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George W. Bush and Peak Oil: Beyond Incompetence

(Note to readers: This month’s MuseLetter was written as a chapter to be published in a forthcoming book by Project Censored titled The Case for Impeachment of Bush and Cheney, Seven Stories Press, Summer 2006. For permission to republish this essay, please contact me at rheinberg@igc.org.)

While it would be difficult to create an airtight legal case for impeaching George W. Bush based on his ignoring the very real threat posed by Peak Oil, nevertheless I believe that his actions—and inaction—in this regard constitute dereliction of duty on an unprecedented scale.

It is part of the job of leaders to foresee problems and either steer around them or prepare for them. A head of state is analogous to the captain of a ship, who is responsible not only for keeping his vessel on course but also for avoiding hazards such as storms and icebergs. Some problems are not foreseeable; others are. A ship’s captain who loses his vessel to a freak “perfect storm” may be blameless, but one who steers his passenger liner directly into a foggy ice field, having no sonar or radar, is worse than a fool: he is criminally negligent.

The argument I will make, in brief, is this:

  • Peak Oil is foreseeable.
  • The consequences are also foreseeable and are likely to be ruinous.
  • The Bush administration has been repeatedly warned.
  • Actions could be taken to reduce the impact, but the longer those actions are delayed, the worse the impact will be.
  • The administration, rather than taking steps to mitigate these looming catastrophic impacts, has instead done things that can only worsen them.

Let us go through these points one by one.

Is Peak Oil Foreseeable?

Peak Oil—the point at which the rate of global production of petroleum begins its inevitable historic decline—is a subject of growing public interest. The basic concept is derived from experience: during the past century-and-a-half all older oil wells have been observed to peak and decline in output. The same has been noted with entire oilfields, and with the collective oil endowment of whole nations. Indeed, most oil-producing nations have already seen their output enter terminal decline. Few informed observers doubt that the rate of oil production for the world in total will reach a maximum at some point and then slowly wane.

The science of Peak Oil was worked out in the 1950s by veteran geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who successfully used his method to predict the U.S. peak (1970). Declassified CIA documents show that by the late 1970s the Agency was using similar methods to forecast the Soviet Union’s oil peak.1

We do not know exactly when the global peak will occur, but it will almost certainly happen within the period between now and 2035.

Considering the importance of the peaking event, the range of uncertainty regarding its timing is disturbing. If the peak were to occur within the next five years, our national economy would be unable to adjust quickly enough to avert calamity (as we will discuss below), while a peak 30 years from now would present a much greater opportunity for adaptation.

Though there is continuing controversy over the question of when the peak will happen, there is strong evidence for concluding that it may come sooner rather than later, and that the world may already have entered the peaking period. Signs of a near-term peak include the fact that global rates of oil discovery have been falling since the early 1960s—as has been confirmed by ExxonMobil. Declining discovery rates represent a well-established trend and cannot be said to be the result merely of transient factors. In 2005, according to IHS Energy Inc., a total of 4.5 billion barrels of oil were discovered in new fields, while 30 billion barrels of oil were extracted and used worldwide. Thus, currently only about one barrel of oil is being discovered for every six extracted.2

Until now, the global oil industry has been able to replace depleted reserves on a yearly basis, mostly by re-estimating the size of existing fields. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in a recent publication, “Statements on Energy,” describes the situation this way:

In the last 10–15 years, two-thirds of the increases in reserves of conventional oil have been based on increased estimates of recovery from existing fields and only one-third on discovery of new fields. In this way, a balance has been achieved between growth in reserves and production. This can’t continue. 50% of the present oil production comes from giant fields and very few such fields have been found in recent years.3

The 100 or so giant and super-giant fields that are collectively responsible for about half of current world production were all discovered in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and most are now going into decline. These days, exploration turns up only much smaller fields that deplete relatively quickly.

Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review and author of the study “Oil Field Megaprojects,” notes that “90% of known reserves are in production,” and that “as much as 70% of the world’s producing oil fields are now in decline” with decline rates averaging between four and six percent per year.4

Thus, while the US Department of Energy predicts that world oil production will increase over the next 20 years from 85 million barrels per day (Mb/d) to 120 Mb/d in order to meet anticipated demand, a growing chorus of petroleum geologists and other energy analysts warns that such levels of production will never be seen.

A French report from the Economics, Industry & Finance Ministry, “The Oil Industry 2004,” took a careful look at future supply issues, forecasting a possible peak in world production as early as 2013.5

Ford Motor Company Executive Vice President Mark Fields, in his keynote address in October, 2005 at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ “Global Leadership Conference at the Greenbrier,” noted the seven most serious challenges to his industry, one of which was that “oil production is peaking.”6 Volvo motor company has for several years acknowledged in its company literature that a global oil production peak is likely by 2015.7

Legendary petroleum geologist T. Boone Pickens, who started his career in the early 1950s as a roughneck in oilfields in Oklahoma and Texas and went on to co-found Mesa Petroleum and Petroleum Exploration, told the 11th National Clean Cities conference in May, 2005 that “Global oil [production] is 84 million barrels [a day]. I don’t believe you can get it any more than 84 million barrels. . . . I think they are on decline in the biggest oil fields in the world today and I know what it’s like once you turn the corner and start declining, it’s a treadmill that you just can’t keep up with.”8

Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Jeroen Van Der Veer has said, “My view is that ‘easy’ oil has probably passed its peak.”9

J. Robinson West, founder and chairman of PFC Energy, one of Washington’s most influential international energy consulting firms, and a former Assistant Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan Administration, predicts that the “tipping point” when global supply of oil ceases to grow could arrive in 2015.10

Veteran petroleum geologist Henry Groppe, a Houston-based independent analyst who began his career in 1945 and who is today a consultant to global corporations as well as to nations, said in 2005 that “Total crude oil production may have peaked this year, or perhaps will peak next year.”11

Matthew Simmons, founder of Simmons & Company International energy investment bank, has been perhaps the most outspoken of oil analysts and investors regarding Peak Oil. A consultant to the Cheney Energy Policy Development Group that met in secret in 2001, he is the author if Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (Wiley, 2005). Simmons has concluded, on the basis of his study of technical papers from the Society of Petroleum Engineers, that Saudi Arabian oil production is close to its maximum, and that world oil production is also therefore close to its peak.

On March 1, 2006 the New York Times published an editorial by Robert Semple, Associate Editor of the Editorial Page for the Times since 1998, in which he wrote, “The concept of peak oil has not been widely written about. But people are talking about it now. It deserves a careful look—largely because it is almost certainly correct.”12

In short, the science behind Peak Oil is well established, and, while there is some disagreement about exactly when the global peak will arrive, there can be no excuse at this stage for ignoring the problem.

Does the Administration Know About Peak Oil?

The New York Times knows about Peak Oil, but does the president? On this point the evidence is conclusive.

First of all, agencies within the government clearly understand the problem, and therefore relevant information must be readily available to the chief executive if he wishes to have it.

Explicit warnings of Peak Oil have started to turn up in official U.S. government literature. For example, a paper prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers titled “Energy Trends and Implications for U.S. Army Installations” (Sept., 2005) includes the following tidbit:

The supply of oil will remain fairly stable in the very near term, but oil prices will steadily increase as world production approaches its peak. The doubling of oil prices in the past couple of years is not an anomaly, but a picture of the future. Peak oil is at hand. . . .13

Then there is the following from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Petroleum Reserves, Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, dated March 2004:

The disparity between increasing production and declining reserves can have only one outcome: a practical supply limit will be reached and future supply to meet conventional oil demand will not be available. The question is when peak production will occur and what will be its ramifications. Whether the peak occurs sooner or later is a matter of relative urgency. . . . In spite of projections for growth of non-OPEC supply, it appears that non-OPEC and non-Former Soviet Union countries have peaked and are currently declining. The production cycle of countries . . . and the cumulative quantities produced reasonably follow Hubbert’s model. . . . The Nation must start now to respond to peaking global oil production to offset adverse economic and national security impacts.14

And then there is the 2005 Report, “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management,” commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, about which we will have more to say below.15

If none of this is specific enough (in fairness, we cannot expect George W. Bush to spend his evenings poring over obscure Army Corps of Engineers studies), we have the fact that Representative Roscoe Bartlett, Republican from Maryland’s sixth district—who has made many speeches about Peak Oil on the floor of Congress—has spent thirty minutes in private conversation with the president explaining the science of Peak Oil and seeking to convey the enormity of the problem.16

But what if Bush wasn’t able to understand what Bartlett was telling him? After all, Bartlett has a Ph.D. in physics; perhaps he was using words that were too big, or concepts too abstruse for our president to grasp.

Even if that were the case, we have evidence that Bush’s second-in-command, vice president Cheney, understands Peak Oil; given time, Cheney could surely make the concept comprehensible to his superior. In a speech in 1999 (while he was still CEO of Halliburton Corporation, the giant oil services company) to the Petroleum Institute in London, Cheney pointed out that

By some estimates there will be an average of two per cent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a three per cent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day.17

This is a fair statement of the depletion dilemma: 50 million barrels per day is almost five times the current output of Saudi Arabia.

Finally there is the fact that is that Bush and Cheney are themselves former oilmen: their inside knowledge of the industry should give them enhanced insight into the problem of Peak Oil. Some would say that these officials’ former ties to the petroleum industry imply a conflict of interest (they have been accused of giving perks to oil companies, even to Halliburton—perish the thought!). However, some of the most outspoken authorities on Peak Oil are retired petroleum geologists or engineers who have spent decades working for oil companies. Having former industry insiders in public office today could be good, if they used their technical knowledge to benefit the country by warning of the consequences of continued oil dependency. But, as we will see below, there is no evidence that the particular former oilmen currently occupying the highest offices in the land are doing any such thing—at least not genuinely or effectively.

In sum, while it is impossible to say whether Mr. Bush understands Peak Oil, no one could credibly argue that that he simply hasn’t heard about it.

How Serious Is the Threat?

Addressing this question requires some speculation: the peaking of global oil production is an event that has never occurred before. However, we need not speculate baselessly; for guidance we have a U.S. government-funded study that could hardly be more relevant—“The Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management,” prepared by Science Applications International (SAIC) for the U.S. Department of Energy, released in February 2005. The project leader for the study was Robert L. Hirsch, who has had a distinguished career in formulating energy policy. The report on the study will hereinafter be referred to as “The Hirsch Report.”

The first paragraph of the Hirsch Report’s Executive Summary states:

The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.18

As the Hirsch Report explains in detail, due to our systemic dependence on oil for transportation, agriculture, and the production of plastics and chemicals, every sector of society will be impacted.

The Hirsch Report effectively undermines the standard free-market argument that oil depletion poses no serious problem, now or later, because as oil becomes scarcer the price will rise until demand is reduced commensurate with supply; meanwhile, higher prices will stimulate more exploration, the development of alternative fuels, and the more efficient use of remaining quantities. While it is true that rising prices will do all of these things, we have no assurance that the effects will be sufficient to avert severe, protracted economic, social, and political disruptions.

First, price increases may or may not stimulate more exploration, or do so sufficiently or productively. During the early 20th century, more exploration resulted in more oil being discovered. However, in recent decades, expanded exploration efforts have turned up fewer and fewer finds. It is difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion that there simply isn’t much oil left to discover.

Higher prices for oil will also no doubt spur new investment in alternative fuels. But the time required to produce substantial quantities of alternative fuels will be considerable, given the volume of our national transportation fuel consumption. Moreover the amount of investment required will be immense. And it would be unrealistic to expect most alternatives to fully or even substantially replace oil at any level of investment, and even with decades of effort, given practical, physical constraints to their development.

Higher prices will also no doubt spur efficiency measures, but the most productive of these will likewise require time and investment. For example, raising the fuel efficiency of the U.S. auto fleet would require years for industry retooling and more years for consumers to trade in their current vehicles for more-efficient replacements.

James Schlesinger, who served as CIA director in the Nixon administration, defense secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and energy secretary in the Carter administration, in November, 2005 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged lawmakers to begin preparing for declining oil supplies and increasing prices in the coming decades. “We are faced with the possibility of a major economic shock and the political unrest that would ensue,” he said.19

Schlesinger was far from overstating the threat. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to view Peak Oil as potentially representing the economic, social, and political impact of a hundred Katrinas. And that impact will not subside in a few days’ or years’ time: once global oil production has peaked, the energy shortfalls for transportation and agriculture will be ongoing, relentless, and cumulative.

What Should the Administration Be Doing?

Responsible and competent people who have studied the problem of Peak Oil, (including Robert Hirsch and his colleagues) agree that efforts will be needed to create alternative sources of energy, to reduce demand for oil through heightened energy efficiency, and to redesign entire systems (including both cities and the rural agricultural economy) to operate with less petroleum.

The Hirsch Report’s methodology involved the examination of three scenarios:

  • Scenario I assumed that action is not initiated until peaking occurs.
  • Scenario II assumed that action is initiated 10 years before peaking.
  • Scenario III assumed action is initiated 20 years before peaking.

In all three scenarios, the Hirsch study assumed a “crash program” scale of effort (that is, all the resources of government and industry are marshalled to the tasks of creating supplies of alternative fuels and reducing demand through efficiency measures). The study found that, due to the time required to start efforts and the scale of mitigation required, Scenario I will result in at least 20 years of fuel shortfalls. With 10 years of preparation, a 10-year shortfall is likely. And with 20 years of advance mitigation effort, there is “the possibility” of averting fuel shortages altogether. The Report also concludes that “Early mitigation will almost certainly be less expensive than delayed mitigation.”20

In other words, if global Peak Oil is 20 years away or fewer, or we believe it might be, then we must begin immediately with a full-scale effort to address the problem.

Most Americans would understandably prefer to solve the dilemma simply by switching to alternative fuels, thus enabling them to maintain their current habits. But, as we have already noted, there are problems with that strategy.

Biofuels (ethanol, wood methanol, and biodiesel) require land area for production and are plagued by the problem of low net-energy yields. According to the calculations of Jeffrey Dukes of the University of Massachusetts, over a hundred tons of ancient plant matter are concentrated in every gallon of gasoline we use today.21 Granted, modern methods of biofuels production are more efficient than nature’s slow means of producing crude oil, but still this analysis should give us pause: trying to replace a substantial fraction of our 20 million barrels per day of national oil consumption with biofuels could potentially overwhelm an agricultural system already destroying topsoil and drawing down ancient aquifers unsustainably.

It is possible to produce liquid transportation fuels from coal and natural gas. However, natural gas is itself a problematic fuel in North America (domestic production peaked in 2001), and coal—a low-quality hydrocarbon—would present a host of environmental and practical quandaries if we tried to increase mining sufficiently to replace a significant proportion of our oil budget. In the end, coal is likewise a depleting fossil fuel: while it is often said that we have hundreds of years’ worth of the stuff, that assumes current rates of consumption and ignores variable quality; assuming dramatic increases in consumption (for oil replacement) and taking into account the fact that much coal offers a low energy yield, those centuries shrink to a very few decades.22

Which brings us to the strategies of conservation, efficiency, and curtailment. These clearly present the best opportunities, though efforts along these lines will eventually require significant changes in Americans’ habits and expectations.

Our automobiles could be made much more fuel-efficient, though this will require government leadership via higher CAFE standards. But over the long term automobiles and trucks simply aren’t good options for transportation, given their inherent energy inefficiency. Thus the nation will need a much-expanded freight and passenger rail system. Our cities, most of which have been designed for the automobile, need to be made more neighborhood-oriented and walkable, and provided with light-rail transit systems. Meanwhile agricultural production must be freed, as quickly and completely as possible, from fossil-fuel inputs. All of these efforts will require substantial investment and many years of work.

If, as the Hirsch Report tells us, the market will be incapable of shifting investment incentives quickly enough away from the old oil-based, energy-guzzling energy infrastructure and toward the new alternatives-based, super-efficient one, then government will have to lead the way through a sustained commitment of effort on a wartime scale. The estimated one to three trillion dollars consumed so far in the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, had they been spent instead on domestic energy security, would probably have represented an appropriate level and rate of funds allocation.

What Has the Administration Done?

Before examining what Bush and Cheney have done (and not done), we should in fairness note that previous administrations are far from blameless. During the Clinton–Gore years, imports of oil increased while CAFE standards languished. However, in a court of law the incompetence or even criminality of others is seldom a viable defense for one’s own culpable actions.

That said, in light of the threat and the needed effort, what has the current president actually accomplished?

First of all, the administration effectively buried the Hirsch Report. For many months it was available only on a high school web site, then on the Project Censored site; only toward the end of 2005 did it appear on a Department of Energy site. There has been no public mention whatever of the Report by any official in the Executive Branch. Thus the administration has sought not to respond to warnings of approaching crisis, but simply to muffle the warnings.

During the past six years, funding for renewable energy programs and for energy efficiency has not increased substantially. Meanwhile the administration has consistently sought to remove subsidies for the nation’s passenger rail system, Amtrak, while continuing to support immense subsidies for highways.

To be sure, Bush has occasionally spoken about the need for an energy policy, as in a speech to the nation in April 2005:

First, we must better use technology to become better conservers of energy. And secondly, we must find innovative and environmentally sensitive ways to make the most of our existing energy resources, including oil, natural gas, coal and safe, clean nuclear power. Third, we must develop promising new sources of energy, such as hydrogen, ethanol or bio-diesel. Fourth, we must help growing energy consumers overseas, like China and India, apply new technologies to use energy more efficiently and reduce global demand of fossil fuels.23

I would disagree with a few of these suggestions, but over all this is not a bad summary of what actually needs to happen. But talk is cheap, and talk that accomplishes next to nothing is, in this situation, a criminally negligent diversion and waste of time. The words just quoted were spoken in the context of the president’s promotion of an energy bill that actually did very little except to increase tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry.

In his 2006 State of the Union address, Bush said that the U.S. is “addicted to oil,” and put forward the goal of reducing oil imports from the Middle East. The next day his staff backpedaled, saying that this goal was only an “example.”24

Five years into the Bush administration, the nation is more dependent on imported oil than ever before. It is facing an impending energy crisis that a government-funded study says will be “unprecedented” in scope and consequences. And needed preparation efforts are nowhere to be seen.

* * *

Given all this, how will impeachment help? While it would be justified as a punishment for ineptitude or criminality, impeachment will not materially assist the nation to deal with Peak Oil unless current officials are replaced with ones who understand the problem and who are prepared to implement policies that radically shift America’s priorities in terms of energy, transportation, urban infrastructure, and agriculture. Looking out over the current political landscape in Washington, it is difficult to identify who those new officials might be. Nevertheless, it would help the nation to start now with a clean slate, and with a popular mandate for the new team of leaders to move rapidly to achieve energy security.

Notes

1. See discussion of this topic in my book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post Carbon World (New Society, 2004), pp. 40–41.

2. IHS discovery numbers are proprietary and costly, and so cannot be referenced directly; however this 4.5 billion-barrel figure was confirmed in personal correspondence by Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review.

3. “Statements on Oil” Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Energy Committee. (17 Oct. 2005) www.energybulletin.net/9824.html (accessed 17 Jan., 2006)

4. Chris Skrebowski, “Prices Set Firm, Despite Massive New Capacity,” Petroleum Review, October 2005.

5. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4077802.stm (accessed 13 March, 2006)

6. www.greencarcongress.com/2005/10/ford_exec_oil_p.html (accessed 13 March, 2006)

7. www.volvo.com/NR/rdonlyres/A9A59F6A-AA6F-F48E-A048-BF9D6DE505DB/0/future_fuels_large.pdf (accessed 13 March, 2006)

8. Michael DesLauriers, “Famed Oil Tycoon Sounds Off on Peak Oil, Resource Investor, 23 June, 2005 www.resourceinvestor.com/pebble.asp?relid=10766 (accessed 13 March, 2006)

9. Jeroen Van Der Veer, “Vision for Meeting Energy Needs Beyond Oil,” Financial Times, 24 January 2006 news.ft.com/cms/s/fb775ee8-8d0e-11da-9daf-0000779e2340.html (accessed 13 March, 2006)

10. www.nixoncenter.org/Program%2520Briefs/PB2005/Vol11no12GlobalEnergyMarkets.pdf (accessed 13 March, 2006)

11. Michael DesLauriers, “Oil Forecasting Legend Discusses Peak Oil, Share Prices,” Resource Investor, 19 October, 2005 www.resourceinvestor.com/pebble.asp?relid=13837 (accessed 13 March, 2006)

12. Robert B. Semple, Jr., The End of Oil, New York Times, 1 March, 2006 select.nytimes.com/2006/03/01/opinion/01talkingpoints.html (accessed 13 March, 2006)

13. Adam Fenderson and Bart Anderson, “US Army: Peak Oil and the Army’s Future,” Energy Bulletin 13 March, 2006 www.energybulletin.net/13737.html (accessed 13 March, 2006)

14. “Strategic Significance of America’s Shale Oil Resource,” Vol. 1, “Assessment of Strategic Issues,” Office of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Petroleum Reserves, Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, U.S. Department of Energy, March 2004 .

15. Robert L. Hirsch, et al., “The Peaking of World Oil Produciton: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management,” February 2005. www.projectcensored.org/newsflash/the_hirsch_report.pdf (accessed 13 March, 2006)

16. “Congressman Bartlett Discusses Peak Oil with President Bush,” staff, Energy Bulletin, 29 June, 2005 www.energybulletin.net/7024.html (accessed 13, March, 2006)

17. www.energybulletin.net/559.html (accessed 13 March, 2006)

18. Hirsch, op. cit.

19. www.senate.gov/~foreign/testimony/2005/SchlesingerTestimony051116.pdf (accessed 13 March, 2006)

20. Hirsch, op. cit.

21. “Price of Gas,” ScienCentral News, 28 July, 2005, www.sciencentral.com/articles/view.php3?article_id=218392605&cat=all (accessed 13 March, 2006)

22. Gregson Vaux, “The Peak in US Coal Production,” From the Wilderness, 27 May, 2004 www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/052504_coal_peak.html (accessed 13 March, 2006)

23. www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/04/20050428-9.html (accessed 13 March, 2006)

24. www.whitehouse.gov/stateoftheunion/2006/index.html (accessed 13 March, 2006)

Editorial Notes: This article is the April 2006 edition (#168) of Richard Heinberg's MuseLetter series. For regular editions of the MuseLetter, subscribe at www.museletter.com/subscription.html Heinberg is the author of two of the most essential books in the Peak Oil canon, The Party's Over and Powerdown as well as a forthcoming small book to introduce the Depletion Protocol to a wide audience. -AF

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