Tuesday, January 24, 2006

peak oil is not being debated

Recently I watched "The End of Suburbia". I can't very honestly recommend this documentary. It was relatively well-produced and fun to watch (despite spending about 30 minutes toward the end retreading the first 30 minutes), but, journalistically speaking, it was very disappointing.

My first complaint was that it was not a balanced picture at all. I know that "balance" is a disease of Fox right now (we report, you decide); I'm talking about the older and unperverted notion of balance. This notion does not require you to host a head-to-head debate between a geologist and a member of the Flat Earth Society - but it does require you to recognize when an issue has not yet been conclusively decided, and allow both sides of the issue to be heard.

"The End of Suburbia", and much of the larger Peak Oil crowd ("peakniks") fail at this task miserably. In TEoS, we are treated to an endless barrage of authors who make lots of money selling books about how peak oil is the end of civilization. Every now and then the movie visits a lively looking conference, with lots of thoughtful looking white people listening to someone talk about how everything is going to end. These conferences have names like "The 3rd annual meeting of the association for the study of peak oil and natural gas". In other words, it's a support group. Later, the movie makes an appeal to authority in the figure of Matthew Simmons, a very rich banker who is worried about the peak. Look! He's attractive! He's rich! He's disinterested! He agrees with us! We must be right!

This is the problem with Peak Oil. They are sooo sure of themselves that they actually seem to think it would be pointless to invite opposing opinions.

But there's a problem with the petro-optimist crowd as well. They don't seem to understand the arguments of the peak oil folks. And since neither side of the debate can be bothered to listen to the opposing side, we get the equivalent of a bunch of goats braying at each other, without anything resembling discourse occurring.

Here's an example of just how out of phase the two sides of the issue are:
optimist: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2005/1031/122_print.html
pessimist: http://dpodbori.livejournal.com/3005.html

In the optimists corner, we have Mr. Peter Huber, railing against the pessimists' use of EROEI measurements (energy return on energy invested), while failing utterly to understand what that measurement is about. He sets out to prove that it is pointless by trotting out the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and claiming "Every electric power plant, whatever it's fueled with, runs a huge Eroei deficit, transforming five units of cheap, raw heat into two units of electrical energy." This is *not* what eroei is about, and I'm amazed that someone with Mr. Huber's credentials doesn't understand it.

On the other side of the ring, we have Dmitry Podboritz, who ignores the valid points that Huber makes and instead goes for a reductio ad absurdum cheapshot: he claims that Huber's argument would support running our civilization on AAA batteries, instead of addressing the legitimate claims that Huber makes - specifically that there are petroleum deposits that might be recoverable despite what a naive EROEI analysis predicts.

Another way in which the two sides talk past each other is on the matter of reserves versus production. A typical optimist vs. pessimist debate on this topic goes like this:
optimist: "There are N trillion barrels of oil in the tar sands and oil shales of north america! we have enough oil forever!"
pessimist: "We can't keep increasing the daily production of oil, no matter what the reserves are. We've already harvested most of the light sweet crude in the world"

Well, they're both right, but they're both missing the point. The optimist misses the point that looking at reserves is not enough - we also have to look at what rate we can extract from those reserves. The pessimist misses the point that the rate of extraction is not one of the physical constraints on energy use that they are so fond of relying on. Improved technology can in fact increase the rate at which we extract oil from the ground. And in turn, the optimist misses the point that the longer we are able to continue increasing the rate at which we are able to extract oil from the ground, the faster we will eventually hit the wall when reserves become truly depleted.

You can go back and forth like this all day.

There are two other problems with the peakniks that I will touch on briefly.

The first is their refusal to consider the possibility that oil demand might be elastic. If you read through their material long enough, you'll see a plot with petroleum consumption over the past N years plotted against petroleum production over the past N years. Not surprisingly, the two track each other quite closely. But the graph goes on. They then extrapolate production according to hubbert peak theory, and extrapolate demand assuming the same sort of growth that we've seen over the last N years. All of their economic predictions hinge on this assumption - that demand will continue to grow. My point is not to say whether or not this assumption is valid - just to point out that it underpins a lot of the fear.

The second is their refusal to look at things with a sociological perspective. One of the most striking things about "The End of Suburbia" was that every single person they interviewed, every last one, was white, male, and middle to upper class. Why is this? I think it's because this is the economic class that feels most threatened by the spectre of economic collapse. They are the ones with the most to lose. But I think they're wrong. I think they are amazingly naive to think that the transformation of the world's energy economy might affect everyone equally. On the contrary, it may well affect the poorest the most, and we in the upper echelons of first world society may only have to make relatively modest adjustments: a 5 minute shower, taking the bike instead of the car to the grocery store, not flying to vegas on a whim.

That's what is ultimately depressing about the issue to me. The fact that if the peakniks are wrong, I will likely live the rest of my life in comfort, while our foriegn policy apparatus steals energy from poor people and rapes the environment.


At 11:40 AM, Blogger Big Jay said...

em7el. I couldn't agree more. This is one of the biggest things that drives me crazy about this subject is none of the players are willing to consider another point of view. Also it seems like the most extreme voices on either side of the issue are totally invested in their point of view because they make money by getting people to agree with them. Guys like Matt Savinar come to mind. Good post.


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