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The peak oil crisis: where is the Washington Post?

If you live around Washington, DC and have much do with the federal government, then you probably read the Post. There are a few exceptions. If you are into finance or securities you reach for the Wall StreetJournal each day. If your politics are more than a few degrees to the right, you are going to be happier with the Washington Times, and if you are a deep thinker, then your day is not complete without the New York Times.

As a general rule, however, the tens of thousands who run our nation, or talk frequently to those that do, absorb their world outlook each day from the pages of the Washington Post.

For decades, the management and staff of the Post have always taken this responsibility very seriously, as "the" newspaper of our nation's capitol they have a special responsibility to see that our leaders and their advisors are kept fully informed with the latest information and best thinking about nearly everything our federal government must confront. In most cases they have handled this responsibility very well amidst the shifting sands and political pressures of Washington.

However, for those of us who take seriously the possibility, or if you will, the probability, that further increases of any significance in world oil production are looking less likely all the time, the Post's near silence on the issue is an major anomaly.

Other national papers such as the New York Times (at least the editorial board) have examined peak oil in depth. Last March in a lengthy Op Ed the Times concluded that indeed world oil production will peak one of these days with dire consequences. The Times, however, suggests only three opinions as to when peak oil will arrive: 1) already; 2) ten years; and 3) 30-40 years from now. The Times, however, does leave their readers with the impression that the best estimate of "when" might just be the US Government's official estimate of 2037 or 2047.

The Wall Street Journal's treatment of peak oil is the complete opposite. They don't want to even think about it. They would rather read that a giant meteor is heading for the earth and it will all be over next week than to contemplate the possibility that the GDP just might stop growing because there is no longer enough oil. Last week the Journal ran a story about how the Saudis were experimenting with steam injection in an effort to loosen and pump out very heavy oil deposits. After noting that if this technique works it would add significantly to Saudi reserves, the reporter gloats that "it would also be a blow to so-called peak-oil theorists who have forecast that world oil production is on the brink of peaking." So there! Take that you pessimists!

Somewhere between the New York Times, who are starting to admit that we just might have a very big problem ahead, and the Wall Street Journal, who see the good times rolling on endlessly, lies the Washington Post. Now the Post clearly does not ignore the oil market. Their chief oil writer has produced some 50 stories in the last six months chronicling every twist and turn in the oil story -- prices, OPEC, off-shore drilling, you-name-it.

Conspicuously absent from the Post is the notion that 150 years of steadily increasing world oil production and the cornucopia it has brought to many of us might just be coming to an end. Last week, for example, when the price of oil was reaching new highs amidst the thunderous blasts of Israel and Hezbollah tearing into each other the Post attempted to explain what was behind the new highs in the price of oil.

It seems those gas prices we are experiencing, or at least the top third of the price, is simply a fear premium. There is plenty of oil for sale; there are no production peaks in sight; nobody is guzzling anything; all that bombing and rocketing is nowhere near the oil fields. If only the speculators would stop all this needless worrying gasoline would be back to $2 a gallon and all would be well.

The Post once again trots out Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the chief apostle of boundless oil in our lifetime, to assure us that the "fundamentals of the oil market are actually getting better" and that high oil prices only come from geopolitical fears and perhaps a shortfall in investment.

Last October the Post gave a Yergin, a contributor of long standing, a full Op Ed piece in which to push the notion that peak oil is a false premise and that there will be oil for every conceivable want for the foreseeable future.

So what is going on here? Have the managers, editors, and writers of the Post seriously looked at the evidence and prospects for world oil production peaking in the next few years? Are they aware that there has been little if any increase in world oil production for the last 18 months? Do they really think that Iraq will still be exporting oil a few years from now? Or that Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah can go on much longer without somebody, somewhere pulling the plug on some amount of oil exports to punish somebody or other?

Has the Post come to the realization that peak oil is not just geology or investment in drilling holes, but that it is also hurricanes, assassinations, coups, religious wars? Peak oil production is peak oil production. It does not really matter what causes the peak. In a world that burns 31 billion barrels of oil every year and is incessantly demanding more and more, any major, prolonged cut in production is likely to be the beginning of peak oil.

Does it matter that the Washington Post, for whatever reason, is ignoring the possibility of imminent peak oil? The answer is a resounding YES. If the Post understands, then, given time, Washington will understand. For the time being, Washington is in a position to do something about peak oil. Washington can tax, spend, conserve, legislate, lead, regulate, admonish, punish and invent. As the capitol of the largest oil-consuming nation the world has, or will ever know, it is in a unique position to get mankind through the painful transition to the post peak oil world.

But first, Washington has got to understand. And that is where the Post comes in.

Editorial Notes: Tom Whipple makes an excellent point -- where are the newspapers of record, the ones that set the agenda for discussion and action? Why are they silent on one of the biggest stories of the century? To be fair, the Washington Post has had one story recently about peak oil. But it wasn't in the news pages, nor was it in the business section. It took the long-time automotive correspondent, Warren Brown, to point out that the emperor had no clothes in his column: News flash: We're running out of oil. Get used to it. LA Times auto writer Dan Neil is another lonely voice talking about peak oil (End Times). The New York Times has done a little better than the WaPo or LA Times. They mentioned peak oil in two lengthy energy stories: Atomic balm - a nuclear renaissance? by Jon Gertner The Breaking Point by Peter Maass The NY Times editorial mentioned by Whipple is: The end of oil by Robert B. Semple Jr. Disappointingly, the editorial only appeared online and in addition was behind a paywall. If the Times and Post are worried that "peak oil" is a fringe issue, they might talk to Al Gore (also here). Or perhaps Bill Clinton (also in a May 2006 speech). The poor coverage of peak oil is all the more puzzling because newspapers and reporters are a competitive lot. They hate to be scooped. What's the problem? Is it ignorance? Self-censorship? Cultural inertia? One newspaper that has done it right is the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In June of 2005, they kicked off a series on Peak Oil and energy issues The Plain Dealer was recognized by the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review:
Extensive coverage of the rebuilding of New Orleans is certainly something readers and viewers deserve, but they also deserve a form of journalism that has always been difficult for the press in the United States to produce: stories grounded in solid reporting about what is possible, rather than simply what is probable; stories that shatter the official zeitgeist; stories that help set the agenda. This forward-looking journalism shouldn’t be exclusively about New Orleans, however, since the nation also faces growing problems elsewhere at home and abroad. In short, we need new ideas for the new century. Brian Urquhart, writing in August in The New York Review of Books, argues that in respect to America’s international role, the traditional threat to peace — wars between great powers — has been “supplanted by a series of global threats to human society — nuclear proliferation, global warming, terrorism, poverty, global epidemics, and more. These challenges can only be addressed by collective action, led by determined and imaginative men and women.” ... The vibrant coverage of ideas available in many small-circulation magazines is generally absent from the mass media, a state of affairs that makes the career of Tom Quinn, a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, all the more instructive.
-BA

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