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Debunking Peak Oil Debunkers

I came across this OpEd this morning by Richard Turcotte, a former financial advisory and retired attorney, now turned author. Besides turning his 'pen' to fiction, he also blogs on energy issues, Peak Oil, in particular, so critics will likely call him, and me, 'true believers.' But our particular tribe trusts facts and verifiable numbers, not loose estimations and overly-rosy forecasts, like predicting Americas' energy independence based on fracking and tar sands.

Richard has analyzed the arguments aimed at debunking 'Peak Oil' and found that very little substantive data is used. Instead critics turn to the same tactics used by tobacco companies and global warming deniers. I thought his comments and observations worth sharing with EV World readers.

Bill Moore

Denial Tricks of the Trade

On an issue fraught with the potential for so much societal disruption as peak oil presents (like its kin, climate change), and the reality--the necessity--of expansive government involvement in both guiding adaptation and assisting citizens suffering most from the consequences, it should come as no surprise at all that we have a dedicated cottage industry working double-time to dispute any concerns that the rate of oil production has peaked (or at least leveled off for about a decade).

When we max out on what can be produced, and demand continues apace--if not increasing--then smaller supply for greater demand creates a math problem most third-graders can figure out. But when a great deal of profit is at stake, coupled with the future viability of a once-great, leading industry and the reality that the great free market god does not have answers, then the disinformation campaign revs its engines for a full-speed-ahead assault on the facts.

Sound familiar? Tobacco companies? Climate change? Republican tax and economic policy? The fight against same-sex marriage? The playbook is the same. It works, of course, although it's important to note that tactics don't allow for much integrity or full, honest disclosure of facts to the general public. Doing so would make it quite obvious that opposition and denial rests on foundations of pseudo-facts just as sturdy as a large pile of cotton candy.

A fact tossed about in recent weeks without explanation or context (amazing how much those attributes can restore reality to an otherwise irrational bit of nonsense!) is how much U.S. oil production has increased in just a few short years. The truth: it has!

That's wonderful ... at least up to the point where those statistics are then contrasted with the actual, fact-based peak in production more than four decades ago. Add in the realities of greater expense; increasing energy expenditures; the need to maintain high prices; high decline rates from the newer sources which in turn require ever-more and ever-more-costly drilling just to keep up; depletion of conventional crude oil fields relied upon for decades; environmental degradation, together with an assortment of other facts, and pretty soon the story told is not quite as charming.

The solution is simple, and the same one used in most other contentious issues of the day: Ignore the facts, mislead, or just do whatever else is necessary to preserve the Happy Story of energy abundance at least long enough to funnel investment dollars and profits their way--consequences to the rest of us be damned.

So, for example, while it's true that oil production has increased recently in totals much greater than most observers imagined just a few short years ago, it's worth noting the higher totals are not the same resources we've long labeled as oil. Crude oil--what most of us recognize as supplied to us from the Middle East along with past efforts in California, Texas, and elsewhere, is not what's responsible for the hike in totals. That's important.

All the growth in supply since [2004] was not crude but unconventional liquids, including natural gas liquids, biofuels, refinery gains, synthetic oil from tar sands, and other marginal resources. These liquids are by no means equivalent to crude [and] hide the fundamental issue of the depletion of mature fields. They also hide the declining energy density, higher cost, and lower flow rates of these new resources.

As Shell, Chevron, Total, the IEA, and a host of other serious observers have openly declared since 2005, the age of cheap and easy oil has ended. The 'oil' that's left is progressively expensive, difficult, risky, marginal, and fraught with secondary effects like increasing carbon emissions, demand for water, and competition with food.

That quote is three-years old, but holds just as much truth today as it did in 2011.

Refusal to accept the facts has become the standard practice of too many fossil fuel industry officials and their coalition of media mouthpieces. The favored tactics: Cherry-picking some of the information; offering uplifting and catchy buzzwords; scoffing at or insulting those who believe the public should be aware of facts which affect their lives (a novel idea, I know).

The next time you sit down to read a story about our great production boom, take note of the language used. The limited recitation of facts is obvious. Worth recognizing is how often statements are uttered without substantiation beyond a lot of "could possibly" or "has the potential" or "provided that" phrasing. It affords the messenger just enough plausible deniability, but one has to wonder how meaningful and substantive are their positions if they must resort to these clever literary manipulations to make their case?

[One of the all-time great meaningless statements offered in denying any possibility that we've peaked in oil production is this farcical bit of nonsense: "future discoveries of 'superfields' of conventional oil reservoirs could boost world production." Uh, well ... ah, yes, I guess that's true. Not exactly a solution we can count on, though. Future discoveries that indicate we can get oil from mattresses or hats could also boost world production, but.... Need I say more?

Today, when powerful men sit down and make decisions, they generally make those decisions as if the future didn't exist, as if the consequences of their actions were beyond anticipation, as if they bore no responsibility for foresight. The future's not welcome in the room.

It must be gratifying to be able to state with reasonable accuracy that concerns about peak oil are just so much doom-and-gloom nonsense given the "vast" amounts of "resources" and "reserves" jotted down in the ledgers of oil industry titans. Failure to explain the differences and significance is one thing. But neglecting to mention anything at all about how we as a society go from merely stating those billions and trillions of barrels of oil presumably tucked away somewhere deep beneath our feet or the bottom of our boats to that time and place where we can pump them into our gas tanks suggests a problem or two with the tall tales offered to the public.

If we're now relying on extraction efforts taking place thousands of feet below the bottom of oceans, or (we hope) in the deep waters or deep below ground near the North Pole, or resorting to the time, effort, expense, and consequences of extracting substitute supplies from fractured rock formations or heating Canadian goop, just a tiny bit of common sense tells us that there are some serious issues with supply in the soon-enough future.

A little bit of knowledge and understanding can go a long way, and will prove a lot more valuable in planning and preparation than a few carefully-chosen "could possibly have the potential to perhaps" statements.

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