The latest Peak Oil spat

A reader has asked for me to weigh in on the recent Peak Oil spat; in truth I was meaning to do so, but the commentary has piled up and I felt increasingly intimidated by the task of commenting on it. But here's an attempt at a quick synopsis:

To warm up, on Monday, Daniel Yergin (author of The Prize, the best book about oil I've ever read) wrote a piece in FP saying basically that Peak Oil fears are overblown because the combined response of technology and demand will adjust the world to declining conventional supply.

Then, main provocateur Michael Lynch published an NYT op ed calling Peak Oil "a waste of energy" and making the aggressive claim that oil is destined for $30/bbl in the long term.

The response was quick and furious; not one but two point-by-point rebuttals from The Oil Drum, as well as one by Morgan Downey (the author of the best book about oil I haven't finished reading yet, Oil 101 - I got diverted but it has received great reviews from very credible sources). And from the complete other end of the spectrum, Climate Progress took Lynch to task, going so far as to offer a bet:
Here’s my bet to Lynch. Let’s take the average price of oil from 2010 to 2015. For every $1 a barrel it is below $40, I’ll pay you $200, if you pay me a mere $100 for every $1 a barrel it is above $40.

That should be a no-brainer since I am giving him 2-to-1 and spotting him $10 a barrel off of what he says the right price is.
As I've mentioned before, I fall somewhere in the middle - I think $30/bbl is implausible, but the combination of 1), massive unconventional reserves (oil sands in Canada and Venezuela, deepwater in Brazil and who knows where else) that can be produced at a cost around $50-100/bbl, and 2), the power of high prices to destroy demand and incentivize development of alternative energy sources makes it unlikely that prices will settle much higher than $100/bbl in the next decade. Now, there may be volatility and prices spikes driven by supply shocks - we may have one coming, in fact, as the current recession has slammed exploration capex - but these will only last as long as it takes to deploy additional capital like it was deployed in 2007/2008.

(There is the chance that major geopolitical chaos could result in sustained higher prices, but that isn't the mechanism Peak Oilers are betting on.)

Peak Oil is many things - a mathematical tautology, an effective gimmick:
But regardless of the holes in Hubbert’s theory, peak oil, the gimmick, still serves to remind us that some day the oil will be gone, out of our reach, or most likely of all, extraordinarily expensive. Peak oil, as a way of understanding the real costs–political, economic, environmental–embedded in oil production regardless of the day’s market price per barrel, needs to live on.
... but I do not see it as a rigorous analytical argument that justifies energy alarmism in the short term.

1 comment:

  1. One frustrating thing about doomsday scenario types is that they're never wrong. It's always "just wait, it's coming." In fact, I think this is part of the appeal of following those arguments.

    On a related note, the peak oilers I've talked to are so certain these problems are going to happen, yet few take big actions in response. If they really thought these problems were going to happen, wouldn't they buy a farm in Montana, spend their salary on water and food storage, invest in motorcycle companies, etc?

    But if we have a major conflict with China over resources, or oil goes to $200/barrel, they're be right there saying they knew it all along.

    And stupid question but...what's that bad about $147/barrel anyway? It's not like we're going to descend into chaos at that price... yet that price would kick in a raft of supply and demand interventions.

    If you're going for the doomsday scenarios, I'm much more worried about climate change and WMDs. Much harder to fix those problems.