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The dangers of certitude

In northwestern Colorado the Yampa River is the last wild, undammed major tributary of the Colorado River, which makes it a favorite for river runners. One morning in 1965 two experienced rafters floated around a corner above Warm Springs Rapid. Historically, this had been just a minor riffle in a river full of major rapids. But the previous evening a flash flood had choked the Yampa with rocks and boulders, creating what is today, at high water, one of the ten toughest river rapids in the West. Taken by complete surprise, the two shocked rafters flipped in a monstrous hole they had never anticipated; one died.

Today, every river rat who rafts the Yampa knows about Warm Springs—the rapid that changed the face of a river overnight. No one takes it for granted. Hold that thought, and we’ll come back to it in a moment.

This past August, your ASPO-USA conference co-chairs (Jim Baldauf and Steve Andrews) traveled to Houston to meet the editors and publishers of World Oil magazine and Oil and Gas Investor magazine, plus the editor of the Oil & Gas Journal and an experienced energy beat writer for the Houston Chronicle. We wanted to solicit their broad views on peak oil and invite them to cover the conference October 18th- 20th.

One question we asked these journalists was “what do you see as the greatest weaknesses in the peak oil argument?” Half of their response—“the resource is larger than the pessimists think”—likely will not surprise you. The other half may: “It’s the sense of certainty conveyed about many of the issues.”

Our hosts had good working familiarity with history of peak oil forecasting, including the flawed early calls. With decades in the business, they had also seen dozens if not hundreds of oil and gas price forecasts miss the mark. In short, experience has taught them to be mistrust forecasts about anything. Soothsaying strikes these writers as a smug and dangerous practice.

Having followed the peak oil discussion for twenty years, we share this concern. In our opinion, excessive certitude may be the soft underbelly of the peak oil movement.

Certitude: “the state of being or feeling certain.” Sometimes certitude stems from blind optimism. Who can forget the catch-phrase of the early 1960s that nuclear power would eventually be “too cheap to meter.” Other times certitude issues from a lack of imagination—think France’s Maginot Line. But most often certitude fails to recognize that history itself is profoundly unpredictable. In 1990, no energy forecaster could have foreseen double-digit growth in Chinese demand for oil, or the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Even someone as smug, arrogant, and self-righteous as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld understood the dangers of hubris. In one famous soliloquy he noted, “There are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

If forecasting is a slippery business, the flip side is that predictions can be useful, and it takes personal courage to go out on a limb. It took a considerable degree of courage (backed up by analysis) for M. King Hubbert to forecast in March 1956, over the objections of his bosses, that U.S. oil production would peak around 1970. Recall that this was before any large producing nation had experienced its maximum production and decline. Although history proved Hubbert prescient on the U.S. peak, some energy historians argue today that he was just lucky. Hubbert’s forecasts of a world peak around 1995 have not come true, in part because he anticipated but couldn’t quantify the impact of numerous technological developments, such as 3D seismic and deepwater drilling. When it comes to predictions, nobody’s track record is perfect.

Perhaps the humorous advice about forecasting—“do it early and often”—should be discarded when it comes to peak oil. Our efforts to predict when world oil production will peak sometimes seem tendentious. There is no way to “win” on this question until the peak is visible in the rear view mirror. More importantly, debates on when shift the focus away from the far more important issue: what should we do now to mitigate the impacts of peak? It’s highly instructive that authors Hirsch, Bezdek and Wendling of “The Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management” (2005) didn’t spend any time forecasting the peak date. They didn’t even bother. Instead, their paper tried to underscore a much more important paradigm—that efforts to mitigate the peak of oil production must begin at least a decade before the peak to be most effective.

The peak oil movement could benefit from their example. It’s easy to make forecasts. It takes courage, wisdom, and humility to restrain that all too-human impulse. As we survey the field, three key points seem apparent: 

  1. Everyone agrees that peak oil will occur some day, and virtually everyone—from the most to least optimistic—agrees that it will be before 2030-40.
  2. During the last ten years, peak oil optimists have made a series of erroneous calls. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, the International Energy Agency, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, and the National Petroleum Council have all forecast larger production increases and lower prices for oil and natural gas than have materialized, for a host of reasons. But the high-water mark in wild forecasts may have been the U.S. Geological Survey’s 1961 estimate that 590 billion barrels of conventional oil would ultimately be extracted from the U.S. Thirty-seven years past peak, we’ve yet to produce half that much.
  3. Shrill forecasts—from any camp—don’t sway the undecided. But there’s a catch-22 here. As Hirsch and Bezdek pointed out, unless policymakers become convinced that peak oil is imminent—before it occurs—the post-peak transition is likely to be very painful.

If forecasts are often futile and shouted warnings often go unheeded, what’s a peak oil concernist to do? Maybe the Yampa River offers us a lesson. Today, river runners always scout Warm Springs Rapid before running it. When they hear the roar of cascade, they row to shore, tie-up, then walk along the bank, examining their options, making plans, and discussing contingencies. It’s not unusual to spend 30 minutes analyzing the rapid, before climbing back in the boat, cinching down the life jacket straps, and rowing alertly into the violent maelstrom.

In stark contrast, most people in this country (and much of the world) appear blissfully unaware of the emerging peak oil story. While there is general unease afoot about energy, most automobile buyers and manufacturers (to identify but one threatened sector) seem to anticipate only minor changes on down the road. Without a breakthrough in the level of discourse, society could face its own Warm Springs unprepared.

But maybe the way to communicate the threat is with less rather than more shrillness. Maybe less certitude and less hubris—on all sides—would help prevent this critical discussion from becoming trapped in the equivalent of an eddy or, worse, in what river runners call a whirling “maytag hole.”

Steve Andrews and Randy Udall are two of the co-founders of ASPO-USA.

Editorial Notes: Also see Six Rules for Effective Forecasting by Paul Saffo in Harvard Business Review. (In case the above link disappears, EB posted some excerpts here.) -BA

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