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Peak oil is simple

Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) recently released a report called Why the "Peak Oil" Theory Falls Down -- Myths, Legends and the Future of Oil Resources. It's getting a lot of attention, and has produced much consternation in the peakoilosphere.

The definitive response, as usual, is on The Oil Drum.

I must say, the more I read about peak oil, the less complicated the whole thing seems to me. That may sound crazy, since everyone involved in discussions of oil prides themselves on their engineering acumen, impeccable logic, and devotion to empirical data (in the form of charts and graphs, of course!). Pull any one thread of the oil tapestry and you quickly uncover a skein of irreconcilably opposed viewpoints, all backed by reams of data, all contemptuous of the illogic and wishful thinking of the others.

So why do I think it's simple?

Well, we need to separate two questions about peak oil. First, there's the factual question.

As I see it, virtually everyone but the abiotic fruitloops agrees that oil is a finite resource that's going to hit peak production at some point. Even the CERA report, from what I can tell (I haven't ponied up the $1000 to read it), claims production will peak around 2040, stay on an "undulating plateau" for a while, and then decline slowly. This is not a best case scenario, but it's pretty rosy -- it gives us breathing room. Anyone who's read around the internets a little will be familiar with more dire predictions.

I, along with about 99.99% of the population, am not interested in the factual question as such. In general, minerals do not inflame my passions.

What I'm interested in is the political question: how does this affect human welfare? What should we do about it?

Now, it is the nature of engineers, data nerds, lefty wonks, and other too-smart-for-their-own-good types to have a somewhat naive view of politics. They tend to think that the main determinant of political action is the established empirical facts. Establish the facts; policy ensues. That's why winning the empirical argument is so overwhelmingly important for them.

Of course, it's not so. The range of possibilities in the political world -- the real world, not the world of policy wonkery -- is, at least most of the time, much narrower than the range of possible oil production scenarios. And political action cannot be controlled with anything like the nuance one finds in different peak oil perspectives. It can just barely be controlled at all. It moves to its own mysterious rhythms, as responsive to imagery, emotion, and -- crucially -- chance circumstance as to "the facts."

Weaning our society off oil is an enormous task. It's going to take a great deal of time and political effort to make it happen. Progress will be halting and non-linear. There will be many false starts, diversions, and unexpected difficulties. If you think oil production's going to peak -- tomorrow, in a decade, mid-century, whenever -- you need to help get that ball rolling, ASAP.

Perhaps in a perfect Platonic world of policy, a "peak oil is today" strategy would look different from a "peak oil in 2040" strategy. But back down here on earth, we're stuck with the blunt instrument of representative democracy. Our choice is far closer to binary than most oil geeks are willing to acknowledge. The choice before us is: mobilize and start pushing, or don't. Keep doing nothing, or start doing something.

We need to get started. It's that simple.

Editorial Notes: Actually the CERA report's date for possible peak oil is 2030, not 2040. David's confusion is understandable. Another CERA document by Peter Jackson mentioned the date "2020." And of course, David's point is that it doesn't matter, in terms of practical politics. I guess it takes someone outside the peak oil blogosphere to point out the obvious! -BA

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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