“Discussing supply limits to the rate of oil production, much less the possibility of declining rates in the future, has been almost taboo,” says Sally Odland, an administrator at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, who wrote her MBA thesis on strategic management of peak oil. “Since November 2007, with oil consistently above $90-$100 per barrel, the peak oil concept is breaking into the mainstream. The media now routinely mentions tight supplies, ‘looming limits to production’, the ‘end of cheap oil’, the tradeoffs of growing corn for fuel versus food, etc. Some reporters, especially in the investment community, even mention ‘peak oil’ matter-of-factly. But I’d say the majority of reporters covering the energy story still avoid the term, or include it only to debunk it.”

So why is it so hard to discuss peak oil in today’s news stories? One of the main reasons may be mixed signals coming from the scientific and oil communities. At a London conference in October 2007, chief executives from Total SA and ConocoPhillips announced that they believe oil production cannot go above 100 million barrels per day because of supply and technology limitations. The former head of exploration and production for Saudi Arabia, Sadad Ibrahim Al Husseini, agreed with the industry executives. However, other industry leaders from BP and ExxonMobil Corp. continue to deny supply limits. Within the science community, controversy surrounds when we will hit peak oil and what production rates will be at the time.

What is a journalist supposed to do with such a topsy-turvy issue? How soon is too soon for the press to really dive into peak oil? Can we learn anything from how reporters handle other unsettled environmental issues, like the rising sea levels? Odland thinks so:

Peak oil is going to drive many of our economic choices and our foreign policy over the next few decades. Sure, much of last year’s price rise is due to monetary inflation and depreciation of the U.S. dollar. But it still comes down to too much money chasing a relatively fixed amount of yearly oil production.

The oil industry is a tough beat. In order to fully comprehend the story, it seems one must be an expert in economics, science, and international relations. Synthesizing all these relationships and explaining them to a general audience is a lot to ask. A couple of notable projects have accomplished this - in particular, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Crude Awakening series, which began in 2005. Still, peak oil is an extremely important piece of the modern oil story, and we need more journalists to sort through the competing claims and help us understand it.

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