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How you can tell that the peak oil debate is (almost) over

Protestations in the mainstream media that we need not worry about a peak in the rate of world oil production anytime soon are suddenly coming fast and furious. As a result, I was reminded both of Shakespeare and Gandhi.

"The media doth protest too much," I thought (with apologies to Queen Gertrude in Hamlet). As for Gandhi, a quote commonly attributed to him may shed light on where we are in the peak oil debate: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win."

So, it appears that we are now in stage three of a four-stage process. This may not be so farfetched as it seems. I can remember when I first began writing regularly about peak oil in 2004. The main problem was that the media was simply ignoring the issue. It just didn't fit any category which the vast majority of reporters recognized.

That was followed by a period of ridicule from oil industry representatives, economists, and a few writers in the trade press, but almost no one in the mainstream media. "Pshaw, pshaw," they seemed to say in chorus, "no sensible person would take the idea of a near-term peak in world oil production seriously." (Never mind that these people mostly misunderstood the problem of peak oil as being one related to the size of the remaining resource rather than the rate of extraction.)

Now we have come to the point where there are open attacks in the mainstream media. Yes, there have been attacks before, mostly in the trade press and on specialized sites and blogs on the Internet. It was more internecine conflict within the industry, narrow professional circles, and the activist community. But that doesn't really count as a public brawl when your true audience is the mass of nonspecialists. Now, we have the equivalent of that with the publication of a major piece in Nature, a respected scientific journal, but one that mere mortals are able to read. The piece in question has the reactionary forces in full attack mode.

An op-ed in The National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi, set the bar very low when it comes to facts and logic. Bloomberg Businessweek emitted a piece entitled "Everything You Know About Peak Oil Is Wrong" on the same day the Nature piece appeared--almost as if the writer knew it was coming. The Bloomberg piece trots out mostly tired, irrelevant arguments and a few that are relevant but factually wrong. Gail Tverberg does a good job of critiquing this very sloppy piece. Chris Nelder at Smartplanet takes on the Bloomberg piece as well as a number of poorly argued responses to the Nature article.

But the latest counterattack actually began last fall with Daniel Yergin, the smooth-talking and smooth-writing oil optimist that peak oil activists love to hate. Yergin felt compelled to push back in The Wall Street Journal at peak oil ideas in the course of promoting his new book. Thanks, Mr. Yergin, for bringing up the subject.

Many readers will no doubt be acquainted with the saying: "There is no such thing as bad publicity." This corresponds perfectly with Gandhi's phase three of a struggle. The opposition is now forced by obvious circumstances--i.e., no increase in oil supplies despite years of record prices--to explain away something that peak oil theory explains perfectly.

It may be disheartening to see so much disinformation in the media spewed by people who ought to know better. But it is ever so delicious to contemplate the desperation hiding behind their fretful posturing and incantation. I can almost hear them say, "It can't be so, it can't be so...it simply mustn't!" They seem to believe that if they say "Bakken, Brazil, offshore, tar sands, technology" enough times in a row, it will make $100-a-barrel oil go away. But that incantation will not make the data go away, and so we must keep pointing out that the trend remains flat despite all of those things.

Perhaps the surest sign that the peak oil message is now in fighting form is that the former president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, agreed to a debate last week with one of the foremost scientific voices in the peak oil camp. It may be that Hofmeister is just a good, fair-minded citizen who thinks the issue should be aired. But the fact that he chose to give his imprimatur to the notion that peak oil needs to be debated speaks volumes.

Rock-star investors such as T. Boone Pickens and Richard Rainwater have long since put their imprimatur on peak oil. Major banks such as Australia's Macquarie Bank and Germany's Deutsche Bank (PDF) are also embracing the near-term peak thesis. And, embarrassing government leaks like this recent one in Australia and this one from the British government last year demonstrate that behind the scenes government planners and politicians are gravely concerned.

Does that mean that peak oil activists have reached their goal of informing the public and policymakers about the risks and opportunities posed by peak oil? Of course not. This is where the hard work begins because the debate has now been elevated to the national and international stage. And, that means we can look forward to a continuous clash that is increasingly in the public eye.

Now is also the opportune time for a well-financed, coordinated communications strategy (which I proposed here in 2008) that can take advantage of a new media environment more open to the idea of resource constraints.

Far from being discouraged by the rash of peak oil denunciations in the media lately, I am invigorated by it. Remember: we're now on offense; they're on defense. The opposition has to explain why oil production has been flat since 2005 despite high prices. And, the twisted logic and demonstrably false assertions they offer will provide ever better opportunities to trump them again and again.

I have always maintained that when you are in a public dogfight in the media, if you are explaining, you are losing. The peak oil movement now needs to focus on planting doubt about the official cornucopian story. And, the best way to do that is continuously to poke holes in the arguments of the optimists, arguments that can be shown to be ridiculous by combining simple logic with the data that is publicly available.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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