Despite this week’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 second 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: Does the media hype, underreport, or adequately cover peak oil?
EW: Just prior to the Great War, Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric starter for automobiles and General Motors’ in-house genius, ran into the office of company founder Billy Durant. Kettering carried bad news: experts had told him that the world had only enough oil to last until around 1940. Unless GM could find a suitable substitute for gasoline, Kettering explained, the car company would simply go out of business within two decades. Durant contemplated Kettering’s comments and then replied, “Charles, the experts are always wrong. They’ll find more oil before you’ll find an alternate fuel source.”
It wasn’t known as Peak Oil then, but the concept was the same. At the time world demand for oil was surging, owing to the increasing popularity of automobiles and the military’s oil needs for the war. But Kettering’s experts weren’t the first to fear that the world’s oil was vanishing. Our own government discussed it in 1911; only a decade earlier, the Spindletop gusher, outside Beaumont, Texas, had finally convinced America that we had large deposits of oil in places other than western Pennsylvania.
Much is made of Dr. King Hubbert’s 1956 theory of Peak Oil, which posits that, once “half of the world’s oil” has been extracted from the ground, a terminal phase will begin in which oil production becomes problematical, in turn creating price instability. Moreover, because Dr. Hubbert predicted that American oil production would “peak” in the early seventies, and it seemed to, no one questions his theory of oil production at or after the peak. Too bad: if today’s deep-water oil extraction technology had existed in the sixties, or if political actions hadn’t mostly closed our east and west coasts to oil production — or if the North Slope or ANWR reserves had been known and producing in 1970 — then “American Peak Oil” might not have happened when Dr. Hubbert predicted it would. Overlooked is that Dr. Hubbert readily admitted that better technology or new reserves discovered would alter his predictions for the actual date of Peak Oil. Cambridge Energy now says that Dr. Hubbert’s “oil curve” for American production was off by 66 percent in 2005.
Undoubtedly Peak Oil will happen, someday. However, three times in the last thirty-five years, the media has confused it with the historic cycle of oil production: prices rise when tight supplies meet rising demand; those additional profits are reinvested in new oil fields or delivery infrastructure; and then come lower prices and little new investment — which inevitably creates supply shortages and higher prices.