I met Slate's writer Matt Yglesias randomly at an event at the New America Foundation a few years ago and I was happy to run into him. I've always been a fan of his work and you can reliably expect him to go on a rant against the stupidity of the DC Height Act, at least once per quarter, which will earn a constant thumbs-up from me.
So when he asked for some quick pieces of Peak Oil information, I'm happy to jump in. And also because it's my job, since I do work for ASPO-USA and connecting journalists with Peak Oil experts is what we do. ASPO-USA also convenes an annual conference on these issues and releases daily & weekly publications.
What is Peak Oil: Peak Oil is the maximum rate of oil production in the world or a country. Here in the United States, maximum oil production was in 1970, and although there have been recent gains, we have yet to equal or better the peak rate of 1970.
Here it's key to understand that Peak Oil is measured in RATES. It is not measured in total supply. "How much is there" isn't the key question, the question is the rate of production - usually expressed in millions of barrels per day. This is why Peak Oil has nothing to do with "Running out of oil" - that is a misunderstanding of the issue. And since oil is a finite resource and extraction of any finite resource peaks in production, we know that oil will eventually peak. This is certain. And the only way to prove Peak Oil wrong is to prove that oil is infinite.
What is the Peak Oil Debate: It's important not to confuse "Peak Oil" with the "Peak Oil Debate" - a mistake many make. Peak Oil is simply a number, nothing more, nothing less.
The "Peak Oil Debate" is ALL the surrounding commentary around the number. When will it happen? How big will it be? What does it mean for the economy? Et cetera.
In general, optimists believe that high oil prices incentivize new technology to make oil production better and more efficient. They also believe that new technologies, natural gas, and energy efficiency will quickly come online to ease the transition from oil. In recent years, this has come to be known as "Peak Oil Demand" - suggesting that they believe demand for oil will peak before supply constraints become an issue.
The pessimists on the other hand, generally believe that the advancements the optimists hope for will not come online as quickly as they hope. And they fear oil supply constraints will bring painful stress to the economy.
But Peak Oil beliefs are not homogeneous. This is Robert Rapier's second point in his article "The Five Misconceptions About Peak Oil." Often optimists may oversimplify the argument by trying to paint the pessimists as doomsday cultists, but that downplays the wide spectrum of opinions about these issues.
Additional Links to Review
Brad Plumer of the Washington Post has done an excellent job covering these issues in recent years. Here are some of his relevant posts.
- "Why is it so tricky to define 'peak oil'" Oct 2011
- "IMF study: Peak oil could do serious damage to the global economy" Oct 2012
- "Peak Oil isn't dead: An Interview with Chris Nelder" Apr 2013
PDF Articles in Professional Journals
- "Peak Oil and Energy Independence: Myth and Reality" July 2013 - featured article for the American Geophysical Union
- "A Few Words About Peak Oil" Feb 2013 - commentary for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists
- "Oil's Tipping Point Has Passed" Jan 2012 - featured article in Nature