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Exclusive interview: Robert Hirsch

Dr Robert L. Hirsch, Alexandria, VA, August 2010 (Photo: Matthieu Auzanneau)Dr Robert L. Hirsch, Alexandria, VA, August 2010
(Photo: Matthieu Auzanneau)

This post only contains excerpts from the interview with Robert Hirsch. For the full text, see the original articles: Part 1 and Part 2

‘Peak Oil’ : Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Energy sounds the alarm

Interview with Robert L. Hirsch (1/2) - LINK to full text of original

James Schlesinger, President Carter’s Energy Secretary, wrote the foreword to a book written by Dr Robert Hirsch, an former US official who predicts a fall of the oil production within 5 years.

Never before has a high-ranking political figure like Schlesinger given his support to such a prognosis. The book will be published in the US on October the 1st. Here is an exclusive interview with its author.

Dr. Robert Hirsch has a unique place in the ‘peak oil’ issue. Back in 2005, he was the main author of the first pessimistic report ever published by a public administration (presentation on Wikipedia).

Not just any public administration : the Department of Energy of President George Bush.

Robert Hirsch has been a manager of petroleum exploratory research at Exxon, a senior staff member at the RAND Corporation, and director of the US research program on nuclear fusion energy.

His 2005 conclusions did not get any attention from the mainstream or financial media.

Today, Robert Hirsch perseveres. According to him, it’s now obvious : we will soon face a decline of world black gold supplies.

. . .

(*) The Impending World Energy Mess, by Robert L. HIRSCH, Roger H. BEZDEK & Robert M. WENDLING. The three authors are associates in a small compagny dealing with energy information, MISI, Inc., based in Alexandria, VA. Foreword by Dr. James R. Schlesinger, first U.S Secretary of Energy. Publication scheduled on October the 1st. Apogee Prime. 256 pages, $29.95.


oil man: In the book that you are about to publish, your case is that ‘peak oil’ may happen very soon indeed. According to you, when might we be getting into trouble ? In ten years, in less than ten years ?

Let me begin with this : the background is the production. World oil production had been rising and then it’s been flat, fluctuating, since the middle of 2004 : it's been on a ‘plateau’. The economic recession led to a decline in demand, but not much.

The world demand is going up again. It’s back to where it was before the beginning of the crisis in 2008.

Correct. And the oil production fluctuates in a band of 4 or 5 %. It’s not very big. I think that the world oil production cannot go higher than that.

What is your hypothesis ?

We will stay in this band, and within 2 to 5 years, world oil production will go into decline.

. . .

According to you, what would be the pace of decline, once that decline starts ?

That’s a crucial question, because the decline rate is going to determine how much trouble we’re in. In the book we look at two decline rates : 2 % and 4 % a year. Clearly the smaller the decline rate is, the less difficult it will be to deal with. 4 % is really catastrophic. 2 % is going to be less difficult but still very difficult.

How difficult ?

In our 2005 report, we worked on a world wide “crash program”, which is the best that you can possibly do. You can’t go faster than that, so it’s a limiting case. With a worldwide crash program, it’s going to take you more than ten years to catch up, because the problem is running away from you ! If you’re in a race with another person, and that other person gets a head start, even if you manage to run faster than him, it may take a very long time to catch up.

What should we expect, before the world is able to catch up with the ‘peak oil’ issue ?

From a world standpoint, Growth Domestic Product will decline every year for over a decade, and could easily be down 20 or 30 % over this period of time. That’s what I mean when I say « catastrophic ».

Wherever you live, somebody has to get food to you. And modern farming is run by oil, because the tractors that plow the ground and plant the seeds, and do the harvesting, run on oil. And then you have to transport the food to some kind of processor, and from there to the consumer.

In 2008, when the price of the barrel of oil was above 130 dollars, there’s been hunger demonstrations in more that 20 countries all over the Third World. Do you believe that it is the kind of things that we have to expect a much larger scale and for many years ?

Yes. My background is physics. There’s a term that I love. It's called “non-linear”. Linear is like this (Dr Hirsch draws a straight line in the air).

Non-linear is this, or that, or this, that, that (he draws many lines and curves going into very different directions), and so many things feed back on other things, and so forth.

Getting in and trying to understand the problem in some kind of detail is impossible because it’s very non-linear : that will impact this, and that will impact that, and that will impact people.

And people may behave rationally, or they may strike and go out in the streets. There may be political chaos ! When that happens, the police have to get out and then, you know, wars may happen. It gets very messy.

. . .

Peak oil : “A conspiracy to keep it quiet” in Washington, says Robert Hirsch

Interview with Robert L. Hirsch (2/2) - LINK to full text of original

. . .

oil man: - What happened after you published your 2005 report on ‘peak oil’ for the US Department of Energy (DoE) ?

The people that I was dealing with said : « No more work on peak oil, no more talk about it. »

People that were high in the administration hierarchy ?

The people that I was dealing with were high in the laboratory level. They were getting their instructions from people on the political side of the DoE, at high levels.

After the work we did on the 2005 study and the follow-up of 2006, the Department of Energy headquarters completely cut off all support for oil peaking and decline analysis. The people that I was working with at the National Energy Technology Laboratory were good people, they saw the problem, they saw how difficult the consequences would be – you know, the potential for huge damage – yet they were told : « No more work, no more discussion. »

That was in 2006, under Bush administration. Has anything changed with the Obama administration ?

It has not changed. I have friends who simply won’t talk about it now. So I have to assume that they are receiving the same kind of instructions.

Robert Hirsch’s book, with a foreword by Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Energy, James Schlesinger.Robert Hirsch’s book,
with a foreword by
Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Energy,
James Schlesinger.

. . .

Yet it seems like Steven Chu, Obama’s Secretary of Energy, is aware of the ‘peak oil’ issue.

Oh yes he is !

But ?…

Clearly Secretary Chu is a very good physicist. But I think he does not have a broad view of energy. He’s also an ideologue : he is academic in his approach of those matters. And that’s a big difference with people who have spent time in the industry, who had to make things happen, who are aware of the underlying reality.

Still, Steven Chu and Barack Obama are pushing renewable energy, aren't they ?

Well… In the book that we are about to publish, we spend 60 % on oil, and then we look at the other sources of energy : coal, nuclear, renewables. We make very strong arguments that wind, solar cells and biomass will never amount to hardly anything. A lot of people are misguided because they think : let’s just go to wind and everything will be fine.

What about the Department of Defense (DoD) ? Two recent reports show that some people in the US army are willing to give very bold warnings.

You’re right. Things may be different there. The DoD is headed by Robert Gates, a brilliant guy and a good friend of James Schlesinger, the first US Secretary of Energy, who wrote the foreword of our book. Schlesinger has continuously served as an adviser to the DoD.

In 2005, Robert Gates took part in a war game named « Oil Shockwaves », with a number of other very high senior people involved in the administration, both Democrats and Republicans. What they did is they looked at a severe cut off of world oil production, something like five percent.

Like in 1973 ?

Something even worse than that. So they looked at the impact, and they saw severe problems for the economy. And they looked at the options that existed, and of course there are no options. There are no valves to turn on someplace.

They even considered military interventions in the Middle East as a means to change things. And they basically concluded that this was an impossible situation.

What about James Schlesinger : for how long has he been concerned about a possible decline of world oil supplies ?

He has been concerned about peak oil since he read the seminal paper by King Hubbert in the 60’s. That was before he became the Secretary of Defense under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

And then, there were those famous talks that Jimmy Carter gave about the US dependence on foreign oil…

Yes, James Schlesinger was behind this, as Carter’s Energy Secretary. And Admiral Rickover, the father of the US nuclear navy, was involved in those talks too.

Here’s where I’m going with this : I think that the DoD is independent enough from the White House. They can say things like they said in the reports that you mentioned on your blog.

. . .

Editorial Notes: Matthieu Auzanneau has kindly agreed to let EB publish excerpts from the interview. For the full text, use the links below. As far as I know, this is the first explicit statement by an insider that the Department of Energy is actively suppressing information and research on peak oil. Note to journalists: You are welcome to use this information, but PLEASE credit the author Matthieu Auzanneau and give the URLs of the original articles (below) on his blog at Le Monde. This interview with Robert Hirsch appears in two parts on Matthieu's site. In English: Part 1 Part 2 In French: Part 1 Part 2 Steve Andrews posted another interview with Hirsch on September 13 on the ASPO-USA site. -BA

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