April 23, 2006
|Peak Tires||Economy Energy Peak Oil|
Economists look at peak oil (and peak copper, peak nickel, and peak everything else) and say the market will provide. As commodity prices rise, producers will be able to make a profit extracting resources from places that previously were unprofitable, in effect increasing the supply.
But it's not that simple. The fundamental problem is the sheer scale of world resource use. It takes more than money. There are physical constraints on how quickly some things can be done. There's a lot of oil in Canadian tar sands, for example, but no amount of investment capital is going to make it possible to extract more than a few million barrels a day in the foreseeable future. Likewise, producers of conventional oil (i.e., oil from wells, not from tar sands or shale) may want to drill lots more wells, but all of the world's oil rigs are already in use. Building more will take time. And there are only a finite number of people with the needed expertise to make these things happen. Training more will take even more time.
Part of the problem is that price signals arrive too late. What causes prices to rise is a shortage in current production. Draining the world's reservoirs doesn't get reflected in prices until the situation has become so dire that producers can no longer pump oil fast enough. By then, it's too late. Investment in alternatives has a long lead time, so it should have started long before shortages show up in prices.
The worldwide thirst for stuff from the ground — materials as diverse as copper and coal, gold and oil — has set off a stunning boom in just about every commodity market. But there is one item that lately has dealers in the global mining industry really scrambling: the supersize tire.
Mining companies are complaining about a shortfall in the supply of the giant tires that go on large dump trucks and other heavy equipment. These outsize tires stand as tall as 12 feet tall and can spread 4 feet wide.
They are used prominently everywhere from the Canadian tar sands to open-air coal mines in the United States and China, but lately they have become almost as precious as gold and silver: prices have quadrupled for some of them in the last year to more than $40,000 a tire.
"This has never happened in the 35 years I've been in this business," said Michael Hickman, 63, who, together with his son, owns H & H Industries in Oak Hill, Ohio, one of the nation's largest retreaders of used mining tires.
"Right now the entire mining industry is going berserk, and we're feeding into it," said Mr. Hickman, whose company has tripled its work force to 160 in the last two years. [...]
[M]ining companies and tire manufacturers say the biggest reason is the rapid industrialization of China, India and other developing countries, which is expanding the appetite for basic commodities. [...]
Given the stress the commodities boom has unexpectedly created in an arcane area of the mining supply chain, some experts suggest that the tire shortage may keep prices higher longer than expected by limiting the ability of mining companies to meet the explosive demand for their products. But in the end, they say, there is little to worry about.
"This tire issue is, I believe, more a symptom of the mining industry's strength than its weakness," said Tibor Rozgonyi, head of the mining engineering department at the Colorado School of Mines. "It may be an acute concern at this moment, but the market has a way of taking care of these imbalances." [Emphasis added]
Eventually, the market will take care of the imbalances, it's true, but not necessarily by continuing to provide more of everything, forever. It may do it via ever-rising prices, which will price a lot of people out of the market. Demand destruction, as it's called. Meanwhile, we plow full steam ahead, as if the current way of doing things can continue indefinitely.