specific geology of various shale oil and gas properties. The simple truth is that estimated decline rates are so large that even in the Bakken (oil) region, which is constantly cited and praised to the high heavens, it is now believed that the average decline could turn out to be 75-85 percent in the first five years, as compared to a much lower average for conventional oil fields. A similar decline rate is expected for shale gas in most deposits.