Daniel Yergin has always huffed and puffed against peak oil. But will his new cornucopian book blow the house down? Photo: World Economic Forum.Daniel Yergin has always huffed and puffed against peak oil. But will his new cornucopian book blow the house down? Photo: World Economic Forum.

Maybe you’ve tried arguing with a Fox News fan about global warming? Soon, you could start having the same kind of time-wasting exchanges about peak oil and energy depletion.

The good news is that unlike climate change, most people haven’t even heard of peak oil. That’s certainly a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to help the public get it right from the beginning. Even better news: most people can easily understand that oil is a finite resource and can accept that the world will run out of it sooner or later.

We’ll never run out of oil

Of course, industry experts are quick to tell us that the world will never “run out” of oil. They predict that even a couple centuries from now, somebody will probably be pumping crude somewhere.

To ordinary people, this is a distinction without a difference. The real issue is that we may soon run out of affordable oil, which will mean more drivers will have to take the off ramp while imports from China will slow to a trickle.

But perhaps experts who care about peak oil are so quick to correct anyone who says that we’ll run out of oil to avoid a “gotcha” from guys like Daniel Yergin.

Author of the 1992 Pulitzer winning The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, subsequently made into a TV series on PBS, Yergin’s high profile in the media is intimidating. And the prestige and lucre that Yergin enjoys as a consultant to the industry at IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates seems to inspire the particular ire of industry experts concerned about peak oil.

It’s easy to see why. For years, Yergin has been saying that peak oil is, essentially, bunk, because people have predicted before — since the 1880s! — that we’d run out of oil. Since the pessimists have been wrong each time in the past, peak oilers must be wrong this time too.

This is a patently silly argument, if you only consider an analogy: Terrorism experts had been predicting a major attack by Al Qaeda on the US for years, but each time they’d been wrong — until they were right in 2001.

There will be technology

Faulty logic hasn’t kept Yergin from dissing anyone who’s bearish on oil supplies. His new book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, serves up more of the same.

Naturally, when the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt from the book last week, it provoked a heated response from the peak oil camp. In the article, “There Will Be Oil,” Yergin chided peak oil adherents for failing to recognize the role of technology to squeeze much more oil out of existing fields than anybody had anticipated.

The idea of “proved reserves” of oil isn’t just a physical concept, accounting for a fixed amount in the “storehouse.” It’s also an economic concept: how much can be recovered at prevailing prices. And it’s a technological concept, because advances in technology take resources that were not physically accessible and turn them into recoverable reserves.

In the oil and gas industry, technologies are constantly being developed to find new resources and to produce more—and more efficiently—from existing fields. In a typical oil field, only about 35% to 40% of the oil in place is produced using traditional methods.

Several peak oil adherents fired back in response. Christopher Mims at Grist summed up what the more technical responders had to say about Yergin: “The thing is, Yergin has been demonstrably getting it wrong about oil for years. There are countless examples, well chronicled here, but he is so wrong, so often, that it only takes about 5 minutes with Google to find an egregious example.”

Here’s Yergin in 2005, when oil was $60 a barrel, predicting that world oil production would grow from 85 million barrels a day to 101 million by 2010, “reliev[ing] the current pressure on supply and demand.” It’s 2011, and we’re still only producing 89.1 million barrels a day. Meanwhile the cost of a barrel of oil is hovering around $90, and that’s with a depressed world economy keeping prices in check.

Less influential than disco

In the end, how much does Yergin really matter?

Yergin clearly doesn’t care about converting peak oilers. He really wants to influence Washington. And since he’s already doing that anyway, this latest effort to discredit peak oil will be little more than shooting fish in a barrel.

It also can’t hurt that politicians, who always want to please the voters, are naturally inclined to listen to the rosy view pushed by Big Oil and picked up in the media: All will be well and nobody will have to cut back much on driving or anything else that uses energy if only Big Gubmint would get out of the way and just let the industry drill wherever they say the oil is. And for goodness sakes, dump all these money-wasting environmental regulations that just get in the way of production.

With politicians so much on the take from plutocrats these days, if you care about peak oil maybe you should be more interested in reaching the general public.

Dr Johnson said that “nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.” And as apathetic as the public may be today about energy, history has shown that an oil crisis has a wonderful power to focus the consumer mind on how much their next fill up will cost and which gas station has the shortest lines.

The next oil crunch is sure to come soon and it can’t help but get the public’s attention. Then, the question is, will truth or demagoguery win the day — will people fall for “drill baby drill” or will they be ready to demand that society start getting off of oil and, ultimately, start powering down from high tech globalization?

Am 800-page book on oil, no matter how many yarns its author may spin, will never have much influence on the public. Even if Yergin is lucky enough to score another PBS series, his ideas won’t go far beyond the pledge-drive-and-tote-bag crowd.

The truthiness will set you free

Far more influential is someone like Steven Colbert. And an appearance by Yergin last week on the Colbert Report gave Colbert an excuse to get the words “peak oil” in front of millions of viewers.

Yergin started his interview by re-heating his story about how oil pessimists have been wrong since the 1880s and then answering Colbert’s questions about alternatives to oil, from wind (getting good) and solar (maybe someday) to hydrofracked gas (great right now). Colbert closed by getting Yergin to agree that “we’re not running out of oil,” but then cut off Yergin’s desperate attempt to interrupt and qualify his claim: “I’m sorry, we’ve reached peak interview.”

Was Colbert unfair to Yergin? Colbert did seem to want to paint Yergin into a cornucopian corner. And the only reason I can imagine for that is that Colbert has himself become a peak oiler. I don’t know if researching his interview with Yergin turned Colbert on to the issue or if he cared about it before. But Yergin’s appearance certainly gave Colbert an excuse to put the topic of peak oil on the table. And that’s probably the opposite of what Yergin intended.

So I’m glad that Yergin is doing a big book tour. His appearances may stir up a discussion in the media, which can only help spread awareness of oil depletion and its potential consequences for society. But then, it’s up to peak oilers to reply to Yergin’s optimism so the public can hear and understand the reality of peak oil. And it won’t be enough for the usual energy buffs to keep publishing yard-long articles filled with graphs of oil depletion curves on the usual peak oil blogs. Peak oilers need to be even more clear, accessible and interesting than Yergin.

I’ll bet that in the future, Colbert would be ready to talk to someone else about oil depletion, this time, on the peak oil side. Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler or Michael Ruppert would all be sufficiently quirky, geeky or curmudgeonly to appeal to Colbert’s bookers.

And to these men, I say, don’t wait. Strike now, while Yergin’s iron is hot.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice