Still Doubting?

One of my more frequent and controversial topics of comment is peak oil. It was nine years ago this week that I first wrote of the phenomenon. For those of you who may have missed all those commentaries, here’s a quick recap.

“Peak oil” is the term used to describe the situation that will occur (or is occurring) when global demand for oil exceeds global production. It will occur (or is occurring) when either our total oil reserves decline precipitously or when demand rises so fast that new production cannot be brought on line fast enough. We won’t (or didn’t) have the capacity to recognize the onset of peak oil until several years after it has (or had) occurred.

In that 1999 piece, University of Colorado geologist Albert Bartlett predicted (to Congress, no less) that the global oil peak would arrive in 2005. Geologist Ken Deffeyes of Princeton predicted in 2004 that the global oil peak would be reached in mid-December 2005. Were they right? (Looking at this graph, I’d say yes.)

I’ve gotten a number of condescending comments on my peak oil pieces, many from people who should know better. “There’s plenty of oil out there in the tar sands,” is a common refrain. Well, yes, that’s true, but oil from tar sands is 1) wicked expensive to recover 2) wicked slow to recover and – this is most important – 3) will surely cause the destruction of civilization as we know it by accelerating global warming.

So, if you’ve sent me a condescending comment in the past and you read that last statement, find your keyboard. Fire away, but I’m serious. I didn’t write that with any flippancy whatsoever.

We have reached an amazing crossroad in human history. Just at the moment when we have depleted our supply of light, sweet crude oil that flows from the ground under pressure, we have also reached the realization that if we are to survive we must drastically reduce the amount of carbon we allow into the atmosphere.

To prevent catastrophic global warming, we in the United States need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 percent and we need to do it now. That means, on one hand, taking a huge amount of responsibility for the choices we make as individuals, but it also means admitting that unilaterally converting to a low-carbon lifestyle will put us – as individuals or even as a nation – at a serious disadvantage in contemporary society and economy. So the other side of the equation must be that we elect leaders who will make extraordinarily unpopular decisions causing economic and social upheaval, but with the resolve that these changes are needed to avoid even more wrenching consequences that are less than a generation away.

Given all that, it would make the best of sense if we would use the end of light, sweet crude as an opportunity to reform our ways, but I doubt we will. If it’s any help, the price of gas is supposed to hit four dollars a gallon in coming weeks and Tuesday analysts at Goldman Sachs predicted $200 per barrel oil within two years.

That’s right on schedule. In August 2005, New York Times columnist John Tierney bet oil investment banker Matthew Simmons over the average daily price of oil in 2010. If the average price is over $200 per barrel, Mr. Simmons wins; if it’s less than $200 per barrel, Mr. Tierney wins. (See this for a recent analysis of the bet.) At the end of his column announcing the bet, Mr. Tierney offered to take on anyone else who wanted to put their money where their gas tank is. The analysts at Goldman Sachs may want a piece of that action.

Even as the price of oil tops $123 per barrel, you don’t see the words “peak oil” in the news very often and not at all in the mainstream media. I Googled “peak oil” this morning and got 3.3 million hits. I ran the term through Google News and got 364 hits. Some of the top hits mocked the notion. (“Peak oil explains lack of UFOs,” says a headline at Salon.)

Maybe peak oil theorists are wrong. Maybe the notion is worthy of derisive laughter. But what’s so funny about continued, heedless combustion of fossil fuels? What’s funny about global warming?

© Mark Floegel, 2008

One Comment

  1. pleasexcusetheinterr
    Posted 5/23/2008 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    I agree with most of this piece. But your use of the term “peak oil” is tragically misrepresentative. The term “peak oil” is not when demand exceeds supply. Potential demand always exceeds supply but actual demand always equals supply at a given price in an open market. There is never any more demand than there is supply. Unless we’re talking about potential demand (if it was free or dirt cheep) but even if we’re talking about potential demand then we reached peak oil back in the 70s or even earlier. If oil was cheaper now, lots more people could afford it and and there would be lots more demand. There will never be more actual demand than supply because the price will keep rising and people will conserve and an increasing number of people will not be able to afford it. The real question is how quickly the price rises.

    The real definition of peak oil is simply when production peaks. This point in time is really more symbolic than of actual importance. Prices will have already drastically increased before peak oil is reached, and will continue increasing after peak oil is reached. All the huff and puff about “peak oil” doesn’t really mean much, considering production has already plateaued or is only slowly increasing right now. When production starts decreasing, nothing is going to change at all. Prices will continue increasing, just like they are now.

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