Journalist tries to find Peak Oilers... fails at Googling

It's rare that ASPO-USA finds itself so directly involved in one of these "Peak Oil is nonsense" stories, but we did in this one. So let's take a look at a few quotes from Colin Sullivan's "Has 'peak oil' gone the way of the Flat Earth Society?" released last Friday:

One day soon, the Earth would hit its halfway point of global oil production -- its "peak" -- and thereafter, it would see a steady decline. Those behind the concept called it "peak oil."

Others tend to call it... petroleum engineering. Oil fields rise in production and then decline - that sure is a radical concept, said no one ever.

The theorists wrote books and rose high in academic departments. One of them, M. King Hubbert, had a famous bell curve named after him and discovered disciples willing to follow.

This, friends, is a common tactic, you'll sometimes see people referred to as oracles, acolytes, disciples, or cultists. They want to convince the reader that "those people" are into some crazy & spooky religion and are best ignored.

They found themselves at the vanguard of a movement that essentially said, "Oil is finite, so pay attention!"

Last time we checked... oil is finite.

Along with the celebrity came a good deal of political clout...
...It was a good time to be a peak-oil adventurer.

Ok, now Sullivan is just making stuff up.

In lectures, talks and congressional hearings, the peak oilers insisted the denouement would start anytime, be it 1989 or 1997 or 2005, bringing with it dangerous crude prices and economic collapse unless a substitute was brought to market posthaste.

Clearly Sullivan missed all of 2008 and hasn't been told about current oil price highs.  He also doesn't bother to link the reader to any of these "lectures, talks, and congressional hearings" he's referring too. Why let people make up their own minds when you're happy to tell them what they should think.

But here again is another tactic, here Sullivan is trying to convince the reader that ALL Peak Oilers think the same and that all of them think the world is going to end tomorrow. Opinions about Peak Oil are not homogeneous. This is Robert Rapier's second misconception in his article "Five Misconceptions about Peak Oil."

Those behind the theory appear to have been dead wrong, at least in terms of when the peak would hit...

People make bad predictions. The EIA does it all the time. Pointing out that someone made a bad prediction does not invalidate Peak Oil - oil is still finite, production still rises, reaches a peak or plateau, and declines. That's how things work yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever.

A much-quoted study released by Harvard University's Kennedy School last summer tells a tale that directly counters the peak-oil concept.

Because the truthiness of a study is in direct proportion to the amount of times it's quoted - obviously (obvs for the cool kids). Nevermind the numerous articles that question the study like this one from Dave Summers or this one from Richard Heinberg or this one from Chris Nelder - heck, even James Hamilton thinks Maugeri is overstating the case for optimism.

"Contrary to what most people believe, oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption," wrote lead author Leonardo Maugeri, a Harvard fellow and Italian oil executive. "This could lead to a glut of production and a steep dip in oil prices."
Economist cover story in 1999, predicting an oil price drop from $10 to $5. Whoops.

Economist cover story in 1999, predicting an oil price drop from $10 to $5. Whoops.

Fantastic! This is going to be just like that time 13 years ago when all those Wall Street Journal and CNBC types told us that we were awash in oil and that our new-found oil bounty would lead prices in a laser-like fashion to $5/barrel. Wait, as I seem to recall, that didn't actually happen did it? I wonder if Sullivan will write an article about how bad those predictions were.

This is one of the things that's so maddening about energy over-optimism. These stories will spend pages on pages covering new technology and breathless reports of new oil finds - but they never actually discuss what it means for you and me - regular everyday people.

The truth? It doesn't mean much for regular people. We're paying record high prices for gasoline today - and we'll be paying record high prices for gasoline tomorrow. This is because high oil prices are a REQUIREMENT to attack this new oil. If some glut of production happens, the additional supply would force prices down temporarily - under the necessary level - then either new projects would halt or OPEC would cut production - sending prices back up again.

This is why they just avoid discussing gasoline prices completely. It's tough to sell the story of a new great energy boom when you have to turn right around and tell someone that they still have to cough up more cash for gasoline. In fact, Americans now spend a bigger share of their income on gasoline than at any time since the early 1980s. This trend, and the dangerous squeeze this puts on the economy, will continue.

Luckily, this part of the story is being told in a few corners of the media. Like this story by Brad Plumer in the Washington Post, based off of another post by James Hamilton. Jonathan Fahey of the Associated Press recently penned a similar story on why gasoline prices are still high despite the "boom". 

The peak-oil concept is increasingly out of date less than a decade after its proponents said global output would surely hit the halfway mark.

Oil supply has been pretty flat since 2005, despite high prices, despite increased worldwide demand. Does it mean we've reached the all-time peak? No. But it does mean we're in interesting times.

Over the last several weeks, EnergyWire has been trying to get in touch with lead peak oilers -- by phone and email -- to no avail. The key figures behind the theory have either passed away, including Hubbert and investment banker Matthew Simmons, or are plain unwilling to defend their story.

Now here's where the story goes from strange to absurd...

Several peak oil founding figures were contacted for this article. They either didn't return calls or emails or were followed into a maze of shut-down websites and disconnected phone numbers.

Sullivan suggests he tried to contact Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Ken Deffeyes, and others. All great Peak Oil names... if the date was 2003. He attempted to find people long retired from this business and was SHOCKED when he couldn't get a hold of them.

Sullivan DID speak to three ASPO-USA Board of Directors members, Art Berman, Ron Swenson, and Jeffrey Brown. We found out about this after the fact, only because Art happened to mention it to us in an email.


ASPO-USA has a fairly obvious contact page on the website - and ASPO-USA is ready and willing to direct reporters to Peak Oil experts here at home and around the globe. But you know what... Sullivan NEVER contacted us directly. He also never contacted the Post Carbon Institute - even though they just released their new website/report that examines the diminishing returns of shale plays. Sullivan never contacted the editors of The Oil Drum, one of the best known websites and forums on these issues.

In an article I wrote last year, I noted that one thing you often see in this type of misinformation is a form of "arguing against the past" - they love to bring up M. King Hubbert and other figures from years ago. But this isn't 1975 or 1999 or 2003, this is 2013. Peak Oil thought didn't just end with M. King Hubbert. And if Sullivan was truly sincere (doubtful), then he should have done a better job contacting notable and current experts. 

A few off the top of my head:

The list goes on and on of credible, data-driven experts all of whom Sullivan could have had access too if he simply called ASPO-USA, the main US organization on Peak Oil matters. But he didn't.

I don't know what Sullivan's biases are or his reasons for writing the article. But if he really took "several weeks" looking for leads for the article, and in that time it never crossed his mind to directly contact the Association for the Study of Peak Oil while doing an article on Peak Oil - using the obvious contact info... it just doesn't come across looking good.