The Crux of Peak Oil Criticism

Charles C. Mann is an outstanding storyteller and always well worth reading, and this includes his latest work "Peak Oil Fantasy" for Orion Magazine. It follows many of the same themes as his cover story in the Atlantic from 2013: "What If We Never Run Out of Oil?" (aka the "Don't worry, methane hydrates will solve all our energy problems" article).

But "Peak Oil Fantasy" is a great teachable moment about the common themes you often see in Peak Oil criticism, and I'd like to identify some of them here:

  1. Misdefining Peak Oil
  2. Forgetting The Numbers
  3. Looking Back Instead of Forward

1. Misdefining Peak Oil to create an easier strawman to fight (aka constantly pretending Peak Oil is about "running out")

I've often mentioned on this blog that the biggest problem in Peak Oil discussions is that debaters confuse Peak Oil and the Peak Oil Debate. They either do this because they don't have a proper understanding of Peak Oil and they simply don't know any better. Or they purposefully do this to place themselves into a better debating position.

I covered this in greater detail at the beginning of "In Search of Oil Realism", but as a quick review:

The definition of Peak Oil is "the maximum rate of oil production" - it's a number, that's all it is. It's the highest rate of oil production. But the number itself doesn't actually tell you anything. It's not controversial, or scary, or positive or negative. It's just a number.

The definition is what Peak Oil IS. All the resulting discussions about the number are trying to determine what Peak Oil MEANS, this is the Peak Oil Debate. And as Robert Rapier reminds us, there are many different positions in the Peak Oil Debate. It's improper to suggest that there is one unified Peak Oil position, because there isn't. There are as many different positions as their are analysts studying the issue.

Here it's critical to have a proper understanding of the definition. The "maximum rate of oil production" does not in any way suggest "running out." If you draw a simple bell curve on a piece of paper, then draw a vertical line down through the peak, you'll probably have 50% of the curve on one side and 50% on the other side. From a lifetime of driving automobiles, it's easy for all of us to relate to problems arising once the gas tank hits "E" for empty. Peak Oil isn't like that, at the peak, there's still plenty of oil - up to half - still left to extract. The funny part about this is that your best, most successful, day of oil production ever and Peak Oil... are exactly the same day. And let's be fair, if someone came to you on the best day of your life and told you that there were problems on the horizon, how receptive would you be to the idea?

So the question is, if this is such an easy concept to explain, why do so many people continue to insist that Peak Oil is about oil "running out?" In short, it's a strawman used to set-up an easy debate victory. It's much easier to win if the game if the metric is "Do we still have oil? Yes/No." A sober, nuanced, adult conversation about global oil production rates is a much more difficult conversation to have. It's a conversation that forces people to acknowledge that Peak Oil is real, it's inevitable, and to discuss openly what it means (positively or negatively) for our energy economy.

That's why Mann and others desperately try to convince their audience that Peak Oil = running out. To win the imaginary debate they would like to have, rather than engage in the serious debate they want to avoid. Once you correct the "running out" strawman, so much of the foundation of common Peak Oil criticism begins to fall away.

Always remember, oil will NEVER run out, but peaking in production is inevitable. And the two are NOT the same. Anyone that tells you otherwise isn't being straight with you.

2. These debates are about numbers, specifically the rate of oil production

To paraphrase something Chris Nelder said a long time ago in response to a nonsense-filled article by David Blackmon - Peak Oil discussions are discussions about data. Or as I'd say it - you can tell a lot about an article by quickly scanning it to check how many numbers are present, specifically numbers that measure the actual metric of Peak Oil, global rate of oil production (usually expressed in million barrels per day). Because if they're not actually talking about the metric we use to measure Peak Oil, what exactly are they talking about? How does one criticize the idea of Peak Oil without actually talking about Peak Oil?

3. Look forward, not backward - the Peak Oil Debate is about future projections not past predictions

Yet another topic I covered a bit in "In Search of Oil Realism." If the author starts going into long sweeping histories of "things people said that turned out to be wrong" - you can be sure that the author is building their arguments for a strawman case they would rather fight. The debate here is about the future of oil production. This isn't a debate about predictions being hard and the fact that predictions are usually wrong. And the distinction there is important.

On one hand, Peak Oil critics are always ready to list a long record of pessimistic predictions and statements that didn't come true. They rarely, if ever, mention that these predictions didn't exist in a vacuum. They were opposed by optimistic predictions that missed the mark just as widely.

But again, the further you go back in time, the more likely you're going to find someone making an inaccurate prediction, on both sides. That's why modern energy debates should live in modern times. What someone said about energy even five years ago has very little relevance to the issues of today. Peak Oil thought didn't just end with Hubbert or Campbell or Laherrère, it continues to this day, shaped by new information, new circumstances, and new analysts. Nothing stands still in energy, we must constantly seek to update our thinking.

It's easy to quote a laundry list of failed predictions to try to paint a picture where the boy who cried wolf is never ever eaten by the wolf. It's tougher to tie past predictions with the new updated thinking of today and explain a position going forward.

Past all of the noise, the Peak Oil Debate is a discussion about the future of oil production, and those that hold an optimistic position own the burden of explaining how global oil production can continue to increase in the decades to come, or at worst, avoid decline. It's not good enough to just assume production growth continues because it always has before. That means explaining how conventional oil production will escape its years of declines, or how the U.S. shale oil boom will continue to increase in the years to come, or how/if global shale oil will follow the U.S. template. Or perhaps they will take the position that Peak Oil is real, and near, but that changes in global demand and the increased adoption of natural gas, renewables, and efficiency will somehow make Peak Oil a non-issue.

But you have to actually MAKE the arguments for those positions. Most critics don't.

Let's examine a few quotes from "Peak Oil Fantasy" to see these themes in action:

"Our giddy modern lives have depended for decades on a steadily increasing supply of coal, oil, and natural gas. What would happen if they abruptly ran out? The answer comes easily to mind: industrial civilization, imploding in an awful smash."

Already the "running out" strawman is being erected. "What would happen if they abruptly ran out," is a question no one needs to ask, because the answer is always "They won't."

 "Those educated and affluent Westerners also understood that all of this wealth and well-being was tied to the lavish use of fossil fuels—which is why politicians and businesspeople have worried for more than a century about whether the petroleum would last. The world, these people knew, is finite; its petroleum supply surely must also be finite."

Just so we're ALL clear... oil IS finite. And the production of a finite resource always inevitably reaches a production peak. To paraphrase Robert Hirsch: that's the way the world works. And as an aside, know that there is a small community of people that adamantly believes that oil is NOT finite, that it is a renewable and continuously replenished resource. It's best not to pay too much attention to them. But understand that there's very little middle-ground here. You're either with us on team reality, where oil is finite and peaks in production, or you're with the other guys. The choice is yours.

"Time after time, decade after decade, presidents, prime ministers, and politicians of every stripe have predicted that the world will soon run out of petroleum. Time after time, decade after decade, new supplies have been found and old reservoirs extended. The scarcity proved to have been only of the easy oil whose location was already known. People forgot their fears until the next wave of alarm, the next prophesies of catastrophe."

This is also known as the classic, "things always worked out in the past, and so they will always work out in the future" argument. Don't actually bother studying the balance sheet, says your friendly neighborhood stockbroker: "Past performance is ALWAYS a guarantee of future returns, or something."

"Fear of peak oil has been a malign presence on the international stage for more than a century, driving imperialist forays, stoking hatred among nations, fueling war and rebellion. It has cost countless lives. Equally problematic, peak oil helped establish a set of wholly mistaken beliefs about natural systems—beliefs that have repeatedly impeded environmental progress. It laid out a narrative that has led ecological activists astray for years. Far too often, we have been told we are facing crises of scarcity, when the deepest of our problems are due to abundance."

This is the point where you might suggest that Mann is going off the rails... but let's ignore this and continue...

"Although many other factors, religion notable among them, have had their hand in this state of affairs, it is hard not to wish that peak oil had never existed. But this fantasy may be unreasonable. After all, the earth is finite, so the amount of petroleum must also by finite. Isn’t it wholly rational to expect it to run out?"

Another use of "run out" - really trying to nail that association home. Notice too that in his whirlwind tour of fossil fuel history, Mann never really brings up energy return on energy invested (EROEI) and the fact that oil production has gotten harder over time. We went from on-shore conventional production to off-shore to deep water to unconventional shale production and now to Shell and Exxon desperately (and mostly failing) to tease oil out of the Arctic. As you move along that progression it gets HARDER to maintain production rates, not easier.

The issue is not how much oil is there, the issue is how to maintain historical rates of production as tougher oil continues to occupy an ever increasing piece of the pie. Or to put it the way the peakists usually do: don't focus on the tank, focus on the tap - that's the important part.

"Hubbert and Limits were wrong. Natural resources cannot be used up. If oil from one reservoir gets too costly or difficult to extract, people will either find cheap new ways to extract it or shift to a different energy source altogether. Because the costliest stuff is left in the ground, there will always be petroleum for another generation to mine later. 'It is commonly asked, when will the world’s supply of oil be exhausted?' wrote the late MIT economist Morris Adelman, a prominent exponent of this view. 'The best one-word answer: never.' On its face, this seems ridiculous, even stupid. But centuries of experience have shown it to be true. As a practical matter, fossil-fuel supplies are infinite."

Here again, having built the entire piece on a foundation pitting the forces of "run out" vs "no run out," Mann swings a mighty sword of truth, cutting the strawman in two and proclaiming victory. Never mind, again, that what we're actually talking about is peaking in production, not running out. It's always a mark of these pieces that the author comes to a grand conclusion that we ALL already agree with, while trying to convince an audience that his opponents somehow don't agree with the common wisdom.

"Humankind was not running out of oil per se, they stressed. What was vanishing was 'the abundant and cheap oil on which all industrial nations depend.'”

I've yet to see the evidence that Campbell and Laherrère were wrong on that point. If there's really a lot of cheap, easily accessible oil still out there - the oil industry must be playing a real long con, because they are suffering mightily at current low prices.

"In 2014, more than four decades after the time Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil production would begin to fall, the United States became the world’s leading producer of fossil fuels."

Notice the key word choice here. A line that starts off talking about oil production and ends talking about being a world leader in fossil fuels. Because if he used "oil" in both spots then that sentence would be absolutely false. This is actually something you see a lot in the media, an author really reaching just to be able to say that the U.S. is #1 in something. The U.S. is doing fantastic in oil production right now, but we're still not beating Saudi Arabia unless you start playing games with the data or get very creative with your definition of the word "oil".

"As technology expands our reach, resources remain easy to take out of the earth. Even if today’s reserves of oil and gas become costly to extract, others lie waiting in the wings: extra-heavy oil in Venezuela, methane hydrates along the continental shelves."

So "resources remain easy to take out of the earth," this - literally - on the week when Shell pulled out of Arctic production because it's too hard and because it's simply unprofitable right now at low prices. Again, it's simple to just throw out words like "easy" and assume new magic extraction technology is always around the corner just waiting to be invented - it's harder to quantify production in terms of EROEI and put real numbers on our "ease" of production.

"In a sense, peak-oil advocates were onto something. Should fossil fuels run out, then many—perhaps most—environmental problems would tend to self-correct. Almost inevitably, the end of oil, coal, and natural gas would deal a body blow to industrial society. If, as Hubbert and many others have suggested, the ultimate cause of our environmental dilemmas is uncontrolled economic growth, then the onset of peak oil would be an ecological godsend. Industrial fertilizers, a product of fossil fuels, would no longer create dead zones in lakes and oceans. Suburbs would stop expanding into wetlands. Factories would pollute fewer rivers in the race to sell gadgets for export. People wouldn’t be able to buy endangered fish if fuel costs explode. Climate change would be much less of a peril in a no-growth economy. So would air pollution. The skies are always blue in a dystopia."

I've been around Peak Oil thought for well over a decade now. And at times I've run across a line of thinking that is at best wrong, and at worst, slanderous. It's this comical notion that the Peak Oil analysts somehow secretly hoped that some type of Peak Oil disaster and economic collapse would actually occur. This is a notion that's so insulting it's almost above a response.

But look at it this way - if all of these people secretly wanted this, then what's their motivation for actually discussing the issue in public? For writing peer reviewed papers, and hosting conferences, and making television appearances. Wouldn't they just kick back, say nothing, and let things play out? It's like suggesting that an astronomer tracking an asteroid aiming for the Earth is only telling NASA about it because he WANTS the asteroid to hit the planet.

"Peak Oil will save us" was never a meme that really existed in Peak Oil circles. But it is a notion that has taken an unfortunate hold in the climate change community in recent years, beginning with George Monbiot's 2012 article "We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all." Here Monbiot buys right into industry myths of abundance because many climate hawks unfortunately are far too quick to proclaim: "Forget Peak Oil, we need to talk about Climate instead!"

Climate change IS the biggest problem humanity has to face. But that doesn't mean that it is the ONLY problem humanity has to face. We're a big world with multiple challenges to address and we don't have the luxury of picking and choosing the challenges we want to face and when to face them. We have to confront our converging crises simultaneously.

By the way, back in 2012 Jeremy Leggett was quick to reply to Monbiot's piece and includes this: "The many misunderstandings he relays begin with the title. There is more than enough potential oil resource below ground to create the climate disaster he refers to. Peak oil is not about that. It is about when global production falls never again to reach past levels: a disaster, if the descent hits an oil-dependent global economy years ahead of expectations. This descent depends on flow rates in oilfields, not the amount of oil left. What worries those who believe the global oil peak is imminent is the evidence that the oil industry will not be able to maintain growing flow rates for much longer."

And again, did Mann cover any of that in his piece? Other than telling us to "cast away the narrative of scarcity" or blaming the "fear" of Peak Oil for a history of wars and conflict, did he ever really address flow rates: how they will grow in the future, how they adjust to price signals, and if oil production itself will become easier or is the easy and cheap oil truly gone.

That's the real discussion we should be having here. Not a well-told recap of the first half of the oil age, but an acknowledgement of that history, mixed with the present conditions of today, shaped into a detailed discussion of the path forward. It's very easy for people to breezily write that the economy will "adjust" to Peak Oil with demand declines and technology shifts, but few perform the heavy lifting of mapping out how that process will unfold. How fast are the technology shifts? How much pain is caused in energy transitions? How can we minimize that pain to society? How well does the economy cope with extreme oil volatility while we wait for the transition to happen?

That's the information needed by those that shape energy policy, not a feel-good piece telling them not only that they should aim to be blindly optimistic about the future, but that even 'thinking' about pessimism is somehow dangerous to the arrival of that optimistic future. As always, the goal should not be optimism nor pessimism, the goal should be realism.

P.S. Remember, always check the discussion section after a big Peak Oil hit-piece like Mann's. You're sure to find some fantastic comments from people that actually understand these issues. In the case of this article, it's fitting that the very first post comes from Richard Heinberg who finishes his comment focusing on the odd criticism that jumped out to me as well (emphasis mine): "...if Charles Mann is asserting that waiting for the planet to run out of oil is not an effective response to climate change, I would reply, “Who says it is?” Very few fossil fuel depletion analysts would make such a claim. Far more would say that depletion of the low-hanging fruit of fossil fuels (which is easily observable in Shell’s recent abandonment of arctic drilling) is a strong argument for greater haste in transitioning away from dependence upon oil, coal, and natural gas."

It's much easier to vanquish a strawman than to have actual debates on actual issues.