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The peak oil crisis: the word begins to spread

The world oil situation is quiet at the moment. Oil prices have dropped to their lowest level in 15 weeks due to the lack of any imminent geopolitical threats or looming hurricanes. The Iranian nuclear enrichment situation seems to be on hold for awhile as the US can't convince China, Russia, Japan and a lot of European powers that the world would be better if only the UN imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran thereby forcing them to limit oil exports in retaliation. However, we earthlings are still draining off our finite oil supply at the rate of 85 million barrels a day (b/d) so things are bound to get interesting again somewhere down the line.

There are two parts to the peak oil story. First, is the peaking of world oil production itself and the accompanying economic, political, social, cultural, and you-name-it shocks that will precede, accompany, and last long after the peaking. The second is universal recognition of what is going on and the serious efforts to do something about living with less oil.

At 1,000 barrels a second or 31 billion barrels a year, we are moving nicely towards peak production, so there is little we have to do to get there. Recognizing there is a world-class problem in the offing clearly is another story. While a handful of magazines and a few large-circulation, influential newspapers have carried scattered peak oil stories for some time now, many of these been in the vein of "we might be hit by a giant meteor/earthquake/tsunami or bird flu" any minute now, or long after we are dead. In either case there is nothing we can do about it. Things may be changing.

Last week Bloomberg, "the leading global provider of data, news and analytics," published a balanced, carefully researched, 4,200 word article on peak oil. For those of us who follow the peak oil story, this was an event of earth shaking proportions.

Keyed on the July meeting of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO)in Italy, the article covers most aspects of the peak oil story including extensive quotes from all sides of the issue. The piece is entitled "Peak Oil Forecasters Win Converts on Wall Street to $200 Crude."

The author, Deepak Gopinath, captures the essence of peak oil in one succinct paragraph:

"Proponents of this controversial idea say global oil production is now at or near its zenith. Once the flow crests and starts to decline -- and some geologists say it already has -- oil will no longer be able to slake the world's growing thirst for energy. The result will be the oil shock to end all oil shocks. The price of a barrel of crude will spiral to $200 -- and keep rising. To the peaksters, today's energy crunch is nothing next to the pain that will follow."

Gopinath strengthens the credentials of peak oil by pointing out that the US Secretary of Energy has asked the National Petroleum Council to look into the matter; the US Government Accountability Office is scheduled to release a study on peak oil in November; and the US House of Representatives has a small but vocal peak oil caucus.

Then it is time to hear from the doubters. The ExxonMobil PR guy says "nonsense." "The world is nowhere near running out of oil." "ExxonMobil geologists believe oil production will keep rising through 2030."

The author then trots out a geologist from Cambridge Energy Research Associates who proclaims that "our outlook goes out to 2020, and we see no evidence of a peak." Realizing he may be a little far out on a limb, the geologist opines that "Eventually we will start to see a decline. There is still time to think about alternatives."

After noting that people have been predicting the end of oil production for over 100 years, and that it has never happened —yet—, the story becomes one of reciting the evidence and arguments for peak oil. Little is left out. M. King Hubbert of Hubbert's peak is brought in along with his various disciples Colin Campbell, founder of ASPO, along with Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton who has calculated that peak oil production was reached on December 16, 2005 (We don't know as yet if he was right).

President Bush and his "addicted to oil" speech and billionaire oilman Boone Pickens, a peak oil believer are quoted. Declining production, a paucity of new discoveries, rapidly increasing costs to discover and produce new oil, nearly everything in the peak oil mantra is mentioned in the story. On balance this story is about 90 to 10 pro peak oil. The evidence peak oil is for real and imminent is laid out in some detail while the doubters simply assert their beliefs all is well and that no peak is in sight.

Now with wire service stories such as this one from Bloomberg, individual newspapers decide for themselves whether or not to run it. So far as I have been able to tell, only the International Herald Tribune has run the story although I did note a passing reference to the story on the Wall Street Journal's web site.

Obviously thousands of influential opinion makers, financial analysts and policymakers are aware of this story and have taken the message at least partially aboard.

In the Sept. 5 Wall Street Journal, in a story about a big new oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico, the author was recounting why oil has risen from $20 to over $70 a barrel in recent years. He wrote, "Factors fueling the price include shrinking surplus production capacity, fear that global oil output is peaking, instability in several oil-producing regions and a rising tide of oil nationalism which has led some countries to tighten their control over their oil nationalism.

When the Journal, which has been one of the strongest opponents of the notion the that world oil production is peaking, includes a clause about peak oil (even if they are referring to someone else's irrational fears), we are starting to make progress.

Editorial Notes: Nice survey. The lead paragraph in a commentary just published by Business Week (Plenty of Oil—Just Drill Deeper) contained this remarkable sentence:
Peak Oil is the theory, on the verge of becoming conventional wisdom, that the world's petroleum supply is topping out and will not be able to meet global demand soaring along with the economies of China and India.
Peak oil - conventional wisdom? A surprising perception from a columnist in a leading business magazine. It's true, that Mark Morrison went on to say that we could go back to sleep for a decade because of the recent oil find in the Gulf of Mexico -- nonetheless! This is another step forward. Two people whose comments on peak oil have been totally ignored by the major media are Bill Clinton and Al Gore. See for example: Clinton raises alarm about oil depletion Clinton on peak oil and global warming Clinton: not briefed on peak oil Al Gore: we're at or near peak oil One would think that it would be worthwhile to cover the thinking by the most powerful poltician of the last decade on one of the most important problems of our time. -BA

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