Despite today’s news that the price of oil dropped below $126 a barrel, summer vacationers are undoubtedly still worried that they’ll be paying $4 for a gallon of gas before the season is over—if they aren’t already. Even if speculation that the current oil market “may have peaked” is correct, however, there is a more ominous peak looming. Increasingly, energy experts and journalists are starting to talk about what will happen when the rate of petroleum production tops out and begins to slide toward zero. It is uncertain when that apex will come and how quickly the ensuing decline would play out. CJR contributor Katherine Bagley invited two journalists who have covered the “peak oil” question to debate how the press should approach this contentious issue. This is the first of a four-question series that will be posted this week.
Lisa Margonelli is an Irvine fellow at the New America Foundation and writes about the global culture and economy of energy. Her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum’s Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, was published by Nan Talese/Doubleday in 2007. Recognized as one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007 by the American Library Association, Oil On the Brain also won a 2008 Northern California Book Award for general nonfiction. Margonelli’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times online, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Wired, and Discover, among other publications.
Ed Wallace holds a Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. His column heads the Sunday Drive section of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and he is a member of the American Historical Society. The automotive expert for KDFW Fox 4 in Dallas, Wallace hosts the top-rated talk show Wheels, Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on 570 KLIF AM in Dallas.
Katherine Bagley: Should peak oil influence the energy-related decisions of politicians, businesspeople, and consumers today — why or why not?
LM: NO. If you buy the argument that the world’s production of conventional oil is at or very near peak, then the most sensible immediate response is to push unconventional supplies—like oil from tar sands or liquid fuels produced from coal or even corn ethanol (which is really an inefficient way to convert natural gas to an inferior gasoline substitute—turn natural gas into fertilizer, mix with diesel fuel, water, and soil to grow corn, and then treat with more natural gas to make ethanol; sprinkle money liberally on corn belt). All of these options are ridiculously expensive economically and even more expensive environmentally and they buy mainly time, rather than solutions to problems with greenhouse gases, energy infrastructure, or economic competitiveness.
And what about Peak Oil? According to BP, the Middle East had 61.5 percent of the world’s oil reserves in 2006. The U.S. has about 3 percent. We long ago passed our peak, and more recently so have the North Sea and many of the non-OPEC oil fields that stepped into the lurch in the 1980s to flood the market with cheap oil, diminishing OPEC’s power. So what about fields in the Middle East, Russia, and Africa, are they near their peaks? That information is jealously guarded by the governments that own the fields, if they know it themselves. We just don’t know. When oil producing countries let the price run up into the super stratosphere and don’t care whether demand slacks off—then we’ll know. We may be one year from the peak or ten or twenty-five years from the peak. That’s serious—but it’s only one factor among many obvious gnarly oil issues that we need to plan for.
We should base policies on the idea of “Difficult Oil.” The times when supplies of easy, cheap, relatively politically stable oil are ending, and the era of difficult oil—expensive (both in terms of price and volatility), geologically and technologically challenging, environmentally unsustainable oil is upon us. Leaving aside the morality of using oil that’s involved in cycles of poverty, civil war, corruption, and human rights violations in the states where it comes from, the stuff just isn’t that easy to get anymore because developing countries are competing for it too. The market’s perception of this difficulty is part of the reason—not all—for today’s amazingly high oil prices. Even if we could get our hands on more cheap oil, our fuel delivery infrastructure was built in our grandparent’s time, and it’s straining to hold our increasing demand. What’s more, our global competitiveness is severely limited by the fact that our energy productivity (ability to turn fuel into GDP) is the lowest in the developed world [according to a report by consulting giant McKinsey & Company].