Last week Michael Lynch and Daniel Yergin pummeled the concept of peak oil in two mainstream media outlets. Lynch’s feisty but nearly fact-free op-ed for the New York Times and Yergin’s more scholarly reflection in Foreign Policy whipped up further discussion in the blogosphere. Although the majority of on-line responses to Lynch’s piece were negative, peak oil advocates were put on the defensive.
The two critics employ distinctly different separate styles — Yergin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and suave, savvy corporate schmoozer, while Lynch resembles the kind of pit bull that enjoys attacking bicyclists from behind. Both have been pounding away at peak oil since its “modern renaissance” began with the March 1998 article in Scientific American, “The End of Cheap Oil.” These two masters of denial enjoy flogging peak oil. It’s clearly what their paying clients in Big Oil want to hear, and sometimes the peak oil community inadvertently hands them ammo that is too good to pass up.
Yergin’s case is somewhat perplexing. His shop (Cambridge Energy Research Associates — CERA) talks a good game about the need for a “rational discourse” about peak oil, and indeed CERA has published graphics in the past two years that clearly show crude-and-condensate production peaking. But in his Foreign Policy piece, Yergin once-again dredges up the tired notion that peak oilers claim “we’re running out of oil” (only an unfortunate few still use that framing). He crows that if access were no problem, and pigs could fly, world reserves could support substantial growth in production, and that Canadian tar sands and OPEC natural gas liquids are the cavalry that will rescue the day. Although Lynch’s oil price forecasts over the past few years have been ludicrously erroneous, in his op-ed he has the chutzpah to list some 14 flaws in peak oil analysis. While a few of the criticisms hit the mark, most are just rhetorical head banging. A full counterpoint of Yergin and Lynch is beyond the scope here. Instead, we’ll highlight two points.
It isn’t about “running out;” it’s about “the flows”
World oil production grew eight-fold between 1945 and 2000. The peak oil story is about our inability to sustain that trend. Today’s modest “excess” of oil supply — the result of shrinking demand due to the global recession plus Saudi investments — may last another year or two. But in the background resource nationalism, credit constraints, reduced drilling, armed conflict, and regional geological limits are kicking in hard. By 2012, global production will be downshifting into reverse, with a larger world population forced to divvy up a shrinking supply.
Debunking peak oil is like railing against gravity or aging. Consider the table below, based on worldwide production data in BP’s Annual Statistical Review. It summarizes production trends for the world’s 30 largest oil-producing nations, which account for 94% of the world’s daily output.
The track record here is ugly. A decade ago, only four of the world’s top 30 oil producers were in decline; now the number is 11 and growing. The UK had been steadily increasing production during the 1990s, as had Norway. Mexican production surged in the late 1990s. Now all three are in decline and the UK is an importer, despite the use of best-in-class technology throughout the North Sea. Indonesia, a former oil exporter, became a net oil importer within the last two years.
Brazil’s oil future looks promising, but Russia’s oil story likely includes a plateau or worse. The Chinese admit they are near peak production, hence their push to buy capacity abroad. What’s your bet that peace will break out in Iraq and Nigeria to allow production to grow? Or that Chavez and Putin will turn over a new leaf, and that Iran will make nice?
The math is straightforward and compelling. Sure, technology has helped grow deepwater supply, but that has only been enough to keep oil production flat, or “at peak/plateau,” since 2005.
A Phalanx of Pros belies the Deniers
Lynch insinuates that peak oil advocates are well-meaning but misguided amateurs. “A careful examination of the facts,” he writes, “shows that most arguments about peak oil are based on…ignorance of how the oil industry goes about finding fields and extracting petroleum.” This is nonsense. In fact, there’s a rapidly growing list of oil industry professionals who have called attention to the peak oil challenge. It includes: T. Boone Pickens; James Buckee, former CEO of Talisman Energy; Jeremy Gilbert, former chief petroleum engineer at BP; Peter Wells, Toyota’s peak oil consultant; Sadad al Husseini, former VP of exploration and production for Saudi Aramco; Ray Leonard; formerly with Yukos and Kuwait Energy; Vince Matthews, Colorado State geologist, Mike Rogers at PFC Energy; and many many others. Indeed, the number of people and organizations who have embraced the peak oil story grows each year, while the ranks of the denialists steadily shrink. As their own production drifts sideways or declines, oil companies like Total, Chevron, Royal/Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil, and Hess Oil no longer pooh-pooh peak oil. Even a long-time denier like the International Energy Agency has sounded measured alarms, and one of the last la-la land inhabitants, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is beginning to recognize trouble on the horizon.
Pyrrhic victories on the op-ed page won’t win the war
Yergin and Lynch are simply wrong. Crude-and-condensate are declining, and even if you expand your definition, as CERA does, to include corn ethanol, algal biodiesel, Canadian tar sands, Estonia oil shale, and a million barrels a day of Qatari ethane, global oil production will never exceed 92 million barrels a day. In the past, we have personally challenged Yergin and CERA to a $10,000 bet about peak oil. We reissue that bet here, and extend it to Michael Lynch: to wit, we wager $10,000 that all-liquids production won’t exceed 92 million barrels a day by 2020. This time, we hope Yergin and Lynch will put some money where their mouth is.
Steve Andrews and Randy Udall are two of the five co-founders of ASPO-USA.