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?