Crucial Differences Between "Peak Oil" & "Peak Oil Debate" - Part 2

If the question is "Will we run out of oil" the answer is always "No" - but it's also entirely the wrong question to ask... 

If the question is "Will we run out of oil" the answer is always "No" - but it's also entirely the wrong question to ask... 

In Part 1 of this post, I examined a few areas of Kevin Kloor's article "Is Peak Oil Dead or Just Postponed?" I discussed the problem of total liquids vs. crude oil, and the tendency of oil production graphs to omit the year of peak US production, 1970. Next, I discussed the Oil Drum closing and revealed that the true reasons for the website's closure are best found from those who ran it. Finally, I examined a few numbers in the Peak Oil Debate: US oil production, World oil production, and price - showing that it's possible to take optimistic or pessimistic positions in each.

But now in Part 2, I want to discuss the issue at the core of this latest round of "Peak oil is dead" mania - the fact that too many confuse "Peak Oil" and the "Peak Oil Debate."

In an earlier post, I explained the difference between "Peak Oil" and the "Peak Oil Debate." Peak Oil is simply the maximum rate of oil production in a field, a country, or the world. It's just a number, nothing more, nothing less. This is why Peak Oil has nothing to do with "Running out of oil" - that is a misunderstanding of the issue.

But what if someone gave you a different definition for Peak Oil, what if they said this:

  • "Peak Oil is the theory that oil production will reach a peak then begin a steep irreversible decline bringing extreme economic hardships."

This is NOT the definition of Peak Oil, it is a position in the Peak Oil Debate - an extreme pessimistic position.

What often happens is that some have mistakenly taken that pessimistic position and referred to it as "Peak Oil" - then when they take an opposing optimistic position, they make their arguments, throw up their hands in victory, and proclaim "Peak Oil is Dead."

Peak Oil, in and of itself, has no meaning, it's just a number. And because all finite resources reach a production peak - it's impossible for Peak Oil to go away unless oil is proven to be infinite.

In its simplest form, Peak Oil means that just as oil production in the US peaked in 1970 and began to decline, so shall global production do the same. Once you get past that basic premise – one in which there is near-universal agreement once people understand that is what you mean when you say “Peak Oil” – there are many different opinions of exactly how events will unfold. The would-be Peak Oil debunkers are only addressing their arguments at one of the ways some people think this will play out, and then declaring that they have debunked Peak Oil.
— Robert Rapier

The "Peak Oil Debate" are all the questions surrounding that number. When will oil peak? How large will the peak be? What will the decline look like after peak? How relevant is the peak to the economy? What substitutes exist for oil and how quickly will they be implemented? And so forth.

The process of drawing meaning out of the Peak Oil number is the purpose of the Peak Oil Debate.

Unfortunately in recent years, optimistic positions of the Peak Oil Debate have come to dominate the media spotlight. But charting a wise path forward means examining both sides. Discovering the merits and flaws of the extreme optimists while also doing the same for the extreme pessimists. Because the prudent path forward will reject some claims from both, and accept other claims from both.

In her book, "Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us," Maggie Koerth-Baker writes a passage I've never forgotten:

There’s not a good argument here for business as usual… We think of optimism as a virtue. It’s a trait of people who don’t give up, a better way of thinking. But optimistic means something else when you’re talking about science. When a scientist decides that an estimate is optimistic, she’s applying that label in relation to two other possibilities: pessimistic, and realistic. Optimism isn’t the ideal here.
— Maggie Koerth-Baker

In a blog post, Will Martin expands on why focusing on one side is dangerous in our energy debates:

Optimism breeds complacency. By telling readers that ‘innovation’ will solve all of our problems, people can put down the book and go back to their normal lives without making the dramatic changes required to make themselves more resilient and to move us all towards a more sustainable future. This kind of optimism causes people to say ‘well this guy says there are some smart scientists out there working to fix the problem, so I guess I don’t have to worry about peak oil...’
— Will Martin

But beyond personal choices, over-optimism can lead to bad policy choices on a national level as well. Michael Levi, in a post titled "Oil and Gas Euphoria is Getting Out of Hand" wrote: "There is a real risk that policymakers, wrongly convinced that surging supply has solved all US energy vulnerabilities, will neglect the demand side of the equation. But the basic reality hasn’t changed: more supply can help, but to fundamentally reduce US vulnerability to the vagaries of world energy markets, we need to rein in our extraordinary (and economically self-damaging) demand."

And in a later post, "The False Promise of Energy Independence" Levi added:

…oil and gas production in the United States is surging and is expected to continue to rise. This trend has led a parade of analysts... to predict that, after four decades of failed attempts, America might soon become energy independent. This view, if taken too far, is not only wrong, it is dangerous. The United States would remain entangled with the global oil market indefinitely even if it were to import no oil. Political leaders lulled into a false sense of security by rising domestic oil and gas output run the risk of making big mistakes.
— Michael Levi

It should come to no surprise that there are some out there who, for reasons personal or financial, do not want there to be a Peak Oil Debate at all. They simply do not want people to discuss or soberly examine these issues. They will misrepresent, misinform, and use every rhetorical trick at their disposal to convince people that these issues are irrelevant. And in recent years, they’ve been largely successful.

But for the rest of us, this dialogue is critically important for our energy and economic future and we have a responsibility to make sure the dialogue continues.

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas has the word "Study" in its name because it recognizes all opinions from optimistic to pessimistic. But when people are allowed to proclaim without objection that "Peak Oil is dead" they are at the same time making the claim that the "Peak Oil Debate" isn't needed, that the study of these issues is meaningless, that the case is closed, innovation has "won", and that the optimistic positions are the true future and beyond contestation.

Open debate about these issues, challenging beliefs (even our own), critically asking questions, and forming a compromise between extreme optimism and extreme pessimism are the only ways to build the strongest energy economic future.

Because if we don't, we risk leaving ourselves open to blind spots, mistakes, and unintended consequences.

One of the mottos of ASPO-USA is "Truth in Energy" and in the Peak Oil Debate, another saying also applies:

"Walk with those seeking the truth, run from those who think they've found it."