Who will sound the peak oil alarm?

Postcard of Paul Revere's ride

ASPO-USA was founded to sound the alarm on peak oil. But are they suited to the role of Paul Revere?

Don’t expect to hear that the age of cheap oil might be coming to an end in President Obama’s next State of the Union speech. Don’t expect Energy Secretary Steven Chu to announce gas rationing to begin in January so America can gradually prepare for more expensive oil. And don’t expect ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute or OPEC to apologize for cooking their books all these years and admit that it turns out they really can’t extract another 100, 50 or even 20 years of cheap oil. Sorry!

Meanwhile, the only thing you can expect to hear from Daniel Yergin is that people predicting peak oil have been wrong since the days of Moby Dick (peak whale oil, anyone?) which means they’re wrong this time and they won’t get it right anytime in the near future either.

A midnight ride

In a public conversation filled with rosy assurances that the cheap oil will keep flowing for decades to come, somebody’s got to take on the role of Paul Revere and sound the warning that peak oil is here.

That’s just why the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, USA was founded, according to board member Ron Swenson, speaking at the group’s “Truth in Energy” conference held last week in Washington, DC (who spoke while projecting the historical postcard image of Revere’s ride at the top of this story).

Yet, judging by the quality of the public conversation on energy in the United States — pretty much reduced to “drill here, drill now, pay less” and “investigate Solyndra” — the group’s preaching has clearly not yet reached beyond the choir.

At the conference, ASPO management indicated that they’re looking for ways to reach a larger audience.

The need is clear. Even though the world passed the peak of conventional oil in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency, America remains as dependent on crude as ever. Meanwhile, the oil industry has begun a mendacious campaign to convince the public that, if we would only allow them to drill where they want and do it with fewer environmental safeguards, that North America could be energy independent within a decade.

The implication is a dangerous one: oil and gas will save us if we just get big government out of the way and let drillers extract enough tar sands, deepwater oil and fracked shale gas. Then, we needn’t bother too much with building out renewable energy.

Such a path would lead to disaster not only for the environment, fresh water supplies, and the climate, but, given peak oil and the expense of unconventional fossil fuels, disaster for the economy as well.

But disaster is not inevitable. The country and the industrialized world could go either way at this point: if we’re lucky, we’ll choose the path of powering down and building up renewables, which is our only hope to avoid climate hell and a catastrophic oil crash.

Or, if we are very unlucky, we’ll succumb to the blandishments of the industry and let them lead us down the path of what Naomi Klein has called “extreme energy,” just to squeeze a few more years out of the Oil Age.

Now is the time for those who know better to help us avoid energy disaster. And that’s why the need for ASPO-USA to live up to their slogan and provide “Truth in Energy” has never been greater.

But is the group up to the task?

The choir, preached to

When it comes to accurate data on oil and gas depletion and honest analysis of what it means for the future of energy, ASPO is the undisputed leader, because of its yearly conference. It would be hard to find an event boasting more qualified experts on peak oil than the annual ASPO-USA gathering, held for the last couple years in Washington, DC.

Start with people from the oil industry, beginning with the late Matt Simmons, the oil and gas investment banker and author of Twilight in the Desert, the seminal account on how the Saudis really have much less oil than they’re letting on. Simmons was a regular fixture at ASPO conferences until his death in August of last year. This year’s conference featured Jean Laherrère, a French geophysicist-geologist who joined Total in 1955 and Charles Maxwell, an energy analyst who’s been in the industry since 1957, worked for Mobil Oil for 11 years in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa and now serves on the board of natural gas driller Chesapeake Energy.

Then, add respected analysts of energy and the wider economy from former CIBC World Markets Chief Economist Jeff Rubin, to alternative fuels analyst Robert Rapier, to Chris Skrebowski of the Energy Institute in London and editor of The Petroleum Review from 1997 to 2008.

Finally, throw in edgier thinkers on the connection of energy to finance and what you should do to prepare for a scary post-peak world, including Richard Heinberg, Chris Martenson, Nicole Foss, Dmitry Orlov and John Michael Greer.

Truly, a firmament of peak oil stars. And ASPO gets them year after year for their conference. But as smart as these folks are, with the exception of Rubin who is regularly quoted in the mainstream media, most of ASPO’s experts don’t reach much beyond the audience of people who already know and care about peak oil.

The congregation, still waiting

While attendance was up a bit over last year according to the front desk folks, the ASPO conference hasn’t seen the kind of growth that you’d expect for an event featuring such qualified speakers on such hot issues as energy and the economy.

By contrast, for the past three years running, the Good Jobs Green Jobs Conference, which also deals largely with energy and is also held in Washington, DC, has grown its attendance by 50% or more each year. It has also expanded from a single annual event held inside the Beltway to four separate conferences given around the United States this year.

Aside from the hot topic of jobs, what’s the difference?

Good Jobs Green Jobs is run by a “blue-green partnership” of labor unions and environmental groups, an alliance that tries to bridge a cultural gap that has prevented both groups from getting what they wanted in the past. Now, working together, the environmentalists agree that green jobs should be union jobs, and the union guys agree to stop fighting the greens so hard on oil, gas and coal projects that the environmental groups oppose.

The odd couple of turtles and Teamsters isn’t always a happy one — recently, the greens’ latest and greatest bugbear, the Keystone XL Pipeline, has gained endorsements from both the laborers’ and pipefitters unions — but when the alliance works, it gives each group access to an audience that they couldn’t hope to reach easily on their own.

So far, ASPO-USA has failed to form any partnerships of this quality. While the issue of peak oil naturally lends itself to allying with environmental groups, ASPO’s outreach to greens seems to have gone little past booking one speaker from NRDC to its panel on hydrofracking and then letting its board member and clean energy entrepreneur Ron Swenson organize an incongruously cheery panel on solar power at this year’s conference.

Howdy, pardner

While Post Carbon Institute was represented by Richard Heinberg, other alternative economy groups who had sent speakers in the past, such as CASSE and the Gund Institute for Environmental Economics, were absent this year. This seems like a step backward on the partnership front.

In the future, if ASPO is serious about reaching a broader and more general audience, these resilient economy groups should be invited back. Then, others in this same crucial area should be included. For example, there should be someone representing the global Transition movement, whose 400 groups worldwide are ripe for the kind of information that ASPO has to supply and would probably be happy to serve as ASPO’s informal ambassadors on the ground in their communities.

There are also numerous groups doing promising work on alternative economics from to ISEC to the Club of Rome, some of whom, such as the World Resources Institute, are ASPO’s neighbors in Washington, DC.

Meantime, I’m glad that Transition Voice was able to attend. Yet, we were one of the few media outlets that chose to cover the event, and we were the only one to offer live blogging of multiple conference sessions simultaneously.

It was a missed opportunity that more reporters and writers were not enticed to come to a conference on a trending topic held three blocks from Capitol Hill. Communications is not a strength of ASPO management, and perhaps if they partnered with national advocacy groups that have done media outreach successfully for years, ASPO would have better luck attracting the press in the future.

Lobbying and media outreach — tough to do alone

But to make a difference in countering industry lies, ASPO’s board knows that they need to do much more than just run a small annual conference — they need to make noise about peak oil during the other 51 weeks each year as well. Indeed, their mission statement would be ambitious for a group twice the size of ASPO, calling for “a comprehensive program of public education, a positive endorsement of practical solutions, and an honest attempt to encourage competing parties to cooperate for their mutual benefit.”

Yet, just as they run their conference with few partners, so ASPO seems intent on going it alone as they try to expand into lobbying and media campaigning, both challenging areas that are new to a group used to talking mostly to petroleum geologists and investment advisers.

ASPO has already started trying to reach out to the press and make friends on Capitol Hill. So far, the results seem to be mixed.

An open letter on peak oil sent in October to Energy Secretary Steven Chu on peak oil still hasn’t gotten a response. Just as the mainstream media ignored the conference, they also failed to cover ASPO’s news conference on the letter to Chu. Apparently, no staff from the Department of Energy accepted ASPO’s invitation to attend any of the conference sessions. Finally, a legislative briefing held at the Capitol to kick off the conference attracted staffers from only two or three congressional offices.

Given limited budget and volunteer resources, ASPO will find it hard to keep running their conference while at the same time trying to set themselves up as both a lobbying shop and an ongoing PR campaign. That’s another way partnerships could help complement the group’s strength in data and make up for its weakness in communications. ASPO could piggyback on the efforts of green groups like the Sierra Club or Bill McKibben’s 350.org that are experienced in effective outreach and have also shown that they may be ready to add peak oil to their portfolios.

In the end, ASPO’s name says it all — it’s the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, not the Program for Post-Peak Prosperity or the Alliance for an Oil-Free Economy. ASPO’s experts, armed with unending depletion curve graphs, are into studying peak oil, not advocating or campaigning for this or that solution.

So if ASPO is going to stand behind its name then maybe it should also stick to its knitting.

Insource the data, outsource the communications

ASPO-USA should certainly keep pumping out data to prove that the peak has come and show how quickly oil is likely to deplete in various scenarios. They have better information than anyone else today. But their presentation needs an upgrade.

At the conference, ASPO board member Sharon Astyk announced that the group was seeking to raise $100,000 to help Tom Whipple expand his esteemed Peak Oil News. Whipple, a former CIA analyst, exhaustively collects news on peak oil on a daily basis and then synthesizes a huge amount of information into a readable, actionable analysis. ASPO wants to give Whipple access to proprietary databases while also helping make Whipple’s news, now delivered primarily by email to a list of subscribers and also syndicated on Energy Bulletin, more accessible. This is a worthy project that could help set ASPO up as a proper, Washington, DC think tank along the lines of, for example, the World Resources Institute.

energy efficiency infographic from Good magazine

More oil depletion curves done in Microsoft Excel? Please, no. ASPO should upgrade to appealing, easy-to-read infographics like those found in Good magazine.

Along with Whipple’s news, like WRI, throughout the year ASPO could put out polished reports and impactful, professionally designed infographics like those in Good Magazine to provide the news media and partner organizations with the data they need in a clear, accessible form. Thus armed with accurate and easily digestible ASPO data, other groups can then do the outreach to educate the public on peak oil and argue with the Daniel Yergins of the world.

Too busy for Yergin?

Speaking of Daniel Yergin, I told their new executive director, Jan Mueller, that I wish ASPO would produce a one-page factsheet on “Why Daniel Yergin is Wrong about Oil Supplies.” It would’ve helped me respond to all the publicity around the launch of Yergin’s recent book, The Quest. Mueller replied that ASPO hasn’t done this because there’s been “some disagreement” inside the group about how to respond to Yergin, or whether to respond at all.

Besides which, Daniel Yergin isn’t well known in the public, Mueller told me. I didn’t get to follow up, but I assume Mueller meant that ASPO did not want to “dignify” Yergin’s misinformation with a response.

Really? I hope that’s not true. If your grandma hasn’t heard of Yergin, do you think she’s heard of ASPO-USA?

For a group that flies so far below the media radar, such misplaced amour propre shows a poor understanding of how outreach works. You’d need a wheelbarrow to carry all the stories about oil that have mentioned Daniel Yergin in just the last five months, including an appearance on the Colbert Report.

Who will respond to Yergin’s lies with “truth in energy” if America’s main group devoted to studying peak oil can’t be bothered to do so? Likewise, if ASPO isn’t going to respond to Yergin — the most prominent critic of peak oil today — then what’s ASPO’s purpose anyway?

By remaining on the sidelines while Yergin hogs the spotlight on ASPO’s main issue and the sole reason for their existence, the group has nothing to gain and everything to lose. The longer they dither, the more irrelevant to the public conversation on oil that ASPO risks becoming.

If they step up, I’ll bet ASPO wouldn’t mind getting the coveted “Colbert Bump.”

The tipping point

As Chris Martenson wisely pointed out at the conference’s panel on communications and policy, you don’t need to reach 51% of the population to start changing public opinion and affect public policy. You only need to get to a tipping point of six or eight percent of early adopters, opinion leaders and other big talkers.

Upgrading its presentation to match the quality of its experts could allow ASPO to play a crucial role in reaching a tipping point on public opinion about energy.

The list of think tanks who have been spreading lies on energy for years in the United States is well known: the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute are just a few. Every month, these groups, with funding from Big Oil and Big Coal, pump out reports, fact sheets and op-eds promoting fossil fuels and casting doubt on renewable energy and conservation. If they prevail, nothing can stop America and the world from falling off the energy cliff that gets closer every week.

With all these bad-guy think tanks spreading confusion, the need is crucial for a good-guy think tank to counter with truth in energy and then to work with established partners in the media and advocacy worlds who can help get the word out in a clear, compelling way that’s easy for the public to understand.

Thus, my proposal for an advocacy ecosystem to put peak oil on the public agenda:

  • Peak oil think tank: ASPO-USA
  • Ideas for solutions: Post Carbon Institute and other alternative economy groups (CASSE, ISEC, Transition US)
  • Lobbying: Peak-oil friendly environmental groups (350.org, Sierra Club)
  • Media: Peak oil blogosphere (Energy Bulletin, Oil Drum, Transition Voice)

ASPO-USA, your time is now. Please step up in your strongest role. We need you.

[Corrections made 11/10/11]

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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Comments

  1. John Andersen says

    It would be great if ASPO speaks out, but I think the concept of a “public agenda” in the post peak world will be increasingly less relevant.

    What makes more sense is a community agenda.

    So, I’m not really holding out hope for any leadership on peak oil beyond the local community level. And frankly, if we get it there, I’ll be happy to call it good.

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