Those who criticize peak oil theory or at least the conclusion that peak oil is nearby find themselves faced with a naming problem. If they believe that oil supplies are for all practical purposes infinite (an idea usually associated with the abiotic theory of oil), they are consigned to the category of people who are incapable of accepting the overwhelming evidence that no matter what oil’s origins, it is, in any time frame that matters to humans, finite. They are not exactly cornucopians.

Genuine cornucopians don’t deny that hydrocarbons are limited in supply. Rather, they believe that humans will find ingenious new ways to power their economies through innovation and marketplace incentives and that they will do this in plenty of time. At the very least, the infinite supply theorists should not be classed among the reality-based community.

Of those who accept that oil is a finite resource, many believe a decline in supply won’t occur for three decades or more. They use such words as “undulating plateau” or “no visible peak” (Michael Lynch) to describe their views. Perhaps the most ingenious formulation is that put forth by Daniel Yergin, long-time head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, that the risks to oil supply lie above ground rather than below it. This implies a desire for a certain kind of unspecified foreign and domestic policy to solve the “above ground” problems. (These problems, of course, are problems primarily for oil importers, not oil exporters.) The problems include the following:

  1. The most promising areas for oil exploration are under the control of national oil companies that refuse to open them to large-scale prospecting and development by foreign-based firms.
  2. The chaos in oil-rich areas such as Nigeria and Iraq is preventing oil production from reaching its full capacity.
  3. Unreasonable restrictions on drilling in such areas as the water surrounding the United States and public lands owned by the government are delaying much needed discoveries.
  4. Industry is not investing enough in exploration, infrastructure and alternative energy.

Just how much violence, war or state coercion Yergin might be willing to accept to solve these problems is unclear, especially since Yergin styles himself as a free market advocate. But he may not quality for inclusion in the reality-based community if he believes that rational problem-solving will somehow allow us to overcome all of the hurdles he enumerates.

The point is that Yergin is actually expanding the case for his opponents in the peak oil debate. Peak oil isn’t just a product of geology. It will be the result of the interaction of geological reality, infrastructure, political and military decisions, economic cycles, and consumer behavior. Peak is about flows, and flows of oil may end up peaking for any number of reasons even if the underlying resource remains quite large. Yes, geology is not the only consideration. But, is a peak any less of a peak if it occurs for a multitude of reasons rather than one? Won’t we will still have to deal with the resulting fallout?

From a larger perspective, the debate over the exact timing of peak oil really comes down to this: How much running room do we have before we go off a cliff? Given the damage that a the cliff implies and given the uncertainty over how much running room we have, wouldn’t it be wise to make serious efforts to prepare now instead of waiting to see just how close to the cliff we really are?