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The peak oil crisis: Wall Street comes to reality

The day was a long time in coming. For many months now, world oil production has remained essentially flat and world oil exports have fallen while world oil prices just climbed and climbed. Poor country after poor country was priced out of the market and world oil stockpiles started to melt. Yet as the world lurched towards the mother of all economic crises, the major media of the country led by Wall Street’s own Journal remained strangely silent.

From time to time they would report some good news such as “billions of barrels found 25,000 ft under the Gulf” or “steaming out sticky oil will save us.” However, they never got around to asking what is involved in extracting oil from deepwater wells or just where all that tar-melting steam was coming from. Anyone who questioned that oil production could keep on growing for the foreseeable future was castigated as lunatic fringe.

This make-believe world finally came crashing down on Monday when the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story admitting there was a big, big problem with oil production just ahead. Now the flagship of economic journalism does not come to such a decision lightly. To admit that you have been dead wrong in ignoring the most important economic issue the world is likely to face in the next century certainly strains your journalistic credibility.

There must have been hours of agonized meetings in the offices of senior Journal editors as they hashed out just how to break the news that world oil production was about to peak without admitting that the world is arriving at peak oil.

The solution turned out to be rather ingenious. Write a story about a new kind of “plateauing oil” that has just been recognized while continuing to bash the old “peak oil.” Sophistry? Of course, but it enables the Journal to maintain that all-important face.

The title of the Journal’s story sets the stage “OIL OFFICIALS SEE LIMIT LOOMING ON PRODUCTION.” The first sentence carries the message “A growing number of oil-industry chieftains are endorsing an idea long deemed fringe: The world is approaching a practical limit to the number of barrels of crude oil that can be pumped every day.”

There you have it. The story is not portrayed as “evidence is growing that world oil production will soon go into decline.” It turns out that the real news is that an increasing number of oil-industry leaders are afraid that the world is approaching “a practical limit” on oil production. “Practical limit” is a nice touch which sweeps a number of issues under the rug.

To give the Journal its due, right up front they lay out the magnitude of the problem - “The world certainly won't run out of oil any time soon. And plenty of energy experts expect sky-high prices to hasten the development of alternative fuels and improve energy efficiency. But evidence is mounting that crude-oil production may plateau before those innovations arrive on a large scale. That could set the stage for a period marked by energy shortages, high prices and bare-knuckled competition for fuel.”

After so much honesty the Journal, unfortunately, falls back into its old ways by attempting to make a distinction between what it is telling us as news and the old “peak oil theory.” The following paragraph from the Journal’s story is a gem.

“The current debate represents a significant twist on an older, often-derided notion known as the peak-oil theory. Traditional peak-oil theorists, many of whom are industry outsiders or retired geologists, have argued that global oil production will soon peak and enter an irreversible decline because nearly half the available oil in the world has been pumped. They've been proved wrong so often that their theory has become debased.”

“Proved wrong so often?” “Debased”? As could be expected, peak oil adherents were apoplectic at these words. The web was instantly populated with reasoned refutations and charts which ask, “What on earth are they talking about?”

The answer probably is in the way large institutions such as the Journal pass important stories through layers of editors – not just to get the commas right but to insure political correctness from the paper’s perspective. The “debased” paragraph plays such a discordant note, it can only be a political afterthought from management.

The story then goes on to explain “plateauing” oil. “The new adherents...don't believe the global oil tank is at the half-empty point. But they share the belief that a global production ceiling is coming for other reasons: restricted access to oil fields, spiraling costs and increasingly complex oil-field geology. This will create a global production plateau, not a peak, they contend, with oil output remaining relatively constant rather than rising or falling.”

Once the story gets beyond the “face saving” it does a credible job in explaining why the world will soon be facing a major shortfall in oil production -- “The emergence of a production ceiling would mark a monumental shift in the energy world.” The “expanding pool of oil, most of it priced cheaply by today's standards, fueled the post-World War II global economic expansion.” “Since 1990, despite billions in new spending, the industry has found only one field with the potential to top 500,000 barrels a day.”  “Some of the most promising geological formations are in locations that are inhospitable, for reasons of geography or, especially, politics and strife.” “Labor and construction bottlenecks also are making it difficult to develop proven fields.”

The Journal’s story marks an important turning point in the public’s understanding of peak oil. Now that the ice has been broken by the flagship of the financial press, it will not be long before others muster the courage to explore and discuss the ramifications of “plateauing” oil. This cannot be a bad thing for as the notion that we are entering the greatest paradigm shift of the last 100 years sinks in, people can start preparing for it.

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