Peak Oil: A Catastrophist Cult and Complex Realities

By Smil, Vaclav | World Watch, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview

Peak Oil: A Catastrophist Cult and Complex Realities


Smil, Vaclav, World Watch


Proponents of the imminent peak of global oil extraction--led by Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, L.F. Ivanhoe, Richard Duncan, and Kenneth Deffeyes--resort to deliberately alarmist arguments as they mix incontestable facts with caricatures of complex realities and as they ignore anything that does not fit their preconceived conclusions in order to issue their obituaries of modern civilization. Ivanhoe sees an early end of the oil era as "the inevitable doomsday" followed by "economic implosion" that will make "many of the world's developed societies look more like today's Russia than the U.S." Duncan's future brings massive unemployment, breadlines, homelessness, and a catastrophic end of industrial civilization.

These conclusions are based on interpretations that lack any nuanced understanding of the human quest for energy, disregard the role of prices, ignore any historical perspectives, and presuppose the end of human inventiveness and adaptability. I will raise just three key points aimed at dismantling the foundations of this new catastrophist cult. First, these preachings are just the latest installments in a long history of failed peak forecasts. Second, the peak-oil advocates argue that this time the circumstances are really different and that their forecasts will not fail--but in order to believe that, one has to ignore a multitude of facts and possibilities that readily counteract their claims. Third, and most importantly, there is no reason why even an early peak of global oil production should trigger any catastrophic events.

The modern tradition of concerns about an impending decline of resource extraction began in 1865 with Victorian economist William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882), who concluded that falling coal output must spell the end of Britain's national greatness as it is "of course ... useless to think of substituting any other kind of fuel for coal." Substitute oil for coal in the last sentence and you get the erroneous foundations of the doomsday sentiment shared by the peak-oil catastrophists. There is no need to elaborate how wrong Jevons was. The first half of the 20th century had its share of peak forecasts but Jevonsian sentiment was forcefully reintroduced by M. King Hubbert with his correct timing of the U.S. oil production (minus Alaska!). This feat led the peak-oil groupies to consider Hubbert's Gaussian exhaustion curve with the reverence reserved by the Biblical fundamentalists to Genesis. In reality, it is a simplistic "geology-only" model based on rigidly predetermined reserves and ignoring any innovative advances or price shifts.

Not surprisingly, it has repeatedly failed. Hubbert himself put the peak of global oil extraction between 1993 and 2000. In 1977 the Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies forecast the global oil peak as early as 1990 and most likely between 1994 and 1997. In 1979 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency believed that global output must fall within a decade. In the same year British Petroleum, the world's second largest oil company, predicted the world production peak in 1985 and the total output in the year 2000 nearly 25 percent below that maximum. In reality, global oil output in the year 2000 was nearly 25 percent above the 1985 level! Some of the latest peak-oil proponents have already seen their forecasts fail: Campbell's first peak was to be in 1989, Ivanhoe's peak was in 2000, Deffeyes had it in 2003 (and now, ridiculously, on Thanksgiving 2005). But they would argue that this makes no difference as that inevitable event will take place within months or years. Moreover, they claim that matters are now entirely different.

They are convinced that exploratory drilling has already discovered some 95 percent of the oil originally present in the Earth's crust and that nothing we do, be it SUV replacements or new offshore drilling, can help us to avoid a bidding war for the remaining oil. And, so we are repeatedly told, "the oil era is over. …

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