Is the peak oil debate really over?

hand holding a white flag

Did energy cornucopians surrender in 2010? Or did they really win the peak oil debate?

Just because a variety of authorities said in 2010 that the world had reached peak oil already and that its consequences for industrial society would be profound, it doesn’t mean that energy cornucopians have raised the white flag.

Quite the opposite. They’re actually claiming victory.

Yes, the International Energy Agency said that conventional oil peaked in 2006, the US military and German armed forces fingered peak oil as a threat to world peace and their respective nations’ security and British industry set up a taskforce to help the UK government prepare for peak oil.

The power of myth

But the public still doesn’t know or doesn’t care about peak oil. And about the only people in the mainstream media who deal with the subject are would-be debunkers. For example, an Ayn Rand acolyte on Fox News recently came out with a list of six myths about oil, where “Because oil is finite, it will inevitably run out” ranks as myth #3.

Mark Bendzela  has better cred in the sustainability world. He helps run a CSA farm in Maine and describes himself as a former peak oil writer. He claims that the debunkers are doing more now than just saying the oil won’t run out anytime soon. With masterful rhetorical jiu-jitsu, energy cornucopians have co-opted peak oil’s own claims to prove that peakers were wrong all along:

If oil indeed has peaked, as many of us suspect, then the quote that Fahey attributes to Paul Sankey of Deutsche Bank is actually true: “…by 2030 America will use just 5.4 million barrels a day, the same as in 1969″; and this quote by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is true: “…the country’s dependence on foreign oil will wane and heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide will grow more slowly”; and what Yergin says is true: “the heady days of gasoline growing in the U.S. are over.”

So, energy efficiency in the US means that we don’t have to worry about peak oil? An interesting point — if it were true.

When black is white

But as usage in China and other new energy consumers continues to grow, experts say that US domestic gains in efficiency will be swamped by world oil demand.

Bendzela then goes on to denounce several “peak oilists” by name, including Matt Savinar, Mike Ruppert, Robert Hirsch and James Howard Kunstler, as false prophets of doom who’ve abandoned rational thinking for a version of religious faith where peak oil is the messiah.

He’s not worried about the future of industrial society because he believes that science (he mentions GMO food) and a smarter use of the fossil fuels we have left can save us, especially the industrial agriculture that Bendzela thinks is necessary to feed society in the future.

Bendzela claims to be more rational than the peak writers he tries to refute. But his faith in technology sounds as messianic as the doomerism he rejects.

So it appears that the debate will continue.

— Erik Curren

You might also enjoy


  1. says

    I must admit the peak demand theory just makes me laugh. Surely the cornucopian’s realize that in a perpetual growth economic system peak demand spells economic doom. Are they just changing the name of peak oil to save face, or do they believe we can have business as usual with static oil consumption. I guess they believe the later. I have come to the conclusion that anyone who purports that we can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet are the ones who are religious.

    • says

      Mark — I share your question about cornucopians. If they accept that oil has really peaked (and given how much they like unconventional sources, that’s a big IF), how can they think we’ll still have economic growth? And efficiency can do a lot, but I think we’d have to repeal the laws of physics to just keep doing more on less energy.

      • says

        Eric- one word I have never heard the cornucopian’s use is net energy. All energy sources are of course not equal as we know. Sometimes it feels as if the corporate global state is administered by priests of some sort who will never admit that their system can fail. Even as it becomes clear the system is actively failing endless new fixes will be trotted out by the priest. The common narrative of industrial man is colonizing the stars eventually, not running out of oil for a low energy future. To suggest otherwise to true believers can really upset them. Cognitive dissonance and a corporate media whose very existence is dependant on peak oil not being true form a mighty obstacle in educating the populace about the coming energy descent.

  2. says

    Voluntairy OECD demand decline is a great argument but the declining prosperity and stagnant wages of the last years seems a more realistic explanation.

    First, the US has somewhere around 17% effective unemployment along with increasing food and fuel prices. In the “Supply and Demand” equation, Demand is made up of desire AND the ability to pay.

    Secondly, manufacturing prosperity has been offshored, transferring the energy cost of manufacturing as well as the “ability to pay” to the workers in “developing” countries.

    Finally, economic growth and oil demand are inextricably linked. Peakers have forecast the current yo-yo economy for years: high growth = higher energy prices = slowing growth = lowering energy prices = rising growth — This is about where we are now.

    One last thing Peakers have forecast for years is the cause of the yo-yo economy will be blamed on everything except peak oil.

  3. Bloomer says

    As light sweet crude starts to deplete, we are developing our coal, heavy oil, high sulphide and tar sand fields worldwide. The problem with this is these fuel sources are a higher emitter of CO2 and have a lower EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). The peak oil deniers are generally climate change deniers as well. So in their view as long as we can continue to fill our atmosphere with greenhouse gasses we be just fine, as least for our lifetime. Government can set policy and create incentives for companies that develop cleaner alternative fuels. But again the same oil energy cornucopians are free market capitist and are totally opposed to any government intervention. Sadly, the peak oil debate has turned into a left vs right debate, when at least in my mind, it should be a survial vs non-survival debate.

  4. James R. Martin says

    ” …. But his faith in technology sounds as messianic as the doomerism he rejects.

    So it appears that the debate will continue.”

    Exhibit A: The push to build the Keystone XL pipline, in order to move apparently vast quantities of goop (it’s not oil exactly) from Alberta’s tar sands 1,897-km (1,179-mile) ….

    Exhibit B: Deepwater Horizon

    Whatever the cornucopians may say, such expensive infrastructure and processing (and risk) clearly signal the end of something. And where is the Techno-Fix Horizon? It’s way out there on the horizon, where it’s always been, where it shall remain–at rainbow’s end. And is it misplaced faith, really? Or is it more often a clever ruse?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

− six = 2

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>