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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face


Archive for September, 2011

Back in April, I followed-up on a series of posts which I first began nearly a year ago and last discussed back in April [links below*]. In that series, I’ve discussed the apparently limitless ability of too many to either ignore facts about oil production entirely, or who instead resort to efforts where disingenuous arguments and/or half-truths serve as sole support for their positions. The net effect is that these attempts do little more than confuse their followers who likely do not have the time, interest, or inclination to explore the truths on their own (perfectly understandable … life tends to interfere with lots of options).

I’ve yet to come up with a satisfactory explanation as to why some seem determined to make such misleading efforts their sole contribution to important discussions….

The blogosphere has been lit up in recent days by discussions pro and con regarding Daniel Yergin’s newest book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. (I have not read it, so please take my commentary in this series of posts with that caveat in mind.)

Needless to say, the Wall Street Journal, among other liberal bastions of enlightened, open-minded thinking, was more than willing recently to publish an opinion piece by Mr. Yergin based on his new book, touting some of his many, longstanding doubts about Peak Oil. Commentaries in support of and debunking his perspective have been around the Internet for years. This time around was no different.

Since I have not read the book, it would obviously be inappropriate of me to offer my opinions on anything Mr. Yergin. I’m more interested in the type of chatter that has been circulating since publication of that WSJ piece by others who are apparently in the same camp as Mr. Yergin. I’ll be devoting this and several other posts to some of the more noteworthy commentary and the inevitable nonsense.

The following are typical of the comments offered by Yergin’s fellow-cornucopians:

“If you’re a believer in ‘peak oil’—the idea that the world is on the verge of running out of oil—you will probably want to burn this book.” [1]

“The theory known as ‘peak oil’ has at its core the belief that we are rapidly running out of oil” [2]

The instant a criticism of Peak Oil and/or its proponents is prefaced by an assertion that Peak Oil proponents are claiming that “the world is running out of oil” meme, any credibility is lost. Repeating that nonsense makes it clear those authors do not understand even the most basic of issues regarding Peak Oil. The deniers are nonetheless quite determined in their insistence that we (who believe that Peak Oil is an imminent reality and great challenge to future prosperity) are always raising alarms that “the world is running out of oil.”

The problem is that anyone who has any working knowledge of the facts about Peak Oil and oil production in general never makes that claim! But again, why let facts get in the way of opinion?

I have repeatedly stated, as have others far more knowledgeable than me (Jeff Rubin, Kjell Aleklett, Richard Heinberg, among dozens of other leading lights) that the issue for us is not and has never been the notion that “the world is running out of oil.”

It’s not! We agree on that point.

There are indeed hundreds of billions of barrels of oil in various forms awaiting extraction and production. The tar sands of Alberta Canada and oil shale formations such as the Bakken here in the U.S. are among noteworthy examples. But in order to make their point (and thus calling into question the validity thereof, a separate point which apparently is lost on these deniers), they try to tar legitimate Peak Oil proponents with a bug-eyed premise we never argue in favor of!

Facts and the truth are convenient casualties in too many political and economic discussions as it is, so why should Peak Oil be any different? Sure would be nice if honesty and integrity mattered more than they do. Sigh….

“We are not running out of oil. The issue is not our endowment of oil resources, it is the world’s production capacity. [My emphasis]. Additions from exploration last replaced annual production in 1987. The easiest oil has been discovered. Costs are increasing for new barrels, where wells can be drilled in water depths of over one mile to targets up to six miles deep, and discoveries can take over a decade to develop.

“Oil field declines are running at more than 5 percent per year. That means we have to add at least 4 million barrels per day each year just to keep production flat.” [3]

Understandable that no one likes to hear that. But why is basic math subject to dispute? (Sorry! Forgot for a moment we have Republicans in Congress for whom math is not much more than a convenience.) Solutions are much more effective when you start with the facts at hand. Why is this such a difficult concept to embrace?

“One of the greatest of all American strengths is the willingness to examine national challenges remorselessly, in the confidence that only what is examined can be repaired.” [4]

Another tactic (as I’ve noted in the series of posts referenced above) is to use impressive-sounding but utterly meaningless buzz-words whose intent, the writers must believe, are to offer assurances to their readers that we nutty liberal tree-hugging socialist gay-loving atheist un-patriotic elites are just conspiring to … uh … take over the world. **

In the Rotman article quoted above, the author adds that there are [bold-face mine]“…vast quantities of ‘unconventional’ gas and oil….The examples are numerous: deep undersea oil reserves off the coast of Brazil where one field alone holds 5 billion to 8 billion barrels of recoverable oil; oil sands in Alberta that contain an estimated 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil and an estimated 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in the ground, waiting for future technology to get them out; another 20 billion barrels of ‘tight oil’ that is likely held in deposits scattered about the United States.”

How much is a “vast” quantity? Mr. Rotman states (which appears by most indications to be true) that one field in Brazil holds “5 billion to 8 billion barrels of recoverable oil.” But like so many others, attending facts either never make it into print alongside these bold statements of partial truth, or they are glossed over. Mr. Rotman notes that the Brazil find is in “deep undersea oil reserves off the coast.” Run that one again. “Deep undersea oil reserves off the coast.” Not exactly like digging a hole in the ground and watching a Jed Clampett-like gusher suddenly materialize….

No mention at all as to what’s involved in drilling, extracting, transporting, or producing this “deep undersea oil reserve off the coast.” No mention either of how much such an endeavor is likely to cost (hint: vast amounts of money), or how long it will take to actually bring that field to market (hint: a vast amount of time). But why explain anything when you can toss out unsupported statements which sound so much better without the facts? Oh, and by the way: “5 billion to 8 billion barrels of recoverable oil” is approximately two to four months’ worth of oil usage worldwide. Hallelujah!

How long should we plan on “waiting for future technology to get them out” (hint: a vast amount of time)? What’s involved? Has the innovation process begun? What are the guarantees of success? How much might that cost from idea to implementation (hint: vast amounts of money)? Who will pay? (hint: check your mirror). How efficient will these unconventional supplies be in comparison to Jed Clampett’s gushers? How much of the current supply of fossil fuels will be needed to provide the energy source for testing, trials, implementation, etc., etc., and where does the supply come from and at whose demand expense? What environmental and societal costs are to be incurred? And what happens in the interim while we’re waiting for this magic technology to materialize? Who is going to volunteer to tell us that we’re putting supply and demand on hold, while telling the Indias and Chinas of the world to just sit tight until we figure all of this out?

“According to the report, by 2035 three quarters of currently operating oil fields won’t be producing anymore. In fact, current  fields are only expected to account for less than one fifth of that year’s production.

“That leaves over 80 per cent of the IEA’s 2035 production projection coming from new oil fields, ones that either haven’t yet been developed or haven’t even been discovered. And the contribution from that undiscovered category alone is still far greater than the one from currently producing fields. That’s a tall order for new field discovery.

“Undeveloped or undiscovered oil fields, growth in tar sands production and increased reliance on natural gas liquids account for all the expected growth in world oil production over the next two and a half decades. Curiously absent from this list is any contribution from conventional oil production–you know, the type you can afford to burn in your car, the type the global economy can afford to use to power transoceanic trade?” [5]

The mind boggles….

To be continued.


** A particularly loony, fact-challenged post from last week (discussed in greater detail in my next post) did in fact offer this gem of crazy-eyed, tin-foil-hat-wearing nonsense. (How sad is it that there is an apparently decent-sized segment of the population who actually walk the planet thinking like this and believing/fearing such insane notions?!):

“The great Western banking families always float scarcity memes as a way to consolidate control and further expand global   governance. In fact, if the Peak Oil meme is now going out of fashion, this may only mean that some other kind of propagandistic measures is about to be initiated.

“We don’t know what it is but we can guess, as it seems obvious and evident that the powers-that-be are trying to form pan-national building blocks for world government.” [6]


[1]; Peak Oil Debunked by David Rotman – September 22

[2]; Peak Oil, Daniel Yergin & Impending Doom by Kurt Brouwer

[3] Hess CEO: An Oil Insider Not Willing To Sugarcoat Our Peak Oil Problem by Devon Shire – September 23, 2011 [citing comments from Hess Corporation CEO John Hess at]

[4]; Will America Survive the Great Recession? By David Frum [from a lecture given by Frum at the University of Western Ontario on September 20th]

[5]; Even the International Energy Agency Forecasts Peak Oil by Jeff Rubin – November 23, 2010

[6]; America’s New Production and the Farce of Peak Oil – September 21, 2011

[NOTE: This series (first one here) spins off from a recent series of posts in which I’ve discussed the need for all of us to move in a new direction as we anticipate the challenges to be confronted as a result of declining oil production in the years to come. The impact will be felt by all of us in one degree or another (a separate series, which began here and was re-established more recently here, addresses some of the day-to-day impacts.) It’s time to turn our attention to what the New Direction might be….]


“Peak oil and the events associated with it will be an unprecedented discontinuity in human and geologic history. Peak oil crises will soon confront societies with the opportunity to recreate themselves based on their respective needs, culture, resources, and governance responses. Peak oil will require a change of economic and social systems, and will result in a new world order. The sooner people prepare for peak oil and a post-peak oil life, the more they will be able to influence the direction of their opportunities. Nevertheless, there are probably no solutions that do not involve at the very least some major changes in lifestyles. Consequently, peak oil will probably result in some catastrophic upheavals. Peak oil will also present opportunities to address many underlying societal, economic, and environmental problems.” [1]

In the face of this eventual, inevitable challenge: What kind of a nation do we want to be?

The question has been asked in numerous posts to date, and it remains as viable and vital an inquiry as any other. How we answer determines not just our impending future, but more importantly, the one we pass on to our children….

What kind of a future do we wish for them?

I continue to wait for a logical (or even marginally logical) explanation as to how cutting educational opportunities, taking away health care for more citizens, restricting research and innovation, letting our infrastructure worsen, making no plans for future transportation needs in a world where we simply will not have the same quality and quantity of fossil fuels available to us, while putting even more people out of work, BUT giving the wealthy more tax breaks, is helping anyone other than the wealthy 1% or so among us? It would appear that there is only one genuinely “important” objective one party sees fit to pursue….It is not a consequence-free choice, however.

Policies which would no longer require businesses to abide by health and safety regulations that benefit us all, or for the wealthy to pay a fair share of taxes which provide us (and them) with the fundamental resources and services the great majority of us continue to insist upon, or hoarding more of their income from these expenditures because the Magic Economic Fairy says this trickles down for everyone’s benefit and is thus a sound and acceptable strategy (while it creates even more hardships for more of the rest of us) … why? How does that work?

There is a definitive, narrowly-focused agenda being pursued by a determined segment of the GOP, and its effects are now spilling into national view. The numbingly-ignorant threats to our nation’s (and the world’s) economic well-being by their dangerous posturing on the recent debt-ceiling debate are only among the more visible efforts of a radicalized segment of the Republican Party in their quest to protect the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. The consequences of these actions are now being or will soon enough be made clear. We have the responsibility to understand what is happening, what will result, and then collectively decide whether that really is where we want to go as a nation. The sacrifices being asked of middle class citizens to preserve the benefits of the wealthy will only grow more onerous as time passes and resources become scarcer.

What kind of a nation do we want to be?

I’m not certain that I’ve encountered an observation that is more disheartening than this one, offered by an anonymous senior House Republican aide and reported on a number of websites in the past day or two, (regarding President Obama’s current job initiative):

“Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win?” [2]

Millions of good, decent, hard-working (if only they had the chance) Americans unemployed for months on end; countless families and children suffering as a result of policies and economic truths implemented long before the dreaded Barack Obama took office; the psychological, physical, financial, and emotional toll on countless Americans as yet unknown, and we have an aide to a senior House Republican completely unconcerned about any of this. What’s important is the political scoreboard.

Millions suffering and now with at least a good chance of being helped in some manner by the passage of this or similar legislation? Not my problem! Let’s make ‘em wait another 15 – 18 months when we hopefully have a Republican President in charge. Then … what? Should we expect a different “exceptional” than this cowardly official represents?

It’s easy to be enraged by the audacity of this person’s callousness and breathtaking ignorance, but mostly … I was just saddened. Leaders and their aides are once again demonstrating that their concern is not to help the millions of American in need—no doubt many of whom supported these mean-spirited and narrow-minded representatives—but to make sure President Obama does not put any points up on their watch. This is the exceptional America these people boast of? Seriously? These are the types of “leaders” we’re expecting to guide us into a future far more challenging than any generation before us? Not good….

If we fail to become more informed about the beliefs, actions, and consequences of policies and ideologies promoted by our elected officials, while making no effort to become involved in the process, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves for the greater hardships most of us will face in the years to come. Who is looking forward to explaining that to their children and grandchildren?

Do we really want to make life even more difficult for them?

Becoming informed leads to understanding that that is exactly what we’re doing, and provides us the opportunities to make a difference by doing….


I wrote this several months ago, and my perspective has not changed: “We need a national vision with courageous, honest national leadership (Democrats and Republicans) unconcerned with narrow-minded and short-term ideological nonsense. This is about so much more than partisan principles. It’s about what is best for us as a nation now, next week, next year, and for the rest of this century at the very least. No easy, simple, or inexpensive and consequence-free decisions are on the horizon.”

We need to pay attention to the things that matter beyond next week, and Peak Oil, climate change, and laying the groundwork for our hoped-for future prosperity should be high on that short list of priorities. Gays in the military, President Obama’s status as an alien from some faraway planet, the need for guns in churches (seriously?!) scores of other equally absurd pursuits, “theories” and conspiracy fears, and any other selection from a too-broad assortment of crackpot pseudo-concerns have to give way to our dealing directly with a few very real, serious problems that will require more effort and involvement and talent than almost anything we’ve ever confronted.

I have no doubts that we are up to the challenge … now it’s time to do more than talk the talk. Are we ready to demonstrate what truly makes this nation “exceptional”? Do we lead … or destroy? Stark choices, but sadly not much of an exaggeration.

The fear that motivates these other ludicrous efforts, artfully egged on by too many who have too little interest in what is best for too many of us, must be set aside once and for all. Fear may have its place, but it is occupying too much territory on a too-crowded-as-it-is agenda. We’re better than that, and we need to make the decision to believe that that is true.

Promoting fear and misunderstanding keeps the Rush Limbaughs and the Fox News of the world in some semblance of control and power and prosperity—the rest of us be damned*—but is that really what we want? How exactly are they helping anyone other than themselves?  How is promoting more fear through misrepresentations (I’m trying to be kind) of any benefit to us? Other than stoking mostly irrational fears, what exactly is their contribution to our well-being?

In promoting fears which these “leaders” then convince their uninformed followers to believe, and that they have solutions for these problems (or are “protecting” them), what results instead is that these public figures are then free to pursue their own grander and more selfish agendas: lower taxes, less regulation, less assistance to those most in need. And who does that wind up helping, and who does this wind up harming? They can afford what they need, so who cares about anyone else? Is that how it works?

In a harsher future we’re now in the process of consigning our children and grandchildren to, this is okay?

When so much power and prosperity is confined to so few, what then? As more and more is stripped away from more and more in order to protect the few, greater inequality will result, and a much larger percentage of those so far unaffected by that disparity will then fall into the have-nots, including our children and grandchildren—and perhaps many more of us.

Of course we ought to be legitimately worried about what massive debt will do for the prospects and opportunities of our children and grandchildren, but if we aren’t also doing all that we can right now to provide the programs and resources and opportunities and investments to innovate and grow starting now, they’ll be faced with the double whammy of the burdens of great debt and no viable means to address the problem! What a wonderful prospect … but thank God the wealthy will be okay!

“What is the crisis we face today? We have an economy scarred by mass unemployment, falling wages, and growing insecurity. In the downturn, a staggering 40 percent of American households have been afflicted by unemployment, negative home equity (‘under water homes’ worth less than their mortgages), mortgage payment arrears, or foreclosure. In November 2008, one quarter of Americans aged 50-59 reported that they’d lost more than 35 percent of their retirement savings.

“The [wage] imbalances were obscene before the recession, with finance capturing 40 percent of corporate profits, the wealthiest 1 percent capturing half of the benefits of economic growth, the US running soaring trade deficits, even in high technology products, with China and the world. Our decaying infrastructure, broken health care system, declining educational performance in relation to the industrial world all preceded the fall….

“The right question we need to ask, I would argue, is what is the new strategy, the new foundation for an economy that offers hope for rebuilding America’s economic vitality in the competitive global market place? This requires a clear and bold strategy for revitalizing American manufacturing. It requires investments in areas vital to our future — in modern infrastructure, in education and training, in research and innovation. We need to capture a lead in the green industrial revolution that is sweeping the world. It requires new trade strategy, shackles on financial speculation, empowering workers to capture a fair share of the productivity and profits they help generate to help rebuild America’s middle class. We have to figure out how to afford this, financing what we can, changing priorities and raising revenues where needed. But this is a far different question than just how we get our books in order.” [3]

As Mr. Borosage noted at the conclusion of the passage just quoted: “It is hard to get the right answer when you ask the wrong question.”


* (Some will surely find that referenced column intemperate and unnecessarily harsh. Surely some will merely brush this off as the ramblings of a bitter liberal disappointed by the Republican gains in Congress. But there is an underlying message that is being borne out every day now by the actions and legislative efforts of the GOP in Congress and GOP governors across the nation. We need to take at least a half-step back for a moment and think even just a little about where those policy roads are going to lead us, and where they will lead the wealthy few. The destinations are not the same.)


[1] and; Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization: The Current Peak Oil Crisis by Tariel Mórrígan; Global Climate Change, Human Security & Democracy, Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

[2]; Why Congress Won’t Pass A Jobs Bill: ‘Obama Is On The Ropes; Why Do We Appear Ready To Hand Him A Win?’ by Matthew Yglesias on Sep 12, 2011

[3]; America’s Confidence Deficit by Robert Borosage – November 24, 2010