Peak oil denial: How does this help?

boy with dunce cap

There are people who care about facts. And then there are peak oil deniers.

Whether or not peak oil is true cannot possibly be in doubt. Within anything other than a geological frame of time, oil is a finite substance. When it is burned, it is gone. Without stretching our brains very far, it is easy to conclude that anything that is finite and consumed will someday be gone.

Peak Oil, then, is really an observation, not a theory.

If only! What most four-year olds would agree is not much more than minimal common sense continues to confound some, who just cannot bring themselves to accept facts and a reality contrary to a carefully-crafted storyline where facts are inconvenient at best.

The latest foray into the fact- and stats- and context-free world of denying the obvious comes courtesy of Canadian economist Sherry Cooper, whose basic premise about the invalidity of Peak Oil seems tempered by the many troublesome production facts contained in her essay. What follows are assessments and observations she offered in leading to her conclusion:

[O]il production in the U.S. is surging….This new energy boom is the result of technological developments that have made the release of oil from shale rock not only feasible, but very profitable at oil prices around $100 or more a barrel…Manufacturing plants are returning to the U.S. to take advantage of cheap natural gas and relatively low unit labour costs, spurring major investments in petrochemical and steel production…Households are also benefiting from lower bills for heating and electricity…There is a growing demand for gas-powered electricity…The U.S. trade balance is also supported by these developments.

Big claims. Yet, not one single statistic, fact, or context to substantiate any of this.

The talking cure

Lots and lots of Happy Talk — unquantifiable, context-free buzzwords from the official Denier’s Playbook — but what does any of that actually mean? How do we plan effectively, as we must, to add others to the ranks of “many and diversified beneficiaries”?

And just as a for-instance, how many and diversified are we talking about? Nine? Sixty-four? Three hundred and two? But hey, demand for sand is surging, and all of this is positive for job creation, so we are told.

And all of that fact-free chatter apparently leads quite obviously to this conclusion: “This unexpected boom in oil supply puts to rest the so-called ‘Peak Oil’ debate, where adherents to this theory argued that the supply of oil is fixed and dwindling, as traditional oil wells dry up.”


Cooper does offer one-pseudo-factual comment: “estimated 3,000 new wells [are] slated to be drilled in the next year.” But then consider this sobering fact, offered by Chris Martenson: “Typical wells in the Bakken come in at an average 200 barrels of oil per day and decline about 70-75 per cent in the first year before flattening out at 30-40 barrels per day.”

A few inconvenient reminders:

  • The U.S. currently uses somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 million barrels of oil each and every day
  • Our own production is currently in the neighborhood of 50%-60% of the peak we last touched more than forty years ago
  • Depending on the source one relies upon, we still import eight to ten million barrels per day despite these magnificent efforts in the Bakken and elsewhere
  • Meanwhile, conventional oil fields are being depleted day after day, so getting back to “even” must happen first before we can start counting on unconventional, inferior quality, more-expensive-to-produce oil from the tar sands and shale.

Entitled to my own facts too

For the oil cornucopian, it’s clear that facts suck.

Predictably, this confuses the public. Empty pronouncements aren’t especially helpful to the tens of millions who don’t have access to the facts and the realities of energy supply and production. When the reality of peak oil intrudes on their happy lives, and it turns out that the “might possibly could potentially if only” promises turn out to be just as empty in practice as they are now in theory, what happens then?

In fact, we will become more vulnerable over the long run, because the renewed embrace of fossil fuels will induce us to postpone the inevitable transition to a post-carbon economy. Sooner or later, the economic, environmental and climate consequences of intensive fossil fuel use will force everyone on the planet to abandon reliance on these fuels in favor of climate-friendly renewables. This is not a matter of if but of when. The longer we wait, the more costly and traumatic the transition will be, and the greater the likelihood that our economy will fall behind those of other countries that undertake the transition sooner.

By extending our dependence on fossil fuels, therefore, the current oil and gas revival is not an advantage but, as President Obama said in 2008, a threat to national security.

Economist Cooper then goes on to describe the reality that “infrastructure has not kept up with supply;”  “Getting the oil to the refineries is a problem and currently, refineries in the U.S. do not have the capacity to handle all of this oil;” and because “of the infrastructure problems, an increasing volume of crude oil is now transported by railway and tanker trucks, boosting employment and activity in these industries, but the costs are far higher than pipeline transport;” and then, of course,

With this boom, there are a growing number of concerns. The environmental impacts, though uncertain, are troubling. Potential pollutants entering the air and water supply are of great concern. Drilling is disrupting communities, damaging roads, and increasing costs to local governments. Some are worried about the effect of drilling on earthquakes….In some regions, like parts of Texas, there are already water shortages exacerbated by the huge volumes of water needed for hydraulic fracking.

Nope! Not seeing any problems there.

But, hey, as former GM executive Bob Lutz was so helpful in pointing out, we have a “scenario of abundance” coming from the Bakken shale oil fields and Canadian tar sands. Not much in the way of explaining anything about production rates, depletion of existing fields, costs, quality, and assorted other nit-picking facts some of us rely on, but when you have a scenario of abundance, and “so much greasy, oily and gassy stuff under the surface, it seems” well … who needs facts, Right?

Lutz, proud as well of his climate change-denying credentials, even relied on a “senior oil economist” in his assessment that “‘Peak Oil’ [is now] exposed as yet another Chicken-Little fallacy.”

Good to know. And all of us fact-reliant peak oil proponents have been concerned all this time.

Just when I was ready to join the reality-free world, Chris Martenson had to go and offer just a small dose of concern to those for whom reality (and the future) matters: “The only problem here is, what if that view of the future is wrong? Then what? Everything.”

Worth the risk?

— Rich Turcotte, Transition Voice

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  1. Amoeba says

    Peak oil is the elephant in the room. The IEA admitted in 2010 that peak conventional oil passed in 2006. But thanks to unconventional sources coming on stream it’s been hidden. That’s surely the reason for exploiting the Tar sands. I just hope that looming EROEI increases and AGW acceptance make investors realise that we have to ditch the pitch, dump coal and pursue a wide range of renewables and IFR technology with serious intent. It would be handy if the scientists crack the problems with fusion , but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Lew Stewell says

    I’ve given up trying to explain it to anyone anymore. I’m done. I’m done with AGW talk as well (we’re too far gone for me to waste my energy). I’m purely focused on building resiliency (h/t to CM) and trying as best I can to be ready for what is shaping up to be a rough(er) ride as we continue to move past the ‘bumpy plateau’ and decline really sets in.

    • says

      Few grasp oil supply reality, one can only present the figures and take sensible steps to safeguard one’s own. The denial of the truth is truly scary, especially among those who might otherwise be credited with some degree of intelligence
      Until 2005, production had grown at about 7% annually since 1900
      Then in 2005 world production plateaued out, and our oil-driven economy crashed in 2008. the data is beyond question:
      2004 72.5 Million barrels/day
      2005 73.8
      2006 73.5
      2007 73.0
      2008 73.7
      2009 72.3 (production drop after recession)
      2010 74.09
      2011 74.06
      There were numerous forecasts that oil would peak in 2005 (Kenneth Deffeyes and others) it is now clear that output has remained static for 7 years. Those figures show that everyone is pumping like mad to stand still, if there was any cheap oil left they wouldn’t be digging out the tarsands. It’s not a muslim conspiracy, it’s not in the Saudi’s interest to withhold vast quantities of oil, because if industrial economies collapse, they go back to camel trading and goat herding. In any event, it seems likely that the Saudis have overstated their reserves in order to maintain their own economy. The world economic system is oil driven, it’s faltering because the supply of oil is clearly at it’s limit. We’re at peak oil and we face a decline from now on.
      Speculation is merely a reflection on that situation, it doesn’t alter reality. If there was any cheap oil left they wouldn’t be digging up the tarsands in Alberta. We are entering the final struggle for resources and face a future very different to our past. Oil has no alternatives and it won’t be a gentle decline; we had a petrol supply scare only last week in the UK, the mad scramble for fuel, even fights breaking out on filling station forecourts demonstrate our future, because our lives depend on oil in a literal sense. The battle for what’s left is going to get very nasty.

    • says

      I’ve given up too. Very few want to listen to the warning voices and most simply want to engage in snide remarks and character assassination. As far as I’m concerned, people can go on putting their heads in the sand. I am taking steps so that my family can be as resilient as possible. If everyone else wants to consign themselves to the worst effects of the decline that’s coming, I’m no longer going to try to be the good guy – it’s no longer my problem.

      • John Andersen says

        I agree.

        We have to reconcile ourselves with the steps we can take to make our own families resilient. In many cases, this might mean food, not lawns, walking and cycling instead of car ownership, and mending our clothes.

        In all cases it will mean moving from a consumerist orientation to a producer and contributor orientation.

  3. scott says

    Hi all, i totaly sympathise with those who have given up trying to raise awareness of peak oil, i was aware in the 90s and felt like banging my head against a wall, closed minds all around. However the situation is far more complex than this article makes out and there are some definate flaws in the thinking.

    Firstly, we live in an economic system where profit is king and scarcity of a resource drives up price and therefore profit, oil companies profit from peak oil. This doesn’t mean it isn’t happening but it certainly is good for some very rich people!

    I was taught at school to keep an open mind and question everything as the basis of scientific progress, and while i see peak oil happening i have begun to question the validity of its simplicity. Clearly there is money to be made from the peak oil scenario, real or not, but what if one of our most fundamental assumptions that our theory is based on is wrong? What if oil is not, as we have always been told, a fossil fuel? What if fossil fuels don’t take millions of years to make?

    Keeping an open mind and researching with due dilligence i have found evidence for both these theories, evidence from russia suggests that oil is in fact renewable (though not sustainable at current or expected usage), while evidence of whole fossilised trees suggests they were fossilised instantly around 13,000 years ago under intense pressure in the same cataclysm that wiped out mammoths, though once again this doesn’t equate to a sustainable resource, it does shift our fundamental thinking on the whole issue if we allow ourselves not to get stuck in a position which is often as entrenched as those who we would wish to educate.

    None of this is to say that oil shortages are not happening, but in my experience if you want to get to the bottom of something, keep an open mind, and follow the money!

    Scott, bournemouth

  4. Brad says

    I told somone of peak oil about a year ago, she went into instant denial, and has done nothing but attack me ever after.

    Anyone I tell looks at me as though I am mentally handicapped.

    But do not be disheartened Fellows! I live in an apartment building and attempted to explain to the building manager and maintanence staff the process by which insects become immune to insecticide, and that it was their derilect of duty that has insured the lack of any viable soloution to the buildings pest problem. While I relayed the scientific facts I had a startleing insight! Their faces, as I explained, were the same stupid faces people make when I explain peak oil!

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