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 third 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: What types of articles necessitate a mention of peak oil and which do not, and how do reporters tell the difference?
LM: It’s the responsibility of the reporter and the editor to educate themselves and then to apply a practical, oily version of Occam’s razor to developing stories. “Oily” because Occam’s razor requires the simplest explanation, while with oil sometimes the answers are complex, but generally the conspiracy theory is wrong.
Here are a few cases where I think Peak, or Difficult, oil could be mentioned:
• Where it’s the topic.
• Where a subject mentions it. (Present the basis for the subject’s expertise and do a bit of digging to see whether the subject has anything financial or otherwise to gain from one position or another.)
• Where “peak,” “changing balance of power in the oil market,” or “the National Petroleum Council Report” are mentioned as drivers of either market or corporate behavior. When talking with oil company executives, say Chevron, we should be asking why executives have said things like, “We’re going to need every molecule and every electron going forward.” It’s also important to ask them if this is mainly a slogan or is it something they’re really applying, and what it would mean in terms of risks and potential benefits for shareholders.
• When discussing strategies for alternative fuels in which either rising oil prices or scarcity are seen as the primary drivers.
• When discussing the dismal lack of a forward-looking national energy policy in the U.S.
• When discussing the impact of Internet groups on market behavior and legislative agendas. (As a cultural trend, the peak oil Internet discussion groups are fascinating. Why and how did it become a popular issue, after more than a century of leaving oil policy to political, industry, and geological “experts”?)
But peak oil is not the only topic. To name a few more: greenhouse gas policies, infrastructure issues, air quality, and the role of stolen and smuggled oil in funding violence in Iraq, Nigeria, Chechnya, Colombia, and the Straits of Malacca, which in turn sends futures prices higher.