A Free-Market Energy Blog

Mike Lynch on Peak Oil–Part 2

By -- March 30, 2017

“… there are organizations devoted to the study of peak oil. Akin to the Bigfoot research groups, they are clearly stating their conclusion in the subject in their name.”

“There were claims about a major conspiracy to hide the problem. ‘Debunkers’ like myself were typically subject to vitriolic and usually personal attacks instead of criticism against our arguments, theories, and data, including the label ‘denalist’ which has become a way to avoid substantive debate.”

Some years ago, a peak-oil advocate told an audience that he had recently been in the Middle East where executives at one of the national oil companies had told him that raising production was difficult.

That seemed to impress the advocate, but it really demonstrated his lack of experience. It has never been “easy” to produce oil, despite the frequent mantra that “the easy oil is gone,” an attitude that has been around since the days of Homer’s Iliad that  remarked on how much stronger warriors had been in the old days.

Producing oil is certainly hard, but so is making smart phones, automobiles, and a really good cocktail. Yet, somehow, none of those producing said items thinks it means the decline of their industries. Indeed, in 1992, at the annual conference of the International Association for Energy Economics in Bali, analysts warned that prices were too low in the tanker, upstream, and in LNG businesses for investment to be profitable.

The laments so annoyed Richard Gordon, recipient of that year’s award for energy economics, that he ad-libbed in his award speech, “If there is anything we have learned as energy economists, it is that markets always clear, and they tend to clear faster and at lower prices than we expect.”

As more and more peak oil advocates realized that the math underlying the initial peak oil writings was invalid (as discussed in my previous post), they began to resort to more operational arguments:  production costs were soaring; political risk was increasing and resource access decreasing; depletion rates were rising; and skilled personnel were doomed to dwindle as the 1970s generation retired.

All of these have been discussed at length by the industry, at conferences and in the trade press, and all represent important facts but are frequently subject to questionable interpretation, especially by those ignorant of the industry’s history.

Political Risk

Political risk has been a problem for well over a century, with an 1863 attack on a Union oil field by Confederate forces—probably the first instance. Depletion has always needed to be offset, and if it is higher, then it is only gradually rising. Resource access, after the major nationalizations in the 1970s, has fluctuated but hasn’t been seriously worse in the past two decades.

Skilled personnel are often a problem (I have a 1962 article that noted shortages in the 1950s), not least because of the boom-and-bust nature of the business, which reduces its attractiveness for people with advanced degrees.  Higher costs and project delays in the past decade reflect this, but it is not an existential threat to the industry’s future.

Although many in the industry describe these problems, they rarely insist that they are more than that: problems which can raise costs. Only peak oil advocates treat these challenges as insurmountable. However, there were some in the industry who accepted the idea of peak oil, and, though most were lower level, some were geologists.

This apparently was the result of the remark one such made to me:  I worked in a South American country for years, but we pulled out because there was no more oil.  If you are a geologist, you are accustomed to seeing fields and basins decline, so it is only logical that you would anticipate the same thing on a global level.

Why does the idea that oil supply has or will soon peak hold such attraction for so many outside the industry?  Obviously, most in the environmental movement and renewable-energy industry have a vested interest, which certainly explains their interest in the subject and willingness to accept the arguments uncritically.  (Something most people do.)

Many of the early peak oil websites, like www.oilcrisis.org, were run by such people, and a number of studies predicting peak oil were done by groups with no expertise in the subject, such as the German Energy Watch Group, set up by a member of Germany’s Green Party and, inexplicably, the German army.

The presumption is that, since so many groups promoted peak oil, it must be a legitimate idea, and parroting the arguments thus was valid.  Amazingly, many seem to be completely unaware of opposing views; the German Army study has a few pages in an appendix on critics of peak oil, but relies on www.oildepletion.org for a list of projected dates of the peak.

But one odd aspect of this debate has been the number of physicists who’ve embraced it, from Albert Bartlett early on to Kjell Aleklett, now head of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (to the extent that it exists). Given that most of those writing about it are unfamiliar with resources and resource economics, it might seem odd to find such a cluster, however, there is one possible explanation.  Physics is a hard science where rules apply universally (almost always), and extrapolation is usually valid. Gravity, the speed of light, the weight of neutrons can be reliably assumed to follow certain laws.

Thus, when a physicist sees a trend, such as falling oil production, it is only natural to extrapolate it; the orbital path of Jupiter can be predicted for centuries, why not oil production?  This is the flaw that has led prominent members of the profession like John Holdren to become neo-Malthusians:  models are static with no feedback.  Thus, physicists like Aleklett believe they are doing ‘natural science’ when it is actually just curve-fitting.

There are many warning signs that this issue should never have been taken seriously. First and foremost is that there are organizations devoted to the study of peak oil. Rather the same as Bigfoot research groups, they are clearly stating their conclusion in the subject in their name.

Also, most of the discussions occurred at “peak oil” conferences, not at mainstream conferences. And there were claims about a major conspiracy to hide the problem, even as the mainstream media gave it attention. “Debunkers” like myself were typically subject to vitriolic and usually personal attacks instead of criticism against their arguments, theories and data, including the label “denalist” which has become a way to avoid substantive debate.

Why so many took these issues seriously remains a puzzle, given that it violates the theory of resource economics (which have proven to have strong explanatory value), contradicts the history of commodities and resources, disputes the views of the great majority of experts, and relies heavily on slogans and mantras, with minimal research.

In many ways, this story is reminiscent of the many “perpetual-motion machine” inventors, often eccentrics working in a garage, who are frequently media darlings and even get support from politicians. The media, which generally feels its role is to report competing opinions without judging them, have contributed to the story, but the many professional analysts who have not examined the arguments in any depth are more to blame.



  1. Jon Boone  

    Well done. Readers might also find of interest a complementary article in the current New Yorker, written by Jerome Groopman: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/is-fat-killing-you-or-is-sugar

    He reviews several new books regarding dietary science, demonstrating the profound difficulties involved with identifying causal factors: there are simply too many constants and variables interacting in a nonlinear dynamic for anyone to pinpoint what’s going on with analytic precision. Although Groopman’s focus is on diet and biology, his theme resonates with any inquiry into complex topics, especially climate research and, not least, the matter of Peak Oil.


  2. Mike Lynch  

    Thanks, Jon, that’s a good article. There’s a growing body of writing on ‘pathological science’ although not every case is as clear cut as, say, cold fusion or GMOs.


  3. Jon Boone  

    You’re welcome, Michael. I especially enjoyed your concluding paragraph, with its reference to birth announcements for various perpetual motion techno-gizmos (I’ve also included vacuum energy schemes as well). Rarely, however, do we encounter their obituaries.


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