A Free-Market Energy Blog

Greenpeace Resurrects “Peak Oil” (an exercise in intellectual misdirection)

By -- January 22, 2019

“Depletionists believe that once a production peak is reached, there can be no recovery. This is simply not true when the history of oil production in many regions is examined.”

“Such is the state of Greenpeace ‘scholarship’ where it seems that the Peak Oil choir, out of songs, needs anything to sing. I’ll let you know when this dead horse tries to run again.”

Incredibly, in these days of an oil glut, Greenpeace published a piece by its co-founder Rex Weyler titled Will Peak Oil Save Earth’s Climate? “Given the slow pace of climate action,” he states, “some ecologists have wondered if peak oil production might arrive in time to forestall runaway global heating.”

Others have worried that peak oil and gas would mean higher coal usage and thus more carbon emissions, a question for another day. But Weyler’s argument is a classic example of what David Aaronovitch calls “man-in-the-pub” analysis, in the service of a conspiracy theory: a contrarian throws out a few supposed facts to come to a frankly ridiculous conclusion.

Weyler does provide a number of citations to support his beliefs, although that doesn’t prevent him from making a number of blatant and fairly crucial mistakes. For instance, shale oil is not “a lower quality, dirtier product” but in fact a light, high-quality oil.

Similarly, Weyler bizarrely claims that tight oil production peaked in 2004, citing a David Hughes paper that seems to make no such claim. (The quotation has been since corrected, actually removed from the article.) Shale oil production, which was one million barrels per day in 2004, is now almost seven million barrels–and is soaring. (Presumably, this is a typo and he meant to say 2014, when the oil price collapse resulted in falling shale-oil production. In any case, Weyler could easily have found that the bottom was two years ago, with rapid growth since then.)

This is one more, and major, point that could have easily been checked. But perhaps he believes, as some peak oil advocates do, that once a peak is reached, there can be no recovery. This is simply not true, as can be seen when the history of oil production in many regions is examined.

More important, his knowledge appears to be very superficial and based on trusting Internet sources without bothering to check veracity. Much research is bad, even that in peer-reviewed publications, and it doesn’t disappear just because it’s been disproved.

Recycling Hubbert’s Peak

Shakespeare’s Marc Antony said: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” M. King Hubbert was a leading geophysicist, but most remember only his “Hubbert curve,” incorrectly thought to predict oil (and natural gas) production.

As Weyler puts it, “Non-renewable or very-slowly-renewable resources — such as oil and coal — typically exhibit a bell-shaped production curve, with a rise, peak, and decline.” This is, in fact, untrue but often repeated, and it emphasizes Weyler’s superficial level of expertise.

No more than five minutes is needed to download oil supply data for the nations of the world and create graphs for a dozen countries to see that bell curves are actually uncommon. Believing they can be used to predict peak oil is rather like believing that spring snow in Washington disproves global warming theories.

Weyler, and many others, appear unaware that the peak oil movement was driven by this type of invalid math as well as bad analysis of the “what about” type. What about record low discoveries in 2017? What about reduced oil industry investment? What about decline rates? What about energy return on energy investment? Essentially, a fact is stated without an explanation of its meaning other than to imply that it supports the overall argument that peak oil is near (or past).

For example, record low discoveries in 2017 are more logically explained by the existence of a glut, including huge amounts of found but unexploited oil, whether offshore Brazil or in the Permian basin. Why spend money looking for oil when you can spend it to develop existing fields? And decline rates have been overcome by industry throughout history. (Although analysts have exaggerated their impact on future production for decades:  see “An Omitted Variable in OECD Supply Forecasting.” [1])

Weyler buys into the argument that the industry attempts to deceive the public by redefining oil to include unconventionals and synfuels (which he somehow thinks includes natural gas liquids). It is true that gas-to-liquids and biofuels are to some degree less attractive than petroleum, but the industry never relied on data which excludes NGLs or oil sands supply as being, um, abnormal, I guess.

The reality is that refineries have many inputs and outputs, and the inputs include natural gas liquids, biofuels, other hydrocarbons to the order of about 1 mb/d in the United States, and about 3 mb/d of oil from Canada.  The data don’t separate tar-sands imports from other oils, because ultimately it is irrelevant.

Refiners use a mix of oils and the decision has less to do with geological scarcity or availability than economics.  Companies will produce low-quality oil in Canada rather than high-quality oil in North Africa if the relative taxes favor the former.

It’s interesting that Weyler thinks the industry has adopted “deception, re-defining what we once meant by ‘oil.’” Again, he is buying into arguments made by others (and even getting them wrong) without apparently understanding them. Natural gas liquids have a lower energy density than crude petroleum, but the industry has never excluded them from the data or focused on “conventional oil”.

Remember Campbell/Laherrere … and Simmons?

Peak oil advocate Colin Campbell, the founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) claimed that his models (Hubbert curves) predicted supply for oil excluding oil sands, deepwater, and Arctic oil, although his definition seems to have fluctuated over time.

His sometime co-author Jean Laherrere was also known to describe expensive oil as ‘unconventional’ simply based on the economics. It provided a convenient excuse when their predicted peak failed to appear again and again, but is rather like arguing that modeling the production of two-door cars resulted in a peak, and then insisting that the rising production of four-door cars didn’t count.

And then peak-oil maven Matthew Simmons discovered that the Energy Information Administration published data on global oil supply with subsets for “crude plus condensate” which seemed to show a peak in 2005. We actually wagered on the possibility of crude plus condensate ever surpassing the May 2005 level (74 mb/d), but he passed away before I could collect.  (The current level is nearly 83 mb/d, even with the OPEC production cutbacks.)

Other Errors

However, many peak oil advocates seized on this idea of excluding other types of petroleum liquids, without explaining how, if conventional oil was all that mattered, and peaked in 2005, we have experienced a glut and lower prices.

Weyler also buys into the “energy return on energy investment” argument, that an increasing amount of energy is used to produce energy, which will at some point become unsustainable.  Again, he relies on things he’s read without apparently questioning or even understanding them.  The idea that resource extraction results in ever-growing efforts is an old tenet of resource economics, but so is the observation that improvements in science and technology tend to offset that.  (Adelman 1986)

Another puzzling claim is that it takes 25 to 50 barrels of oil to produce a hundred barrels of oil sands oil and shale oil.  It is certainly true that oil sands, which are often heated in production and require upgrading, are energy intensive, but shale oil does not appear to come anywhere close to that.

It appears as if Weyler found studies like Cleveland and O’Connor which argue that the energy return on energy invested is about 2 to 1 for oil shale, that is, kerogen, a rock which must be processed extensively to yield petroleum, not shale oil, which is oil that is contained within shale.  This is a not uncommon mistake, but a fairly basic one.

Brent Spar Caper

It’s worth noting that he refers proudly to the “historic Greenpeace action” in blocking Shell’s attempts to dump the Brent Spar “filled with toxic waste oil,” since it was later found that Greenpeace’s estimate of the waste was 100 times too large. 

So, this is an example of employing misinformation to achieve a goal, rather like Greenpeace’s other campaigns against GMOs, nuclear power, etc. But he’s correct in his 2016 post in saying “The Brent Spar action survives in history as a classic Greenpeace campaign…”

The organization engaged in a publicity stunt, succeeded largely because of misinformation, and didn’t accomplish anything of note:  the Brent Spar had, according to Greenpeace’s gross overestimate, 5500 tonnes of oil.  Apparently, they are unaware that natural seepage of oil accounts for 25 times that much in North America, according to estimates made by the National Research Council.


Peak Oil articles have become very rare these days. But when they appear, they are worth examining to see how the facts are distorted and errant theories are given new hope. Such is the state of Greenpeace “scholarship” where it seems that the Peak Oil choir, out of songs, needs anything to sing. I’ll let you know when this dead horse tries to run again.


[1] I delivered this paper at the 12th Annual North American Conference, International Association of Energy Economics, Ottawa Canada, October 1990. Please contact the author at lynch@energyseer.com.



  1. Stephan Joel  

    “No more than five minutes is needed to download oil supply data for the nations of the world and create graphs for a dozen countries to see that bell curves are actually uncommon.”

    It’s not the bell curve that is important, it’s the fact that most nations have reached peak oil and are actually declining…

    World less USA:


    • rbradley  

      Economics, not a limited physical supply, is controlling. The US is now a cost/price setter that has made other nations’ oil supply less economic to produce. Also, Statism is ruining the incentive to produce (Venezuela), not to mention political sanctions (geopolitics) in places such as Iraq.


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