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Dr. Robert Hirsch speaking at AFVI 2008 conference
Dr. Robert Hirsch speaking at AFVI 2008 conference.

The Stonewalling of Peak Oil

Robert Hirsch on the deliberate avoidance by the U.S. government to talk about peak oil.

By Steve Andrews

Robert L. Hirsch is the lead author of a seminal report--Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management—written for the US Dept. of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE, NETL) and released in early 2005. He has remained very active with respect to his concerns about peak oil. He will be a presenter at the ASPO-USA conference in Denver, October 11-13, 2009. Reprinted from the September 7, 12009 edition of Peak Oil Review, a publication of ASPO-USA.

Question: What have been your primary areas of focus during your energy career?

Hirsch: I started out in nuclear power. Then I did fusion research and later managed the government fusion program. I spent a lot of time with renewables over the years, including managing the federal renewables program. From there I went to the oil industry where I managed long range refining research and then synthetic fuels. Later I managed upstream research and development—exploration and production of oil and gas. Still later, I spent time in the electric power industry—all aspects of electric power. And then I got into energy studies and have been doing them for a number of years with Rand, SAIC, and now MISI. That's it from the work standpoint; from another standpoint I've been involved with the National Academies [of Science] in energy studies since 1979 and have been involved in almost every aspect of energy through the Academies, either as a committee participant or as Chairman of their Board on Energy and Environmental Systems.

Question: When did you first learn about the peak oil issue?

Hirsch: I learned about peak oil after I got out of the oil industry, because there was essentially no talk about it when I was involved. In the early 2000s I did a study for the DOE dealing with long range energy R&D planning. One of the six drivers that I came up with was peak oil; I had never really thought about it prior to that. It's kind of a “tar baby”; once you get your hands into it, you can't get your hands off of it. When oil production goes into decline, it's going to be a defining issue for humanity. So I've been involved for six or seven years in analyzing oil peaking and its mitigation.

Question: How did the 2005 peak oil study for DOE's NETL come about?

Hirsch: It was basically my creation. I was working with DOE NETL at the time, and they gave me a great deal of leeway to look into important subjects. I felt that peak oil was extremely important, so I did some study on my own and then proposed to NETL that I do a much larger study, with Roger Bezdek and Bob Wendling, who are extremely capable guys, who I had worked with along the way, and who were very pragmatic about energy and the real world. NETL accepted. I already was under contract, and they added Roger and Bob.

We coordinated closely with NETL as we did the study, so they had input and knew what was coming. But when they saw the final report, it shocked them, even though they could see what was coming. This is nothing negative about people at NETL, but when you're thinking about other things most of the time, bad news creeping up on you doesn't necessarily capture your attention immediately.

When the report was done, management at NETL really didn't know what to do with it because it was so shocking and the implications were so significant. Finally, the director decided that she would sign off on it because she was retiring and couldn't be hurt, or so I was told. The report didn't get widely publicized. It somehow was picked up by a high school someplace in California; eventually NETL put it on their website. The problem for people at NETL—and these are really good people—was that they were under a good deal of pressure to not be the bearers of bad news.

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