CJR Debate: Crude Journalism

Margonelli and Wallace on peak-oil coverage (Part 4 of 4)

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 last of a four-question series.

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: Has the press effectively described the science and scientific uncertainty behind charting a peak oil supply?

EW: While it uses and allows the term often, the media have done a poor job of describing the theory and potential impact of peak oil. Some may have been put on impossible story deadlines; others have uncovered a lively debate among petroleum geologists concerning whether or not we have “reached the world’s limits for oil production.” It should be noted that, in the scientific community, peak oil is regarded much as are other “end-of-the-world” disasters — such as global warming or an asteroid striking the planet.

This may be because those who most want (and get) the media’s attention are not often properly neutral scientists or engineers; after all, they can be boring and dry about complex subjects. No, instead we are most often treated to activists or speculators with a vested interest in having only their side of the story heard. Stories “covering” peak oil, global warming, or whatever the disaster du jour always seem to be heavily weighted toward “the end of our economic society” rather than the much more likely outcome, “the evolution of our economic society.”

That’s a big problem: when the only debate being publicized in the media is about the end of our oil world as we know it, that draws our attention away from urgent, near-term realities. Peak oil is still a long way off — but the most critical period for oil may be just four to seven years away. For it’s an open secret in the oil industry that, even if they do everything right, from this date forward the oil supply and demand equation is going to reverse: many analysts and oil insiders suggest that the new baseline for crude will exceed $250 a barrel and foresee Americans paying $8 to $10 for a gallon of gasoline. And at that point, the peak oil question will be almost moot. The average American family will have to divert another $3,500 of its income away from other needs to gasoline; and, since wages for the middle class have declined in this decade against real inflation, that’s a serious financial crisis. Therefore, the inability to get enough oil to world markets in the period of 2012 to 2015 will have the same impact as peak oil. The difference is that few doubt or question that it’s coming our way, and soon.

The media’s oil discussion should be focusing on real, solvable problems: Why doesn’t America have a real energy policy? How will this coming supply reality affect wage earners — and might it be the final nail in the coffin of the American automobile industry? How will small business owners that cater to motorists survive?

When you understand the oil industry’s limitations, it seems a bit foolish — even irrelevant — to debate whether we’ll hit peak oil in 2030 or 2050. The real crisis in oil is coming much sooner. Most everyone in the industry understands that; they’re just not making it public knowledge.

LM: I’m tempted to pull a Bart Simpson with my last 250 words and write, “We need a new energy policy” forty-nine times and let it go at that. Really, if there’s one thing we need it’s a plan for the way we use energy and deal with high prices and greenhouse gases. For too long, we’ve hoped that “the market” would provide a policy, but that was really an abdication of government and popular responsibility. As late as 2006, the president’s council of economic advisers said that market forces would lead people to more efficient cars if necessary. But at car lots, consumers weren’t making a spreadsheet of potential costs; they were buying what seemed comfortable. (And everything about the politics and culture of oil in the U.S. urges complacency.) And now, far from letting market forces play out, we have the yucky spectacle of the president begging Saudi Arabia to put more oil on the market. Beyond screaming “we need an energy policy” from the rooftops, we also need to start cleaning up here—retime traffic lights to save gas, reduce the speed limit some days, help people tune their cars and drive to use less fuel, get insurance companies to reward those who drive less, use tax incentives to reward companies who help their employees carpool, retrofit long-haul trucks, etc.

Peak oil was for many years not a mainstream media issue, but one that thrived through books and Internet discussion groups. In addition to studying the science, the movement saw itself as against complacency. As the topic moved into the mainstream, the debate focused around the science and the date of peak oil (much as global warming debates focus not on the overall consensus but on whether scientists disagree), and the message the public got is that we can be complacent until there’s agreement on peak oil. Instead, we should have ditched the complacency. Repeat: we need an energy policy.

EW:The only disagreement with my colleague’s last position is that it is Lisa Simpson, not Bart, that when armed with the truth tries to show her fellow citizens of Springfield the light.

That being said, there can be no disagreement that this nation is without an energy policy and what is claimed to be a solid energy plan is little more than political cynicism for votes or campaign contributions. While it would be disagreeable to the average American, the gasoline wasted by driving at eighty miles an hour with one’s fellow motorists is one of the greater wastes of petroleum products known. It is not unusual to find that the fuel efficiency of any vehicle, SUV or compact, declines by four to five miles per gallon or greater once one crosses the seventy-five-mile-per-hour barrier. Considering that we have over 200 million vehicles in this country, we find that millions of barrels of oil are wasted for no other reason than to insure we arrive at our destinations six minutes early. Instead, we are told that ethanol is going to be our salvation, but so far prices for oil and gasoline have skyrocketed (also grain commodity prices), during a period when one would think this additional alternative fuel would be helping to relieve demand for oil based products.

Faced with similar problems thirty-three years ago, we passed meaningful legislation and everyone pitched in to resolve our energy issues. That took real leadership. Today, that’s something that is in shorter supply than $3.50 gasoline.

Katherine Bagley is a science, environment and health journalist based in New York City. She is currently working as a reporter for Audubon Magazine.