Sunday, July 10, 2022

Acceleration forever? The increasing momentum of mineral extraction

Half of all the oil consumed since the dawn of the modern oil age in 1859 has been consumed from 1998 through 2021 inclusive based on data available from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Approximately 1.4 trillion barrels of oil is thought to have been consumed to date (though there are estimates as low as 1.1 trillion). That means that in just the last 24 years total historical oil consumption has doubled.

It is hard for most people to imagine the vast increases in the rate of consumption of practically everything that makes modern life possible. Resources appear without most of us ever thinking about how or whether the rising rates of consumption can be sustained.

For copper, one of the critical metals we depend on for electrical, mechanical and even monetary purposes, the story is similar. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that about 700 million metric tons of copper have been extracted to date. Based on mining statistics from the Copper Development Association, that means about half of all the copper ever mined has been mined from the year 2000 through 2018 inclusive.

Could we double total oil and copper consumption again in the next 24 and 19 years, respectively?

Just for comparison, the world's population grew 32 percent from the year 2000 through 2022 to date based on the U.S. Census Bureau population clock and historical data. This means that, at least for these two commodities, the per capita consumption rose over this period. We are not becoming more efficient with these resources per person.

Is it likely that both population and per capita consumption can continue to grow at these historical rates? If so, the doubling of total historical consumption of oil and copper would come even sooner than calculated above.

Although historical estimates of total production for other minerals are hard to find, recent production statistics illustrate that an acceleration is taking place across a wide range of critical metals. Below I compare the increase in the rate of production across time. All information is from the USGS using the latest annual data available, through either 2017 or 2018 ("Present" in the table below).

Increase in Rate of Annual Production in Percent
Metal % Increase from 2000 to Present % Increase from 1970 to Present
Aluminum 162%
559%
Cobalt
208%
369%
Indium
113%
944%*
Iron Ore
154%
225%
Lithium 846% 2,539%
Nickel
67%
244%
Silver
54%
197%
Zinc
57%
153%

*1972

Just to be clear, looking at aluminum in the second column, since 1970 the annual rate of production worldwide has gone up 5.59 times. For lithium annual production is now 25.39 times the 1970 rate.

The most quoted sentence in Albert Bartlett's famous lecture Arithmetic, Population and Energy—which he gave 1,742 times during his life—is this, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

That function is on display in publicly available information about production of key minerals and many other resources we consider critical to our way of life. And, yet it is ignored in plain site because the governing ideology of the age is that technology will always give us a way out of scarcity—providing the substitutes we need at the time that we need them in the quantities we require and at the prices we can afford.

The flip side of this delusion is the reality that the sustained scarcity of critical inputs to modern industrial society could cascade through our entire worldwide system and cause it to crumble, gradually or quickly depending on the number and nature of the inputs involved.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Exponential extraction is showing it's face in other areas as well. Have you noticed the price of dimensional lumber in the last 2 years? I recently purchased some 2x4s for a small project. I could see the tree core at one corner of the board, and some bark at the opposite corner. Counting the rings empirically showed the 3.5" x 1.5" board was made from a 15 year old tree. Since I happen to own a small stand of Douglas Fir, I'm confident in saying the mill could not have gotten more than 4 boards from that tree. It is unlikely they could make use of anything smaller. If the mills are being reduced to harvesting some trees this small to meet their orders, then the time is fast approaching that you will see dimensional lumber made from glued chips. This will not be cheaper, given the extra construction steps and embodied energy. A Google Earth view of the Pacific North West shows extremely few stands of older (darker green) stands. It is not about 'labor shortages' that the timber industry claims. I expect resource shortages to manifest soon.

Joe Clarkson said...

@Anonymous,

The board you purchased may have come from the very top of a larger tree. There are fewer rings near the growing top of a Douglas Fir.

Timber is not quite like the extraction of metals. It can be grown at the rate it is used. Metals will eventually deplete because even with the best theoretical recyling some of the metal will be disapated back to the environment in concentrations too small to recover (without unlimited cheap energy).

That said, it is still very possible to overharvest any living organism and drive it to extinction. This is what we have done to the soil microbiome over large swaths of the earth. We substituted fossil fuel produced inputs to keep on growing crops in virtually sterile soil. We can always do the same by substituting plastic boards for tree lumber, but then you're back to the finite character of fossil fuels and their eventual depletion.