A dramatic shift in the peak oil discussion: “You don’t have to take my word for it”

January 16, 2011

If you write about, speak about, or talk with your family, friends and co-workers about peak oil, you’ve almost certainly been asked: “Well, who else is saying what you’re saying?”

It’s wise not to rely on just one source of information. Humans are fallible creatures. Knowing that, we feel much more comfortable when we can confirm something someone tells us either directly through observation or indirectly by going to a well-vetted source. We can, for instance, easily verify whether the Empire State Building has 103 stories, either by going there and counting the stories or referring to some reputable source of information. Furthermore, whether the Empire State Building has 103 stories is not really a matter of opinion. It’s either true or it isn’t.

When it comes to murkier matters such as peak oil, we must admit that our perceptions and conclusions are always based on incomplete information. In such instances, humans, being social creatures, seek confirmation from others when they receive information that is new and not easily verified. They wonder, quite rightly, whether other people accept such information as correct.

Now, as we know, the mere fact that large numbers of people accept a certain conclusion is not necessarily proof of its veracity. Still, with little to go on and little time to do independent research, many people essentially resort to polling. Does my reference group, the people I hang out with most, accept a particular conclusion? Does the broader public, reflected through the media, accept it?

This confirmation strategy has worked against the peak oil movement for many years as very few highly placed people dared to utter the words “peak oil” in public–even if they believed the issue was important. That has changed rather radically in the last 12 months, and it hands peak oil activists another important rhetorical tool, namely, the phrase: “You don’t have to take my word for it.”

In rhetorical terms this phrase is, of course, an appeal to authority. Those who argue the peak oil case most often rely on appeals to reason. That works with some people. But others can find such argumentation tedious and difficult to follow. A shortcut for them is to check out what experts and officials are saying. Increasingly, those experts and officials are saying that peak oil is near, that it is a serious danger, and that we are unprepared for it.

Perhaps the most important announcement in this respect is the turnabout at the International Energy Agency (IEA) late last year in its 2010 World Energy Outlook. The Paris-based IEA is an intergovernmental energy research and policy organization serving its 28 member states including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. It was formed in the wake of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo to advise member states, most of which are oil importers, on energy policy.

Consistently optimistic in the past about future energy supplies, the IEA undertook its own field-by-field survey of oil reserves in 2008 and has become increasingly concerned about oil supplies. This year the agency explicitly discussed peak oil for the first time and proclaimed that conventional crude most likely peaked in 2006. It continues to believe unconventional oil from the tar sands, the Arctic and deepwater fields along with natural gas liquids can make up for declining conventional oil and lead to increases in world oil production for two more decades. But it warns that this is no longer a foregone conclusion without the necessary and rather large investment required.

There were earlier indications that the IEA was about to change its official views. In 2008 the chief economist of the IEA, Fatih Birol, wrote in a guest editorial in the British newspaper The Independent that “we should leave oil before it leaves us.”

This turnabout is significant because the public listens much more closely to officials who change their minds than it does to those who’ve advocated a position consistently. The public feels that an insider who changes his or her mind about an important policy topic must have special inside knowledge that confirms the change. More important is that IEA officials are changing their minds not because it is merely fashionable to do so, but because mounting evidence has convinced them that our energy future, particularly our oil future, will not be smooth sailing.

That has been the case again and again in official circles recently. In 2005 the so-called Hirsch Report, a report about peak oil commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, stood practically alone as an official pronouncement about the dangers and proximity of peak oil.

But last year the U.S. military released a report raising warnings about a nearby oil supply crunch that would seriously affect military operations. “A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity,” the report said. But even in the measured language of the report there can be no mistaking that there is concern about oil production peaking worldwide. “The world would need to add roughly the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s current production every seven years” to meet expected oil demand in 2030. I sat next to the author of that report at a meeting last summer–a peak oil meeting.

The American military was not the only defense establishment that got interested in peak oil in 2010. The German military commissioned a report, leaked to the media, assessing the dangers of world peak oil production. Parts of the British government including the Ministry of Defense huddled in meetings last year about peak oil. The content of the meetings remains secret. But their existence sent a minor shock wave through the British public who had been consistently told by high government officials not to worry about peak oil.

A private report put together by some major industry players in Britain was also released last year. The group called itself the Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security. The message couldn’t have been more blunt: “Our message to government and businesses is clear. Act now.”

Even the solidly cornucopian U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, saw a crack develop in its otherwise optimistic veneer. A presentation by an EIA employee unearthed by a French newspaper cast doubt on whether oil supplies could meet demand in this decade. The author was suddenly transferred away from his post–previously planned, the agency said–and the media was shut out from further contact with him.

Leading executives from the oil industry are also weighing in on peak oil. According to Thierry Desmarest, chairman of the French oil giant Total, “The problem of peak oil remains. In our opinion, it will be very difficult to raise oil production worldwide above 95 million barrels a day, which is 10 percent more than today.” He added that oil could peak in about 10 years.

Chevron executives haven’t been quite as explicit. At least since 2005, however, they’ve been saying that the era of cheap oil is over, and even translated that idea into an ongoing public relations campaign on television and elsewhere with the slogan “Will you join us?”

Former Talisman Energy CEO Jim Buckee has also been sounding the peak oil alarm for some time. A former Shell chairman, Lord Oxburgh, said in 2007 that he believes oil supplies will be tight in the long term and that a peak within 20 years would not surprise him.

I saw a presentation at the 2008 ASPO-USA peak oil conference by the consultant who models future oil supplies for Toyota. One would expect auto manufacturers to be perennially bullish on oil supplies. His conclusion: Peak between 2017 and 2023 (slide 46).

And, finally there has been for some time a peak oil caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives led by Roscoe Barlett (R-Maryland) that has been a bipartisan voice for concerns about peak oil.

No longer do peak oil activists stand alone on a stage when they deliver presentations about our unfolding energy difficulties. With all of these prominent voices and institutions behind them, activists can now confidently say, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” That simple phrase can be quite effective in helping to persuade the broad public when it is followed by the growing list of government and industry voices now talking about peak oil.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: Arctic oil, Deepwater Oil, Fossil Fuels, Media & Communications, Oil, Tar Sands