Peak oil apocalyptoids: eating crow yet?

Remember the incessant squawking a few years back, when oil prices were spiralling, about how we were approaching “peak oil”? Been mighty quiet from that set recently, hasn’t it? Vince Beiser explains why in a piece called “The Deluge” in the Pacifc Standard, March 4:

The widely circulated fears of a few years ago that we were approaching “peak oil” have turned out to be completely wrong. From the Arctic to Africa, nanoengineered materials, underwater robots, side-scanning 3-D sonar, specially engineered lubricants, and myriad other advances are opening up titanic new supplies of fossil fuels, many of them in unexpected places—Brazil, Australia, and, perhaps most significantly, North America. “Contrary to what most people believe,” declares a recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School, “oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption.”

We’ve noted before that booming domestic production has the US on track to top Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest producer (even as Obama is green-baited for bottlenecking the industry, natch). And we’ve noted before that the emergence of Africa as a strategic producer was instrumental in the Pentagon’s decision to estbalish a command for that continent. And, apropos of a certain South American country much in the news now, the Orinoco Belt is boasted to contain reserves outstripping those of Saudi Arabia. More from Beiser:

Right now, the map of who sells and who buys oil and natural gas is being radically redrawn. Just a few years ago, imported oil made up nearly two-thirds of the United States’ annual consumption; now it’s less than half. Within a decade, the US is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to regain its title as the world’s top energy producer. Countries that have never had an energy industry worth mentioning are on the brink of becoming major players, while established fossil fuel powerhouses are facing challenges to their dominance. We are witnessing a shift that heralds major new opportunities—and dangers—for individual nations, international politics and economics, and the planet.

Um, yeah. The planet. But first one final trenchant observation from Beiser. He notes that we’ve always been running out of oil, if you go by the conventional wisdom:

[P]ractically since we started using the stuff, we have fretted that we were running out of it. In 1922, a federal commission predicted that “production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate.” In 1977, President Jimmy Carter declared that world oil production would peak by 1985. It turns out, though, that the problem has never been exactly about supply; it’s always been about our ability to profitably tap that supply. We human beings have consumed, over our entire history, about a trillion barrels of oil. The US Geological Survey estimates there is still seven to eight times that much left in the ground. The oil that’s left is just more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to get to. But that sets the invisible hand of the market into motion. Every time known reserves start looking tight, the price goes up, which incentivizes investment in research and development, which yields more sophisticated technologies, which unearth new supplies—often in places we’d scarcely even thought to look before.

One thing Beiser fails to note is that global consumption is growing precipitously, so the quantity that “we” have consumed “over our entire history” (which effectively means just the last century, the proverbial blink of an eye in the long view of the human species) isn’t as significant as it superficially seems. Nor is the process of price spikes bringing on new sources as spontaneous as the phrase “invisible hand” would imply. As we have argued before, sparking an oil shock to spur global production was probably an intentional aim of the Iraq war. But, intentional or not, the price spike that coincided with the worst years of the Iraq war had roots that were political, not geological—as we have demonstrated again and again and again and again and again.

In 2008 when prices started dropping, we asked if the peak-oil apocalyptoids were ready to eat crow. We ask again. Awful quiet, guys.

But don’t you Cornucopians gloat either. Your faith that science and capitalism will bring endless plenty is hardly vindicated. We had to call out smarmy New York Times columnist John Tierney on his 2005 bet with energy analyst Matthew Simmons that oil would not reach $200 a barrel by 2010. Technically, Tierney won. It got close, but never reached this point—the “Crude Oil Price History” at tells us the price peaked at $145 in 2008. But guess what happened that year that sent prices down again? Right, it wasn’t the genius of capitalism that saved us from $200 a barrel but the crisis of capitalism. And the very process of bringing new oil sources online requires periodic price spikes. So both the Peaksters and the Cornucopians just don’t get it. tells us the current price is just shy of $92 per barrel—about 10 bucks lower than in November. Possibly because the petro-oligrachs had been inflating the price through various artifices to undermine Obama in the election.

The Peaksters have been reading the threat precisely backwards. The real danger is not an apocalypse brought on by running out of oil, but one brought on by not running out of oil! If the Geological Survey is right and there really is still that much oil in the Earth, that is very, very bad news—not good. On March 7, the New York Times reported:

Global temperatures are warmer than at any time in at least 4,000 years, scientists reported Thursday, and over the coming decades are likely to surpass levels not seen on the planet since before the last ice age. 

Previous research had extended back roughly 1,500 years, and suggested that the rapid temperature spike of the past century, believed to be a consequence of human activity, exceeded any warming episode during those years. The new work confirms that result while suggesting the modern warming is unique over a longer period.

Even if the temperature increase from human activity that is projected for later this century comes out on the low end of estimates, scientists said, the planet will be at least as warm as it was during the warmest periods of the modern geological era, known as the Holocene, and probably warmer than that.

That epoch began about 12,000 years ago, after changes in incoming sunshine caused vast ice sheets to melt across the Northern Hemisphere. Scientists believe the moderate climate of the Holocene set the stage for the rise of human civilization roughly 8,000 years ago and continues to sustain it by, for example, permitting a high level of food production.

In the new research, scheduled for publication on Friday in the journal Science, Shaun Marcott, an earth scientist at Oregon State University, and his colleagues compiled the most meticulous reconstruction yet of global temperatures over the past 11,300 years, virtually the entire Holocene. They used indicators like the distribution of microscopic, temperature-sensitive ocean creatures to determine past climate.

And the findings are more grim than this account portrays. The study covers 11,300 years and finds temperatures higher than they have been over 70 to 80 percent of that time, OSU said in a statement on March 7.

The real question is whether we can somehow achieve democratic, public control of the industrial apparatus as the prerequisite for any social direction, including dismantling (or dramatically down-scaling) it for the good of the planet. As we have stated:

What really and urgently needs to happen is still completely taboo to even mention in mainstream discourse: the public expropriation of the entire machinery of Detroit and the oil companies, and the redirection of their vast technological and financial resources into mass transit and the reshaping of our communities and workplaces to accommodate the human organism, and human-powered transport like bicycles, rather than the private automobile. 

Thanks to WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show for juxtapositng these two stories—Beiser’s debunking of peak oil, and the ominous OSU findings. But of course Brian is constitutionally incapable of seeing his own implicit argument through to its inevitable conclusion…

  1. Peak oil: one reader writes
    Mike Derucki of Beverly Hills, CA, writes by e-mail:

    I have been reading your blog and I am a fan. Just so you don’t sound ignorant, it’s not about running out of oil. There will be oil 1,000 years from now, however, the rate at which you can extract oil is decreasing.

    Thanks for writing, Mike—but, yes, I know. I didn’t say completely run out. But dig this “World Crude Oil Production by Year” chart from IndexMundi. In 2011, global production stood at some 75 million bpd, compared to about 60 million bpd in 1980. Production dipped in the early ’80s due to the recession and the 1979 shock causing a glut, but recovered with the economy mid-decade and jumped precipitously with the 1990 Gulf crisis. True that demand has also grown in the intervening years, but even this June 2011 report in The Economist, citing BP data to the effect that consumption exceeded production for the first time ever the previous year, adds:

    Update: The authors of the BP report have asked us to highlight that a large part of the difference between consumption and production, in the charts above, is accounted for by such things as biofuels, oil made from coal and other non-conventional sources, which are not included in their production figures.

    As we have repeatedly emphasized, high prices (invariably brought on by political crises, not scarcity) provide the industry with the incentive and investment to find new oil, or new modes of extracting it from “non-conventional sources.” So not only are we not running out completely—we aren’t even running out. Alas.

  2. Peak oil: another reader writes

    Received via e-mail from Joseph Wetmore in Ithaca, NY:

    Oil fields are being depleted at a greater rate than new fields are being found to replace them. 

    The reason there is so much pressure to drill in the gulf of Mexico, the arctic, the Amazon,  and other ecological fragile areas is because we have used up the oil in the places where it is easy to drill. It is far more expensive to build a floating platform in the Gulf than to drill  a hole in Texas; oil companies are doing the former because they have no other option left.
    It is insane to think that the planet is creating oil at anywhere near the rate that humans are burning it. Thus it is not a question of if there is a point of peak oil, only when that point is. How well is oil exploration/production going?  Here is what that lefty magazine Business Insider says about the Gulf:
    gulf oil
    Europe peaked a while ago:
    European oil production is shrinking radically
    As did North America:
    US oil production
 is slowly getting eclipsed by Canada
    Asia is leveling off too:
    That great reserve, Latin America is pretty much leveled off too:
    Non-OPEC Latin America oil production is rising -- led by Brazil and
    Add them all up, and you don’t get a prettier picture.
    1. Getting it backwards on Peak Oil
      First of all, your graphs are meaningless unless you tell us where you got them, and they don’t even indicate what you say they do. The Latin America graph shows reserves increasing. So does the Asia graph, although not as steeply.

      More to the point, nobody is denying that the industry is going for oil in out-of-the-way places like the Arctic and Amazon because the easy-to-get oil is already being got. In fact, that’s exactly the critical point. Earlier scarcity scares failed to take this oil into account. The piece you would have us read by Kurt Cobb similarly gets it just backwards. He writes that the oil industry is trying “to convince…the public and policymakers that there is no need to be concerned about future oil supplies.” No, the industry needs scarcity scares for the financial investment and political climate to access that Arctic and Amazonian oil (as well as fracking and tar sands and the “nuclear renewal”). And you are playing right into their hands. Congratulations!

      Cobb’s pointing to the current price as evidence of his thesis is laughable. The Peaksters always gloat when prices are high, then dismiss price drops as due to some human factor like the economic downturn. They are blind to the fact that the spikes are also due to human factors, not geological ones! Just a coincidence that the big spike of the past decade coincided with the worst part of the Iraq war? Utterly transparent.

      Your obvious statement that “the planet is not creating oil at anywhere near the rate that humans are burning it” is utterly meaningless. The relevant question is how much oil there is, and how this quantity stands up to market demand. As Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates wrote in a Sept. 17, 2011 piece for the Wall Street Journal debunking the Peak Oil scare, “There Will Be Oil”:

      Overall U.S. oil production has increased more than 10% since 2008. Net oil imports reached a high point of 60% in 2005, but today, thanks to increased production and greater energy efficiency (plus the use of ethanol), imports are down to 47%.

      Things don’t stand still in the energy industry. With the passage of time, unconventional sources of oil, in all their variety, become a familiar part of the world’s petroleum supply. They help to explain why the plateau continues to recede into the horizon—and why, on a global view, Hubbert’s Peak is still not in sight.

      Yergin, who won a Pulitzer for his book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, has for years been deconstructing the Peak Oil fallacy. I suggest you get up to speed on his work before you loan any further propaganda cover to oil industry expansion.

      Finally, your assessment of oil scarcity as “not a pretty picture” also reads things just backwards. As demonstrated above, the real threat is not oil scarcity but oil abundance—that much more carbon to be sucked out of the Earth and spewed into the atmosphere, ultimately making the planet uninhabitable unless the capital-driven logic of endless expansion is arrested by public intervention.

      1. Wetmore responds to Weinberg’s response to Wetmore
        Received via e-mail from Joseph Wetmore in Ithaca, NY:

        I said in my message, I got the graphs from the magazine Business Insider.

        Oil companies are drilling in the arctic because the other oil is gone, and because rising prices make it economically feasible to do so. If tar sands oil costs $80 per barrel to produce, nobody is going to touch it until the price of crude is above that point.

        The scarcity is real, and you look like an idiot trying to pretend it is not. Comments like “No, the industry needs scarcity scares for the financial investment and political climate to access that Arctic and Amazonian oil (as well as fracking and tar sands and the “nuclear renewal”).” are absurd.  The industry does not have an ideological drive to drill in ecologically sensitive areas; they much prefer to drill more holes in Texas. The are drilling in the Arctic and Amazonian because there is no more oil in places where drilling costs are lower.  They are drilling in the Arctic and Amazonian because world demand is increasing as oil fields are declining or drying up all together.

        Anyone seriously talking about peak oil does not contend that the price will be a simple upward curve.  That is far too simplistic of a description.  It is going to be a zig-zag  with a ever increasing upward slope.  It will go up and down for lots of reasons.  For example, when price shoots up too fast, people can no longer afford to buy as much gas, so demand will drop, and price will follow. But equilibrium will be reached at a new, higher, price. Yes, human factor will affect the micro changes in the slope, but not the macro ones.

        You assert that may statement “‘the planet is not creating oil at anywhere near the rate that humans are burning it’ is utterly meaningless.” It is meaningless because you ignore the second sentence,  “Thus it is not a question of if there is a point of peak oil, only when that point is.” You can try to argue that we have not reached peak oil, but it is crazy to argue that peak oil does not exist.

        It is not a contradiction to state that peak oil is a crisis for industrial civilization and that the continued use is a crisis. They are both a problem. 

        1. Weinberg responds to Wetmore’s response to Weinberg’s response
          Saying you got the graphs from Business Insider doesn’t help us. First, you don’t provide a link. Second, it is obvious that Business Insider got the graphs from various places. Third, Business Insider, which you describe as “lefty,” is actually slightly conspiranoid, and not consistently reliable. I don’t really take issue with the data in the graphs (as pointed out, they don’t indicate what you say they do), but matching some analysis you got from Business Insider against Daniel Yergin and Cambridge Energy Research Associates… Well, I know who I’ve got my money on. I don’t blindly follow experts, but it is completely cynical to point to the scientific consensus around climate change and then ignore the lack of scientific consensus around Peak Oil.

          The scarcity is not real, and you have a rather skewed sense as to who is looking like an idiot. Listen to what you say: “The [sic] are drilling in the Arctic and Amazonian [sic] because there is no more oil in places where drilling costs are lower.” Oh? Last time I checked, Saudi Arabia, with its easily accessible oil, remained the world’s top producer. They are going after Arctic and Amazonian oil not because Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states are running out, but because capitalism has to expand. Add to that the fact that Aramco, the state company, controls the Saudi oil, and the private majors want oil under their direct control. You know, the 1973 (contrived) “Energy Crisis” got us the Alaska pipeline and the rape of Prudhoe Bay. The same crowd are trying to use the current scare to get the XL pipeline, fracking and the ANWR. I expect them to get a helping hand from Thomas Friedman. But from a hippie anti-fracking activist in Ithaca? That’s just depressing.

          I pointed out the last time I was arguing with a Peakster their dishonest approach to the question of oil price. Any “human factor” is dismissed as “noise,” and it is assumed that the general (but by no means constant) upward trend is driven by scarcity. This despite the fact that the price has always closely followed the level of political and military turmoil in the Middle East. Once again, maybe your vulgar geological determinism is the “noise.” 

          I didn’t “ignore” your sentence about the eventual inevitability of Peak Oil. Apart from the fools who think that oil is of inorganic origin and somehow regenerated by the Earth (they’ve weighed in on this website too, unfortunately), we all accept that oil is a finite resource, and eventually we are going to run out if we keep using it. But arguing that this is imminent and is what’s driving the price spikes and the expansion into the Arctic and Amazon is baseless. Again: The relevant question is how much oil there is, and how this quantity stands up to market demand. In short: the dynamics of capitalism, not geology.

          The same point you failed to get in a our similarly tiresome exchange about “overpopulation” (sic) a few years back…

          1. Wetmore responds to Weinberg again
            Received via e-mail from Joseph Wetmore in Ithaca, NY:

            The charts all show a well known reality: all the oil production is leveling off or in decline.  There is no place that is finding vast amounts of new oil.  There is no place where production is increasing dramatically. There are plenty of oil fields which are in decline, some are in dramatic decline.  When you all all this up, you see we are at peak oil production.

            Yes, there are a few location that are increasing production, but these increases are nowhere near as large as the places that arre experiencing declines. You assert, with no footnotes, that “They are going after Arctic and Amazonian oil not because Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states are running out…” this is simply false. Check out  Bloomburg’s article: Saudi Oil Output Falls to 19-Month Low as Exports Decline.

            They are pumping those fields as fast as they can. We keep seeing new reports that  Saud i Arabia is going to boost production for one reason or another.  What actually happens is they might experience a small, short, boost, but the long term trend is clear: the  Saudi Arabian oil fields are in decline. It may take them another 40 years to empty them all together.  But this is not going to stop the crisis that happens when demand exceeds supply.

            Another assertion you make with out any reference is “You know, the 1973 (contrived) ‘Energy Crisis’ got us the Alaska pipeline and the rape of Prudhoe Bay”. The 1973 energy crisis was a very real crisis resulting from domestic production peaking:

            the chart is from:


            You should note that the vast amount of oil was discovered well before the peak. Those oil fields were in such decline by the 1970’s that even some substantial discoveries were not enough to reverse the incline of the production curve. Here is what is happening on the world front (same source as previous graph):

            Note the same pattern. The enormous discoveries are pre-1970. Yes they are still discovering more oil fields, but they are dramatically smaller. We are witnessing peak oil production for the planet.

            If you truly believe that there is vastly more oil out there, please show me where and give your sources.

            1. Weinberg responds to Wetmore again
              You know, this is really getting tiresome.

              The charts do not show what you erroneously call the “well known reality” of decreasing production. First of all, only the first chart, on the Gulf of Mexico, shows production levels at all; the rest show known reserves (which is actually more relevant to your argument). Of those, only Euorpe is declining. North America is shown to be level. Asia and especially China are on the upswing, as is Latin America.

              No footnotes? This is a blog, not an academic paper. Assertions here are backed up with links, as all mine (and few of yours) are. Besides, the idea that you need a “footnote” for the reality that the capitalist system is based on endless growth is pathetic. Never noticed how every politician from either party always talks about “economic growth,” as if this were something desirable? Never noticed that the GDP is supposed to rise every year, and things are considered out of wack is it doesn’t? What planet do you live on? This incessant growth can only be effected through ever-increasing consumption of the Earth’s resources. And, contrary to what you may think from the global hypertrophy of Starbucks, the critical substance that fuels the whole planetary leviathan ain’t cappuccino. It’s oil.

              Your Bloomberg (note correct spelling) story doesn’t tell us why Saudi exports are in decline. But the Wall Street Journal did on Jan. 10. Saudi Arabia intentionally cut production in Decmeber in a bid to raise prices because there was too much oil on the market! The same mistake over and over. A drop in production or a rise in price is seen as vindicating your theory; anything that militates against it is dismissed as an anomaly. A textbook case of confirmation bias

              The Energy Department’s list for Top World Oil Exporters (2011 data) shows that they have changed little over the past generation: Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, UAE, Nigeria, Kuwait and Iraq head the list. The International Energy Agency report (PDF) predicting the US will overtake Saudi Arabia as top producer in the next 10 years says nothing about Saudi shortfalls but “a resurgence of oil and gas production in the United States, particularly the unlocking of new reserves of oil and gas found in shale rock.” The report also warns that “no more than one-third of the proved reserves of fossil fuels should be used by 2050 to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, as many scientists recommend.” (NYT, Nov. 12, 2012) Once again, you are reading the real threat completely backwards: what we have to worry about is too much oil.

              While dissidents have questioned these figures (probably to lubricate Exxon’s designs on ANWR, etc.) Aramco’s official line is that Saudi Arabia will still have 900 billion barrels of reserves in 20 years. That doesn’t sound like Peak Oil to me.

              Reuters reported June 13, 2012, that estimated world reserves grew by 8.3% last year as new sources were discovered, with gas reserves jumping by 11%. Of course consumption is growing way faster, but as long as the Saudis and Gulf states (and Venezuela and Nigeria and Turkmenistan) still have vast reserves, that brings us no closer to Peak Oil. As long as reserves are growing at all, we are ahead of the game. (Or behind, from the perspective of saving the biosphere from collapse by halting the hemorrhage of carbon into the atmosphere.) Additionally, there is no reason to believe more oil won’t be found as long as the economic imperatives for expansion persist. Again: We have always been “running out of oil.” How long are you going to be played for a rube?

              The 1973 oil shock had nothing to do with domestic production peaking. Your own chart indicates that domestic production didn’t peak until 1987! And it is set to rise again, as the International Energy Agency report states. In 1973, the US was overwhelmingly reliant on imported Saudi oil. The crisis was not sparked by any natural scarcity, but by the Arab embargo in response to US support for Israel in that year’s war. That’s it. (Note that you provided no source for your empty assertion about the ’73 shock being due to scarcity, but if you want to know the story in detail, I suggest you read The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Made by Anthony Sampson. See especially chapter 12.)

              The reason (as your chart indicates) US production soared after ’73 is because the industry contrived a crisis from the Arab embargo instead of just waiting it out, and thereby received the green light they needed to open Prudhoe Bay and build the Alaska pipeline. Once again: they are now trying to pull the same trick by hyping a new scare about the need for “energy indpendence” to rape yet more of our public lands and waters. Will you please fucking stop helping them?

              Thank you.

              1. Correction re. US oil production
                Sorry, the chart at the top of the page you linked to was only for Alaska production, not total US production. Alaska production peaked in 1987, US production peaked in 1970. But as this chart from the Energy Department, online at your pals ASPO, shows, the Alaska peak in 1987 brought US production levels nearly back to their 1970 peak (around 9 million bpd). (Your pal Kurt Cobb, alarmingly writing for the Christian Science Monitor, reluctantly admits this was a “secondary high.”) And we will be headed for a third such peak if the industry gets its way, lubricated by the propaganda you avidly spout. The Energy Department reports that US oil production is already at a 20-year high of over 7 million bpd…

                Typically dishonest Peak Oil websites tout the 1970 peak to say things worked out just like Hubbert predicted, and ignore the 1987 peak. This is called lying with figures; they can get away with this distortion because the secondary peak didn’t quite equal the first peak. The anticipated third peak may outstrip the first two. But, as this recent report on industry website RigZone makes clear, that is contingent on high prices. So just keep on hyping “Peak Oil.” Exxon will thank you.

              2. Wetmore responds to Weinberg again
                Received via e-mail from Joseph Wetmore in Ithaca, NY:

                You should really stick to the stuff you know better.  You are simply wrong in this issue.

                US oil peaked in the early 1970’s. Here is the chart.


                Yes, the Alaskan oil created another peak, but as you can see from the above chart, it never reached the 1970’s high.  You’ll also notice that the overall production quickly went back to the previous downward slope.

                Yes, the North Dakotan Bakken oil fields are creating another up ward climb on the production curve.  These are not long term production wells. That peak, which will never reach the highs of the 1970’s or 1980’s, will be short lived and will quickly head back downward. Look at the “typical Bakken well production”  (scroll down for the graph with this specific caption):


                These wells, as is true with all wells that rely on fracking technology, are short lived, typically being largely played out in five years or less. The only reason this area is in play at all is oil prices have risen to the point that they can afford to drill down 20,000 feet and frack the rock to get the oil to come out. I assure you the stuff from Texas is a whole lot less expensive to produce. That is why they drilled for oil in Texas first.

                And the amount of oil there is not a whole lot in relation to how much the US uses.  Here is the assessment from  petroleum engineer working in the petroleum industry:

                If we could actually produce 3.6 billion barrels of undiscovered oil forecast at the P50 level by USGS, how much would this equate to? The US uses about 7.6 billion barrels of oil products a year, according to EIA data. This is equivalent to just under six month’s US oil use, spread over a very long period, probably 20 years or more. If total production amounts to only 500 million barrels, as I have suggested, this would equate to about 23 days worth of United States oil usage, spread over many, many years.

                Much more:

                And these are the only two large domestic oil supplies that have been brought into production in the last 40 years. Both are substantial, but not enough to bring production levels back to the peak of the early 1970’s. Where is the new huge oil deposit that will be bigger than these two?

                The slope in that first graph is clearly on an overall downward slope, and has been since 1975. We are never going to see 9,500,000 barrels per day of domestic oil production in the US again. Never. That is what is meant by peak oil.

                1. Weinberg responds to Wetmore again
                  And around it goes.

                  For starters, spare me the ignorance-baiting, because anyone can play that dumb game. Have you been blogging the oil wars for the past decade and change? Have you written a book that includes in-depth discussion of how US policy towards Mexico has been shaped by the struggle for control of oil? I don’t claim any expertise in either economics or geology (do you?), but I do consider myself a well-informed commentator with enough savvy to distinguish between real experts and charlatans. The Peak Oil skeptics like Yergin have got bona fides up the wazoo. The Peak Oil advocates relentlessly engage in dirty tricks like telling us US oil produciton peaked in 1970, hoping we won’t notice the secondary peak of the mid-1980s. They are part of a long tradition of scarcity-mongering that has been proven wrong again and again—but has always served the industry’s expansionist designs.

                  Since you’re so crazy about charts, check out this one from, showing oil prices since the end of World War II. Compare it with your Energy Department production chart and you will see that US production levels have closely followed the global price. US production dropped in the mid ’80s because the Saudis started to produce more in a (sucessful) bid to recover their market share. (See this Energy Department chart of Saudi imports.) There was even a brief bump in US production in 1990, coinciding with the brief price spike sparked by that year’s Persian Gulf crisis. US production started to rise in earnest 15 years later, as Bush’s Iraq adventure sent the price soaring. Get it yet?

                  Fixating on the Bakken Formation overlooks Prudhoe Bay (far from exhausted yet), the ANWR, the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve, the offshore resources of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the Green River Formation in the Rocky Mountains, and several other sources in the US. And fixating on the US overlooks the Orinoco Belt, Caspian Basin, newly discovered offshore reserves on the West African coast, the fields that all the saber-rattling is over in the South China Sea, etc. Not to mention Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf!

                  The one thing we seem to agree on is that getting all this new oil is contingent on high prices. So I appeal to you one more time: Please stop abetting industry designs by hyping Peak Oil.

                  Thank you.

                  1. Wetmore responds to Weinberg again
                    Received via e-mail from Joseph Wetmore in Ithaca, NY:

                    Why can’t you admit that domestic oil production had it’s highest point, peaked, in the early 1970’s? You say this is about the facts, yet you are unable to show a single point in time since 1973 where domestic production has gone above 9,500,000 barrels a day. Yes there are smaller peaks, but they are all SMALLER. If 1970 was not a peak, when di US production surpass this point?

                    It is a silly argument because you will not look at the simple fact domestic oil production peaked in 1970.

                    Geo-political fights do not change the fact that domestic oil production peaked in 1970. From your own admission, US policy has been to allow oil companies to drill in all kinds of ecologically sensitive areas. Yet oil production has never reached that high point again. So allowing all this drilling has not created a situation where domestic oil production has been able to match or exceed that 1970 peak.  In other words, geo-political events allowed for more drilling, yet oil production still could not reach that peak again.

                    The same is true for the economic factors in play. The higher the price of oil, the more places it is economically feasible to drill for oil. It is a whole lot less expensive to drill for oil in Texas or Pennsylvania where you can drill down 5,000 feet and the oil comes out under its own pressure than to go to South Dakota and drill 20,000 feet and then go through an elaborate fracking process to get less oil, over time, than the Texas wells produce.  The industry was well aware of the Bakken oil fields decades before they drilled them. They delayed production not because of ignorance, or political pressure, but because given the price of oil it was not profitable to exploit those fields.

                    Price went up because supply did not go up as fast as demand has.  This is not some trick the oil companies played on us; society is addicted to oil, and has had an increasing demand for it. The oil companies have successfully held back supply for short periods of time creating small spikes in the price.  And for a decade or so,  Saudi Arabia was able to set world supply by holding back production. As the price edged up, oil in places like Venezuela became profitable to exploit.  In addition,  Saudi Arabia’s oil fields were reaching maximum production. The US had already peaked. So oil that cost more to produce started coming on the market, making the percentage of world oil that  Saudi Arabia supplied smaller and smaller to the point they could no longer control price.

                    It is not a question of “believing” that oil is scarce. If oil plentiful, one oil company or another would undercut the market.  This is why cartels, in the long run, fail.  OPEC was successful for a long time because  Saudi Arabia was able to lower production to account for the member who were cheating. There are too many players in the global oil market to keep oil prices up in the long term. In the long term, somebody will cheat.

                    As for “abetting industry designs by hyping Peak Oil.”  Let’s look at what the industry is saying about future oil production.

                    Energy sources will continue to evolve and diversify as global energy demand surges. Through 2040, improvements in technology will further expand energy supplies, and we will continue to find ways to use energy more efficiently.

                    Gulf Oil:

                    While Gulf Oil is primarily today dealing in petroleum based products the company is firmly committed to developing alternate energy sources for both transport as well as other energy demand sectors such as commercial, industrial and residential uses. The company has begun to offer electricity to residential customers in Connecticut with more states planned.


                    I was asked to talk about oil supply after peak oil. However, I don’t accept the premise. It is far from clear to me when there will be a peak to oil supply, at least one driven by a fundamental resource shortage.

                    I believe, from what I know today, that peak oil supply is still a long way off.


                    Search: “peak oil”
                    No results found. Please check the spelling of your query and try again.

                    If industry is “hyping” peak oil, it is the most subtle “hype” I’ve seen.

                    1. Weinberg responds to Wetmore again
                      Man, you won’t quit.

                      I’m not disputing that US production peaked in 1970. I’m disputing the relevance of this fact. Geopolitical fights do not “change” the fact that domestic oil production peaked in 1970. But they explain why domestic oil production peaked in 1970. The price dropped as the Saudis boosted production to regain their market share—first before the ’73 embargo, and then again in the ’80s. This precipitated the decline after both the peaks in US production (as demonstrated in the chart comparison I indicated above). With the Saudis flooding the market, it was no longer worthwhile to expand operations in Alaska and elsewhere. That started to change with the Iraq war oil-shock that began some eight years ago, and domestic production has been rising again since then. What on Earth don’t you get?

                      No, US policy has not been to open the ANWR (yet), and the limited lease sales within the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve were only announced last year. Much of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas remains off-limits, and the plan to lift the moratorium on new drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf of the Lower 48 is still in the works. You say “geo-political events allowed for more drilling, yet oil production still could not reach that peak again.” I say geopolitical events have not allowed for enough new drilling for a new peak (yet). And (again) whether the US is able to regain 1970 output levels isn’t all that relevant to the question of whether the planet is running out of oil.

                      If price merely reacts in mechanistic manner to the laws of supply and demand, explain why it has always closely followed the level of political and military conflict in the Middle East, as I have repeatedly pointed out. Yes, it is a question of “believing” that oil is scarce—or could be in the near future.

                      As for your (unsourced and unlinked) quotes from the industry—well, I didn’t say that the industry is hyping Peak Oil. They are obviously prohibited from doing so. But is the Peak Oil hype useful to the industry? Absolutely. Every president since Nixon has declared “energy independence” as an aim of his administration, goaded by the Four Horsemen of OPEC intransigence, “petro-dictators,” Islamic terrorism, and Peak Oil.

                      Just keep hyping the latter, and we can kiss the ANWR good-bye. Along with the Finger Lakes.

                    2. Wetmore responds to Weinberg again
                      Ok now we are getting somewhere.

                      “I’m not disputing that US production peaked in 1970.” v. “Typically dishonest Peak Oil websites tout the 1970 peak to say things worked out just like Hubbert predicted, and ignore the 1987 peak.” US production peaked in 1970, just like Hubbard said it would. The actual shape of a graph of real world production trends is determined by various factors,  such as development of enhanced production techniques, availability of competing resources, and government regulations on production or consumption. Because of such factors, real world Hubbert curves are not symmetrical.

                      Did domestic demand go down or up? We both know that answer. It continued to climb. The only way that demand could be met was if the US started importing oil form the world market.

                      When the US was able to meet its internal needs with domestically produced oil, it was able to stabilize the price with price controls on domestic reserves. The global market changed all that. When the US had to rely on the world market, it had a choice of paying the world price, instead of the insulated domestic price or take it by force. You can see this in the graph at: [EconomyWatch link]

                      As domestic production fell, price controls had to disappear as well. The were both a smaller percentage of our oil consumption and oil companies played a shell game of exporting domestically produced oil and importing more oil.

                      Your assertion that “With the Saudis flooding the market, it was no longer worthwhile to expand operations in Alaska and elsewhere.” is silly. The oil industry produces oil from wherever oil is least expensive. The point you seem to be missing is that oil from one oil field may cost considerably more to produce than oil from another.  Think about it: it is a whole lot less expensive to drill for oil in Texas or Pennsylvania (or Saudi Arabia for that matter) where you can drill down 5,000 feet and the oil comes out under its own pressure than to go to South Dakota and drill 20,000 feet and then go through an elaborate fracking process to get less oil, over time, than the Texas, Pennsylvania or Saudi Arabia, wells produce.   Or we can talk about the Alaskan oil fields, that are 12,000 feet deep and only accessible by boat during part of the year. Pressure to open the ALaskan oil fields goes up as the price makes them more and  more profitable. It was not possible to drill them in the 1950’s, it cost more to get the oil out of the ground than they could sell it for.

                      You ask, “If price merely reacts in mechanistic manner to the laws of supply and demand, explain why it has always closely followed the level of political and military conflict in the Middle East, as I have repeatedlypointed out.”(SIC)  Here is a good explanation:

                      Oil Crisis (1973-1978)
                      Oil prices quadrupled from $3 in 1972 to $12 in the later half of 1974. This was triggered by the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria. The US and some other Western countries supported Israel. Infuriated Arab nations imposed an embargo on these countries by curtailing oil production by 5 million barrels per day. The control on oil prices shifted from the US to the OPEC nations during the ‘Arab Oil Embargo.’

                      Oil Crisis (1979-1980)
                      In 1979, the Iranian revolution sent oil prices soaring. The country’s oil production plummeted drastically to 2.5 million barrels a day. The 1980 Iraqi invasion worsened the situation. The combined production of both the countries reduced to just one million barrels per day (from 6.5 million barrels in 1978). This lowered the global oil production by 10% and oil prices rocketed to $35 per barrel.

                      Oil Glut (1980-1986)
                      The energy crises of the 1970s slowed down the economic activity across the industrial nations. This resulted in oil conservation and overproduction, pulling down consumption and prices of crude oil drastically. The import of oil by the US reduced from 46.5% in 1977 to 28% in 1982-1983. Oil prices which had peaked to $35 in 1980 fell to $10 within six years.

                      Oil Spike (2003-2008)
                      Inflation-adjusted oil prices post-Gulf War remained below $25. However, oil prices began escalating in 2003 due to:
                      Dwindling petroleum reserves and ‘peak oil’ concerns,
                      Tensions in the Middle-East and
                      Oil-price speculation.
                      Oil price crossed $30 in 2003 and reached $60 in August 2005. Oil price reached a historic high of $147.30 in July, 2008 amidst global economic recession.

                      from: [EconomyWatch]

                      You keep asserting that there is planet of oil left.  Where is it? What is your source?

                      If the oil companies are colluding to keep prices high, please explain how they are able to keep the only cartel in history going without members cheating?

                      The real pressure on ANWR and the Finger Lakes is an industrial society that believes it can keep running on petroleum forever. And for some unfathomable reason, you are part of that crowd.

                    3. Weinberg responds to Wetmore again
                      Getting somewhere? Maybe. You finally acknowledge that perhaps there are factors other than scarcity in determining price. If the Hubbert curve is not symmetrical, why is it always portrayed that way (e.g. in this all-too familiar image)? Because the Peaksters habitually deal in oversimplificaitons.

                      I stand behind my statement that the Peaksters present the evidence dishonestly, and only acknowledge that things aren’t quite so simple when cornered–and then (as noted earlier) dismiss anything that militates against their theory as mere “noise.”

                      Contrary to your implication, US reliance on Saudi imports did not begin after domestic production peaked. On the contrary, domestic production peaked because the Saudis flooded the market to expand their share. How many times do I have to say it? Read Yergin’s The Prize or Sampson’s The Seven Sisters.

                      The US did not “have” to rely on the world market because of scarcity, but because of the Saudis’ (and OPEC’s) ability to determine the price. My statement to this effect is not “silly,” but well documented. And the evidence is the fact that for the past decade and more, top US sources have been (non-OPEC) Canada and Mexico. Saudi Arabia now vies with Venezuela for third place, and the US is (if recent reports are to be believed) well on its way to oil self-sufficiency.

                      I am certainly not dismissing the fact that oil from some fields is more accessible than from others. It is because the Saudis have easily accessible oil that they wield such influence over the price.

                      The explanation you quote on price fluctuations cites  “‘peak oil’ concerns” (emphasis added)—not Peak Oil. And that is only for the more recent spike. It cites the Arab embargo for ’73 spike, and says nothing about dwindling reserves in that section. In other words,  it largely vindicates my analysis. Thank you.

                      I am not asserting “that there is planet of oil left” (sic). I am asserting that there is no reason to believe that we are near Peak Oil, and have documented my claim abundantly. Click on the links.

                      I am not arguing a seamless, hegemonic industry conspiracy to keep prices high. But generally, that is the imperative. OPEC attempts to control the price through decisive control of supply. The Western oil industry does so through their political allies and proxies like Bush  starting wars, and a compliant media playing to scarcity fears by demonizing OPEC and the Arab states generally. Loaned generous if unwitting assistance by the Peak Oil Crowd.

                      Are we finished yet?

                      Nitpicky note: The “repeatedlypointed” is your error, not mine, so spare me your incorrect use of “(SIC).”

  3. Peak oil: and another reader writes
    Received via e-mail from Robbie in Missoula, MT:

    Your article and the comments thus far posted miss an important concept about peak oil. As an energy resource passes its peak it becomes more expensive to extract, not in terms of dollars, but in terms of energy. If it takes a fraction of a barrel of oil to extract another barrel of oil, then one can profitably do so. Profitable in this sense means that you get more energy than you expend. If it takes more than a barrel of oil to extract a barrel then it doesn’t make any sense to do so in any economic system. There is no way to incentivize such extraction. Regardless of one’s political point of view the above statement should not be controversial.

    Perhaps Vince Beiser notes that in parts of his article that you didn’t quote. Perhaps he doesn’t. There could well be the vast amounts of energy reserves left in the earth that the USGS refers to. But if it takes more energy to get them it than they return, then it’s in no one’s interest to extract them. What’s missing from your quotes is how energy expensive it may or may not be to get to those reserves.

    Deep sea drilling, tar sands extraction and fracking are expensive in terms of energy. But they’re still profitable in the above sense. These technologies are only now being used on a large scale because the less expensive stuff, in energy terms not in dollar terms, is gone. These technologies are evidence that peak energy is indeed a real phenomenon.

    As far as dropping dollar prices go, in economics exchange value (that is the prices per barrel you’re quoting) has little relation to the dollar cost of production. That’s true in all industries, not just energy production. It might be expensive in energy and dollar  terms to frack, for example, but frackers can still sell the stuff. So much fracking is happening that the market is glutted bringing the price, or exchange value down. That has little effect on the dollar or energy cost of fracking itself. On the other hand, as the ratio of energy used to energy extracted gets higher, so much energy will be used for so little return that to keep extraction profitable in dollar terms, the prices will have to soar uncontrollably. There really won’t be enough energy to meet demand, and incentivizing high prices will not be able to increase the supply. This will happen sooner or later.

    There is no contradiction between concern for climate change and concern about peak oil. Yes indeed it would be good for the climate if fossil fuels were to run out tomorrow. But that’s not how natural resource peaks work. They decline. They don’t just suddenly run out like the gas in a car’s tank. One can reasonably be concerned that if our economy keeps going full speed ahead with its current energy use pattern, at some point when prices do soar uncontrollably, it will cause severe disruptions in the economy and so severe political upheaval. All the while global warming will be causing severe economic and ecological disruptions as well. Please know that, from an anti-capitalist perspective, I do understand that this economy really does have to be replaced. Destroying it via peak oil, however, is the worst way to do it.

    I don’t doubt the various allegations that the oil companies have intentionally manipulated the world market to their advantage. Why wouldn’t they? They’re also known for cooking their own books and releasing fictional data. So when you cite BP statistics, please  take them with a grain of salt and attempt to verify them from  independent sources.

    Lastly, I take exception with the term “apocalyptoid.” I don’t appreciate ad hominem name calling in what should be an intelligent debate. It’s beneath you Bill. When I hear you ask  “eating crow yet?” I’m reminded of Sarah Palin smirking at Obama voters “how’s that hopey changey thing working for you?” It’s no less ridiculous and off the mark when you smirk than when she does. So, no, I’m not ready to eat crow, and I’ve never been particularly silent on the subject. The quiet you hear may be your own lack of hearing. I respectfully request that you stop the snark and return to investigative reporting, which is what you do best.

    1. Inaccessible oil may not pay, but snark does
      Robbie, you raise an interesting point, which was not explored either by Beiser or by Daniel Yergin in the piece I quoted in the above exchange. After some Googling, I found one reference to the point, in a comment on a piece in response to Yergin’s piece on Foreign Policy Journal. The reader writes:

      There may be trillions of barrels of whatever type of oil in the world, but it is all about Energy Returned Over Energy Invested (EROEI). In the good old days a barrel of oil would get you 100 barrels out of the ground. The ratio is plummeting. Once that ratio reaches 1:1 it is game over. Absolutely no point in expending a barrel of oil to get back a barrel of oil. It will stay where it is – in the ground.

      I would indeed be interested in hearing how Yergin factors this in, but I assume it doesn’t alter his conclusion that Peak Oil is in the distant future, not the immediate future or recent past. I mean, that scenario would effectively put us well past Peak Oil, no? (Are you reading this, Daniel?)

      Phrases like “real phenomenon” dodge the crirtical point. Oil is a finite resource, and eventually we are going to run out if we keep using it. But is peak production just around the corner, or, as the more ambitious Peaksters tell us, has production already peaked? Or is that peak not even on the far horizon, as Yergin asserts? And, more to the point still, is climate destabilization brought on by fossil fuel use going to cause the industrial system to crash and ironically put an end to oil extraction long before we ever get to such peak production? 

      Either this or Peak Oil would indeed be very bad ways of destroying capitalism. But it is the dynamics of capitalism that are propelling us towards either one fate or the other. I use the term “apocalyptoids” to refer to those morbidly fixated on either (or both) of these scenarios, and generally in Malthusian terms, viewing ecocide and resource depletion as mere functions of human numbers, not the voracious nature of capitalism. I don’t include you in this category, so you needn’t take offense. To the rest of you—if the shoe fits, wear it.

      As for your anti-snark admonishment, I always find such comments ironic. I can write 50 pieces a month on campesinos struggling to protect their lands and waters from the energy industry in South America, and they will get few readers and no comments. But once in a rare while I call out some media hogs of the Peak Oil or 9-11 conspiranoia variety in snarky terms, and I get thousands of hits and loads of comments. Pretty funny. Even funnier is when I’m told to be a good boy and just write dry, objective journalism by the same people who avidly forward material from the relentlessly snark-laden and evil Counterpunch. (Again, I don’t mean you, but other of my critics who have similarly scolded me.)

      Anyway, your lengthy comment has only vindicated my snark. But I defend it on ethical grounds too: I resort to snark to provoke a response from those with little intellectual courage. Those who salivated for collapse when oil prices were high and slunk into silence when they dropped (just like those who year after year predict an imminent US or Israeli attack on Iran, never acknowledging their past wrong predictions) have more than earned their crow. Bon apetit, guys.

      1. Robbie responds to Weinberg’s response to Robbie
        Received via e-mail from Robbie in Missoula, MT:

        Thank you for bringing up the term EROEI. I couldn’t remember it as I was writing. That is the key concept behind peak oil. Anyone addressing it, pro or con, entirely misses the point if they’re not addressing EROEI.

        When I used the term “real phenomenon” I meant that it is evidence that we are somewhere high on the curve, not too far before or after the peak. All of the graphs I’ve seen for oil is that we are past the peak globally. I have not seen graphs for coal or gas. I guess you can derogatorize me as a “more ambitious peakster.”

        I truly don’t understand your antipathy to the concept of peak oil, peak energy, or peaks in any other sort of resource extraction. The concept in general makes a great deal of scientific sense to me. Is it all because you hate the charlatan Mike Ruppert (or whatever his name is) and he appeared in The End of Suburbia, one of the more influential films on the topic? Al Gore is a name (perhaps rightfully) reviled by many and he’s, of course, quite
        associated with climate change. Does that mean that climate change isn’t happening? Or does it mean that even charlatans can say things that are correct on occasion? More importantly, it really doesn’t matter what the ones we revile say, there are enough respectable scientists and journalists offering enough evidence confirming these things.

        The dynamics of capitalism are propelling us towards both forms of destruction. Those concerned about peak energy don’t take comfort that the oil/coal/gas might run out before global warming happens.  I’ve never heard anyone say that. And that’s not what the theories say. Indeed they say that there’s plenty of the stuff that’s still EROEI profitable to burn. Well more than enough to cause climate catastrophe.

        As far as never acknowledging past wrong predictions, I might remind you that I’ve warned you about making predictions too. For almost as long as I’ve known you you’ve said that doom (of varying types) is imminent.

        1. Weinberg responds to Robbie’s response to Weinberg
          I can’t imagine there is the slightest possibility that Yergin hasn’t factored in EROEI. It seems to me that we’d already have to be well past Peak Oil by definition for EROEI to be a prohibitive limitation.

          I hope you are right that we are on the high end of the curve. Maybe it would provide some imperative to phase out SUVs and rebuild mass transit. But nobody has convinced me.

          I do not oppose Peak Oil theorising because it attracts charlatans like Mike Ruppert. But it attratcs charlatans like Mike Ruppert because it is a specious theory. I have antipathy for Al Gore as a scion of the ruling political class, but he isn’t a charlatan. (For the record, I am all for the “end of suburbia”—not the film but the phenomenon.)

          We both know that there is (cough) a certain set out there that gets a delicious sanctimony buzz from being (in their minds) among the elite coterie that can alone foresee the coming disaster. I believe a catharsis for their alienation from industrial civilization also plays a role.

          I have never pretended to have a crystal ball, unlike the Peaksters. When I ranted after Hurricane Sandy that it was a manifestation of climate change, I was discussing a current phenomenon, not a future one. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock now stands at five of midnight. In moving the minute hand forward last year, they cited nuclear proliferation and lack of action on climate change. They said nothing about Peak Oil. 

          Please go argue with them.

  4. Peak oil: yet another reader writes
    Received via e-mail from Raymond John Howard in New York City:

    “Global temperatures are warmer than at any time in at least 4,000 years,…”
    So what? As you can see from the attached graphs, the earth’s temperature has varied quite a bit for as long as we can determine. Current conditions are BELOW average.
    When dinosaurs dominated the earth, the planet was much warmer and there were
    probably no ice caps. Life was more abundant than now.

    If the earth continues to warm, then the oceans will drown many cities, places such
    as Bangladesh will lose most of their land, storms and fires will increase, and our regime of
    crops will have to be abandoned. Difficult times, no doubt, but there will be more arable land as the arboreal forests take over the tundra, thereby leaving more room for temperate forests and grasslands. Florida will mostly be lost, but new cities will be founded on the arctic ocean coasts of N. America and Eurasia. We can adapt; we’ve done it before.
    Once we lived exclusively on African lake shores and sea coasts.

    That’s not to say that filling the air with carbon dioxide is a good idea, but the results of global warming will not be all bad and a ready alternative to fossil fuels as they are used now just isn’t apparent. I see little reason to believe that renewable energy sources – other than geothermal – is sufficient to maintain the present levels of energy consumption. Even if they were, they are not constant. Even if they were, using the energy so derived would mean converting almost everything to electricity, a monumental task and one which we don’t know how to do for everything.

    To be fair, geothermal energy is reliable, amenable to storage, and may be available in most places simply by deep drilling. How quickly it can be brought online, for how much money, and for what dangers to ground water, I don’t know.

    Trying to stop using fossil fuels would be like trying to stop using grains. It could be done and should be done—eventually. However, it means vast dislocation as well as reliance upon methods which are unproven at the scale they would be needed.

    That leaves enforced conservation. Like other schemes of rationing, this is already infringing on our customary rights and is introducing large inefficiencies.

    I suggest that the only way to reduce energy consumption in ways which will not
    reduce the standards of living common to advanced industrialized countries is to reduce the number of days people work outside the home. Most of us spend much of our time in offices, shops, transportation vehicles, transportation facilities, schools, and public buildings. That means considerably more space as we live in has to be built, heated, cooled, lit, cleaned, provided with water, power, and food, drained of sewage, and demolished. Homes, business, and transportation account for about equal amounts of energy consumption in the E.U.

    Reducing commuting—even by changing the work week to 4 IO hour days rather than 5
    8 hour days—would reduce both the amount of energy used by the business and transportation sectors. Reducing that by having many of us work at home or in local communications centers near their homes is the only way I see of reducing energy consumption relatively quickly and painlessly.

    Computers and fibre optics make it possible for most jobs in this country to be performed remotely. Many jobs are about preventing persons from taking resources (even when they are entitlled to them) the current owners or distributors don’t want them to take.

    Simply guaranteeing certain things (such as health care and food) in modest amounts to everyone would actually be more efficient than the huge apparatus of enforcement and regulation. Pensioning off particularly aggressive and unprincipled persons is another way to reduce unnecessary employment since such persons cause more problems than they are worth.

    1. Dinosaurs ate your brain
      Well, we are certainly degenerating here, aren’t we?

      Saying current conditions are below average across the 3 billion year history of life on Earth is a meaningless distraction. Some of the charts you attached, like this one, go all the way back to the goddam Precambrian! What does that have to do with conditions in the Holocene epoch, in which human civilization emerged? Absolutely nothing. 

      The lesson you seem to take from the climate fluctuations in Earth’s past is: “Tough boogers, dude. It’s gonna happen anyway, so deal with it.” The lesson the more serious-minded take is: “Yes, the planetary biosphere can go out of wack pretty easily. We’d better stop fucking with it.”

      Why do we not hear glib, dismissive talk about how there are “tough times ahead” balanced by favorable trade-offs from people in places that stand to be wiped off the map by climate change, like Tuvalu or the Maldives and Bangladesh? As I’ve said before in this regard,  “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

      The equation of going off fossil fuels and going off grains is too ludicrous to warrant comment. But I can’t resist commenting on the perverse notion that “enforced conservation” is “infringing on our customary rights.” Oh, bullshit. First of all, there is no “enforced conservation”—alas. There was during World War II, and if we recognized climate destabilization as the crisis that it is, we would have it again. And there is no “customary right” to ride around in a fucking SUV. However, the fossil fuel economy is daily treading upon the customary rights of peasants and indigenous peoples all over the world to live in dignity on their own lands. We should be supporting the global peasant petro-resistance, not the Ugly American anti-environmental backlash.

      I’m skeptical of techno-fixes like telecommuting. Contrary to the ubiquitous techno-utopianism, computers take a social-ecological toll too. Ever hear of coltan?

      Having lost my last paid editorial position as well as my radio show for being too (cough) “aggressive,” I’m not sure I like that prescription either.

      1. Peak Oil: Howard responds to Weinberg
        Raymond John Howard replies via e-mail:

        I don’t think making snide comments is helpful unless the someone else is being offensive.

        My point in showing temperatures back to a billion years was to show that the biosphere will not be wrecked even be significant increases in surface temperatures or the melting of the ice caps. We are still basically tropical creatures, we can adapt to warmer temperatures overall, although there will be places which will be uninhabitable, just as there are now.

        I didn’t mean to dismiss the suffering of those who will be harmed by the changes now under way, but to point out that such changes were like others we face.

        Switching from deriving most of our calories from grain or grain feed animals to starchy nuts, fruits, and roots is, indeed, as necessary and as difficult as switching away from fossil fuels. The loss of top soil which attends the plowing and reaping of annual plants—and grains in particular—was a major factor in the decline of the Latin, Greek, and Arab empires. The losses—which began thousands of years ago—are still going on and are cumulative. Then there are the health effects. Simply the maintenance of a much enlarged area of grassland on the earth than is natural has meant that carbon spends less time in solid form (wood) and more in the atmosphere.

        Whether it is better to overturn our system in order to slow global warming or better to endure the changes is a choice. I don’t say it is a fully informed choice, nor do I insist we should just let her rip, as it were. I just don’t think it’s something which honest and reasonable persons can’t disagree about.

        There’s no need nor advantage in introducing rancor into these debates—either because you can’t imagine those with other viewpoints as being worthy of equal treatment or because you feel the need to provoke discussion. You can feel dismissive of our views without letting us know that. It’s called good manners.

        1. Peak Oil: Weinberg responds to Howard
          Sorry about the dinosaurs. I get impatient.

          Apparently you don’t understand the meaning of the word uninhabitable. Even if the worst predictions are wrong, or we manage to get off fossil fuels in time to stave off the very worst scenario, you are still amazingly glib about destruction on a nearly unimaginable scale. You “didn’t mean to dismiss the suffering” of those who will be flooded or starve to death as a result of climate destabilization? OK, then I didn’t “mean” to be impolite.

          It amazes me that you can give me this techno-hubris about the inevitablity of climate change (which presumably allows us to go on using fossil fuels) and in the next breath take the ultra-primitivist position that we have to abandon grain! Ruminants are a far greater threat to topsoil, which is one reason I am a (quasi-)vegetarian.

          I’m sorry, I do not see overturning the system or enduring climate destabilization as a “choice.” Or, if it is, I have chosen for the long-term survival of the planet as a place where humans can make a dignified life—not for the short-term gain of today’s profilgate rich at the expense of all future generations. 

          1. Peak Oil: Howard’s response to Weinberg’s response to Howard
            Raymond John Howard replies via e-mail:

            Bill, you and I are both old enough to remember how many scares have come and gone in this country. Remember the Red Menace? Remember U.F.O.s? Remember the Bomb? Remember acid rain, drugs, ritual satanic abuse, Alar, anorexia, & West Nile virus? Who worries about them now except those directly affected?

            Remember the first energy crisis? $100/barrel oil would lead to apocalypse! So let’s all turn down our thermostats and drive energy efficient cars (except, off course, that driving cars is a function of available roads—which we never stopped expanding). Followed a few years later by an oil glut and a return to low prices.

            Scares are how the various elites and their component factions jockey for advantage. This is not to say that some—or even all—of the scares represented real dangers. It is to say that the scares didn’t represent a rational system of warning and response, so whatever dangers there—if any—were have not been dealt with rationally; their proponents have simply moved on.

            Just follow the course of eggs as a source of nutrition to get an idea of how this works. First, eggs were a regular ingredient in cooking. Then nutritionists decided that eggs were the perfect food. Then eggs were found to contain cholesterol and that was bad, so eggs were now considered dangerous—at least to adults. Now eggs are back in the okay-in-moderation column.

            I am NOT claiming that global warming is not happening, nor that we are not a main cause, just that we are being stampeded—as before, and we should dig in our heels until the blaring loudspeakers are shut off and we can think this through. Scientists DON’T know what will really happen in 5O or IOO years. The earth has demonstrably been much warmer and life thrived during those periods. We originated in tropical conditions and, if we plan ahead, we can change our habits and habitats to adapt to warmer conditions. Migrating north is one such change.

            We may have little choice since we may have already put so much CO2 into the air that higher temperatures will be with us for centuries or there may be other reasons why temperatures are rising which we can’t do much about.

            I don’t know what an ‘ultra-primitive’ is, but I don’t see how advocating moving from grain based agriculture to tree and tuber based horticulture is primitive at all. We still grow chesnuts, plaintains, breadfruit, potatoes, and yams—all sources of complex carbohydrates. Maybe such cultivation preceded grain growing, but so what?

            I’m just say it is better to prepare for increasing natural disasters—something everyone can agree governments should take major responsibility for (unlike health, education, subsidies to big business, etc.), than to engage in agitation for government actions which will inevitably lead to abuses, economic inefficiencies, and power grabs and MAY NOT BE POSSIBLE OR WORK.

            1. Weinberg’s response to Howard’s response to Weinberg’s response
              Jeez, man. You are making my point for me. I am arguing precisely that Peak Oil is another instrumented scare, much like the 1973 “Energy Crisis.” But climate change does not fall into this category; the evidence for it is abundant and frightening, and there is broad consensus for it in the scientific community. As I have already stated in responding to some climate-denialist media prattle:

              What is most appalling about this endless equivocation is the fundamental, inescapable, so-obvious-that-the-chronically-clever-can’t-see-it reality that there is only one Earth. And it didn’t come with a warranty. Once we’ve blown this one, we can’t take it back to the Wal-Mart for a new one. Gambling with the future of the planet is the most reckless gamble there is. Truly responsible journalism would emphasize the criticality of the precuationary principle on these questions, rather than cheap sneering at supposed alarmism. And what is to be weighed against immediate, decisive measures to mitigate climate change? The God-given right of fat Americans to ride around in SUVs?

              In any case, the measures we need to take to address climate change and the eventuality of Peak Oil are the same: getting off oil.

  5. Peak oil apocalyptoids spanked on Times editorial page
    New York Times editorial page top honcho Robert B. Semple, Jr. in a signed piece entitled “The Oil Extremists,” May 25:

    The federal Energy Information Administration reported in March that at some point this year — maybe in the fall, maybe next month, maybe tomorrow — United States crude oil production will surpass imports for the first time since 1995. This is an important milestone. It does not mean that America has reached energy independence, not by a long shot. That is and will remain an elusive dream for a country that uses one-fifth of the world’s oil while possessing little more than one-fiftieth of its reserves.

    What it represents, instead, are two remarkable developments: one, technological refinements that have allowed the oil industry to tap large and previously inaccessible deposits of oil and gas, mainly on private land in places like Texas and North Dakota; and two, a steady decline in oil consumption, driven in part by new automobile efficiency standards aimed at doubling the fuel economy of cars and light trucks.

    You would not know any of this if you listened only to Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and his like-minded Republican colleagues in the House. To hear them tell it, domestic oil production has fallen off a cliff (when in fact it is at a 21-year high, despite cutbacks in the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil spill) and the oil industry is in chains, paralyzed by conservationists and federal regulators who cling to environmental values, like the need to preserve a measure of wilderness for wildlife and humans alike.

    Mr. Hastings and friends tried hard in the last Congress to undermine many basic environmental laws and open up huge swaths of America’s public estate, onshore and offshore, to drilling, including the coasts of Maine, California, Oregon and Washington (Mr. Hastings’s home state), as well as all the waters off Alaska. That they failed has not diminished their appetites. Last week, one of Mr. Hastings’s subcommittees held hearings on several bills that would destroy much of the balance between resource preservation and extraction that President Obama and Ken Salazar, former interior secretary, sought to achieve.

    One bill, from Scott Tipton of Colorado, would essentially establish energy development — mainly of fossil fuels — as the primary use of the public lands. A second, from Doug Lamborn, also a Republican from Colorado, would overturn the Obama administration’s sensible reforms of the oil and gas leasing process by setting impossibly tight deadlines for drilling permits, discouraging citizen participation and lawsuits. The bill would also reinstitute a discredited Bush administration plan to extract oil from shale rock in the Rocky Mountains.

    The third bill, from Mr. Hastings himself, would fast-track federal approval of drilling permits, roads and pipelines in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, a 23-million-acre reserve rich in both wildlife and fossil fuels and long a source of contention between industry and conservationists. The Hastings bill would nullify Mr. Salazar’s carefully balanced compromise by giving oil development top priority.

    On Wednesday, the full House approved a bill giving Congress the power to approve the hugely controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. It was an essentially meaningless vote since this is Mr. Obama’s decision to make. But the argument advanced for the pipeline — that it is essential to America’s energy independence and thus its security — is the very same argument that the Republicans have made to justify their proposed pillage of federal lands. It is an argument that Mr. Obama has resisted so far and should continue to resist for the rest of his term. 

    Alas, the Peak Oil fallacy remains deeply entrenched on both the right and left, as the above exchanges demonstrate all too amply.

  6. Fracking and the future of electricity…
    Here’s some of the stuff I observe from inside the power industry in New York related to fossil energy:

    – We’re shutting down alternatives to natural gas, on the assumption that fracked gas has now changed all of our energy calculations. In particular, coal plants like Danskammer (near the I84 crossing of the Hudson) are shut down. They will never reopen due to clean air regs that they are currently grandfathered out of but a new coal plant has to comply with. Similarly, we (New York Power Authority) are planning the demise of Indian Point, to be replaced with a theoretical power line from Canada for more hydro that will take 7+ years to build (best case), and local gas fired turbines to be built on the site of IP’s parking lot (we have to build where the existing power line node is.) Any nuke plant that fails to relicense is open to a far higher level of scrutiny in terms of safety (we’d never let IP be built today on top of an active known deep fault). These factors create lock-in; whatever the gas price is 3 years from now, you have to buy, because the alternatives have been permanently removed from the scene. Indian Point is about 1/8 of the total power of NY State on a normal day.

    – Year on year production from existing gas and shale oil fracking has been shown to drop off exponentially at a given well-head. After refracking, the additional gas recovered from a well, for example, drops off dramatically.
    As mentioned there, this is actually not a new issue, but the rate of decline is far larger for fracking than it was for conventional gas. This means the level of investment needs to continue increasing to maintain the same level of energy. And with exponentials, a small change in the rate of change has a giant impact on your time constant, or how long you’ve got.

    – As a result of the Red Queen issue, EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) falls pretty low. This is where the economics issue gets ground up by physics. It doesn’t necessarily happen at 1:1 though. You can have a system with EROEI at say 2:1 where it just isn’t worth it in true economic terms (by which I mean the honest costs of needing to get pipe, bring in water, sand, fracking chemicals, etc). A solar panel is around 7:1 EROEI, a nuke plant >14:1. US ethanol is at around 1.2:1… it’s more a way of storing energy than making it, once all external factors are added in (Brazilian ethanol does a lot better). If this wasn’t an agro-biz scam, supported by political corruption, we would never do it an a purely economic basis. Similarly, the fracking business may already be close to this point once the total investment is figured in (not counting the “externalities” like benzene in our drinking water.) It will stop making sense on a purely physics basis before 1:1, but you can still do it as long as other sources are “cheaper” and provide more than 1:1 (so when ethanol was less than 1:1 it was still physically possible). This is also the issue with fusion power, for example – you can’t just replace what it takes to get the reaction going, you also need a considerable surplus to make it worth running the plant.

    – Gas is at $4/mmBTU. Historically this was $12/mmBTU. We’ve got a “100 year supply”. But that supply assumes a lot of optimism on how many wells are bad, how long they last, and most importantly, how many things we switch to natural gas. All of our fast food depends on natural gas to make fertilizer, for example. People are talking about switching their cars to it. And they are also talking about using those gas terminals for export instead of import. All told, a quick swing back to $12/mmBTU is certainly not impossible, especially if companies like Chesapeake die, because they were lying about their economics and they can’t survive at $4/mmBTU. One of the things peak-oil folks talk about is not necessarily whether we can get gas or oil, but whether the economy we’ve build can survive at that cost per BTU (both in money and energy terms.) In the same way that life in NYC gets increasingly impossible when you’re paying say more than 50% of your income in rent, certain economic activities become non-viable at a certain energy cost.

    – Right now, PSE&G in NJ is putting up massive amounts of solar on utility poles. Sometimes it points the right way, sometimes not so much. If you cared, you wouldn’t do it this way. It needs to point south at a certain angle to be effective. But if you just want to knock out the market for SRECs (solar renewable energy credits, each equal to 1 MWh of generated power) and eliminate NJ’s financing mechanism for your competition, this works well.

    What I believe you will see over the next 5 years is the sum total of all of this. Right now we’ve got 37% of our power from coal, 30% from gas. This was 50% coal and 15% gas in 2004, and was 44/24% as recently as 2010. (The rest largely constant, though solar has gone up maybe 2% over the last 5 years, and nukes will drop from around 19.5% to say 15% depending on the outcome of relicensing in a bunch of plants).

    The one thing in the WSJ that rings true to me is this: “We have to make sure natural gas doesn’t become the mono fuel for the power industry,” he says. “To depend completely on one fuel is a disaster.”
    That’s what we’re halfway done doing. I don’t think this is a scarcity strategy – if anything, we’re being fed the idea of abundance, and all alternatives are being removed from the table. So look at your electricity cost per kWh and see what happens by 2015.

    1. Fracking and false dilemmas
      Glad to hear NYPA is planning to shut Indian Point, although I thought Entergy had full control of the plant now, buying out both the Power Authority and Con Ed reactors. No? Also not too crazy about the Hudson River cable plan, which will faciliate more destructive mega-hydro development in Quebec. I don’t quite get the “Red Queen” reference. Is that some industry insider-lingo? Yes, we share the concern about over-reliance on fracked natural gas, to say the least… We wish that rather than weighing trade-offs (nuclear, fracking, mega-hydro), there was more talk about efficiency, conservation and (dare we say it?) scaling back the industrial leviathan…

  7. True, Entergy has the whole place
    True, Entergy has the whole place – IP3 from NYPA about 12 years ago and IP2 from ConEd since deregulation. But you forget, the Cuomo family has been around for a while, and have put lots of hacks inside of NYPA, so it’s the perfect instrument to build something else there (Entergy could hardly be expected to cooperate on something like that.) Also… a lot of the former IP nukes are inside of NYPA now – they returned for their pensions. I work one cube over from a guy who worked heavily on their control room.

    Red Queen = “running as fast as you can simply to stay where you are”.

    Thing about the grid is… you’ve gotta pick one (actually several. In fact, you can only eliminate one.) I say this as someone who has built off-grid solar power a few times and I’m doing my new house this fall. Not everyone can do that, but if everyone who could did, we could probably get rid of all fossil sources within 5 years. With a full ramp up of wind, some tidal turbines, and more pump hydro, we could – in about 30 years – get to no nukes also. Maybe faster, but you’re limiting factor is people like me became IT people instead of engineers for that last 25 years… we’re in short supply as the boomers retire. Also, we’re just not as good as the NASA era people, so we’re going to fuck up a lot of what we design. (I’m thinking of some specifics here…) As it stands, even a lot of supposed environmentalists are fucking around with their shopping bags instead of doing this, so that eliminate 1 thing should be coal, and for that at least, the fracking illusion is a good thing.

    On Quebec Hydro… won’t it be interesting to see how that negotiation goes this time if the US$ is not so great next to C$, thanks to all the petrocash floating around? And now imagine how that starts to make us feel about Quebecois independence… on the one hand, we’d hate to be Ukraine to their Russia (the whole gas pipeline shutdown thing from years past). On the other hand, if much of your energy (oil and electricity) comes from your “near abroad” wouldn’t lots of little statelets make things just so much easier?

    On conservation, you can only slice that cake so many ways. We’ve already taken most of the low hanging fruit there, and while there are certainly more efficiency gains the “negawatts” aren’t what they used to be. We should also make do with a whole lot less, but ffor that we need more expensive power. Maybe the fracking hoax is actually a good thing there. Your current $.19kWh is probably going to go to $.35kWh retail as soon as IP goes offline… I do seriously thing the fracking folks are waiting for IP and Vermont Yankee.

  8. BBC: receding threat from ‘peak oil’
    A grimly fascinating report from the BBC July 14 on the new oil rush in the “Monterey shale” of California (estimated at $15 billion barrels), how reaching it has become possible thanks to new technologies like horizontal drilling and fracking—and the rather desperate environmentalist opposition…

    Kassie Siegel of the Centre for Biological Diversity said that “a rapid shift to clean energy” was needed to help tackle climate change, and that the mere existence of new oil resources did not mean that they had to be extracted and burned.

    She told BBC News: “We need to win the battle against this big new oil boom in California – and we have to win it in California, where we pride ourselves on being a leader in responding to the climate crisis. Because if we can’t win in California, where in the US can we win it?

    It notes the International Energy Agency’s prediction that the US could outpace Saudi Arabia as a producer, and notes that the IEA has had to revise its forecasts upwards in the past two years.

    It also quotes some dissidents, who address the EROEI question without actually invoking the acronym:

    paper published last week in Eos, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, supports the assertion that a peak in oil production is “a myth” but argues that the rising cost of extraction could itself provide a limit, and may act as a brake on economic growth.

    Authors James Murray and Jim Hansen, questioning the optimism of energy companies, say production from unconventional sources often falls away rapidly. “The steep declines in production from tight oil wells over time require an ever-increasing treadmill of new drilling just to stay constant.”

    Alas, we think capitalism is up to the challenge.