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Reading Peak Oil Deniers Is a Waste of Time

3 Peak Oil Bombs Drop

By Chris Nelder   

Editor's Note:

Today's Green Chip Review comes from contributing editor Chris Nelder, who you may know from previous Green Chip reports, his Energy & Capital letter, and from the book that we co-authored, Investing in Renewable Energy. Enjoy.

— Jeff 

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

— Richard Hofstadter

Three bombs were dropped on the peak oil community this week, in what smells like a coordinated attack timed to incite public uncertainty about the validity of the peak oil argument, and question the importance of mitigating climate change and transitioning to renewables.

The peakers are mobilizing a response, an onerous task made necessary only because their critics' bombs received prominent placement in major publications with large readerships, not because their critiques had any serious validity.

I will leave it to the capable hands of authentic petroleum geology experts to debunk the latest critiques. It is in order, however, to give the public a brief look at who these critics are, and their abysmal track records, which I have tracked and debunked since 1996.

Michael Lynch

Michael Lynch made the biggest splash this week with an op-ed that was featured on the front page of the New York Times web site, titled "'Peak Oil" Is a Waste of Energy." Lynch is the former director for Asian energy and security at the Center for International Studies at MIT, and is currently an energy consultant. With a background in political science, Lynch puts his rhetorical skills to work as an avid peak oil denier, despite seeming to live in an alternate universe when it comes to the actual data.

I first came across Lynch on the Energy Resources forum at Yahoo around 2002, which pre-dated the current crop of blogs and web sites devoted to discussion on peak oil. He has carried on a vigorous disinformation campaign against peak oil theory for nearly two decades, sticking to his guns despite all factual evidence to the contrary. At the time I attempted to engage him in rational discussion, but quickly abandoned the effort when I realized that I was dealing with the equivalent of a religious zealot who avoided any argument he might lose, and who clearly enjoyed all the attention he received for his contrarian views (he often referred to his critics' responses as "fan mail").

Lynch's 1283-word screed in the Times was a virtually fact-free, high-handed indictment of the peak oil study that cleverly wove a mix of random historical references (including Stalin and King Canute) with carefully cherry-picked incidents to make the argument 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."

It was a politically astute effort, and I'm sure that whoever pays him for his work appreciated it as they fight for their survival against a turning tide of public opinion. Perhaps a few gullible readers even bought it (however, if the reader comments are any indication, few were). Unfortunately, it was as wrong as Lynch has always been.

Consider just a few examples of Lynch's "expert" opinion.

In 1999, Lynch crowed that when IHS Energy's estimate of ultimately recoverable reserves increased 10% over a previous estimate to 1800 billion, it "put a nail in the coffin" of the peak oil debate. He continued to thump the reserve growth issue as the number rose to 2100 billion — where it has stayed, at least for reliable petroleum geologists like Campbell and Laherrère. But that hasn't slowed down Lynch, who apparently now believes that remaining recoverable reserves are not 1200 billion, but 2500 billion, an absurd number based on his belief that the world will somehow achieve a recovery rate of 35%, without venturing to guess how it might be done.

In April 2004, when WTI spot was trading around $37 a barrel, Lynch confidently predicted that oil would fall to $25 by summer. By mid-August, it was trading at $47.

Undaunted, Lynch wrote in September 2004 that one year later, oil would be under $30. In September 2005, it hit $67.

In March 2006, when oil was hanging around $62, Lynch again forecasted that oil would drop back to $40 before the year was out, possibly even $30, and then remain flat for at least the next two decades Instead, oil climbed as high as $76 a barrel before finishing the year at $61.

In April 2007, Lynch predicted that oil would gradually drop from the current $65 a barrel to the mid-to-low $40s in 2008. In reality, it climbed steadily to $147.

I could go on for days pointing out the errors in Lynch's long history of peak oil denial, but at this point I think his record speaks for itself, and it seems unsporting to continue.

As far as I am aware, Lynch has not offered a detailed model of his own for oil reserves or production. I don't know if that's because he lacks the data and skills to do so, or simply because it would expose him to fact-based criticism. Instead he simply argues that the future will be like the past, relying on rhetorical devices and a sharp eye for weakness to gleefully poke holes in other analysts' arguments. His faith in a continually increasing supply of cheap oil on a finite planet is unflagging, and firmly rooted in the gospel of perfect markets and technological progress. I have never seen him print a single mea culpa for his long, wrong, predictive track record.

I don't know why the Times would choose to print such insouciant invective as Lynch's op-ed, but apparently that's what passes for coverage of the peak oil story today. It has been a painful experience to watch the "Gray Lady" botch and distort the issue for the last six years or so, descending from "All the news that's fit to print" to all the news that's print to fit its world view.

Of course the problem is not that naysayers like Lynch spout nonsense, but that members of the media take him seriously. If we let outlier critics like Lynch lull us into a false sense of security about future oil supply, we won't begin soon enough on the decades-long effort to leave oil before it leaves us — and we will pay for it dearly.

Daniel Yergin and CERA

The other prominent peak oil denier is Daniel Yergin, a writer with a Ph.D. in international relations who co-founded an energy research consultancy called Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA). Yergin earned respect for his Pulitzer-winning 1991 book on the history of oil, The Prize, but his credibility has been crumbling since he took up the peak oil debate. Still, Yergin's consultancy has made a pretty living peddling happy talk to the oil industry despite a horrendously bad track record, and he continues to be the first call for media looking for upbeat oil commentary (and they're always looking for that).

Consider Yergin's price predictions for oil. In a column for Forbes on Nov 1, 2004, on a day when oil was trading at $49 a barrel, Yergin gave his usual sunny projection and predicted that one year hence, oil would trade at $38. On Nov. 1, 2005, WTI spot closed at $59.85.

This was no surprise to the peakers over at the Oil Drum, where a lively and generally well-informed discussion on peak oil and energy has tracked the fallacies and poor predictions of CERA, Lynch and other deniers closely since March 2005. In a May 1, 2006 post, Dallas-based independent petroleum geologist Jeffrey Brown proposed that when oil closed above $76, or double Yergin's $38 prediction, that the day be named Daniel Yergin Day in his honor. From that point on, $38 became known as a "Yergin."

We didn't have to wait long. Daniel Yergin Day was reached just 10 weeks later, on July 13, 2006, as oil crossed $76 — two Yergins.

Oil breached three Yergins on April 15, 2008, and four Yergins on July 3, 2008.

A June 21, 2005 CERA gushed "We expect supply to outpace demand growth in the next few years, which would take the pressure off prices around 2007-08 or thereafter and even lead to a period of price weakness," predicting that oil prices would fall to an average of $40.

In fact, oil left $38 a barrel in the dust in mid-June 2004 and never looked back, revisiting the $30s for only the 10 weeks beginning in late Dec 2008 when the global markets for absolutely everything had crashed. We haven't seen $38 oil since February, and oil is now once again pushing two Yergins.

Far from repentant, Yergin's editorial for Foreign Policy this week ("It's Still the One") which was subsequently lauded in the Wall Street Journal blog, actually blamed the peakers for a "belief system" that was "stoking fears of a permanent shortage" for helping to push oil to $147, then mischaracterized the peak oil position as one that we had "'run out' of oil," which it isn't. As Yergin well knows, the peak oil study is one of flow rates.

But price has always been the most difficult part of oil forecasting (I've gotten a few calls wrong myself, but not nearly as badly as CERA has), so we'll put that aside for the moment. Let us turn now to CERA's projections on oil flow rates, where they have taken pains to debunk any notion of a proximate peak in oil production.

In a 2005 report, CERA first said that worldwide liquids capacity would rise from 85.1 mbpd in 2004 to 101.5 mbpd by 2010 (a 16 mbpd increase), then later in the report claimed 17.7 mbpd of gross capacity would be added by 2010. Apparently the authors weren't even sure exactly how optimistic they were.

In fact, just a few months shy of 2010, global capacity probably* (I'll explain that in a moment) remains just below where it topped out last year, around 88 mbpd. The increase since 2004 has been 3 mbpd, not 17.7.

By emphasizing capacity (a theoretical number that is hard to know, given the opacity of information provided by OPEC producers) over actual production volumes (which is regularly reported by EIA, IEA and other agencies) CERA gives itself some wiggle room to claim that prices simply weren't high enough to max out capacity.

This is why most honest analysts of the oil markets look at actual supply, which ranged from 81.6 to 84.6 mbpd in 2004, and from 84.0 to 85.3 mbpd in 2005. In 2006, the maximum monthly production recorded was 85.4 mbpd. The highest production ever recorded was last July at 86.9 mbpd, the same month that oil prices hit their all-time peak at $147 a barrel.

Today, the world consumes about 84 mbpd, of which about 74 mbpd is conventional crude, and the remainder is other liquids such as natural gas liquids, heavy oil, oil synthesized from Canadian tar sands, refinery gains, liquids produced from the conversion of coal and natural gas, and biofuels.

In 2006, CERA projected that capacity could rise from 88.74 mbpd at the time to 110 mbpd by 2015. In 2007 and 2008, CERA continued to assert that capacity would rise steadily into 2015 and beyond, even as global spare capacity shrank to a small margin and kicked off a spectacular run in oil prices. High prices have failed to bring enough supply to market to keep pace with demand since 2004, falsifying the cornucopian claim that they would.

Yet Yergin remains unbowed today, confident that his vision of a 20% increase global oil capacity by next year has only been sidetracked by "aboveground" factors, and that future investment and magical technology will yet bring it to pass...even as the world economy wobbles in a deflationary environment with credit still tight and consumers struggling to cope with rising prices for gasoline and other necessities.

I'll admit that I envy that kind of optimism a bit. Oh, to have such faith, to be so free of reality that I could simultaneously believe that even though the cost of a cutting-edge oil megaproject went from $1 billion in the ‘90s to $10 billion today, and even though capital remains reluctant to commit to long-term projects after oil's recent volatility, and even though the world economy shuddered and fell to its knees when oil hit $147 as supply-induced scarcity set in, and even though global oil discoveries have been in a declining trend for over 40 years now, that somehow the gods of the Almighty Market will provide, and we'll have no sign of a peak for another good 40 or 50 years. Hallelujah!

CERA has decried the combative tone of the peak oil debate, and pretended to a gentle stance while trumpeting its high-priced privileged information, but in fact the group has issued a drumbeat of anti-peak oil invective, repeatedly declined to debate knowledgeable peak oil adherents or attend their conferences, and ignored a $100,000 bet offered last year by friends of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil USA to back up its ridiculous supply prediction with real money. It also routinely ignores any published criticism.

In the debate about the future of oil, CERA has been consistently cowardly. I can understand that, since the unfolding of reality has not been at all to their advantage.

Raymond Learsy

Raymond J. Learsy is another prominent peak oil denier with a high profile column at the Huffington Post, but he doesn't really merit mention alongside the previous two. A Wharton graduate with a previous career in commodities trading and the author of Over A Barrel, Learsy has written a series of anti-peak oil rants which are consistently free of facts but offer just enough in the way of conspiracy allegations and wild speculation to earn him a following of left-wing sycophants who want to believe that the Saudis, or the oil companies, or the speculators, or some other evil-doers are responsible for our energy predicament.

Learsy was quick to capitalize on the stir created by Lynch's screed this week, calling it "a day of deep gloom for the McPeaksters" and celebrating Lynch's "revelations" about the "hierarchy" of peak oil "disinformation" while patting himself on the back for his own brave work in hurling completely unfounded accusations at peakers.

Learsy has long been a font of vituperation, making wild claims unburdened by empirical data about potential oil production, and heaping scorn upon anyone with a different view. Earlier this month, he went so far as to call the International Energy Agency (IEA) "shills for OPEC, the oil speculators and the peak oil pranksters." Apparently Learsy doesn't really care if such allegations are patently silly (peakers are generally opposed to deniers in the oil industry and OPEC, not in the same bed with them, and the IEA serves at the pleasure of the OECD, not OPEC) — as long as they sound good enough to make his credulous readers think that this whole peak oil thing is just a nasty hoax, his job is done.

If you're not yet convinced that Learsy is likely a nut-job, he is also a big fan of the theory that oil may have an abiotic origin, in opposition to all standard petroleum geology theory. The scant Russian "evidence" for the theory has never, so far as I know, been replicated or taken seriously by any Western petroleum geologist. Its main proponent was Thomas Gold, an astrophysicist with several discredited theories to his name who loved to challenge conventional science with his intuitive but unempirical views. It wouldn't surprise me if Learsy has also been taken in by the Gull(ible) Island yarn floating around the net.

I have attempted, along with many others, to straighten Learsy out about some of his blatantly false assertions, but he apparently prefers spewing conjecture to engaging in reasoned and factual debate with anyone. I suppose there will always be an audience for somebody like Learsy, but those who prefer facts over rhetoric will find he's just another waste of time.

The Truth Will Out

In a world where fact-checked information were valued over mere argumentation, where intelligent inquiry and dialogue were preferred to invective-laden diatribes and declarations of fact-free faith, the voices of Lynch, Yergin and Learsy would never be heard, let alone paid large sums of money for "proprietary" information about their foolish dreams.

But we don't live in that world. We live in a world where they are given one-sided top billing in the media at the very same time the oil industry is busing its workers to rallies to protest the climate change bill.

In the real world, those who have made the most careful effort to figure out what the future of energy really looks like, and alert the public to the most serious challenge the world has ever faced, are simply spited, ignored, and marginalized while the media carries on with its game of pretending to offer a "balanced" debate. I should also note that peak adherents are almost universally unpaid for their difficult work, and forced to do it in their spare time. Their only vested interest is in the future of humanity.

There is a bright side to all this, however.

Those who have the good sense to seek out the analysts with a rigorous grasp of the data and a proven track record of successful prediction — like the petroleum geologists who present their findings through the ASPO, the editors and contributors at The Oil Drum, the folks at the Post Carbon Institute and a few others (including, if I may be so bold, me) — have an incredible window of opportunity to place the right bets on the future of energy while the majority of the uncomprehending public remain in a swoon of denialist soma. The risk of peak oil, as I recently wrote, remains badly mispriced.

We who have been fighting to bring the best information about oil to the public against a never-ending tide of misinformation can take heart. Our best days are yet ahead. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." We've been ignored (1956-1970), laughed at (1971-1995), fought (1991 to the present), and by 2012, we will win this debate when oil begins its inevitable decline. At that point, the media may find the courage to run out and shoot the wounded.

Independent analysts who are not beholden to vested interests in oil and politics can now snatch a fat piece of the consulting services pie from the likes of CERA and Lynch, and help businesses avoid the costly, even deadly mistake of remaining in blithe ignorance and dependent on cheap oil. Among the peaker community are dozens of bona fide independent petroleum experts who are ready, willing, and able to prove their excellent track records and offer solid analysis and tradable insights to those have ears to hear them.

But don't listen to the peak oil deniers. Their arguments are specious and their projections are worthless.

We're past the point where academic quibbles about the timing of the peak and its precise level matter. All of our efforts now should be directed toward preparing ourselves for the decline of oil, minimizing the pain it will bring, and investing heavily in alternatives.

Until next time,


Chris

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