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Why the Peak Oil Debate is Almost Over

By Kurt Cobb | Tue, 21 February 2012 23:04 | 3

Protestations in the mainstream media that we need not worry about a peak in the rate of world oil production anytime soon are suddenly coming fast and furious. As a result, I was reminded both of Shakespeare and Gandhi.

"The media doth protest too much," I thought (with apologies to Queen Gertrude in Hamlet). As for Gandhi, a quote commonly attributed to him may shed light on where we are in the peak oil debate: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win."

So, it appears that we are now in stage three of a four-stage process. This may not be as farfetched as it seems. I can remember when I first began writing regularly about peak oil in 2004. The main problem was that the media was simply ignoring the issue. It just didn't fit any category which the vast majority of reporters recognized.

That was followed by a period of ridicule from oil industry representatives, economists, and a few writers in the trade press, but almost no one in the mainstream media. "Pshaw, pshaw," they seemed to say in chorus, "no sensible person would take the idea of a near-term peak in world oil production seriously." (Never mind that these people mostly misunderstood the problem of peak oil as being one related to the size of the remaining resource rather than the rate of extraction.)

Now we have come to the point where there are open attacks in the mainstream media. Yes, there have been attacks before, mostly in the trade press and on specialized sites and blogs on the Internet. It was more internecine conflict within the industry, narrow professional circles, and the activist community. But that doesn't really count as a public brawl when your true audience is the mass of non-specialists. Now, we have the equivalent of that with the publication of a major piece in Nature, a respected scientific journal, but one that mere mortals are able to read. The piece in question has the reactionary forces in full attack mode.

An op-ed in The National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi, set the bar very low when it comes to facts and logic. Bloomberg Businessweek emitted a piece entitled "Everything You Know About Peak Oil Is Wrong" on the same day the Nature piece appeared--almost as if the writer knew it was coming. The Bloomberg piece trots out mostly tired, irrelevant arguments and a few that are relevant but factually wrong. Gail Tverberg does a good job of critiquing this very sloppy piece. Chris Nelder at Smartplanet takes on the Bloomberg piece as well as a number of poorly argued responses to the Naturearticle.

But the latest counterattack actually began last fall with Daniel Yergin, the smooth-talking and smooth-writing oil optimist that peak oil activists love to hate. Yergin felt compelled to push back in The Wall Street Journal at peak oil ideas in the course of promoting his new book. Thanks, Mr. Yergin, for bringing up the subject.

Many readers will no doubt be acquainted with the saying: "There is no such thing as bad publicity." This corresponds perfectly with Gandhi's phase three of a struggle. The opposition is now forced by obvious circumstances--i.e., no increase in oil supplies despite years of record prices--to explain away something that peak oil theory explains perfectly.

It may be disheartening to see so much disinformation in the media spewed by people who ought to know better. But it is ever so delicious to contemplate the desperation hiding behind their fretful posturing and incantation. I can almost hear them say, "It can't be so, it can't be so...it simply mustn't!" They seem to believe that if they say "Bakken, Brazil, offshore, tar sands, technology" enough times in a row, it will make $100-a-barrel oil go away. But that incantation will not make the data go away, and so we must keep pointing out that the trend remains flat despite all of those things.

Perhaps the surest sign that the peak oil message is now in fighting form is that the former president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, agreed to a debate last week with one of the foremost scientific voices in the peak oil camp. It may be that Hofmeister is just a good, fair-minded citizen who thinks the issue should be aired. But the fact that he chose to give his imprimatur to the notion that peak oil needs to be debated speaks volumes.

Rock-star investors such as T. Boone Pickens and Richard Rainwater have long since put their imprimatur on peak oil. Major banks such as Australia's Macquarie Bank and Germany's Deutsche Bank (PDF) are also embracing the near-term peak thesis. And, embarrassing government leaks like this recent one in Australia and this one from the British government last year demonstrate that behind the scenes government planners and politicians are gravely concerned.

Does that mean that peak oil activists have reached their goal of informing the public and policymakers about the risks and opportunities posed by peak oil? Of course not. This is where the hard work begins because the debate has now been elevated to the national and international stage. And, that means we can look forward to a continuous clash that is increasingly in the public eye.

Now is also the opportune time for a well-financed, coordinated communications strategy (which I proposed here in 2008) that can take advantage of a new media environment more open to the idea of resource constraints.

Far from being discouraged by the rash of peak oil denunciations in the media lately, I am invigorated by it. Remember: we're now on offense; they're on defence. The opposition has to explain why oil production has been flat since 2005 despite high prices. And, the twisted logic and demonstrably false assertions they offer will provide ever better opportunities to trump them again and again.

I have always maintained that when you are in a public dogfight in the media, if you are explaining, you are losing. The peak oil movement now needs to focus on planting doubt about the official cornucopian story. And, the best way to do that is continuously to poke holes in the arguments of the optimists, arguments that can be shown to be ridiculous by combining simple logic with the data that is publicly available.

By. Kurt Cobb

Source: Resource Insights

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  • Fred Banks on February 22 2012 said:
    Kurt, there is no question at all in my mind that Daniel Yergin believes in peak oil, but he believes even more in what is called 'that long green' (i.e. dollars).

    As a couple of the students in my oil and gas class at the Asian Institute of Technology made clear, when you work for one of the oil majors (as they did), you do NOT talk about peak oil, at least if you want to continue working for them. The chief economist at CERA, which is the firm that Yergin works for, called peak oil "garbage". He called it garbage because the people/firms using the services of that company want it called garbage.

    The number of persons denouncing peak oil is in steady decline. The last time I heard anything about it I resorted to an attitude that I learned in the US Army: when you deal with fools you have to deal with them on that level. You smile, nod, and move on.
  • Mel Tisdale on February 23 2012 said:
    Peak Oil is a misnomer. What really counts is the point when supply fails to meet demand. This can happen while the rate of production is still increasing, but the demand is increasing more strongly, as is the case now with the exponential growth of the BRIC
  • Mel Tisdale on February 23 2012 said:
    The term: ‘Peak Oil’ is a misnomer. What really counts is the point where supply fails to meet demand. This point can happen even while supply is still rising, but the demand is rising faster, as is the case now with the exponential growth of the BRIC economies while oil supply is only edging higher. As for all the ‘shock horror’ responses from those in power, well it just goes to show – as if it needed showing – that the political class are totally unsuited for the job. In the U.K. we have just one MP who is a scientist, and this in an age of science and technology. Small wonder the climate is being allowed to do its own thing with little effort on our part to combat it.

    Peal oil as a concept is so obvious that it is amazing that anyone could argue with it. One wonders what the political class have in mind regarding the great swathe of other commodities that are at or near their peak, such as copper, uranium, fresh water availability etc. etc. etc. I first read about peak oil some fifteen to twenty years ago in The Economist. Can it really have been ignored by policy makers for all that time? If so, we need to change the way policies are formulated and implemented. Seeing as we are about to hit the reset button on so many aspects of the way the world works, now would seem to be as good a time as any.

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