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They should be magicians.

Successful magic depends on the artist being able to distract the viewers from the sleight-of-hand performed. Keep them preoccupied with one topic or one item and it’s then much simpler to create the illusion of magic.

Peak oil deniers are a lot like that. Toss out some carefully massaged facts bearing the imprint of near-truths but without context (just to be safe), engage in a pattern of irrelevancies to help muddy the waters, toss in some meaningless numbers while carefully shielding the important ones from the discussion, and presto! No more peak oil theories.

But as with magic, the show must end. We walk back out into the light and back into reality, where some of us still believe that facts matter. Perhaps not today while the Happy Talk keeps everyone entertained, but soon enough that show will end as well, and then the realities—good and bad—of energy production will matter once again.

A recent entry was a healthy dose of misdirection offered up in a Reuters article by John Kemp.

A favorite target of deniers is the late M. King Hubbert, a Shell geologist who predicted (accurately) that U.S. oil production would peak around 1970, as it did. But toss in some misdirection, add a few pieces of related but not exactly relevant quasi-facts, and soon enough we’re in a discussion about something not the same as the one we started. It works for them, so they keep trotting out the playbook on a regular basis.

Of course, “works for them” is an objective itself open to some debates as to the merits and benefits. Keeping the uninformed uninformed after the discussion ends is one goal, not an especially admirable or helpful one, but it is a goal they shoot for.

U.S. oil production peaked at 3.5 billion barrels in 1970 and then declined steadily to just 1.8 billion barrels in 2008….
But since 2005, Hubbert’s predictions have been spectacularly falsified.
Total petroleum output (which includes oil, gas and condensates) has surged from a low of just 5.15 billion barrels in 2005 to 7.13 billion barrels in 2013.
Output is at the highest level since 1973 (7.26 billion barrels) and is on course to beat the 1972 record (7.34 billion barrels) in 2014 (Chart 3).
The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which have enabled oil and gas extraction from previously impermeable rock formations, is responsible for disproving Hubbert’s thesis.
But it is worth asking why Hubbert’s theory proved to be wrong because it sheds light on why oil and gas supplies will never run out in any meaningful sense.

Let’s discuss a few of his disingenuous comments. If 3.5 billion barrels in 1970 is the peak in production [which it was, at approximately 9.6 million barrels per day], why are we discussing a 2005 production total of 5.15 billion barrels without any explanation of “total petroleum output” and then comparing it to 1972 and 1973 allegedly “record” totals? And did we really jump from 3.5 billion barrels in 1970 [when “U.S. oil production peaked”–as it did] to more than double that in just two years? What’s the peak, then? (And in what alternate Universe did the United States produce nearly 20 million barrels per day of anything close to “total petroleum”?)

Magic! (And nonsense.)

Hydraulic fracturing has in fact resulted in an increase in U.S. production totals in recent years, but we are still below the Hubbert-predicted 1970 highmark. And adding more generous definitions of what constitutes “oil production” is a nice bit of legerdemain, but facts are stubborn: they aren’t nearly as impressed with misleading, context-free discussions as some appear to be. Good of Mr. Kemp not to mention any of the difficulties which will impact future production totals from his touted shale formations [rapid decline rates, inferior quality, etc., but they do get in the way of a pleasant narrative, so there’s that justification].

But most of us who are concerned about peak oil [facts can be very persuasive], do not dispute that the “not running out of oil” meme is correct. But the clever “will never run out in any meaningful sense” qualifier is itself open to some differing interpretations. If society has at its disposal 90% of fossil fuel supplies available for use, or 63%, or 46%, or 22%, that may nonetheless fit neatly into Mr. Kemp’s definition, but how might our society continue to function as it does now? Less is less, and if we are all accustomed to and insist upon more (or at least the same), then less is not a good thing “in any meaningful sense.”

That there might be gazillions of reserves underground or under the sea is all fine and well if just proving that proposition is enough. But we’re having an entirely different discussion if we’re concerned with getting it from there to here for our use. That part of the discussion never finds its way into the Happy Talk narrative. If someone persuades us that Jupiter has quadrillions of barrels of conventional crude oil just waiting to extracted, and that’s the beginning and the end of the conversation, then great! But getting it from there to here [slight exaggeration to make the point duly-noted], then those totals stop being useful very quickly “in any meaningful sense.”

I‘ll have a few more thoughts on this in my next post.

~ My Photo: inside the Court of Two Sisters, New Orleans LA – 11.14.09

 

* I invite you to enjoy my two new books [here and here], and to view my other work at richardturcotte.com :
 

        * Life Will Answer

Thought-provoking inquiries & observations about how (and why) Life does … and does not, work for everyone. [Inspired by my book of the same name]

 

       * The Middle Age Follies

A column offering a slightly skewed look at life for those of us on the north side of 50.

 

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Peak Oil Matters is dedicated to informing others about the significance and impact of Peak Oil—while adding observations about politics, ideology, transportation, and smart growth.