It has recently become clear to me that heavy oil, which is needed to produce diesel and jet fuel, plays a far more significant role in the world economy than most people understand. We need heavy oil that can be extracted, processed, and transported inexpensively to be able to provide the category of fuels sometimes referred to as Middle Distillates if our modern economy is to continue. A transition to electricity doesn’t work for most heavy equipment that is powered by diesel or jet fuel.
A major concern is that the physics of our self-organizing economy plays an important role in determining what actually happens. Leaders may think that they are in charge, but their power to change the way the overall system works, in the chosen direction, is quite limited. The physics of the system tends to keep oil prices lower than heavy oil producers would prefer. It tends to cause debt bubbles to collapse. It tends to squeeze out “inefficient” uses of oil from the system in ways we wouldn’t expect. In the future, the physics of the system may keep parts of the world economy operating while other inefficient pieces get squeezed out.
In this post, I will try to explain some of the issues with oil limits as they seem to be playing out, particularly as they apply to diesel and jet fuel, the major components of Middle Distillates.
 The most serious issue with oil supply is that there seems to be plenty of oil in the ground, but the world economy cannot hold prices up sufficiently high, for long enough, to get this oil out.
As I frequently point out, the world economy is a physics-based system. World oil prices are set by supply and demand. Demand is quite closely tied to what people around the world can afford to pay for food and for transportation services because the use of oil is integral to today’s food production and transportation services.
Heavy oil is especially involved in this affordability issue. As oil becomes “heavier,” it becomes more viscous, and thus more difficult to ship by pipeline. If oil is very heavy, as is the oil from the Oil Sands of Canada, it needs to be mixed with an appropriate diluent to be shipped by pipeline.
Heavy oil often has sulfur and other pollutants mixed in, adding costs to the refining process. Furthermore, heavy oil, especially very heavy oil, often needs to be “cracked” in a refinery to provide a desirable mix of end products, including diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline. This, too, adds costs. Otherwise, there would be too much of the product mix that would be like asphalt. Also, as noted previously, even if the costs of production are high, the selling price of diesel cannot rise very high without raising food prices. This tends to keep the prices of heavy crude oils below those for lighter crude oils.
Many people believe that the high level of “Proved Oil Reserves” worldwide makes it certain that businesses can extract as much oil as they would like in the future. A major issue is whether these reserves mean as much as people assume they do. Oil reserves of OECD countries (an association of the US and other rich countries) are likely to be audited, but reserves of other countries may not be. Asking a relatively poor oil-exporting country the amount of its oil reserves is like asking the country how wealthy it is. We should not be surprised by fibbing on the high side. The problem is that the vast majority of reported oil reserves (85%) are held by non-OECD countries. These reserves may be significantly overstated.
Also, even if the reserves are fairly reported, will the country have the resources to extract these reserves? Venezuela reports the highest oil reserves in the world thanks to its heavy oil in the Orinoco Belt, but it extracts a relatively small amount per year. An October 2022 article says that the country is waiting for foreign investment to expand production.
Going forward, oil companies everywhere need to worry about broken supply lines for necessary items, such as steel drilling pipe. They need to worry about finding enough trained workers. They need to worry about the availability of debt and the interest rate that will be charged for this debt. If private oil companies look at the true prospects and find them too bleak, they will likely use their profits to buy back the shares of their own oil companies instead (as is happening now).
 While oil producers can crack heavy oil to make shorter hydrocarbons in a way that is not terribly expensive, trying to make near-gasses and light oils into diesel becomes impossibly expensive.
It is easy for people to assume that any part of the oil mix is substitutable for another part, but this is not true. Cracking long hydrocarbon chains works to make shorter chains, but the economics tend not to work in the other direction. Thus, it is not economically feasible to make gasoline into diesel (which is heavier), or natural gas liquids into diesel.
 If there is inadequate oil supply, the impacts on the economy are likely to include broken supply lines, empty shelves, and inflation in the price of goods that are available.
If there is not enough oil to go around, some users must be left out. The result is that some of the less profitable consumers of oil may file for bankruptcy. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported Trucking Giant Yellow Shuts Down Operations. This bankruptcy makes it impossible for some stores to get the merchandise that would normally be on their shelves. As a consequence, it makes it likely that some replacement parts for automobiles will not be available when needed. There is a workaround of renting another vehicle while a person’s car is waiting for repairs, but this adds to total costs.
This workaround illustrates how a lack of adequate oil can indirectly lead to higher overall costs, even if the oil itself is not higher-priced. The need to work around supply line problems tends to lead to inflation in the prices of goods that continue to be available.
 The fact that the quantity of oil that could be affordably extracted was likely to fall short about now has been known for a very long time, but this fact has been hidden from the public.
In 1957, Hyman Rickover of the US navy predicted that the amount of affordable fossil fuels would fall short between 2000 and 2050, with the amount of oil falling short earlier than coal and natural gas.
The book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others, published in 1972, discusses the result of early modeling efforts with respect to resource limits. These resource limits were very broadly defined, including minerals such as copper and lithium in addition to fossil fuels. A range of indications were produced, but the base model (based on business as usual) seemed to show limits hitting before 2030 (Figure 1).
Since the resource limits include minerals of all types, these limits would seem to preclude a transition to clean energy and electric cars.
Educators, advertisers, and political leaders could see that discussing the oil problem would cause economic suicide. What would be the point of buying a car, if a person couldn’t use it for very long? Educators felt that students needed to be guided in the direction of hoped-for solutions, no matter how remote they might be, if university programs were to remain open.
Politicians and government officials wanted to keep voters happy, so the self-organizing economy pushed them in the direction of keeping the story from the public. They tended to focus on climate issues instead. They added biofuels to stretch the supply of gasoline, and to a lesser extent, diesel. They also increased the share of natural gas liquids. The selling price of these liquids tends to be quite low, relative to the price of crude oil.
They started providing reports showing “all liquids” rather than “crude oil,” in the hope that people wouldn’t notice the change in mix.
 The world’s number one problem today seems to be an inadequate supply of Middle Distillates. These provide diesel and jet fuel.
Diesel and jet fuel provide the big bursts of power that commercial equipment requires. Many types of equipment are dependent on Middle Distillates, including semi-trucks, agricultural equipment, ocean-going ships, jet planes, road-making equipment, school buses, and trains operating in areas with steep inclines.
Because of its concentrated store of energy, diesel is also used to operate backup generators and to provide electricity in remote areas of the world where it would be impractical to have year-round electricity without an easily stored fuel.
In Figure 3:
- Light Distillates are primarily gasoline (78% in 2022).
- Middle Distillates are diesel (82%) and jet fuel/kerosene (18%).
- Fuel Oil is a cheap, polluting, unrefined product. If environmental laws permit, it can be burned as bunker fuel (used in ships), as boiler fuel, or to provide electricity.
- The Other category includes near-gasses such as ethane, propane, and butane (58%). It also includes some very heavy oil used as lubricants, asphalt, or feedstocks for petrochemicals.
Until recently, it has been possible to increase diesel production by refining an added share of Fuel Oil. Fuel oil is quite heavy (barely a liquid), so it is well-suited to be refined into a mix that includes a large share of Middle Distillates.
Now we are running short of Fuel Oil to refine for the purpose of producing more Middle Distillates. The Fuel Oil that is still consumed is used in what I think of as the poorer countries of the world: the non-OECD countries (Figure 4).
Poor countries tend to value “low price” over “prevents pollution.” It is likely to be difficult to get these countries to move away from the use of Fuel Oil.
 Countries around the world are now competing for Middle Distillates to maintain the food production, road building, commercial transportation, and construction portions of their economies.
Figure 5 shows that since about 1983, consumption per capita for both Light Distillates and Middle Distillates has been generally slightly growing. Growth in usage tends to be higher for Middle Distillates than Light Distillates. The total quantity consumed is also higher for Middle Distillates.
The dip in consumption per capita in 2020 is much more pronounced for Middle Distillates than Light Distillates. For Middle Distillates, the change from 2018 to 2020 is -16%; the change from 2018 to 2022 is -7%. The corresponding changes for Light Distillates are -11% and -4%.
The difference in patterns in Light Distillates and Middle Distillates is not surprising: Gasoline, the main product of Light Distillates, has been the focus of efficiency changes. It is also possible to dilute gasoline with ethanol, made from corn. Voters in the US are particularly aware of gasoline availability and price, so politicians tend to focus on it.
Diesel and jet fuel, made using Middle Distillates, are less on the minds of voters, but they are probably more important to the economy because people’s jobs depend upon the economy in its current form holding together. Inadequate Middle Distillates leaves empty shelves in stores because of broken supply lines. It also leads to inflation of the type we have recently been experiencing. Indirectly, lack of Middle Distillates can lead to debt bubbles collapsing, and to problems of a different type than inflation.
Up until 2007, Middle Distillate consumption was generally increasing for both OECD countries and non-OECD countries. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 particularly affected OECD countries. European countries found their economies doing less well. For example, less diesel was used to operate tour boats carrying tourists; a larger share of available jobs were low-paid service jobs.
The year 2013 was a turning point of a different type. The consumption of non-OECD countries caught up with that of OECD countries. While non-OECD countries might like to maintain their rapid upward trajectory in the consumption of Middle Distillates, this no longer seems to be possible.
 Under the Maximum Power Principle, the physics of the economy pushes the economy toward optimal low-cost solutions, especially as the quantity of Middle Distillates approaches limits.
The economy, like every other ecosystem, operates under the principle of “survival of the best adapted.” In terms of the sale of goods, this means that the lowest-priced goods will tend to win out in a competitive environment, provided that they are of adequate quality and that the makers can earn an adequate profit in making them.
Furthermore, the makers of the goods must earn a high enough profit both for reinvestment and to pay adequate taxes to their governments. Payments of taxes to governments are essential; otherwise governmental collapse would occur due to the growing debt that cannot be repaid.
If inflation becomes a problem, rising interest rates would tend to push governments with large amounts of debt toward collapse because they would become unable even to make interest payments from current income.
In this self-organizing economy, buyers of goods don’t know or care much about the lives of the workers in the system. Optimal low costs of manufacturing in a world market might mean:
- Manufacturers have access to very inexpensive energy sources and use them.
- Pollution control is ignored to the maximum extent possible, without serious harm to the workers.
- Governments provide very little in the way of benefits to citizens, such as health care or pensions, keeping the cost of government low.
- Workers can get along on relatively low salaries because little heating or cooling of homes is needed.
- Workers don’t expect private vehicles, recreational activities, or advanced medical care.
Because the economy favors the lowest cost of profitable production, a person would expect that warm countries that use oil sparingly in their energy mix (India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, for example) would have a competitive edge over other countries in manufacturing.
In general, a person would expect non-OECD countries to outcompete OECD countries, especially if cheap fuel for manufacturing is available. The lack of cheap fuel is increasingly becoming a problem in many parts of the world. Coal used to be cheap, but its price can now spike. Natural gas prices can also spike, especially if natural gas is purchased without a long-term contract. Electricity using wind and solar tends to be high-priced, too, when the cost of transmission is included.
 The Maximum Power Principle seems to be pushing the EU away from diesel.
The EU has a serious oil problem. It has essentially no crude oil production of its own. Furthermore, oil production in Europe outside of the EU (mainly the UK and Norway) has been falling since 1999, greatly reducing the possibility of imported oil from this area (Figure 7).
Under these circumstances, members of the EU found that they needed to import nearly all of their oil, and that most of this oil needed to come from outside Europe.
When I look at the data regarding the types of oil the EU has chosen to consume (nearly all imported), I find that it uses an oil mix that is unusually skewed toward Middle Distillates and away from Light Distillates. (Compare Figure 8 with Figure 3).
Part of the reason the EU uses this skewed oil mix is because it has encouraged the use of private passenger cars using diesel through its tax structure. Underlying this tax structure was most likely an understanding that Russia, through its exports of Urals Oil, which is heavy, could provide the EU with the mix of oil products it needed, including extra diesel.
The EU has recently cut off most oil imports from Russia as a way of punishing Russia. This cutoff is being phased in, with most of the impact in 2023 and later. Thus, Figure 8 (which is through 2022) shouldn’t be much affected.
China and India are now buying most of Russia’s exported oil. These countries tend to use the oil more “efficiently” than the EU. In particular, they do more manufacturing than the EU, and they have far fewer private passenger cars per capita than the EU. Furthermore, the EU powers quite a few of its private passenger cars with diesel. If diesel is in short supply, efficiency demands that it should be saved for uses that require it, such as powering heavy equipment.
Because of the efficiency issue, I doubt that the EU will be able to continue importing as high a diesel mix in the future as it has been importing up to now. We know that Saudi Arabia cut back its oil exports by 1 million barrels per day, as of July 1, and this cutback is continuing into August. Russia is also cutting its production by 500,000 barrels a day, effective August 1. If oil prices rise again, I wonder whether the EU will be forced to cut back on its oil imports, essentially because of the Maximum Power Principle.
 The substitution of electricity for oil so far has been mostly in the direction of replacing gasoline usage for private passenger automobiles. Substitution of electricity for Middle Distillates would be virtually impossible.
Middle Distillates are largely used for the tough jobs–jobs that require big bursts of power. Electricity and the battery storage required for electricity are not adapted to these tough jobs. The vehicles become too heavy, especially when the big battery packs that would be required are considered. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that battery-powered commercial trucks can cost more than three times the price of diesel-powered trucks, a hurdle much smaller private passenger automobiles don’t face. The wide diversity of types of heavy commercial vehicles would be another huge hurdle in trying to substitute electricity for diesel.
Oil is a mixture of different hydrocarbon lengths. Substitution of electricity for one part of the hydrocarbon mix, namely for the Light Distillates, is not very helpful. Oil companies need to be able to sell all parts of the mix in order to make their extraction efforts worthwhile. If oil companies find themselves without buyers for most Light Distillates, they would have difficulty recouping their overall costs. There would be a possibility of oil production stopping. Without oil, farming would mostly stop. Road repair would stop. Today’s economy would come to a halt.
Of course, as a practical matter, the vast majority of the world will pay no attention to mandates that all private passenger automobiles be EVs. Buyers in most parts of the world will make decisions based on which cars are least expensive to own and operate. As a result, there is little chance of private passenger cars being completely replaced by EVs. Instead, EV mandates in some countries may somewhat reduce the selling price of gasoline worldwide because these drivers are no longer using gasoline. With lower gasoline prices, non-EV’s are likely to become cheaper to operate in countries where they are permitted, boosting their sales. This is an effect similar to Jevons Paradox.
 There are many related topics that could be addressed, but they will need to wait until later posts.
A few of samples of other issues:
[a] The world economy is tightly networked together. Inadequate oil supplies per capita tend to push the economy toward forced reduced activity, as was the case in 2020. Oil prices likely won’t rise a whole lot higher, for very long, if the economy is forced to shrink.
[b] Inadequate oil supplies per capita also tend to cause fighting among countries. OECD countries seem to over consume, relative to the benefits they provide to the rest of the world. Perhaps some grouping of non-OECD countries (or parts of countries) will take over in leadership roles.
[c] The self-organizing economy has different priorities than human leaders. All ecosystems in a finite world go through cycles. As conditions change, different species are favored, and new species emerge. Humans have a strong preference for recent conditions that helped humans thrive. Humans need a religion to follow, so leaders have created environmental sin to replace original sin. The catch is that ecosystems are built for change. Pollution can be viewed as a type of fertilizer for different types of species or recent mutations to thrive. Higher temperatures will have a net favorable effect for some organisms.
[d] If a local economy chooses to increase energy costs by taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint, the main impact may be to disadvantage the local economy relative to the world economy. If total energy costs are higher, the cost of finished goods and services is likely to be higher, making the economy less competitive.
[e] I expect that the members of the EU and other rich nations will be the primary countries pursuing carbon reduction technologies. Poorer economies may pay lip service to carbon reduction, but they will tend to focus primarily on increasing the welfare of their own people, whether or not this requires more carbon.
For example, in 2022, China accounted for 66% of global EV sales (5.0 million out of 7.7 million), thanks to subsidies that China made available. China no doubt had many motives, but one of them would seem to be to stimulate the economy. Another motive would be to increase the total number of vehicles in operation. The majority (61%) of electricity generation in China in 2022 was provided by electricity coming from coal-fired power plants, based on information from the Energy Institute. I would expect that more Chinese vehicles manufactured and placed into operation plus more use of electricity from coal would lead to a greater quantity of carbon emissions, rather than a smaller quantity.
By Gail Tverberg
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