Why Isn’t “Peak Oil” Catching On?

Oil rigOil discoveries have been declining for decades.  We now consume much more oil than we discover.  Despite the fact that the price of oil is now over $100 a barrel, oil production hasn’t really budged since 2005.  There’s an obvious explanation for all this: we face an imminent peak in world oil production because of fundamental geological limits.  The implications of this for our society are enormous and unprecedented.

And yet there is only minimal awareness of “peak oil” in the general public, and zero political discussion.  Why isn’t “peak oil” catching on?

Maybe it is catching on . . .

Some people, of course, argue that peak oil is catching on.  James Schlesinger, the first U. S. Secretary of Energy under President Carter, said in 2007 that the peak oil debate is over, and that the “peakists” have won.  Kurt Cobb recently wrote an article arguing that the peak oil debate is (almost) over.  He cited the aphorism, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.”  Cobb argues that we have gone through the first two stages (silence and ridicule) and are now in the third stage.

Well, peak oil is catching on to a certain extent, depending on the audience.  There are roughly three levels of debate about peak oil: the experts, the informed public, and the general public.  Schlesinger’s comments apply to the experts; there is no real debate here.  Cobb’s comments apply to the informed public; probably in a few years, opinion pieces in major newspapers will turn decisively in favor of the peak oil theory.

But that still leaves us with the general public and the political process, where progress is agonizingly slow.  In the long run awareness of peak oil is inevitable, but I wish to suggest three key factors which are retarding awareness.  These are:

Peak Oil isn’t Palpable

Oil supplies have not yet started declining.  They have stopped growing, even though there is a desperate demand for oil.  Most in the peak oil community expected that the peak, whenever it came, would be relatively “sharp”: one year oil production would be increasing, the next year it would be decreasing.  Instead, there has been a long plateau since 2005 in which oil supplies have only marginally budged in either direction.  It is significant, though, that oil supplies are not increasing, either, despite record high prices, indicating to rational minds that we have run into a fundamentally new reality.

No Plan to Deal with Peak Oil

There is no agreement on any plan to deal with peak oil.  Opinion even within the peak oil community is all over the place. It is interesting, also, that “peak oil” attracts people on both sides of the political spectrum.  Most are politically on the left, but there are significant conservatives like Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican Congressional representative from Maryland.

Perhaps the “conventional” peak oil view is for heavy development of solar and wind, conservation, and sometimes nuclear. But Robert Hirsch argues for coal-to-oil and developing the tar sands.  The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) and Herman Daly argue for a radical transformation of society into a “steady state” economy at a lower level of consumption.  Others foresee a collapse to the pre-industrial levels of the 18th century (Gail Tverberg), or to an even more primitive, agrarian communal lifestyle (Derrick Jensen).

The lack of a plan does not stop awareness of peak oil, it just holds it back.  The impact is psychological.  Thomas Kuhn noted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that an old scientific paradigm is not replaced just because the facts contradict the old paradigm.  It is only replaced when there is a new paradigm, which does explain the facts, to replace it.  This new paradigm is what we do not have.

Peak Oil is part of “Limits to Growth”

The real problem actually is not peak oil at all, but limits to growth.  This is strongly related to the previous point; the reason that no consensus even within the peak oil community has emerged is largely because the peak oil community itself has not fully digested the implications of the Limits to Growth hypothesis, first put forward in a book of that name in 1972.

That the real problem is limits to growth, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a problem with peak oil.  We do indeed.  It is just to say that oil is not the only problem, but just the most obvious and unavoidable problem.  If oil were the only resource problem, it would be much easier to face.  But there are impending shortages of a lot of different things, due to the fact that our economic system depends on natural resources which are sorely being overused.  Climate change is a form of the “limits to growth” problem; we have run out of storage space for the waste products of our fossil-fuel burning activity, which currently are dumped into the atmosphere.

Many forms of renewable and alternative energy, such as wind turbines, solar PV, and electric cars, depend on the “rare earth” metals.  But these “rare earth” metals are themselves in short supply.  Moreover, even if we could wave a magic wand and solve oil depletion, we would still face the issue of climate change.  Even if we waved a second magic wand and solved climate change, we would still face the realities of massive soil erosion, groundwater depletion, and deforestation.  All of these are undermining the basis of agriculture on earth, and all of these beg for the rapid transition to a largely vegetarian or vegan diet.

It is the combination of these three factors which is responsible for holding back the spread of awareness of peak oil.  If we had a palpable and undeniable fall in oil production, or if the peak oil community was united around a single plan to deal with the problem, or if oil were the only resource problem we faced, awareness would be a lot quicker in coming.  When oil supplies will start to fall (the first factor) is unknown.  But we can work towards a plan to deal with peak oil, and spread awareness of the more general problem of limits to growth, to alleviate the second and third factors.  If we do this, we will promote and accelerate knowledge of peak oil and its critical impact on human existence.

11 thoughts on “Why Isn’t “Peak Oil” Catching On?

    1. Keith Akers Post author

      It’s interesting to see that George Wuerthner, whose views on public lands grazing are very perceptive, is getting into the peak oil debate.

      My quick response is that Wuerthner makes several mistakes which are fairly common. Hubbert’s prediction can only be evaluated in terms of conventional oil, and in the lower 48 states. Hubbert didn’t foresee Prudhoe Bay, but Alaska wasn’t a state in 1956, when Hubbert wrote his paper, and his paper only concerned the U. S. at that time, i. e., the lower 48 states. And Hubbert was only concerned with conventional oil, not all this crazy tar sands stuff they’re getting in Alberta, and certainly not oil shales in Colorado.

      The statement that peak oil advocates are using “proven reserves” to support their case is uninformed. There are probably some peak oil advocates, somewhere, who are relying on “proven reserves,” but this is completely out of step with the literature of the “peak oil” community. And there is no way that the so-called oil shales in Colorado (not to be confused with the “tight oil” in North Dakota) will be viable in the near future, possibly ever, because of problems with “energy return on energy invested” or EROEI, a concept which I don’t see referenced in his article.

      Humongous reserves of unconventional oil aren’t going to noticeably alter the picture. The unconventional stuff is going to be a lot more difficult to get out of the ground and more expensive. Sure, we’ve got oodles of oil right here in the U. S. . . . if you want to pay $400 / barrel. But at $400 a barrel, and maybe $12 – $15 a gallon retail, who is going to buy the stuff? Yes, we’ll still buy it, but we sure won’t be using it as much . . . and therefore, we won’t be pumping as much . . . and therefore, oil production will decline.

      For more about Hubbert’s ideas, check out Kenneth Deffeyes’ books Hubbert’s Peak, Beyond Oil, and others. But there are a lot of people in the “peak oil community” who question Hubbert’s methods, and various other improved methods of assessing available oil have been utilized. Check out The Oil Drum.

      The basic facts are irrefutable. Oil prices have increased hugely; over $100 a barrel is now “normal.” And yet oil production, despite huge incentives, has barely budged. The debate over peak oil among the experts is over. The debate among the intellectuals (informed non-experts like Wuerthner and myself) is ongoing, but will probably not go on too much longer, as the article by Kurt Cobb points out. Public officials have still not found a way to break it to the public, but at some point, oil supplies will actually start declining, and the debate will come literally to a crashing close. Ultimately, climate change is more dangerous to human survival, but peak oil will hit faster, harder, and sooner.

      I hope that Wuerthner can study these issues a bit more closely and perhaps check out some of the resources I’ve mentioned above. We need all the smart people we can get to help with these issues. Wuerthner is at least talking about it; most political leaders are in denial. Peak oil is really a special case of limits to growth, and that is an issue Wuerthner clearly knows something about.

  1. Joel

    All of the articles you reference indicate a peak and/or shortages predicted to occur in conventional oil sources in approximately 20-30 years. When the Nazi’s had no oil they ran their engines on coal. Other fossil fuel sources of energy besides conventional oil are abundant. As far as I am concerned the peak oil debate is irrelevant to any current policy debate. If we don’t do anything real about carbon emissions in the next 5 years , the planet, humans and the rest, will have other far worse problems facing us. I think the focus on peak oil creates a complacent attitude in certain circles that is dangerous.(not saying you are promoting this).

    1. Keith Akers

      I don’t speak for the peak oil community, but the conventional view (in the peak oil community) seems to be that the peak will occur sometime in the 2005 – 2015 time frame (may have already occurred). I’m thinking of Hirsch, Deffeyes, Heinberg, Skrebowski, etc. Robert Hirsch said the decline will start sometime 2012 – 2015. Some say that “peak coal” will occur in the next decade or so (see Richard Heinberg’s book “Blackout”). Even with plenty of coal, and a magic wand to deal with climate change, the transition to coal-to-oil is problematic for economic reasons.

      The peak oil idea has provoked some, uh, non-helpful suggestions (among which I number coal-to-oil). In the long run, climate change is the really serious threat. But my thought is that serious economic effects (such as economic collapse) due to climate change alone won’t kick in for decades, unless it’s even worse than I thought (famines because of hotter summers?). Economic problems from oil supply problems are already here. The crisis of 2008 was the first round, and we’ll have another round when oil supplies start to decline.

  2. Joel

    Here are more articles with evidence that peak oil is irrelevant to any current debate:
    “Oil production capacity is surging in the United States and several other countries at such a fast pace that global oil output capacity is likely to grow by nearly 20 percent by 2020, which could prompt a plunge or even a collapse in oil prices, according to a new study by a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School. ”
    see here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/Oil-%20The%20Next%20Revolution.pdf
    Also read this article:

    1. Keith Akers Post author

      The second article, “Why Fossil Fuel Abundance Is An Illusion, Unless Your Goal Is Humanity’s Self-Destruction” is right on. We are facing a choice of “poisons.” Either oil peaks, which is bad news right now (unless we go for really crazy stuff like coal-to-oil and tar sands). Or, oil doesn’t peak, which is worse news, in a few decades.

      The first article, by Leonardo Maugeri, has been ridiculed in the June 27 Drumbeat on The Oil Drum (see threads started by “phreephallin” and “adamx”) and in yesterday’s blog by Gail Tverberg. Some of the responses are (a) this is too little, too late, even if it’s true, (b) he talks about productive capacity, not production, and in a rather loose way, and (c) would this guy be willing to bet some money on actual production? (He will find a lot of takers over at The Oil Drum.)

      UPDATE July 1: and now the Oil Drum folks have presented a crushing refutation of the Maugeri article.

  3. Pingback: By George, we are all going to fry… - OurWorld 2.0 | OurWorld 2.0

  4. allister

    There is a phenomena in Buddhism called “avidhya” or ignorance – it is a real phenomena – like inertia – drag or resistance to certain thought, The closest thing in psychology is “denial” – a defence mechanism of the ego or psyche that is historical in nature – social in nature and cultural in nature. It is the same as “mind-set” or “world-view”. People who stray from this are often seen as dissidents or dangerous (think timothy leary) – But many “true” free thinkers were also like this. Peak oil is a challenge or a threat to the current conservative vision – it challenges the status quo vision of modern Capitalist life that has prevailed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution – materialist in nature – it recoils at – any – challenge or threat. It did this with the environmental movement – the hippies and the green movement – although many now have the solar panels on their own roofs…peak oil – when it happens will completely overturn the present status quo view of the world…we may have to “look after ourselves and the earth”…..

  5. allister

    ….oil is about “power” – the great powers probably know “exactly” how much oil is left…the main thing is that “we” the general population “don’t” know….thus we keep on going to work…dutifully paying income taxes….voting in governments and paying off huge mortgages….in debt to “the man”. We all know the OPEC cartel controls output to last as “long” as possible and sets the price. I heard that they must keep prices above $50 US dollars for it to be worthwhile at all….peak prices….peak demand….peak oil….

  6. allister

    …Can technology fix everything – I think it can if it is applied to the “problem”..A proper assessment of what the problem “actually is” is the first thing (like any physics/ or maths / scientific problem) – we need a more complete assessment of the world (think NASA with climate change). Peak oil could slow down climate damage – and take the fuel out of war wagers across the world. Technology will expand as peak oil arrives as there will be a strong incentive – you can see this today with the move away from fossil fuels to smarter technological modes. An example could be finding car engines that run on air – or water or solar. Storage batteries could become more advanced. Some technology may have been kept private by the auto industries could be brought out….


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