Saturday, April 08, 2006

on criticizing the peak oil predicament

The “Apocalypse, not” article by permaculture expert Toby Hemenway has been getting a lot of positive play around the energy blog-o-sphere.

There are some serious problems with his analysis. Anyone who invokes critical thinking had better exhibit it, and framing an article around supposed apocalyptic ninnies allows the author to pen a mass of prose which debunks various straw people, while sidestepping structural issues.

First, note the talking points invented by the author, which he sums up with “These are the significant beliefs needed to be a Peak Oil catastrophist. Each is false. Let’s look at them.

Indeed, let’s look. This invented composite position deserves an analytical response.

1. Our demand for oil is unchangeable and is not significantly affected by price.
In terms of industrial agriculture and food transportation, this statement is absolutely correct, not false. Needed is a replacement for oil, or a smaller population. This may or may not play out as a catastrophe. Demand destruction at the plateau has nothing to do with 6.6 billion hungry souls at the bottom.

2. We are so badly addicted to oil that we will watch our civilization collapse rather than change our behavior.
At present, our behaviour is changing as supplies tighten. Is that timely enough? Jared Diamond’s Collapse is chock full of civilizations that disappeared as their resource base dwindled, and a scant handful that bucked the trend. Now, I’m all for bucking the trend. The statement is not “false”. It is a scenario.

5. Significant oil conservation is not possible in the time frame needed.
Another scenario. Written in a way that the author can falsify it. There is not the slightest evidence of strategic oil conservation. Individual countries and people conserve because they can’t afford as much, but oil itself is not presently being conserved.

4. Even with conservation, demand will be more than oil plus alternatives can possibly meet.
This is already true. I am keenly interested in the alternatives, and find it noteworthy that as oil prices rise, ethanol prices rise more.

5. Society is so fragile that it cannot withstand large shocks.
Is this really false? It must depends on the definition of a large shock. Maybe we should ask a displaced Katarina victim for their opinion. I’m a bit aghast that a permaculture expert is seemingly unaware of the converging problems for all civilization around the world, including: Rapidly dropping water tables. Rapidly declining fish stocks. Denuded soil, which will take thousands of years to heal without active intervention. Acidic oceans destroying plankton, wee critters currently tasked with providing the bulk of breathin’ air. These problems are “shocking”, and we will meet them head on in an era of waning energy. Cheap energy currently masks, and contributes too, each of these problems! Ironic, yet no one is laughing.

"Let’s engage in a little critical thinking about Hubbert’s curve. Domestic oil production began to fall sharply around 1970. Why the steep drop? If we’re blinded by theory, we’d say “because supply dried up” and leave it at that. But a careful thinker must look for other explanations that may have an effect. There are several: A major oil spill off California in 1969, the first Earth Day in 1970, and many other events spawned a rise in environmental consciousness in the 1970s, and soon, public outcry forced the US to block off-shore drilling and other sources of domestic oil because they damaged our environment."

In a attacking the apocaphyles, a little criticism of Hubbard’s peak has crept in, as well as some useless analysis of why production slowed down. Earth Day had nothing to do with Texas. What a hoot. The off shore supplies are trivial. A careful thinker might consider that Hubbert’s key insight was not the curve, but rather that ALL oil reservoirs are finite and can be produced at predictable rates until they are kaput. And if by “other sources” Hemenway refers to oil shale, it should be noted that only one thing stands in way of production. Rocks. Rocks being heavy, such that there is no net energy during production. Not a tender concern for environmental damage. When the rocks are jammed with coal, mountains are bulldozed.

"Today, lapsed US oil leases are being bought back by the oil majors, who are developing these deposits with new techniques. Congress has re-authorized off-shore drilling, and US production has stopped falling. We’re not on Hubbert’s curve any more."

This is completely cobblers. Of course the value of oil will drive more activity for some of the accessible leavings, but it won’t affect production significantly. “US production has stopped falling” - - horse feathers.

"SUV sales are way down. We are already reacting, and each bit of conservation now buys us more time in the future. Hubbert’s curve is broadening."

Production is still maxed, and supplies are tight. American SUV’s are not the only oil consumer in the world. The price of oil is still too low to enact demand destruction. Instead, there is a shift in supplies from the countries that can no longer afford oil to those that can. Oil is not priced dearly enough yet for a “broadening of Hubbert’s curve,” although I agree with Hemenway in spirit here, that were oil to be priced somewhere above $120 dollars a barrel tomorrow, serious and positive changes in our consumer culture would take place.

"Price and demand are tightly linked. We change our behavior dramatically when prices rise. Those are basic facts that Peak-Oil catastrophism ignores."

Actually, the key to peak oil is that it describes a finite resource. Whether or not a catastrophe occurs depends completely on what form the dramatic behavior change takes. Throughout the twentieth century, cheap, abundant energy has been available to help us solve our problems and feed billions. Conservation is a reasonable answer to the problem of disappearing energy. Unfortunately, so is war, overshoot, famine, etcetera. There is a difference between having an emotional response against a position, and proving it wrong with a well formed argument.

"We lost up to 30% of our oil and gas production, and a major city, overnight. Petroleum prices spiked, but other compartments in the system compensated, and gasoline prices quickly settled and slipped to below their pre-Katrina levels."

European gifts are not sustainable, as North Americans will discover this summer.

"Everything may be connected to everything else, but only loosely. Scenarios of a lock-step march to disaster betray a poor understanding of the complexity, loose linkage, and resilience of global systems. "

The resilience of global systems is lately underpinned by cheap energy. Conservation won’t ship food, cut wheat, irrigate fields, or produce chemical fertilizer.

"Perhaps Peak Oil, and a return to a time when resources are dear and labor is abundant, will remind us that there is much more to life than the manufactured desire to have more toys. Perhaps we can lose our small-minded obsession with getting and spending, and finally grow into maturity as a species."

Amen, all criticisms aside.


At 2:08 PM, April 09, 2006, Blogger WHT said...

This is a very good criticism you have put together.

Earth Day had nothing to do with Texas. What a hoot. The off shore supplies are trivial.

Yes, indeed. And notice that all that development in Alaska after 1970 and which conveniently ignored the public's outcry to limit "other sources of domestic oil because they damaged our environment." did nothing to avoid the peak.

But since Pat Robertson is on our side, I guess we have nothing to worry about in getting oil depletion issues heard.

At 1:39 AM, April 10, 2006, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

Thanks. I hesitated to get into it, in general I am a fan of permaculture techniques and people who espouse them, however there were too many howlers too ignore in this case.

It is always a bad sign when critics of "peak oil" focus on the apocalypse or catastrophe. What does Jesus have to do with peak oil?

Nothing, but those cognitive association light up when critics take that tack. It is garbage.

Peak Oil is quite benign, and overshoot quite common. People get emotional about their mortality, and also they fear losing the corner supermarket and the stash of cheetos and beer therein.

I think that is what drives optimists to attack people who identify negative scenarios.

They cannot fathom giving up beer and cheetos, and lash out like crazed hyenas.

At 7:35 PM, April 10, 2006, Blogger Clare said...

There was an article in the paper recently talking soberly about rising oil prices and Saudi Arabia's inability to meet demand if it keeps on at current levels, and in the middle there was a sentance to the effect of "of course, we're not actually running out of oil."

So near, and yet so far.

At 8:45 PM, April 12, 2006, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

We're not running out of oil. We're running oiut of the ability to use it as we have.


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