Has 'Peak Oil' Peaked Too Soon?
By Mac Johnson
Disaster struck “Peak Oil” cheerleaders this month as Chevron announced the discovery of massive new oil reserves in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. “Dang it!” one expert was overheard shouting while being shepherded from MSNBC’s greenroom. “We’ve been predicting the end of oil for a century now, and it finally looked like we were right. Why won’t people just give up looking for a better future so we can all feel prophetic and important for once?”
Okay, I made up that part about MSNBC. Peak oil naysayers would never admit they were wrong or admit that the Chevron discovery is a major blow to their theory. To an optimist, the glass is half full. To a pessimist, the glass is half empty. To a peak oil theorist, the glass is hidden in the next room, but he’s sure it’s damn near empty.
Together, these twin problems – the reluctance of humans to passively accept doom and the fact that we never quite know what we don’t know – are the bane of predicting peak oil production. Which doesn’t mean that oil will never peak – it will. It just means that we won’t know that the peak has occurred until well after it has passed, and (due to pesky human ingenuity) we may not even notice it that much when it does actually peak. We’ll be too busy exploiting some new advance in energy. Dang.
For some reason – perhaps because it is so vital to modernity – the energy industry attracts more than its share of prophets of doom. As I’ve written before on these fine glossy pages, which are more than worth the subscription price, the idea that one actually lives at the end of days is very satisfying, egotistically. I mean, I’m significant – so big things will happen while I’m here, right?
But even if oil were to peak on cue (eventually someone will successfully predict it just through persistence alone), why do so many believe that economic disaster will follow? I’m sure whale oil supplies have long since peaked, despite the deep water exploration efforts of Captain Ahab, yet we do not live in the dark for lack of rendered blubber to fuel our lamps.
Alternatives were found and the truly critical supply – of energy, not whale oil – has risen meteorically since the barely noticed peak in whale oil of the 1800s.
That is how it will likely be with crude oil. The supply will be extended as long as possible, and then gradually replaced by another fuel. Mankind did not get this far by sticking to nuts and berries, or grass, or wood, or coal, or any other single energy source – however vital it seemed in its peak age. Predictions of doom surrounding the eventual peak of oil ignore this history. The passive, withering world envisioned by some peak oil prophets simply doesn’t exist.
As a matter of fact, the aura of doom that eternally surrounds energy reminds me of nothing so much as the absolutely atrocious 1979 film, “Quintet.” This movie was BAD – so bad that the memory of it has lurked suppressed in my mind for 20 years, waiting to be awakened by current events. I was pretty sure that, like most bad movies, it starred Michael Caine, but looking it up I was surprised that it was actually Paul Newman. THAT is how bad it was. My mind had systematically imagined Michael Caine into every scene in an effort to spare Paul Newman.
In this gauze-filtered disaster, matched only by Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” (which may have starred Michael Caine), the future is a huge Ice Age – that being the climate change people fretted about most in 1979. And in this glacial future, people just scurry around living off the residual firewood, food, and fashion of the pre-Ice Age world – wasting away, betting their declining resources in a stupid suicide game (a nice metaphor for the zero-sum conception of markets), and in general not being very creative or industrious at all. They just wait to freeze to death when the fuel runs out. And that is why the movie is so bad. People just don’t act like that.
Chronic predictions of disaster surrounding declining energy supplies are the economic equivalent of “Quintet” – unrealistic fantasy, divorced from the dynamism of human nature. And like “Quintet,” they are best forgotten – or at least blamed on Michael Caine.