The peak-oilers weren’t wrong

In yesterday’s post, I argued that the boom in unconventional oil is not the end of the peak oil debate, but evidence that we are in fact running out of easy and cheap oil. To read the mainstream press, one might think that the peak oil movement has been wrong-footed by the advent of shale oil and tar sands. The peak oil skeptics are certainly claiming that to be the case, with all the glee we have come to expect.

In reality, the best commentators on peak oil knew that this would happen and said so. Here’s Jeremy Leggett, who wrote this in 2004 and predicts the arrival of shale oil right down to the year:

“During and following the oil crisis of the 1970s major oil companies working on American shale deposits spent several billion in various unsuccessful attempts to commercially extract shale oil. As the next crisis looms, eager eyes are turning to them once again… An industry could not be initiated before 2011, because lead times for shale oil projects from planning to commercial operation range from five to ten years.”

That’s from Leggett’s book Half Gone, page 73.

Here’s Rob Hopkins, who knew five years ago that not only were tar sands on the way, so were the optimists who would say the tar sands disprove peak oil:

“Oil from tar sands is far more expensive to produce than most other sources of oil, but with the price of oil rising, these harder-to-extract oil sources are becoming increasingly financially viable… It is literally scraping the barrel, and rather than negating the peak oil argument – as those who say ‘look, there’s loads left’ propose – this confirms the peak oil argument: that we have reached the mid-point of the Oil Age, and the era of cheap oil is well and truly over.”

That’s from the Transition Handbook, page 23.

Jeff Rubin, writing in 2009, recognised that we are in an energy transition from conventional to unconventional oil:

“Whether we already at a production peak or not will be evident only in hindsight. But the precise date is not really the point. It is already clear that we are in the midst of a quantum supply shift from relatively low-cost conventional oil to high-cost and highly problematic nonconventional oil.”

Here’s a section from Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over, p118:

“extraction of conventional oil will peak before 2010; however, because more unconventional oil—including oil sands, heavy oil, and oil shale—will be produced during the coming decade, the total production of fossil-fuel liquids (conventional plus unconventional) will peak several years later.”

Those are from the first books off the shelf, and no doubt I could find more examples in the others. I’m sure you could find plenty of examples of people predicting imminent chaos too of course, but peak oil is a broad church. There are alarmists and there are reasonable and rational commentators. It pays to listen to the good ones, as it does in any other field.


8 Comments on “The peak-oilers weren’t wrong”

  1. Jonathon Rutherford July 5, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    Thanks for these last two blogs Jeremy – they have been very helpful in sorting out the peak oil picture.

  2. Stefan Thiesen July 5, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    After, over the years, having read many books on risk, risk assessment, disaster and the precautionary principle (e.g. Collapse, Global Catastrophic Risks, Why things fail, Beck’s near classic “Risk Society” – or the rather sober reports published by Munich-re) I felt and feel increasingly unable to draw the line between (seemingly) reasonable risk perception and (seeming) alarmism. Is an alarmist a nervous and panicky person with seriously flawed perceptions of reality, or is an alarmist someone who merely made a wrong risk assessment? Is James Hansen an alarmist because he thinks, after a lifetime career in atmospheric research, that climate change could, in the worst case, let all life on Earth go bust? Or is that rather a scientifically reasonable worst case assessment based upon his expertise and his deep concern and, hence, indeed a call to arms that should be taken seriously? Regarding the energy scarcity scenarios even a moderate price hike can have drastic effects on food prices and food production incentives. I recently read that even in the US 1.5 million families live on less than US$2 per person and day. Price hikes in foodstuff will instantly affect those families. And since almost half of the world population lives under similar or worse conditions, one need not be an alarmist to imagine the impact drastic food price increases would have on much of the world population. And: someone who would previously have drawn up the scenario of the Fukushima incident clearly would have sounded like an alarmist.

  3. Jeremy July 5, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    For me, alarmism (a word I dislike immensely) is about exaggeration and fear. It’s in all sorts of fields, and those that decry it in climate change are just as likely to resort to alarmism themselves to make their own points: “greens are going to destroy the economy” “obamacare will turn the US into a communist country”, etc.

    In my experience, there are very few scientists who go in for that kind of extreme language. It’s usually the media that put the worst possible spin on the story.

    • Stefan Thiesen July 5, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

      Well – I mostly had the (more or less) “informed opinion league” in mind. And I am all the more concerned when academically respected individuals do go for extreme scenarios. There are very famous examples for extreme statements that, nevertheless, have wisdom and truth ringing to them. I am sure you are familiar with this Einstein quote (not so far from some contemporary “Limits of Growth” folks, myself included):

      “I don’t know what kind of weapons will be used in the third world war, assuming there will be a third world war. But I can tell you what the fourth world war will be fought with — stone clubs.”

      — Albert Einstein

      Sorry – I know: pulling out Einstein always is akin to pulling out a stone club. I merely want to stress that there is a cosmic scale difference between an alarming statement from Hansen or Einstein and an alarmist one coming from, say, Rush Limbaugh.


  1. Sustainability: All that matters, by Chris Goodall | Make Wealth History - January 23, 2013

    […] There are other problems. In a chapter on resources, Goodall suggests that it is the carbon problem that makes oil use unsustainable, but because of unconventional oil, it would be sustainable otherwise. This plays into the popular but false narrative that peak oil theory was proved wrong. As I’ve explained before, the rise of unconventional oil is actually proof of peak oil and was predicted very precisely by peak oil writers. […]

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    […] On a related note, this principle of diminishing economic returns is why the boom in unconventional oil is entirely consistent with the peak oil argument. […]

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    […] them with new sources of oil. We know that conventional oil supplies are in decline. Just as the better oil depletion writers suggested years ago, that has put us into a period of transition towards much more expensive fossil fuels […]

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