Scrapheap challenges – metal theft and peak resources

Interesting article from the Beeb here regarding the growing trend of metal thefts. Everything that’s not bolted to the floor is being pinched by opportunistic thieves (who are generally white and British not all immigrants as the Daily Mail would have you believe). Indeed its getting to the stage where the thieves are undoing the bolts and nicking them also! The tops of church roofs have been stolen, theft of cable is fast becoming the number one source of delay for UK train services and increasingly councils are replacing public art works with fibre glass or even concrete copies to prevent them being nicked. Indeed I’d argue its only a matter of time before that infamous Wall Street bull disappears some night, which would be a sort of ironic sign of the times (alternatively they could always just electrify monuments with 10,000 volts! After the first idiot gets fried, don’t even remove him, leave em there as a warning to the rest!).

So what’s driving this trend? Well obviously the recession for starters. More unemployment, more crime and a lot of metal thief’s seem to be just as I said opportunistic amateur criminals (or extraordinary recyclers as I’m sure they regard it!). Also the massive rise in metals prices recently has spurned this crime onwards. I’m surprised that a serious loss of life (a train being derailed, major gas explosion, etc.) hasn’t occurred yet, but its probably inevitable that if this keeps up that it will.

The irony is of course that we could easily solve the current issue of metal theft in the UK or at least knock it back considerably. Require all scrap metal dealers to operate “cash free” (i.e. payments by direct transfer into banks). That would mean that if PC plod shows up at a scrap yard, spot a load of BT cable, they’ll be able to trace the cable back to the guys who stole it. While scrap metal dealers will understandably be aghast at the idea (not least because some are profiting quite handsomely from this metal thieving but also because accurate accounting means the Inland Revenue hitting them with higher taxes). It should be noted that many other companies already operate sans-cash, notably many car rental dealerships. There’s no reason why it can’t be done. Also the penalties (both in terms of jail time and fines imposed) for metal theft need to start to reflect the seriousness of the crime. Someone convicted of stealing overhead train line cables and causing £50,000 in damages, should be getting a sentence that reflects the fact he caused £50,000 in criminal damage (rather than a sentence related to the stealing £50 of cable) and put at risk the lives of hundreds of people.

Pushing the limits
But why are metal prices so high? The Limits to Growth and peak oil camp would say its because we’re starting to push up against the buffers of global metals and energy sources. The consumption of any finite resource will often follow a bell shaped curve and they argue we’re somewhere towards the top of that curve for many resources. This has made it harder and harder to grow supplies of these resources which, with the Asian economies still booming, has caused prices to soar.

However, as I point out in this article here, the analysis of the LtG brigade is a little simplistic as it ignores the principles of supply and demand. Higher metal prices encourages recycling of metals (which again is basically what these criminals are doing by nicking the stuff) as well as making previously uneconomic grades of ore viable, increasing the supply of said resource. So we’re in the mists of a transitional phase right now and once supplies grow a bit, or economic growth falls in Asia, we’ll probably see a metals glut and all those who invested too heavily in gold may well see the bubble burst. This is the main basis of the counter argument to LtG or Cornucopian theory (named after the horn of plenty of Greek legend).

However, as I also discussed in my prior post, Cornucopian theory is equally simplistic, if not seriously flawed. All the recyling in the world will not grow our finite supply of materials, it only improves the efficiency of our use of said materials. In a world with an expanding population and so-called “third world” economies rapidly industrialising we need to drastically increase supplies of many key materials. But we cannot simply extract any resource out of the ground at any arbitrary rate we choose. There are a host of practical and technical reasons which limit the amount we can extract in any given time period. Mining of lower grades of ore means the costs can rise considerably (more dumper trucks, diggers, a bigger processing plant, more staff to run it all, higher use of energy and chemical feedstocks, etc.), the efficiency of the process decreases, more overburden needs to be shifted, more pollution is caused and the whole process consumes much more energy. And while we can up our recycling rates for copper we cannot recycle oil after its been burnt. Furthermore energy, particularly oil, is so crucial to industry, mining in particular (what do you think all that mining equipment runs on!), that any slow down in oil production will have an immediate knock on effect in many other industries. Even wind energy costs have pushed up slightly recently, while nuclear energy costs (both construction costs and uranium costs) have soared.

Conventional oil production has been flat since 2006 (its possible they’re now in a state of decline already) and only a modest increase in unconventional sources (tar sands, gas shales) has occurred since then. If conventional sources peak it would require a enormous rise in unconventional sources just to offset depletion (i.e. running to stand still nevermind expanding output). Obviously this makes the business of mining and mineral extract much more expensive to perform and limits our wriggle room in terms of using lower grade ores to increase supply. If as many experts fear we are shortly to exceed or are have already exceeded peak oil (i.e. all sources both conventional and unconventional peak soon) then these trends will only worsen as time goes on.

Ultimately the Limits to Growth supporters will be proved right one day, that’s a mathematical certainty (as resources are finite), it’s a matter of timing that’s the issue. The price of commodities is only a reflection of current market conditions and an ultimate constriction on supplies mightn’t be the cause of current high prices. But I won’t advise betting against the LtG theorists in the long term because like I said it’s only a matter of time (weeks, years, decades who knows) before the inevitable happens.

Something to think about next time you throw a load of recyclable cans into the rubbish.

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