August 27, 2009
jenny goldstein, Earth Matters
This week’s Op-Ed in the New York Times titled “Peak Oil is a Waste of Energy” by energy consultant Michael Lynch was a virtual pandora’s box, judging from the number of comments left by readers. Any op-ed piece is self-evidently open for dispute, and dispute this one the New York Times’ readers did. I’m almost as fascinated by the smart, and largely negative, reactions to the piece as I am by Lynch’s anti-peak oil rhetoric itself.
Many scientists and social scientists take M. King Hubbert’s infamous bell-shaped “peak oil” curve as gospel on the planet’s finite oil reserves. And why not? If you trust that we are extracting oil at a faster rate than the earth produces it, then oil is a non-renewable resource. So it makes sense that at some point we, the oil drinkers, will hit rock-bottom and understandably, we want to know when that day will come.
The equation behind peak oil that Hubbert originally devised back in 1956 is deceivingly simple, though widely misunderstood. As Kenneth Deffeyes explains in his entirely readable Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak, Hubbert’s peak oil theory rests on the assumption that our ability to produce oil is linearly dependent on the fraction of oil remaining. In other words, the less oil that is left in the earth, the less we will be able to produce because what remains is harder to get at. What remains also ain’t cheap, though Hubbert never said much about prices.
What follows from this is Hubbert’s theory as an elegant equation. Without putting it in proper algebraic terms, Hubbert’s peak oil theory tells us that the peak of oil production occurs when half of a region’s oil has been recovered, and half remains. When a given geographical region’s—whether it’s the United States’, Saudi Arabia’s, or the world’s—cumulative oil production in relation to the fraction of oil remaining is plotted over time, beginning with any date on which the cumulative production of that region is known (e.g. in 1972 the US had produced a cumulative 100 billion barrels of oil), what emerges is a symmetrical bell-shaped curve. I happen to be extraordinarily bad at math, so I leave it at this: back in 1956, Hubbert predicted US oil production would start to decline in the 1970s. It did. When petroleum geologists apply his theory to global oil production, they come up with a year sometime…in our lifetime. The significance of this, however, is not that oil will disappear overnight or even seem less abundant. It’s that the real cost of oil will continue to increase.
As a skeptic of this proposition, Lynch calls attention to the fact that peak oil theory does a shoddy job of accounting for many other factors that influence global oil production, such as fluctuating demand, localized political disputes, and the discovery of new, however hard to reach, oil fields (see: current economic crisis, Nigeria, and 23,000 feet off the coast of Brazil for corresponding examples). He’s right, Hubbert never took any of those things into his calculations. Nor did Hubbert account for rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a near-direct result of oil production and yet we still know how that’s turned out.
But peak oil isn’t just a theory, it’s also a gimmick. We’re missing the point if we debate the validity of the former rather than the latter. Lynch sets out to debunk peak oil, the theory, to which you either agree with his refuting points or stick squarely to Hubbert (so long as you know what Hubbert actually proposed), and concludes by advocating for low oil prices. It remains to be seen how successful he was at debunking Hubbert’s theory; I’m not sure that he was. But regardless of the holes in Hubbert’s theory, peak oil, the gimmick, still serves to remind us that some day the oil will be gone, out of our reach, or most likely of all, extraordinarily expensive. Peak oil, as a way of understanding the real costs–political, economic, environmental–embedded in oil production regardless of the day’s market price per barrel, needs to live on. Perhaps the gimmick has gotten stale, or never had a good ad campaign behind it anyway. Maybe it’s time for a new marketing strategy. Just don’t change peak oil’s point.
A native of New York and current resident of Santa Monica, CA, Jenny Goldstein is also a doctoral student in geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. She writes on and researches the interactions between local and global food systems, the politics of taste within the international coffee industry, and environmental conservation and development. She has conducted fieldwork in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Japan, and California. You can find her website at www.rootingforfruit.com.