the observatory

An (Oil) Peak Too High

Energy crisis too big, too complex for media to handle on its own, experts say
October 14, 2009

DENVER—Protestors in giant chicken suits lingered outside the 2009 International Peak Oil Conference here on Monday. Their personas were meant to taunt the “Chicken Littles” inside—men and women who had gathered to discuss the theory that oil production has or soon will reach its zenith and then enter into a terminal decline.

The fifth annual event, hosted by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas, or ASPO-USA, brought together academics, energy industry executives, journalists, and consultants to discuss the “future of oil and its impact on the global economy.” To be sure, not all participants believed that the sky is falling. It is safe to say, however, that oil is a finite resource, and part of the conference focused on ways to explain the inherent limitations of an economy based on fossil fuels.

A media panel on Monday afternoon asked whether the press has been “on the watch or asleep at the wheel” when it comes to peak oil coverage. As CJR reported in 2008, it is a complex story that has gained prominence in recent years–especially as oil prices spiked last summer–but still begs clear, nuanced explanation. The overall conclusion of Monday’s panel, however, seemed to be that the press should not (or cannot) bear full responsibility for the public’s lack of concern about our future energy economy.

“There’s a tendency, especially among academics, to blame journalism,” said John Theobald, the panel’s moderator and a communications professor at the University of California, Davis.

Nonetheless, Theobald believes that peak oil is an underreported story, partly because it remains a tough sell in newsrooms. It is not generally an events-based story, for instance, and involves the gradual accumulation of data that provide no easy answers or news hooks. It doesn’t make for great art, either. An analysis of how global oil production affects gas prices will always take a backseat to a photo of unhappy people who think they are paying too much at the pump, he said; the coverage of record oil prices in 2008 was the perfect example.

Journalists can do better, said panelist Peter Maass, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, but it will be difficult. Maass is the recent author of Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, a rich survey of the issues surrounding oil production in all corners of the world (you can read a review at Harper’s), and described the challenges he faced while reporting for the book. “Oil’s not a country that I can visit,” he said. “It’s not a person I can follow around. Oil has no voice of its own.”

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As such, Maass spent years immersing himself in geology, physics, politics, and environmentalism, even going as far as applying for a job as a roughneck on an oil rig in Louisiana (they turned him down). He spent weeks securing visas to places like Iraq, and spent months writing and rewriting. “It’s a tremendous amount of work,” Maass said. “It pays off existentially, but financially it certainly doesn’t.”

The reality is that this type of investigative journalism probably won’t ever be very lucrative, he added, and we have to get used to the idea that the media no longer has the resources to fill its former role. Maass foresees a solution, however: citizen journalists picking up the slack. “It’s going to be people within the [energy] industry finding the writer in themselves and writing books that explain to the rest of the world what’s going on,” he said.

Panelist Lisa Margonelli, director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation and author of Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, offered a quick tour of the current state of energy reporting. The first problem? Most of the media write for a sixth-grade level–something she calls “hyper-simplification”–omitting the complexities and consequences of our energy choices.

The second problem, Margonelli continued, is that the media rely too much on reporting what “authorities” say, without working to dig out multiple perspectives on issues like peak oil.

“There are no rewards for going rogue as an energy reporter,” she said, adding that the consequences range from not being able to get that next interview to having an editor refuse to run a controversial story. Moreover, there is a general aversion to reporting that things are really wrong. The media has a propensity for what Margonelli called “Jules Verne-ism,” or running stories about cool new advances in renewable energy (think floating wind turbines) over ones about how difficult it will be is to wean ourselves off oil and coal.

But as the professional media continues to shrink, Margonelli said, there will be an opportunity for others to create Web sites, even if they are advocacy oriented, which focus exclusively on energy and cultivate a more engaged following. “We need concerned constituencies,” she said, pointing to ASPO-USA as a model. “You have people doing citizen journalism, and an audience that’s much more tolerant of complexity.”

The need for more targeted publications and Web sites was the main point made by panelist Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis.

Although he has no formal training in journalism or the oil industry, Heinberg has become an important voice in energy circles and focuses much of his time on helping the public understand the global energy crisis.

“High oil prices create a window of opportunity, a teachable moment,” Heinberg said, adding that organizations like ASPO-USA need to invest in robust Web sites that address the major objections set forth by peak-oil skeptics. He also applauded sites like as examples of reliable, action-oriented information.

Outside the meeting, however, the giant chickens continued to distribute their own information: copies of a New York Times op-ed from September headlined, “‘Peak Oil’ is a Waste of Energy.” During the question-and-answer session, Maass indirectly dismissed their techniques, arguing that it is better to focus on making a strong, independent case about the limitations of our oil supply than to worry about responding to skepticism.

The realistic—if not discouraging—conclusions made by these panelists shed light on the media’s diminishing capacity to be all things to all people, ostensibly inspiring a new wave of citizen journalism. But with so many partisan voices jumping into the debate right now, one wonders if anybody should be sanguine about the future of energy coverage.

Tiffany Plate received her MA in journalism from the University of Colorado in May 2009, and is now a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer. She has written for Ideal Bite, Denver Voice, and Delicious Living magazines.