The New York Times on Peak Oil - Don't Worry, Be Happy

If the Peak Oil proponents are correct, it amounts to one of the biggest stories of our time, right up there with global warming
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For those who follow the debate over Peak Oil - the idea that world oil production is peaking or is about to peak, and will then decline with disastrous results for the global economy - this has been a banner year for the Peak Oil side.

First, oil prices spiked to record levels - just when many Peak Oilers predicted they would - and helped stagger the economy. Then prices declined dramatically, as Peak Oilers also predicted, but began skyrocketing again even though demand for oil was off sharply - as they also predicted. Based purely on foresight, the Peak Oil side has been scoring touchdowns left and right.

On top of that, a steady drumbeat of scientists, analysts and industry executives who once pooh-poohed the idea of Peak Oil have been jumping on the bandwagon.

For example, a recent survey of American oil and gas company CEOs showed that 48% now believe we are at peak oil today, or will reach it in a few years. Top analysts at places like ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch/Shell have been writing memos warning that "after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand."

And just weeks ago Fatih Birol, the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency (hardly a scare monger when it comes to Peak Oil), made global headlines when he issued a dire warning that world oil production would peak within the next ten years and that governments were woefully unprepared.

On the other side, the Peak Oil denialists had little to show this year but failed predictions.

So what is one to make of the New York Times this week, which reacted to this drumbeat of pro-Peak Oil news by publishing an Op-Ed piece by one of the chief Peak Oil deniers, Michael Lynch?

Lynch, for those who don't know him, is not exactly recommended by his own predictive powers, to say the least. In 1996, when oil was at $17 a barrel ($25 adjusted for inflation), Lynch testified before Congress that ...

... the ongoing technological revolution in the industry, combined with managerial improvements and a more friendly fiscal environment in oil exporting countries, will keep real oil prices flat for the next two decades.

Right. Over the next ten years oil prices more than doubled, then rose to a disastrous 2008 spike at six times the 1996 price. They are currently almost triple the 1996 price - in the midst of a global meltdown and flat demand.

Clearly, Lynch is a man who knows how to get it wrong. Which is entirely his right. He has an agenda and he is not shy about it, as when he wrote in his Op-Ed that

...we can't let the false threat of disappearing oil lead the government to throw money away on harebrained renewable energy schemes or impose unnecessary and expensive conservation measures...

Heaven forefend.

The question is not about Lynch's fervent cornucopian beliefs and free-market faith - it's about the New York Times and other American media outlets that have consistently missed what's actually happening within the Peak Oil debate.

What's actually happening reminds me of what happened years ago with the global warming debate. Then, a climactic theory largely pioneered by scientists (as Peak Oil was largely pioneered by geologists) was initially either ignored or denied in the media, and only began to gain traction as the evidence solidified and the things they predicted began coming true.

We seem to be entering such a tipping point now with Peak Oil. But you would never know it reading the American media.

In a fascinating piece on The Oil Drum, Debbie Cook analyzed how rarely Peak Oil has even been mentioned in American newspapers, especially as compared to papers abroad.

Here's the number of total mentions she found for a few selected papers.

  • The Washington Post - 0
  • The LA Times - 0
  • The Chicago Tribune - 0
  • The Baltimore Sun - 0
  • The Wall St Journal - 32
  • The New York Times - 38

(The New York Times, by the way, didn't even report the Fatih Birol bombshell, though they allowed Lynch to attack Birol's warning in his Op-Ed.)

And here's how that compares to some papers abroad.

  • The Hindu - 48
  • The Times of London - 74
  • The Financial Times - 127
  • The Globe and Mail - 196
  • The Guardian - 235

What we have, people, is yet another example of the American media messing up big time. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?

The fact is that if the Peak Oil proponents are correct, it amounts to one of the biggest stories of our time, right up there with global warming. I am not a scientist so I cannot tell you with absolute, iron certainty that they are right, but I do know this:

When you read the literature and compare the arguments as laid out by the two sides, the Peak Oil argument is characterized by logic, rigor, data and hard science - just like the global warming argument a few years back - and the opposing side is characterized by, well, by unbounded faith that markets always work and technology always saves us, by paranoid suspicions that the Peak Oil concept is a plot (by radical tree-huggers or venal oil speculators, take your pick) and by assorted Hail Mary passes.

For example, Lynch bases part of his optimism on the idea that there is five times as much oil in the ground as most geologists believe, or as the data support. Raymond J. Learsy, who frequently posts here, suggests we should be skeptical of Peak Oil because perhaps oil is not a fossil fuel at all, but rather comes from the geological forces deep within earth's interior and is almost limitless, as certain Stalin-era scientists suggested.

Again, it is their right to feel that way, as much as their arguments sound increasingly like creation science. But as for the media, you would think editors would realize the issue is a serious one, look at the track record of both sides, and perhaps decide to give a few column inches to people who have the embarrassing habit of making predictions that actually come true.

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