That Time the U.S. Government Wrote a Report on Peak Oil

Last year, on October 29, the White House released a strategy and a multi-agency plan to prepare for and coordinate responses to space weather threats. What's a "space weather threat" you might ask? 

From the intro to the White House report: "Space-weather events are naturally occurring phenomena that have the potential to disrupt electric power systems; satellite, aircraft, and spacecraft operations; telecommunications; position, navigation, and timing services; and other technologies and infrastructures that contribute to the Nation’s security and economic vitality."

Basically, it's when the sun misbehaves and causes problems for everyone in the immediate neighborhood.


These events are rare, but not nearly as rare as you might think. In fact, an extreme solar storm, likely the most powerful in 150+ years, came very close to hitting the Earth in 2012. How bad would it have been? As NASA explains: seconds to minutes after the eruption from the sun, radiation would cause us to experience radio blackouts, GPS navigation errors, and electronics damage to satellites. A day later, when the slower moving clouds of particles arrive, the real problems begin: "widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps."

In other words, a global catastrophe, that almost no one would have saw coming, and one that actually happened in July 2012. So why didn't it hit us? Timing. It was a single week too late. The storm hit the spot where the Earth was located just seven days prior.

There are those out there that would look at this and say, "There you people go again, talking about doomsday stuff that will never happen" because that's what they always say. But it's critically important to be able to separate fantasy doomsday predictions from sober risk analysis. 

Properly understanding risk means acknowledging that even though the probability of certain events are low, the extreme risk of those events are sufficiently high to justify some basic consideration and planning on the issue. Does the White House think a solar storm hitting us is likely? Of course not. But they absolutely understand that they better have a plan on the books, just in case.

In other words, you don't walk around everyday assuming that your house is going to catch fire - but you still carry insurance on the home because you rationally understand that to do otherwise would expose you and your family to an unacceptable amount of risk. That's a normal and rational reaction to the risk of house fires. No, you don't worry about it obsessively. Nor would you take the path of blind optimism and live a life without insurance because you believe that nothing bad will ever happen. You invest the amount of preparation appropriate for the issue, and then you get back to living your life. 

This all leads us back to 2007 when the U.S. Government Accountability Office released one of the only official U.S. Government reports on Peak Oil. When you read the report today, almost a decade later, one is struck both by the measured language (a key component of all GAO reports due to the very rigorous review process) and also the realization of how little anyone actually listened to the report's recommendations. The energy world has changed dramatically since the report's publication. It's from a pre-shale boom era where ethanol was still a big deal. But don't let the details distract from the fact that the report's basic thesis and recommendations are still solid.

You can sum up the report's main points this way:

  • Peak Oil is real and will occur at some point between now and 2040.
  • Federal agencies do not have a coordinated plan to address the issue.
  • We really should have a plan. This is kind of important.

How utterly reasonable of a proposition is that. That various federal agencies should get together in a room every once in awhile and discuss the inevitable peaking of world oil production. Or start an email chain. Or something. 

"Federal agencies currently have no coordinated or well-defined strategy either to reduce uncertainty about the timing of a peak or to mitigate its consequences. This lack of a strategy makes it difficult to gauge the appropriate level of effort or resources to commit to alternatives to oil and puts the nation unnecessarily at risk," the report reads. 

After a GAO report is released, the affected agencies usually try to take some actions to address recommendations made. In the case of the Department of Energy, GAO reported that they performed a few actions including this one: "EIA's 2008 Annual Energy Conference, held in April 2008, included a session entitled "Peak Oil: Has the World Oil Production Peaked." EIA estimates that over 600 persons attended the session."

It's easy to remember that day, because I was one of those 600 persons. This was back in the days where it was free to attend the annual EIA conference, and it was no problem for anyone in DC to simply take the train to the Washington Convention Center and hear discussions about energy. Of course I would attend, it was a no-brainer. 

The first Secretary of Energy, James Schlesinger, was still alive at the time, and he was there giving a keynote talk well in line with his peakist views that he would later expand on in his 2010 talk to the ASPO-USA conference

There was so much interest in the Peak Oil panel that it had to be moved to a larger room. Not only was there great interest in the discussion, but the EIA had also recruited the most well-known Peak Oil speaker at the time, Matt Simmons, the former energy adviser to the first President Bush and frequent energy commentator on CNBC, CNN, and other outlets. 

The presentations from Simmons, as well as opposing views from CERA's Peter Jackson, and EIA's Glen Sweetnam are still available on the EIA website.

I'll always kick myself for not taking the time to speak to Simmons during that EIA Conference. Less than two years later, he would be gone. Dead at 67 from a heart attack in his Maine home.

GAO's concludes their section on agency actions this way, "EIA believes that this action addresses GAO's recommendation and also provides a solid framework for future steps."

Looking back, nearly a decade later, it's easy to feel a little underwhelmed. Where GAO asked DOE and the Secretary to "take the lead, in coordination with other relevant agencies, to prioritize federal agency efforts and establish a strategy for addressing peak oil issues."

And in response, EIA held a single session at one of their annual conferences. 

The likelihood that the Earth is going to be blasted with a space-weather event is incredibly low. But I'm still glad that someone somewhere within the halls of government is sitting down and thinking up a response plan "just in case." 

We know the peaking of world oil production is inevitable, and that it will be an event of potential high risk. The hope is that the Department of Energy took to heart the reasonable request of the GAO of almost a decade ago. To take some steps to elucidate the timing of the peak, the level of risk involved, and the amount of federal resources that should be allocated to addressing the problem (if any). 

"This Action Plan acknowledges the challenges associated with planning and preparing for extreme events that do not currently have well-defined recurrence rates," writes the White House authors in their National Space Weather Strategy. Acknowledging that even though the planning is hard, uncertain, and often incorrect - that the planning process itself is still important, worthwhile, and necessary.

Drawing inspiration from those words of Eisenhower: "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything... That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve."