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Reflections on the Saudi Wars

Meet the Doomers

It was early 2007, and I was riding high at The Oil Drum. I had written a number of articles on energy policy, and a consistent theme of mine was that biofuels weren’t going to replace our current level of fossil fuel usage.  For the most part these essays were very well-received, until I turned my attention toward the topic of oil production in Saudi Arabia.

Realize that while there is a diverse readership at TOD, there are quite a few very vocal contributors who are ‘doomers.’ What exactly is a doomer? Doomers believe that peak oil will inevitably lead to a Malthusian collapse of society. Many cheer for stories that support their idea of doom (e.g., “biofuels will not save us”), but they can be downright vicious if what you are writing implies that things may not be exactly as bad as they think. The latter was the case with my Saudi essays.

Matt Simmons and Saudi

I have been highly interested in what is going on with Saudi oil production for a long time. Saudi has a tremendous amount of economic leverage because of their oil production, and if their production declined sharply, then a lot of doomer points would start to look more plausible. Thus, I am keenly interested in understanding the true situation in Saudi. This was one of my primary motivations for reading Twilight in the Desert.

Twilight was published in 2005, and argued for a near-term collapse in Saudi oil production, with an inevitable price shock to follow. Following publication of the book, Matt Simmons made a $10,000 bet with New York Times columnist John Tierney that oil prices in 2010 would average over $200/bbl (see the Simmons-Tierney bet). This bet is useful for understanding the time frame Simmons had in mind for a Saudi collapse; certainly by now we would be in the midst of a full-fledged Saudi production collapse.

Given his message, it should come as no surprise that Simmons has gained quite a following among the doomers. He is held in very high regard by many at TOD, and a number of people have used his work as a jumping off point for their own claims of a Saudi collapse. And in late 2005 when Saudi production began to fall, it seemed to many that Simmons’ analysis had been spot on and very timely. The bandwagon began to fill up; the decline had begun and Simmons’ star was on the rise.

The Saudis maintained that the declines were voluntary because the world oil markets were oversupplied. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? Or would they? I went back and forth on that point; I could see pros and cons either way. But the doomer contingent had decided: The Saudis were bald-faced liars. I lost count of how many times I saw the Saudi Oil Minister accused of lying when he maintained that the declines were voluntary, because the doomers “knew” good and well they weren’t.

I Had My Doubts

I was especially curious to get to the bottom of whether Saudi was on the brink of a production collapse. Saudi production fell from the end of 2005 through the end of 2006 by one million bpd even as oil prices were rising. But I started really trying to get my head around this issue, and the more I looked, the more I was convinced that the Saudis were not lying. The declines did appear to be voluntary.

I laid out much of my reasoning in When Will Saudi Arabian Oil Production Peak? My position had three major points. First, worldwide crude inventories were at record highs and rising when the Saudi cuts began. We had this information directly from the OECD, but I also found news accounts of this coming from important non-OECD consumers like China and India.

Second, I took a long hard look at one of the major tools being used to project that Saudi had peaked. The tool was called Hubbert Linearization (HL), and I tested it first by plugging in historical data to see if it would have predicted previous peaks. In the case that was being used as a proxy for Saudi – Texas – it would have predicted peak production 16 years too early (as shown in the previous link). It would have also had a large degree of uncertainty until about 5 years after the peak. So for 21 straight years, one could have made the argument that Texas had peaked in that particular year on the basis of the HL.

Worse, I found that it would always predict a peak even if I fed the model an infinite series of constant, or even mildly rising production rates. And as more data was fed to the model, it predicted higher and higher recoverable reserves. In the case of Texas, what was predicted to be recovered in 1960 was far lower than what has been produced to date.

HL was the mathematical version of a dowsing rod. There was so much wiggle room that you could predict peak based on very liberal criteria. For many doomers, 2005 was that year, and I received a great deal of verbal abuse and hate mail for pointing out that the technique didn’t really work. I documented some of that in Peak Oil and the Lunatic Fringe, and that led to me taking an extended leave from TOD. (I had to block two regular TOD contributors because they bombarded me with e-mails over this).

There was one final point that convinced me that Saudi production declines were probably voluntary. First, it is true that Saudi reserves are not an open book to outsiders. They have withheld detailed data on their reserves since 1982. They raised their reserve estimates by 90 billion barrels in 1990, once again leading to chants of “Liar, Liar” about their reserve numbers. Presently their reserves are estimated to be 267 billion barrels. Doomers will tell you that this is laughable. The HL technique was pointing at a remaining reserve number of only 70 billion barrels.

However, I did a little sanity check on this number (a more detailed analysis than what follows is here). It is true that Saudi stopped publishing detailed data in 1982, but prior to that their reserves were an open book. In 1982, their reserves were estimated to be 164.6 billion barrels. Even if I assumed no new discoveries and just subtracted subsequent production, I came up with 95 billion remaining barrels – already well above the HL prediction.

But of course they would have had new discoveries as well and technology has increased the amount of oil that can be recovered. Look at what happened in the U.S over that same period of time. In 1982, U.S. reserves were estimated at 27.9 billion barrels. Over the next 24 years U.S. production was 56.9 billion barrels. Yet in 2005, U.S. reserves were still 21.8 billion barrels. So over that 24 year-period the U.S. produced 57 billion barrels of oil and pulled reserves down by only 6 billion barrels. To me this was another piece of evidence that the HL technique had to be wrong about Saudi.

I also tried to put myself in the shoes of the Saudi Oil Minister. How would I manage their oil? Pretty much just as he was doing it. I wouldn’t manage oil just so American consumers could have cheap gas. I would try to maintain prices at the highest possible level that could be tolerated by the economy. That oil endowment would have to serve future generations, so I would want to maximize the value. That’s a fine line, and if you are too aggressive you can cause economic havoc. But if I saw that global inventories were rising, I would begin to cut production as well to avert a future price collapse.

So my conclusion – which I stated numerous times starting in 2006 was: The Saudi production decline was voluntary, and if global crude inventories starting dropping they would raise production.

The Critics Emerge

If you want to get a real flavor for the kind of trollish commentary I had to deal with over this issue, see the comments following Stuart Staniford’s TOD essay A Nosedive Toward the Desert (…Or, Why the Decline in Saudi Oil Production is Not Voluntary). (By the way, none of this is meant to pick on Stuart. Reasonable people can disagree about the data, and that’s how I would characterize my debate with Stuart. I think his analysis was data-based, unlike many of the others. He was not using the HL as the basis for his analysis, and he did come around to the view that the HL wasn’t useful for predicting a peak).

Stuart called me out in that essay, suggesting that my arguments for why the Saudi decline was voluntary were “completely implausible.” His argument was the polar opposite of mine. He wrote “Declines are rather unlikely to be arrested, and may well accelerate.”

But people really went after me in the comments section. I was dealing with one attack after another not only on TOD, but they even spilled over to other sites. There was this great thread as well at the Peak Oil message board. One commenter who belonged to the “I love HL” and “Saudi has peaked” fan clubs had this to say (among other snarky comments):

Robert Rapier was among the more optimistic (David Cohen being another) regulars at the Oildrum. Those two are in decendence as the very convincing argument for SA decline by Westexas, Stuart, Euran (and tons of others) continue to gain validity.

And then this one, by the same poster (responding to a comment from someone else):

“Robert is way too optimistic regarding SA. I always side with west texas on those debates.”

and so do I, and it appears the majority at the Oildrum agrees that Mr. Rapier is no longer a major player. The ball is definitely in Stuart’s court. I understand Stuart has submitted his analysis to Science magazine for publication.

I was no longer a “major player” because I took the view that Saudi was not on the verge of terminal decline, which a lot of doomers didn’t like. A major player can’t give them an opinion contrary to what they “know.” If they do, they are by definition not a major player. Well, I would just have to settle for the consolation prize of being correct.

Saudi Production Turns Around

Look at what has happened since Stuart’s post. When Stuart wrote Nosedive in March 2007, production (C+C) in Saudi was 8.6 million bpd (Data from the EIA). I predicted that the declines would stop by summer, and little did we know that when Stuart published that essay, declines had just stopped and would be stable until late summer before beginning to rise.

The Saudis had production back above 9 million bpd by December 2007, and by July 2008 they had production at 9.7 million bpd – the highest level in almost 30 years (and without the aid of some of the major new projects that were expected to bump production a little). Their production then pulled back after prices collapsed. Just the fact that production flat-lined for 7 months with no new major projects coming on says without a doubt they were sitting on spare production when I was arguing that they were. If they hadn’t been, they would have declined a bit each month and could have only reversed that by bringing new projects online.

One argument that many people made for a permanent decline was that if Saudi had spare production they would have brought it online in 2006-2007 as prices climbed. As I replied at the time “Not if inventories are full.” (Of course Saudi production rose with the price of oil in 2008, and hit 9.7 million bpd in the same month that oil prices hit $147). This argument (and I am not naming names, but many of you will know who I am talking about) goes like this: “If Saudi had just kept producing at their 2005 levels, they would have produced X billion more barrels and made XX billion more dollars. Thus, it is implausible that their declines are voluntary.”

Later, a friend sent me a paper explaining that Saudi often cuts production in the face of rising prices. That’s because they are looking at data besides prices. See Saudi Production Management.

Motivation

So what’s the point of this post? Am I just gloating? Not really, but after some of the treatment I received as a result of my arguments, I think readers could forgive me for doing so. I have to admit that it wasn’t all bad; I always had supporters as well. It is just that the kind words of a supporter have less impact than a bitter diatribe and volley of e-mails from someone whose world view you are threatening.

Anyway, three things motivated me to write this post. First, a reader commented after the previous post that they had appreciated the critiques of the HL. That planted the idea for maybe taking a look back at how Saudi production played out following the predictions of imminent doom and my counter-predictions of a production rise.

Second, I have observed that the amnesia and selective memory have really gotten bad on this point. People who made dire predictions seem to have completely forgotten about them, or they rationalize them away by saying that the declines are right around the corner. Or, they say that they knew all along that the decline would really be the plateau we have seen instead of a steep drop – and that the financial crisis would be the real story.

The level of rationalizing has been impressive; I have seen none of the vocal predictors own up to being wrong about this issue. Some people have simply stopped talking or writing about it, but others are still out there making the same sorts of predictions (some even insisting that their predictions of steep declines were correct; that the Saudis are lying about their production).

Finally, today I saw a post over at The Oil Drum by Leanan, the Drumbeat editor who really captured the mass amnesia in a nutshell:

Back then, it was a topic of much debate here. Was Saudi heading for “a nosedive into the desert”? Or would they “turn on the taps” later in the year, proving they were not yet at peak oil?

In reality…neither happened. Production did not crash, nor did it sharply increase.

I did respond by saying I disagreed; that in fact Saudi had increased production by 1.1 million bpd in the 15 months following Stuart’s essay. If over that same time period production had fallen by that amount (which was the magnitude of many predictions), I think we would have agreed that this would have been a crash. So it is hard to argue that a 1.1 million bpd swing in the opposite direction was anything but a sharp increase. But I also thought to myself “I should go ahead and write up my historical perspective on this, which I have never done.”

Conclusion

Something that was repeatedly misrepresented was that this was a debate over the actual peak date of Saudi oil production. It was not. It was a debate over a faulty methodology used to come up with a date that was being heavily promoted.

One thing is clear now in hindsight: Saudi did not go into terminal decline in 2005. Proponents of that theory have now shifted their position to “I will give up the idea that 2005 was the peak when the January-December average production exceeds that of 2005.” That’s wrong on two counts. First, production in 2008 rose hand in hand with oil prices, and by July when prices hit record levels the production rate was at the highest level in almost 30 years. If 2005 was the peak, no way would that have been possible.

Second, they seem to forget their argument. Assume for a moment that Saudi produces at only 90% of the 2005 rate, but do it for the next 40 years. Will the 2005 peakists maintain that 2005 was the geological peak? As I pointed out recently to someone who made that argument (“I am correct that 2005 was the peak until production for a calendar year exceeds 2005 production”) – Saudi production in 1980 and 1981 were both higher than for 2005. By their logic, I must conclude that 1980 was the Saudi peak.

I think ridicule and loss of credibility is inevitable if you are out making predictions based on shoddy analysis – which I felt was the basis for many of the imminent Saudi decline predictions. I believe when you are wrong about something, you try to learn from it so that future projections are better. If you simply rationalize away wrong predictions, you will likely continue to make them. But I have also learned that people using shoddy analyses to make predictions are also unlikely to own up to failed predictions. There appears to be a strong correlation between them embracing shoddy analyses that gives them the “right” answers – and rationalizing when the “right” answers turn out to be wrong.

Finally, while I feel like we won’t see the sharp declines in Saudi production right away, I still don’t like being dependent upon Saudi (or Venezuela) for U.S. crude supplies. I would rather see us proceeding with a plan that discounts their future production. Even if production doesn’t decline sharply, I think Chinese demand will keep pressure on prices, and therefore it would be a good idea if we seriously try to wean ourselves away from oil.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | hubbert linearization, hubbert peak, Matt Simmons, Saudi Arabia | Comments Off on Reflections on the Saudi Wars

A High School Senior Asks About Peak Oil

I tend to get a lot of e-mails, and I try to make a point to answer them all. Sometimes, the e-mail is a question that I can quickly answer. Sometimes it is a request for comments on a specific technology. But sometimes I get one that someone put a considerable amount of time in, and it warrants a very detailed and thoughtful response. I just received one like that that I felt was worth sharing with readers. I asked the writer for permission to publish it, and she agreed in the hopes that it can help others struggling with these questions, and hopefully spawn some fruitful discussion.

This letter was written by a high school senior, and it is the sort of letter that makes me hopeful for the future. The letter resonated strongly with me, because I have been through some of the same thought processes as I worked my way through the implications of peak oil. I will insert my comments in the text as [RR: Comment].

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Dear Mr. Rapier:

Thank you for posting your email address at TOD! I apologize in advance for the length of this letter, but I just can’t seem to express my thoughts succinctly on this topic. I know you are a busy man, but I would greatly appreciate it if you could read and respond to my message and help put my mind at ease.

I am writing to you to ask you some questions about peak oil. I am in my last year of high school and discovered peak oil by accident a few months ago. Like many people, I found Savinar’s site first, and of course my first reaction was one of terror. I stopped reading about the subject immediately to preserve my sanity. However, I knew I had to be honest with myself and keep investigating. Thankfully I found you and Stuart Staniford and all the others who believe that while some trouble may be coming, doom is not.

[RR: There are a couple of things bound to frighten many people new to peak oil. One is is you find Matt Savinar’s site and read through it before you have read through anything else. Another is if – like me – the first book you read on Peak Oil is Jim Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. I read it and thought “Can things really get that bad?” My wife read it and concluded “There is no hope.” What I told her is that this is one view of how things might play out. Nobody knows the future, and I see my job as working to change the future so it doesn’t play out according to worst case scenarios. Incidentally, I have since met Jim Kunstler, and he doesn’t come across like a doomer in person. He is very charming and witty, and is generally a fun guy to be around. But his writings have scared a lot of people.

On the other hand, if your introduction to peak oil is Peak Oil Debunked (which I often recommend to people who have become depressed over peak oil), you may come away with the impression that the post-peak world will be smooth sailing all the way. I don’t believe that (and I don’t think JD at Peak Oil Debunked does either). What I believe is that peak oil will present some upheavals and personal hardship for many people. Even if we have lots of coal and natural gas, the transition will be costly. I think what you are seeing in the economy right now is a taste of what a post-peak world will initially look like: Spiking energy prices that put a burden on people and keep us flirting with recession for many years.]

However, I still have some concerns. Though I do not want to believe in doom, the doomers’ arguments tend to keep resurfacing in my mind and bothering me. On my good days I think, “We can pull through. It won’t be fun, but we can do it.” But on my bad days I think, “What if we can’t?”

[RR: Over the years, I have gone through the same thought process. My undergraduate training is as a scientist, and one thing you learn as a scientist is to continually challenge your conclusions. In other words, conclusions are tentative. You have to be willing to ask yourself what kind of data it would take to cause you to change your position. If you find yourself fitting the data to the conclusion, or rationalizing away evidence that doesn’t seem to fit the conclusion, you have slipped from serious inquiry into dogma. In my view, many doomers are guilty of the latter.]

In other words, I sound like you in your article “My Worst Fears”: doom is my worst fear, but not my expectation. Scenarios, like oil production, fall on a bell curve, with heaven on earth at one end and hell on earth at the other, and in a world in which many factors play into any given situation, it seems simplistic to me to just say, “Well, it’s absolutely gonna be the worst-case and we’re all gonna die.” In real life, the worst-case scenario almost never plays out and reality lands somewhere in the middle. However, that worst-case scenario has a habit of captivating the mind, especially when you’re like me and have no real ability to prepare for it. So I thought I’d write to someone who knows a lot more than me to get my questions answered. (I’m also including, at the bottom, a few of the reasons why I think the doomers are most likely wrong.)

Who exactly are the doomers? Obviously, Kunstler, Heinberg, and Savinar are doomers. However, I had questions mainly about TOD in general and Simmons and Hagens specifically. Simmons, in most places, is called a doomer. However, I have heard him quoted as saying that humanity will “muddle through” peak oil. Does this mean that he is just a super-negative non-doomer? Or is he a doomer trying to tone down his position for the public?

[RR: I am going to be quite critical of Simmons here. Fans of his shouldn’t consider this Simmons-bashing; I just think this needs to be said. I definitely consider Simmons a doomer. I also consider him to be alarmist much of the time. I understand very clearly his desire to have people take this issue seriously, but lately he has latched onto some pretty skimpy evidence and run with it. (I thought it extremely ironic that he recently accused others of running off on a tangent based on skimpy data). The problem is that he takes a little bit of information – which he sometimes doesn’t understand very well – and then draws sweeping conclusions. Many – even some of his allies – acknowledge the contribution of Twilight in the Desert, but they question whether he isn’t doing more harm than good at this point.

An example of that – which I have discussed before – was his talk at last year’s ASPO conference. He claimed in his presentation that we don’t have a good idea of our gasoline inventories, and were just beginning a gasoline crisis that could bring the entire country to a halt. He spun quite a frightening tale, and I could see the shock on some people’s faces. Such shock tactics may work to get people’s attention, but if you cry wolf a few times they backfire.

Contrary to Matt’s argument, the evidence was just the opposite. Even as he was speaking, refineries were coming back online from hurricane outages and inventories were recovering. I was asked about Matt’s comments on a later panel session, and I said I thought gasoline inventories were beginning to recover and that they would be higher in a month. They were. Further, I noted that I was previously in the group that submitted weekly gasoline inventories from our refinery to the Department of Energy, and that we actually have a pretty clear idea of what gasoline inventories looked like from week to week.

Another example is his argument about the $100 trillion corrosion issue in the oil industry. The gist is that he argues that the oil industry is full of rusting infrastructure, and he questions whether we have the money or even the iron resources to fix the problem. Further, he questions aloud how it is that he – Matt Simmons, investment banker – has ‘discovered’ this problem that the oil industry has missed. I won’t go into all of the reasons that Matt is way off the mark on this, as that would be an essay in itself. A corrosion engineer at The Oil Drum has weighed in on this issue, and explains that corrosion is well-understood, and not actually something that Simmons just discovered. Oil companies are full of corrosion engineers who work to replace corroded equipment as needed. There was actually a lot of behind the scenes discussion on how hard to rebut Matt on this, as many felt like this warranted a sharp rebuttal. In the end – because he is considered to be a friend of TOD – he was treated much more gently in public than he was in private.

I did not attend this year’s ASPO conference, but I did get an e-mail from someone who saw his presentation. This from a friend and long time acquaintance of Matt: “Matt Simmons was NOT worth seeing. he seemed a bit crazy – not much new.”]

Obviously you and Staniford are not doomers. I have also seen Kjell Aleklett and Robert Hirsch distance themselves from the doomers. You mentioned that Nate Hagens was not a doomer, and that he wanted to use the term “resource depletion” rather than “peak oil” because peak oil was virtually copyrighted by doomers. However, when I read some of Nate Hagens’ articles at TOD, they sounded remarkably doomerish! I thought, since you know the man, you could tell me what his position was (since, as a student, I have no time to sit on my computer all day and read nothing but peak oil articles).

[RR: Nate is a friend of mine, and I feel like I know him fairly well. His big interest is in human psychology as it relates to peak oil – and I have suggested to him that he distance himself from the phrase “peak oil” because of some of the connotations it has taken on. Nate doesn’t expect people to collectively do the right thing, and as such he is more doomerish than I am. Funny story about Nate is that his original moniker at TOD was “The Last Sasquatch.” I liked a lot of his writing, and talked him into posting under his real name. I told him that he would be taken more seriously that way. He ultimately did start posting under his real name, and gained a lot of credibility as he continued to write. Nate talks about that decision here. But on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being extreme doomer, I would consider Nate to be about a 3 or 4. I consider myself to be about a 6 or 7 – fairly optimistic, but also realistic that it won’t be a piece of cake. Five years ago I was a 5.

By the way, I got to spend some time with Bob Hirsch at last year’s ASPO. I can definitely relate to his thinking. He considers the problem very serious, but something we can painfully work our way through if we get busy. That pretty much reflects my own thoughts.]

TOD in general seems to be a semi-doomer site. It sounds as though it used to be balanced, but shifted at some point. Consequently I only read a few contributors, and rarely touch the comments, which usually degenerate into debate about very fine points that I don’t understand or turn into “when you’re starving to death you’ll see that I’m right.” Which of the main contributors over there are doomers? Because sometimes it’s hard to tell. (By the way, I define “doom” to basically mean “die-off and/or Industrial Revolution reversal scenario.”)

[RR: I don’t want to name names, but very few of the ‘staff’ there are doomers. But two of the most frequent contributors are, and that may make TOD staff seem more doomerish than we really are on average. The readership, I think, does tend toward the doomerish end of the scale, but you have people all over the spectrum. And I can tell you through my own experiences that some doomers feel personally affronted if you challenge some of their views, and are vocal about it. This was also Stuart’s experience right before he stopped posting. He posted some articles forecasting that the future might not be complete doom and gloom, and he got some venom thrown his way. That is why I post there infrequently.]

Source of Aleklett/Hirsch/Simmons statements (dated May 2005, from attendee at Uppsala peak oil conference): [Simmons, Aleklett, and Hirsch] think Peak Oil is a very grave issue, but they also think the doomers are wrong. On a specific question they said Richard Heinberg was very much too pessimistic. They meant Heinberg was too pessimistic on technology and society. They didn’t believe that the end of the world was near, but that we would, and I quote, “muddle through.” They said we might have a few rough decades but that world will not end. For example, Aleklett was asked if he believed airborne mass tourism would continue in the future. He answered that sailing boats are very nice.

Is there any mathematical possibility of world decline rates approaching 8-12%? Doomers seem to throw these numbers around as though they are gospel truth. However, I have never seen a doomer actually lay out the math behind their enormous decline rates. I have only ever seen people in comments confuse field decline rates with world decline rates. Also, I have never heard any leading peak oil expert (except Simmons) predict anything worse than maybe a 6% decline rate. In fact, JD worked out Aleklett’s latest release and found that he was predicting a .5% annual world decline rate!

[RR: As you mention, individual fields can decline at those rates, but as prices rise different technologies can come into play that allow more oil to be extracted and so observed decline rates may be less than what would be observed in a constant oil price environment. But this may also accelerate the decline when it really begins in earnest. I was at the annual Energy Information Administration conference last April and in one of the presentations a slide was presented that showed that decline rates are climbing. See Slide 6 here.]

There is also a more specific question I want to ask you on this same topic. Freddy Hutter (at the Trendlines website) posts innumerable graphs and checks peak predictions and such. While I disagree with his “superabundant” scenario, his site is useful for getting the lastest predictions from leading people. He stated this (on the right side of the page under “worst-case scenario”):

Using the lowest recognized estimate of All Liquids (2021-Gb by EWG/LBST 2008), and assuming 2008 (85.4-mbd) as Peak Year, this projection depicts the Avg Decline Rate of 4.6% required mathematically to exhaust this conservative URR. The significance is that half of this year’s volume will still be available in 2035, and flow won’t dip below 10-mbd until 2055. Finally, All Liquids exhausts in 2083. A post-peak production decline rate higher than 4.6% “strands URR”…and that phrase is an oxymoron. Ignore all pundits that suggest a post-peak average extraction decline rate of over 4.6% in their musings. And please read their alarmist TEOTWAWKI forecasts with these hard numbers in mind.

Is this anywhere close to true? What is “stranding” URR and why is it an oxymoron? Since I agree with Staniford’s assessment that the decline rate is largely what determines the severity of the scenario, I would much rather side with Hutter and the “cornucopians” (a word I hate due to its pejorative application to anyone who is not a doomer), but I need to know if this is really true or not before I do that.

[RR: I think what he means is this. URR is the amount of oil that is ultimately recoverable with current technology. Assume for a moment that URR is estimated to be 100 units. Assume what has been produced is 50 units, and 10 units are being produced in the current year. Now assume for the purpose of illustration that the presumed decline rate is 50%. So then your cumulative recovery based on that decline rate might be something like 50 at the beginning of Year 1, 60 in Year 2, 65 in Year 3, 67.5 in Year 4… We already said that URR was 100, but it doesn’t look like we can get there with that presumed decline rate. So what has happened is too high of a decline rate was presumed which results in a cumulative production rate that will ultimately fall short of present URR estimates. Hence, the oxymoron.]

What is Hubbert Linearization and what is it good for? Some people seem to hold up HL as though it can work miracles, and some people seem to throw it in the trash heap. However, I have noticed that it seems to be used two different ways: to either predict a region’s peak, or predict the post-peak decline rate. You have come out against its use to predict a peak, but Staniford’s article on a slow world decline rate was based entirely on the second usage of HL. Since JD linked to this article as one of the main arguments in favor of a slow decline, I’d like to know if HL can be properly used this way, or if it useless here too.

[RR: And I can tell you that Stuart definitely agrees with me on the issue of using it to predict peak. He has stated this publicly and we have corresponded about it a great deal privately. What has happened here is something I often see. Someone has a theory. They think their logic is impeccable. They start using the theory to make predictions. But they never bothered to validate that theory by plugging in known data to see if it gives the right answer. In the case of HL, I did that and showed that it gave wrong answers more often than not. Hence, using HL to predict a peak is akin to astrology as far as I am concerned.

I have seen this before with relatively inexperienced engineers. They build a model, and start to use it without validating it. But models must be validated. That’s the only way you can have some confidence in the model predictions. (Then there are those who hear the word “model” and they immediately discount the results. That is also the wrong approach).

Because that article by Stuart was written very early on – and Stuart did modify his views on HL as time went by – I can’t really say whether HL gives reasonable and consistent answers on decline rates. I can’t say I have done those checks.]

Vis-à-vis Staniford’s article, how will world economic troubles affect peak scenarios? I am of the opinion that it is very possible that a major depression is looming sometime in the next decade, what with the credit contraction and stock market losses. Obviously a depression would kill oil demand, which might soften peak initially. However, it would also kill funding for alternative energy projects and other mitigation efforts. While I am still not convinced this necessarily spells doom, it could make the transition much more painful. I wonder if the initial depression (economically-induced and having nothing to do with energy or oil) would kill the demand and funding, and we would then stumble our way through recession after recession as peak “ripples through” until suitable alternative technology is developed. Does this sound even remotely accurate? Because the “worst fears” part of me is deathly afraid that a depression now, at the “critical moment,” could trigger the doom scenario. Staniford did not seem to think this, and neither did any of the commenters (early on, at least; I didn’t read the whole thread).

[RR: I think it all ties together. A sharp peak will cause an initial supply shortfall that will result in spiking prices which can cause recession/depression – as well as a drop in funding for renewables. This will cause demand to fall, which will cause prices to fall. Demand then picks back up, and we repeat the cycle. Due to reduced funding for alternatives in troubled economic times, the longer term mitigation options are endangered. This is how I foresee peak oil. It will cause economic troubles, which will feed back into demand. The ultimate impact is that oil will last longer than had the peak not resulted in economic difficulties. This was my premise in The Long Recession.]

Reasons I think the doomers are wrong/suspicions about doomers (in no particular order):

1) The track record/statistics of doom. People have always made doomsday predictions. Since civilization still exists, they obviously did not come true. First it was a global ice age earlier this century, then it was nuclear holocaust, then it was Y2K, etc. Now it is peak oil, or by extension resource depletion. While I understand the gravity of the concerns behind this latest doomsday “fad,” I am just not convinced that doom will play out, due to both their track record and to the mere probability of the event. The bigger and more severe the event, the probability necessarily goes down (like the probability of a major Gulf Coast hurricane vs. the probability of a meteor hitting the earth tomorrow). And doomsday is of necessity a very large and very severe event, pushing the chances down into the realm of the highly improbable. However, I do understand that statistics must be weighed against reality.

2) The lack of presented mathematical evidence for huge world decline rates.

3) The strange distribution of professions amongst the major voices of peak oil. Most of the more optimistic voices in the community seem to have been connected to energy at some point. They are either geologists or in some oil- or energy-related profession. However, the major doomers seem to be either journalists or lawyers, neither of which are energy-related jobs. I question the expertise of these people, especially when their predictions seem to flop so often and so spectacularly. They strike me, overall, as the sort of “annual prophets” who make negative predictions like clockwork, and whose followers seem to get yearly amnesia when their hero’s predictions are totally off the mark.

[RR: Geologists are pretty well-represented in the doomer camp. Think of people like Ken Deffeyes and Collin Campbell. And of course many doomers gain strength in their convictions from Hubbert himself, who was also a geologist.]

4) The “dark side” of peak oil. You don’t have to dig too far into any issue related to resource depletion before you find these people. The people who post things like “only the fit in our society should be allowed to have children” and “we should euthanize the handicapped” and “it’s cruel to be altruistic because it props up the weak,” etc. Obviously these people are all doomers, though not all doomers fall into this category.

[RR: While I view those people as a tiny minority, it has always bothered me that so many doomers can casually talk about billions of people worldwide dieing off as a result of peak oil. My mind can’t even comprehend such a horror, yet people toss that around as casually as if they were debating whether to have a second helping of lunch.]

5) Large amounts of other fossil fuels to “ease us into” the transition. There have now been huge natural gas discoveries under Texas and Louisiana, and if they turn out to be anywhere near as big as they say, it is, as one of your commenters put it, “nearly unalloyed good news.” Coal is even more abundant. From the EIA Coal Reserves page:

As of January 1, 2008, the DRB (Demonstrated Reserve Base) was estimated to contain 489 billion short tons [of coal]. In the United States, coal resources are larger than remaining natural gas and oil resources … Worldwide, compared to all other fossil fuels, coal is most abundant and widely distributed across the continents. Estimates of the world’s total recoverable reserves of coal in 2004 were about 998 billion short tons. The resulting ratio of coal reserves to production is approximately 164 years, meaning that at current rates of production (and no change in reserves), coal reserves could in theory last more than one and one-half centuries.

From Wikipedia’s coal article (not sure if this information is reliable – it’s Wikipedia):

At the end of 2006 the recoverable coal reserves amounted 800 or 900 gigatons. The United States Energy Information Administration gives world reserves as 930 billion short tons. At the current extraction rate, this would last 132 years. However, the rate of coal consumption is annually increasing at 2-3% per year and, setting the growth rate to 2.5% yields an exponential depletion time of 56 years (in 2065). At the current global energy consumption of 15.7 terawatts, there is enough coal to provide the entire planet with all of its energy for 37 years (assuming 0% growth in demand and ignoring transportation’s need for liquid fuels).

Of course, I do recognize that burning that much coal would result in a very bad spike in pollution (I am not yet convinced of the science behind global warming). However, it seems like more than enough to help us “limp along.” (One question about the coal, though: on my first and only visit to the Energy Bulletin website, I saw Richard Heinberg saying that a new study said that we only have 15 years of coal. I wonder if this is true – it is Richard Heinberg, after all. Have you heard of this?)

[RR: I had not heard Heinberg say this, but if he did I think he is wrong. I think one thing that is really going to help us transition away from oil is that we do seem to have substantial natural gas reserves. Natural gas is far more fungible as a transportation fuel than are things like coal, biomass, wind, or solar power, so it should buy us time. Hopefully we don’t squander that time. Of course if our coal reserves are as significant as is often claimed, CTL is a longer-term option for producing liquid fuels, albeit at a higher price point than we are accustomed to.]

6) All major doomers seem to be Americans. Now I am an American, so this is not American-bashing. However, it does make me wonder if, by living in this country, these doomers have a slightly lopsided view of the world (as regards usage and perceived “needs”), since no doomers seem to be coming out of “emerging” countries like China or India or even out of Europe. Notice also how almost all peak oil discussions seem to degenerate, often unknowingly, into “Americo-centric” scenarios (“the U.S. economy will implode,” “the U.S. dollar needs oil,” etc.).

[RR: I had never made this observation, but that does seem to be generally correct (although I do know of doomers who are European or Australian). Maybe this is because we Americans use so much oil, and our way of life is more dependent on oil than is much of the rest of the world. I have always felt like this makes us more vulnerable to oil shortages and oil price shocks. So perhaps it is just that we see the implications of peak oil as being more serious, because for us they may very well be more serious.]

Sorry again for the length of this message. I hope you can help me sort through my confusion. By the way, I love R-squared Energy Blog. It is a voice of moderation in a corner of the interent gone mostly mad, and it is nice to hear that not everyone is a doomer.

[RR: Thank you for your e-mail. As I said, it gives me hope for the future that you are so thoughtfully weighing these issues. Good luck on your quest for the truth. Just keep in mind that ultimately none of us know how the future is going to play out. Personally, I consider a number of possible scenarios, and I plan accordingly. Some of those scenarios including asking questions like “What if Matt Savinar is right?” Ultimately, I think you have to plan for some of the scenarios you think are low probability in the same way that you buy homeowner’s insurance for a house that you don’t believe will ever burn down. You do have to draw a line somewhere, though.]

October 18, 2009 Posted by | Jim Kunstler, Matt Simmons, Peak Oil, reader submission | 47 Comments

Book Review: Crude World

Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil by Peter Maass

Introduction

It succors and drowns human life. And for the last eight years, oil — and the people and places that make it — was my obsession. – Peter Maass

Today a new book by Peter Maass was released. The book is called Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. Peter Maass is a name you may know from a 2005 article that he wrote for the New York Times called The Breaking Point. The story was a comprehensive look at where he thought oil production/prices were headed – and what the implications might be. Maass focused on Saudi Arabia in the article, and spent a lot of time covering Matt Simmons’ viewpoints. It was after reading this story that New York Times columnist John Tierney offered to bet Simmons on the future direction of oil prices. Thus arose the Simmons-Tierney bet.

I thought Maass’ 2005 article was well-researched, and it was a captivating read. So when Mr. Maass e-mailed and asked if I would like a copy of his new book, I thought it would probably be a book I would enjoy. I still have a stack of books that have been sent to me to review, but I jumped this one to the front of the queue. I hadn’t really intended to, as I am working on two other books right now*, and would normally finish those before starting another. But once I picked this book up and started thumbing through it, I couldn’t put it down.

The subtitle of the book is The Violent Twilight of Oil. The book talks about the twilight of oil, but as the chapter titles imply the focus is less on the twilight and more on the seedy side of the business. The book notes that there are some countries like Norway, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Brunei to which oil appears to have generally benefited the population as a whole. But then there are also many cases in which the discovery of oil seems to have brought many problems to the population. (The book suggests that countries with established democracies and strong self identities are less likely to suffer following the discovery of oil).

The Chapters

The chapters read like the Seven Deadly Sins: “Plunder”, “Rot”, “Fear”, “Greed”, and “Desire” are a few of the ‘sins’ covered in various chapters. Within each chapter, Maass then takes a look at an example that embodies that particular “sin.” That sort of style reminded me of a really good book I read a few years ago written by Matt Ridley. It was called Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. Each chapter of that book tells the tale of one gene from each chromosome. In Crude World, Peter Maass tells the story of oil one dysfunctional example at a time.

The book picked up where the New York Times story left off. In fact, Chapter 1 – Scarcity – was mostly about Saudi Arabia and incorporates much of that 2005 story. And if you liked his New York Times story, you will probably enjoy the book as the same style is evident. But I use the word “enjoy” loosely, as it is a sober read. You will find yourself shaking your head at some of the things that have been carried out as a result of the world’s desire for oil.

In Chapter 2 – Plunder – the book covers the case of Equatorial Guinea. The oil wealth was plundered, with the help of international oil companies, banks that looked the other way as government officials brought suitcases of money in for deposit, and governments eager for access to the resource. While he was investigating the oil story in Equatorial Guinea, Maass was accused of being a spy and kicked out of the country.

Chapter 3 – Rot – was all about Nigeria. I won’t tell you how that one turns out, but I am amazed at the (dangerous) lengths Maass went to for the story. Rot describes his journey deep into the Niger Delta in a leaky canoe, courtesy of one of the local warlords. It is well known in the oil industry that Nigeria is a dangerous place to operate. Oil companies generally pay very big premiums to get workers to agree to an assignment in Nigeria. Oil workers are kidnapped in Nigeria regularly (but rarely harmed) and held for ransom from the oil companies operating there. Warlords are constantly doing battle there, and Maass described his visit to one village that had been attacked. Shell also featured prominently in this chapter.

Chapter 4 – Contamination – tells the story of Ecuador, with special focus on the Chevron lawsuit. Maass notes the irony that California – one of the most environmentally conscious states – receives the largest portion of Ecuador’s exports.

The rest of the book’s ten chapters covers a litany of oil-induced miseries. Iraq, Russia, and Venezuela are all profiled. Former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond is presented as the face of “Greed” (albeit it in the “Fear” chapter). There is an interesting explanation in “Greed” on why companies function as they do. Maass discusses a court case between Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers, in which the court ruled that a company’s mission “is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of its shareholders.” Thus, Maass argues that if Mr. Raymond had decided to run ExxonMobil in a more altruistic manner, the board would have removed him for not operating in the best interests of the shareholders.

The complaint that some will have about the book is that it isn’t balanced. There are a number of villains portrayed, but the oil companies really stand out. It seems that those who are telling the tales of misdeeds are generally trusted in the book, but those who are interviewed for balance are treated with suspicion. For instance, in the chapter on Nigeria, the author interviewed the director of Shell’s operations in Nigeria. The interview appears to proceed like a cross-examination. A Nigerian warlord’s words, on the other hand, seem to be taken mostly at face value.

But this is not intended to be a balanced book. It is a book designed to highlight the downside of our oil dependence. We can all think about ways in which oil has made our life better, but in the Western world we are generally spared from the nasty side of the business. In this book, Maass brings that message home loud and clear.

Conclusion

Crude World was released today, September 22, 2009. The general theme of the book is that the world’s dependence on oil has come at a very high price. This is not a book on peak oil, climate change, or renewable energy. It is not a technical book on the oil industry (for that see Morgan Downey’s Oil 101). The book covers the misery – the wars, the corruption, and the ruined lives – brought about primarily by greed from the lure of black gold. The book highlights the irony that oil could be used to improve the lives of a country’s citizens, but in far too many cases a country’s citizens end up being worse off after oil is discovered. The book was a fascinating read, and I couldn’t put it down once I started it. Now I can get back to my regularly scheduled reading.

Footnote

* The other books I am working on right now are Axis by Robert Charles Wilson and Outsourcing Energy Management by Steven Fawkes. The former is a science fiction book that I picked up because I really enjoyed Wilson’s previous book Spin. The latter has been a difficult read; I have been working on the book for six months. I met the author earlier in the year when he visited the Titan Wood plant in the Netherlands. We had quite a lot in common, and he sent me a copy of his book. But it is really a textbook, and so I have been reading it in small doses.

September 22, 2009 Posted by | book review, Matt Simmons, oil companies, oil consumption, oil exploration, oil production, peter maass | 55 Comments

Peak Demand Before Peak Oil?

There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the possibility that oil demand will peak soon (or has peaked already), which will render a geologically-induced peak in oil production irrelevant. In other words, peak oil is a non-issue because people won’t be demanding as much oil as can be produced (which is true presently). In fact, I just did a Google search of my blog, and the phrase “Peak Demand” shows up 239 times over the past 2 years. Regular reader Benjamin Cole was beating the peak demand meme long before I heard the media start to pick it up. (Here he is arguing this point two years ago).

Over the weekend I saw a new article that argued this point:

Study predicts oil demand will peak well before supplies run out

I think calling this a ‘study’ is being very generous, and I have some big problems with multiple aspects of the article. Let’s have a look:

Management consultancy Arthur D Little has turned peak oil fears on their head with a report suggesting that the global economy will have begun to abandon oil well before supplies peak.

A bit of hyperbole, don’t you think? If anything has turned peak oil fears on their head it has been the collapse of oil prices – not the opinion of someone I never heard of. Hard to be concerned that there is a crisis around the corner when oil prices reflect a belief of an abundantly supplied market.

The Beginning of the End for Oil?, written by Peter Hughes a former executive at natural gas giant BG Group, address the prospect of falling demand for oil, rather than fears over dwindling supplies. It suggests that a mixture of drivers is forcing a broad policy change that will continue to reduce consumption. Fears over climate change, security of supply, and price volatility, will form a holy trinity to drive policy redirection, he said.

There are significant drivers for policy redirection, but working against those drivers is the issue of oil prices. They have already fallen to the point that they have spurred a recovery of demand. This is why I don’t subscribe to the peak demand > peak oil argument. We just don’t have anything that can compete with oil, especially at current prices. Crude oil is like a giant lake of underground energy that nature already did the heavy lifting on. Even though the lakes are becoming harder to access, they are still more economical than processes that require that humans do the heavy lifting (e.g., you have to input a lot of energy to turn straw into a liquid fuel). Peak demand is only going to occur if there are alternatives with low fossil fuel inputs that are competitive. Those are not on the immediate horizon, therefore demand is going to recover before it starts to shift to something else. Because I believe we will reach peak oil before anything is competitive with oil, I think peak oil will occur before peak demand.

Hughes also points to the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) reduction of long-term oil consumption forecasts last year. It said the world would be using 10m barrels less per day in 2030 than it had predicted previously

Yet still more than we use today. And the current version of This Week in Petroleum reads “Under almost all EIA long-term projection scenarios, global demand for crude oil and petroleum liquids increases through 2030.”

But why does the EIA predict slower growth in petroleum demand? Because they are predicting that the ethanol mandates will result in production of almost 30 billion gallons of ethanol per year in 2030 – most of it cellulosic. (Less than two years ago the same agency was predicting less than a billion gallons of cellulosic in 2030 – amazing how effective mandates are at creating new technology!)

Despite the huge increase in ethanol production, they forecast a very modest rise in natural gas consumption. This begs the question “Where are all the energy inputs going to come from to drive production of 30 billion gallons of ethanol?” Because of the nature of ethanol production – which unlike oil does not comes to us as an underground lake that nature has largely processed – it takes substantial energy inputs to produce finished ethanol. That is not reflected anywhere in the EIA forecasts. It appears that the assumption is that it will take no incremental fossil fuel production to produce this much cellulosic ethanol. The problem is that no such technology has been invented, so the peak demand argument has to rely on new technologies yet to be invented. That is an incredibly weak argument.

Oil industry experts have predicted that any decline in oil demand in developed economies will be more than compensated by increased consumption in China and other BRIC countries as disposable income rises.

But Hughes argues that these emerging economies would be driven by the same desire to cut oil demand that is already being felt in developed economies. “The Chinese think very coherently and very long term,” he said. “They have identified the threat to the long-term sustainability of their growth path by relying increasingly on imported energy.”

I can’t make too much sense of this. China’s plan for long-term sustainability involves relying increasingly on imports? Wow, then the U.S. is really on their way to a sustainable future. We have increased our imports to something like 2/3rds of our liquid fuel needs.

The report has little in the way of numbers, and insiders admit it is more an opinion piece by Hughes based on almost 30 years in the energy business.

That’s pretty obvious.

But Hughes is not alone in predicting that fears over peaking oil supplies are largely unfounded, on the grounds that economies will find replacement sources of energy at a faster rate than the oil industry expects.

Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has been similarly outspoken on the subject of oil demand. “Oil is going to become, and has already become, uncompetitive, even at low prices, before it becomes unavailable even at high prices,” he said in a 2007 Newsweek interview. “So we will leave it in the ground. It’s very good for holding up the ground, but it won’t be worth extracting.”

Yes, Amory Lovins predicts the same. Now there is a great endorsement. As Robert Bryce pointed out in a 2007 article on Lovins, Lovins does not have a good track record with his predictions. Some of his past predictions:

1. Renewables will take huge swaths of the overall energy market. (1976)
2. Electricity consumption will fall. (1984)
3. Cellulosic ethanol will solve our oil import needs. (repeatedly)
4. Efficiency will lower consumption. (repeatedly)

Bryce systematically demolishes Lovins’ predictions in his article, and wonders why people still listen to him.

So I am firmly in the camp that we are going to see a peak in oil production before we see a massive move to alternatives. On the topic of peak oil itself, my current thinking remains as it has for several years. We are close, but not there yet. I have said several times that I expect oil to peak at around 90 million barrels per day (for ‘all liquids’ production). Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of Total, was recently quoted as saying he thought 89 million barrels per day will be the peak. Jim Mulva, CEO of ConocoPhillips, has expressed similar sentiments. After the IEA came out and predicted oil demand of 116 million barrels per day in 2030, Mulva said he didn’t see how we would ever get past 100 million barrels per day.

I do continue to be bemused by those who suggest that oil production peaked in 2005. When I was posting regularly at The Oil Drum, this was an issue that frequently found me at odds with many of the readers. I felt like there was insufficient evidence, and that many of the arguments suggesting an immediate peak were flawed. That didn’t stop people like Matt Simmons and Ken Deffeyes from making definitive statements that peak oil has passed. Both have been saying for several years now that we are past peak. Here’s Deffeyes in February 2006 saying that oil peaked in December 2005 and claiming “I can now refer to the world oil peak in the past tense. My career as a prophet is over. I’m now an historian.JD at Peak Oil Debunked points out that peak oil has been a moving target for Deffeyes. Here’s Simmons in early 2007 saying that the world has peaked. T. Boone Pickens called the peak in 2004. Here’s one of the TOD contributors calling “Peak Total Liquids of 85.52 million barrels/day on Aug 2006.”

So where do things stand? All of these guys were wrong. Per the EIA database, 2008 eclipsed 2005 as far as total oil produced, and the present monthly record is now July 2008 for crude production plus condensate. In the ‘all liquids’ category, daily production in 2008 was about a million barrels per day higher than it was in 2005 at 85.6 million barrels per day (and several months checked in just short of 87 million barrels per day).

If anyone can point me to a place where any of the “Peak Oil Historians” admitted to being in error, I would appreciate it. Prior to the credit crisis I thought we would see peak by 2012 at no more than 90 million barrels per day. With the crisis, it may delay peak by a year or so, but also make it less likely that we make it to 90 million barrels per day. We are certainly knocking on the door of peak oil (IMO), and if someone suggests that for all practical purposes we are there I couldn’t disagree. But I think it demolishes credibility to go on TV and make a claim like “Peak Oil occurred in May 2005.” I have advised people that no matter how sure you are about that, if you stick your neck out and are wrong, you are the boy who cried wolf and your message will lose any semblance of credibility.

At the present time, demand has been destroyed the point that there are several million barrels per day of excess capacity. I think that most of the rise in oil prices since 2002 can be explained by my Peak Lite scenario, which boils down to erosion of excess capacity. When prices got out of hand, significant demand was destroyed and we find ourselves with 2002-like spare capacity. I think going forward, we are going to see the gradual return of Peak Lite. The only question in my mind is when the climb begins. But since I am a long-term investor, I have the patience to wait it out.

February 23, 2009 Posted by | EIA, ken deffeyes, Matt Simmons, Peak Demand, Peak Lite, Peak Oil, Robert Bryce | 59 Comments

The Demise of the Oil Bubble

When I made my $1,000 bet that oil prices wouldn’t reach $100 in 2007, I felt like that was a pretty safe bet. Up until about the first week of September in 2007, it was looking like I was cruising to an easy win. But then oil prices went on an unprecedented run. Prices climbed almost 50% between September and the end of the year, and twice came within a whisker of reaching $100. Then, on the first trading day of 2008, the $100 mark was breeched, and eventually soared to almost $150/bbl in July of 2008. I won the bet, but a lot of people felt like I had really lost, as the point I was trying to make is that oil hadn’t yet peaked – and the price would reflect that.

It wasn’t that I felt like oil wasn’t going to reach $100. I did. But I didn’t think it would happen until year end 2008 or some time in 2009. (See the 3rd graph in Peak Lite Revisited which shows $100 being breeched right at the end of 2008). The main reason for this is that the economy has to have time to adjust to higher prices. What I foresaw was a rise, followed by demand destruction, bankruptcies in various airlines and auto makers, a price correction, and then another rise.

I foresaw a jagged rise – not the exponential rise that we saw over the past year. I felt like the rapid run-up starting in September of 2007 could not be justified purely on the basis of the fundamentals. I had a lot of arguments with people who think peak oil has passed who suggested that I just hadn’t anticipated how quickly things would fall apart. And it was certainly hard to win those arguments when oil prices continued to set records.

For some of those peakers, the present environment of falling prices means election year price manipulation. It could never mean, after all, that prices had indeed gotten ahead of themselves. But the Wall Street Journal weighed in today on the matter of the ‘oil bubble:’

The Official Demise of the Oil Bubble

Like a number of other commodities, oil’s move went from a steady ascent to a vertical bounce in the spring of 2008, topping out near $150 a barrel before speculative excess started to drain from the market. And those who believed that the oil price was justified by fundamentals — being, as it is, an actual product, rather than an Internet company’s vague promise of revenue — are smarting.

“This is a market that is basically returning to the price level of a year ago which it arguably should never have left,” says Tim Evans, energy analyst at Citigroup. “We pumped up a big bubble, expanded it to an impressive dimension, and now it is popped and we have bubble gum in our hair.”

On the other side are analysts who think this is a brief reprieve before oil prices rocket back up (many feel this will happen right after the elections):

Oil to Reach New Highs by Year-End

When oil moves, it moves the index. The sell-off brought oil down from a high of $147 to roughly $90. It bounced back up to $108 to $110; $108.50 is a good support and resistance level for oil today. The next price up should be $112.50, then $122.50, followed by a couple of more increases. I think the top is going to be $150 to $157. That was our forecast.

Charlie Maxwell, in Barron’s, says $300 oil in about five years—that’s the long view. Inflation adjusted, he’s probably right. I think we’re only about halfway into the commodity bull market. Despite the credit problems in the U.S., Asia is not going to be economically buried to the extent that we are. And that’s a continuous growing market for gas and oil.

I disagree with that assessment in the short term, but think the long-term is probably correct. I do see the long-term as still very bullish on oil. But it isn’t a market for the timid, as the current correction is proving. These corrections can be brutal, but as a long-term investor, what I really care about is whether oil prices are going to be much higher 5 years from now. I still think the answer to that question is “Yes.” (However, I do think that Matt Simmons is going to lose his $10,000 bet that oil prices will average over $200 in 2010).

One other thing I believe is that oil company stocks have oversold. I own ConocoPhillips stock, and the PE is currently trading at just over 4. The yield is up to almost 4%. Those are insane numbers for a company that has oil reserves worth more than 10 times the market cap of the company. If I was Jim Mulva, CEO of ConocoPhillips, I would be buying back stock as fast as I could.

I have always said that investor psychology can really play havoc with a portfolio, but in the long run I have to believe that oil company stocks are worth significantly more than current valuations. They are trading as if oil was at $20/bbl, and it isn’t going there. No way. In fact, I still don’t believe it will go below $50, which is a prediction I first made in 2005 (that oil would never drop below $50 again).

October 11, 2008 Posted by | investing, Matt Simmons, oil prices | 134 Comments

Live from ASPO


Me With Jim Kunstler at ASPO 2008

Live from the 2008 ASPO Conference, where I am still running on European time (waking up at 3 a.m. and dead tired by 8 p.m.). The talk of the conference so far is on the proposed $700 billion bailout of the financial services sector, and whether this may be just the tip of the iceberg. This is the same sort of bailout that I think is eventually destined to happen to some of the biofuels sectors that have had mandated expansions. When it becomes clear that they aren’t doing much about our dependence on foreign oil or fossil fuels, support will likely dwindle. But it would be devastating for the Midwest to just let these companies fail en masse, hence there will be a lot of pressure to bail them out.

Yesterday was a light day at the conference, with several sessions running in parallel. I gave a talk on the energy information agencies, which I will write up as an essay as soon as time allows. I have had a chance to meet a lot of people that up to now I only knew by name. I got to have lunch yesterday with Jim Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, and during the Q&A following my talk someone pointed out that Matt Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert, was standing at the back of the room. Both of those books really had an impact on me (for several reasons, and not because I accepted all of their conclusions) and it was a pleasure to see them in person.

In energy news, gas prices are beginning to ease off, but there are also a number of reports of gasoline shortages in the south. I expect this situation to improve – not get worse as I have heard a number of people suggest – in the coming week. However, if we have another hurricane in the gulf a week from now, I expect that we will see shortages that haven’t been seen since the early 70’s.

Comments from me will continue to be sporadic until late in the week. At that point, things should start to get back to normal. My talk on biofuels takes place tomorrow. I will try to cover the world of biofuels in 20 minutes. Here is the outline of the talk as I will present it:

Stacking up the contenders

• Ethanol
– Crop-based (corn, sugarcane)
– Cellulosic and Lignocellulosic (gasification)
• Renewable Diesel
– Biodiesel
– Green diesel (hydrocracked, Fischer-Tropsch)
• Miscellaneous
– ‘Renewable petroleum’
– Di-methyl ether
– Butanol
• Contenders with Promise

Can the U.S. emulate Brazil?

• The truth about Brazil
• The truth about the U.S.

Fact or fiction?

• Anything Into Oil
• Algae to biodiesel
• Ethanol for $1/gal

Where Politicians Fail

Solutions

As with the other talk, I will write this one up and present as an essay.

September 22, 2008 Posted by | ASPO, Jim Kunstler, Matt Simmons | 119 Comments

Live from ASPO


Me With Jim Kunstler at ASPO 2008

Live from the 2008 ASPO Conference, where I am still running on European time (waking up at 3 a.m. and dead tired by 8 p.m.). The talk of the conference so far is on the proposed $700 billion bailout of the financial services sector, and whether this may be just the tip of the iceberg. This is the same sort of bailout that I think is eventually destined to happen to some of the biofuels sectors that have had mandated expansions. When it becomes clear that they aren’t doing much about our dependence on foreign oil or fossil fuels, support will likely dwindle. But it would be devastating for the Midwest to just let these companies fail en masse, hence there will be a lot of pressure to bail them out.

Yesterday was a light day at the conference, with several sessions running in parallel. I gave a talk on the energy information agencies, which I will write up as an essay as soon as time allows. I have had a chance to meet a lot of people that up to now I only knew by name. I got to have lunch yesterday with Jim Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, and during the Q&A following my talk someone pointed out that Matt Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert, was standing at the back of the room. Both of those books really had an impact on me (for several reasons, and not because I accepted all of their conclusions) and it was a pleasure to see them in person.

In energy news, gas prices are beginning to ease off, but there are also a number of reports of gasoline shortages in the south. I expect this situation to improve – not get worse as I have heard a number of people suggest – in the coming week. However, if we have another hurricane in the gulf a week from now, I expect that we will see shortages that haven’t been seen since the early 70’s.

Comments from me will continue to be sporadic until late in the week. At that point, things should start to get back to normal. My talk on biofuels takes place tomorrow. I will try to cover the world of biofuels in 20 minutes. Here is the outline of the talk as I will present it:

Stacking up the contenders

• Ethanol
– Crop-based (corn, sugarcane)
– Cellulosic and Lignocellulosic (gasification)
• Renewable Diesel
– Biodiesel
– Green diesel (hydrocracked, Fischer-Tropsch)
• Miscellaneous
– ‘Renewable petroleum’
– Di-methyl ether
– Butanol
• Contenders with Promise

Can the U.S. emulate Brazil?

• The truth about Brazil
• The truth about the U.S.

Fact or fiction?

• Anything Into Oil
• Algae to biodiesel
• Ethanol for $1/gal

Where Politicians Fail

Solutions

As with the other talk, I will write this one up and present as an essay.

September 22, 2008 Posted by | ASPO, Jim Kunstler, Matt Simmons | 17 Comments

Oil Cracked $140 Today

Peak demand or not, oil prices show no signs of subsiding:

Oil Surges Above $140 to Record as Libya Warns of Output Cut

June 26 (Bloomberg) — Crude oil jumped above $140 a barrel to a record as Libya threatened to cut output, OPEC’s president said prices may reach $170 by the summer and the dollar weakened.

Libya may curb output because of a U.S. law that allows terror victims to seize assets of foreign governments as compensation. OPEC President Chakib Khelil said oil may surge on a European interest rate rise, France 24 reported. Oil, gold and copper climbed today as the dollar dropped because the Federal Reserve gave no signal of higher interest rates yesterday.

Crude oil for August delivery rose $5.09, or 3.8 percent, to $139.64 a barrel at 2:59 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange, a record settlement price. Futures touched $140.39 today, surpassing the previous intraday record of $139.89 reached on June 16.

I think you’re seeing a clear flight from equities into commodities, said Kyle Cooper, an analyst at IAF Advisors in Houston.

Record oil prices helped send U.S. stocks tumbling. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index plunged 38.82, or 2.9 percent, to 1,283.15 in New York. The Dow decreased 358.41, or 3 percent, to 11,453.42.

I am starting to think Matt Simmons could win his $5,000 bet that oil will average $200 in 2010. (I still think he’s likely to lose, but at one time I thought he was sure to lose).

June 27, 2008 Posted by | Libya, Matt Simmons, oil prices, OPEC | 2 Comments

Book Review: World Made by Hand

World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler

When I read James Howard Kunstler’s (JHK) book The Long Emergency, it had a profound impact on me. I had been aware for many years that “running out of oil” was a serious matter. After all, I mentioned the challenge of peak oil in my graduate thesis in 1995. But my focus was more on finding a source that could replace oil as it ran out. Reading The Long Emergency was the first time it really hit me that I was missing a lot of key pieces of the picture.

The book’s impact wasn’t because I thought his vision of the future was necessarily correct, but it made me think about possibilities. It caused me to look at the suburbs in a new light, and to really appreciate how vulnerable the U.S. is to oil shocks. It made me realize that problems will start to crop up – not when we run out of oil – but simply when supplies can’t meet demand. In the U.S., we built a society based on cheap oil, in which one can live 40 miles from work and drive a gas guzzler to and from work each day. As I read his book, it really sank in that this model was likely to come to an end sooner rather than later. And just as soon as I finished reading it, I got a copy of Matt Simmons’ Twilight in the Desert and read it. Those two books helped me decide that I needed to start trying to educate people about energy issues.

In JHK’s latest book – World Made by Hand – he shares his vision of life after oil. It’s a far cry from the future I imagined as a child; a future in which man was conquering the galaxy and we were all flying around like the Jetsons. The future JHK evokes resembles the Wild West of 150 years ago – except with a few modern touches surviving.

The book is set in upstate New York (JHK’s home state) in the fictional town of Union Grove. In this world, life is very hard. There are no cars, electricity is rarely on, wars have wiped out major U.S. cities (Washington D.C. was wiped out on my birthday, 12/21), religion has made a resurgence, warlords carve out territory, and lawlessness is rampant. But communities are much tighter, the food is healthier, neighbors lend a helping hand, and people have to be a lot more self sufficient. I believe these latter aspects of the future world represents the future that JHK would like to see.

As with his previous book, this one caused me to think about possibilities I had not previously considered. I spent a lot of my time pausing to evaluate whether I felt like a particular scenario was likely. I think if you accept the key premise – that no more oil is available – then the future he envisions is probably pretty close to the mark. Oil provides all kinds of conveniences that we take for granted, and I doubt the average person can appreciate how different their world would be if the taps dried up. Yet that is the world that JHK has produced in this novel.

But that’s not the way I think things will play out. If you read between the lines, the book is set no more than 15 years into the future. The date is never given, but there is a mention of a woman in her 90’s who was a nurse in WWII. Assuming 20 as a minimum age, then the setting of the book is some time between now and maybe 2025 at the latest. I simply don’t believe we will lose our mechanized transport options in that time frame.

On my recent trip to India, I saw a lot of people who were using very little fuel, but were still getting around by motorized transport. We have such a tremendous amount of fat that we can cut from our fuel consumption. It may be that by 2020 we do have a lot less oil available, but oil will still be available. And some countries – Brazil for instance – are not likely to run into supply issues for decades. It is hard to envision a world in which the U.S. has no more access to oil, but Brazil is motoring happily along. Even though there isn’t much mention about the rest of the world – mainly because there is little communication with the rest of the world – I couldn’t help but imagine that in JHK’s world there were a lot of countries that would have been able to maintain their fuel supplies.

The book touched upon a lot of themes that I have thought about over the years. Long before I was involved in writing about energy, I was a student of evolutionary biology. One of the things that my studies made me appreciate is that modern medicine has allowed many people to contribute genes to the gene pool that centuries ago would have been cruelly weeded out by evolution. What that means is that most of us are carrying around genes that are only mildly deleterious in the age of modern medicine, but could quickly shorten our life spans without modern medicine. And in this book, JHK pulled modern medicine out from under the population. The result is as I would expect – vast numbers of people died out. I have speculated before that without modern medicine, more than 90% of the population would likely be dead within 10 years from conditions that today don’t trouble us too much.

Consider your own health. Have you been hospitalized for appendicitis? How many times have you required antibiotics to treat something common like strep throat? Have you required surgery? These are all things that can kill without modern medicine. So I have a great appreciation for modern medicine. When I go to a developing country like India that’s one of the first things I think about: Do the people have access to modern medicine?

Another theme that I have thought a lot about – and that JHK tackled in the book – was mining of the municipal dumps. I have often thought about the amount of metals, useful plastics, and just various odds and ends that would be of enormous benefit in a resource-depleted world. I have no doubt that regardless of how the future plays out, there will come a time that we are mining the dumps regularly.

One thing that I haven’t discussed yet is the story itself. I really didn’t expect much from the story. The real story for me was what a world without oil might look like. But the underlying story was actually pretty good. The characters are really interesting, he makes the relationships interesting, and he throws a few surprises into the mix. I have to hand it to JHK – he tells a good tale. Some of the characters (and names) seemed a bit over the top, but otherwise I found myself wanting to know what was going to happen next. So I got a bonus in that aspect.

If you are like me, and you enjoy thinking about possibilities (good or bad), then this book is definitely food for thought. If you want to remain oblivious to the threat of peak oil, or are otherwise convinced that technology will enable the status quo to remain, then you probably won’t care for it (although again the book is worth a read for the story itself).

Note: If you are curious about JHK’s views, the current issue of Business Week has an extensive interview with him:

Good-Bye, Cheap Oil. So Long, Suburbia?

April 25, 2008 Posted by | book review, evolution, hubbert peak, Jim Kunstler, Matt Simmons, Peak Oil | Comments Off on Book Review: World Made by Hand

Book Review: World Made by Hand

World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler

When I read James Howard Kunstler’s (JHK) book The Long Emergency, it had a profound impact on me. I had been aware for many years that “running out of oil” was a serious matter. After all, I mentioned the challenge of peak oil in my graduate thesis in 1995. But my focus was more on finding a source that could replace oil as it ran out. Reading The Long Emergency was the first time it really hit me that I was missing a lot of key pieces of the picture.

The book’s impact wasn’t because I thought his vision of the future was necessarily correct, but it made me think about possibilities. It caused me to look at the suburbs in a new light, and to really appreciate how vulnerable the U.S. is to oil shocks. It made me realize that problems will start to crop up – not when we run out of oil – but simply when supplies can’t meet demand. In the U.S., we built a society based on cheap oil, in which one can live 40 miles from work and drive a gas guzzler to and from work each day. As I read his book, it really sank in that this model was likely to come to an end sooner rather than later. And just as soon as I finished reading it, I got a copy of Matt Simmons’ Twilight in the Desert and read it. Those two books helped me decide that I needed to start trying to educate people about energy issues.

In JHK’s latest book – World Made by Hand – he shares his vision of life after oil. It’s a far cry from the future I imagined as a child; a future in which man was conquering the galaxy and we were all flying around like the Jetsons. The future JHK evokes resembles the Wild West of 150 years ago – except with a few modern touches surviving.

The book is set in upstate New York (JHK’s home state) in the fictional town of Union Grove. In this world, life is very hard. There are no cars, electricity is rarely on, wars have wiped out major U.S. cities (Washington D.C. was wiped out on my birthday, 12/21), religion has made a resurgence, warlords carve out territory, and lawlessness is rampant. But communities are much tighter, the food is healthier, neighbors lend a helping hand, and people have to be a lot more self sufficient. I believe these latter aspects of the future world represents the future that JHK would like to see.

As with his previous book, this one caused me to think about possibilities I had not previously considered. I spent a lot of my time pausing to evaluate whether I felt like a particular scenario was likely. I think if you accept the key premise – that no more oil is available – then the future he envisions is probably pretty close to the mark. Oil provides all kinds of conveniences that we take for granted, and I doubt the average person can appreciate how different their world would be if the taps dried up. Yet that is the world that JHK has produced in this novel.

But that’s not the way I think things will play out. If you read between the lines, the book is set no more than 15 years into the future. The date is never given, but there is a mention of a woman in her 90’s who was a nurse in WWII. Assuming 20 as a minimum age, then the setting of the book is some time between now and maybe 2025 at the latest. I simply don’t believe we will lose our mechanized transport options in that time frame.

On my recent trip to India, I saw a lot of people who were using very little fuel, but were still getting around by motorized transport. We have such a tremendous amount of fat that we can cut from our fuel consumption. It may be that by 2020 we do have a lot less oil available, but oil will still be available. And some countries – Brazil for instance – are not likely to run into supply issues for decades. It is hard to envision a world in which the U.S. has no more access to oil, but Brazil is motoring happily along. Even though there isn’t much mention about the rest of the world – mainly because there is little communication with the rest of the world – I couldn’t help but imagine that in JHK’s world there were a lot of countries that would have been able to maintain their fuel supplies.

The book touched upon a lot of themes that I have thought about over the years. Long before I was involved in writing about energy, I was a student of evolutionary biology. One of the things that my studies made me appreciate is that modern medicine has allowed many people to contribute genes to the gene pool that centuries ago would have been cruelly weeded out by evolution. What that means is that most of us are carrying around genes that are only mildly deleterious in the age of modern medicine, but could quickly shorten our life spans without modern medicine. And in this book, JHK pulled modern medicine out from under the population. The result is as I would expect – vast numbers of people died out. I have speculated before that without modern medicine, more than 90% of the population would likely be dead within 10 years from conditions that today don’t trouble us too much.

Consider your own health. Have you been hospitalized for appendicitis? How many times have you required antibiotics to treat something common like strep throat? Have you required surgery? These are all things that can kill without modern medicine. So I have a great appreciation for modern medicine. When I go to a developing country like India that’s one of the first things I think about: Do the people have access to modern medicine?

Another theme that I have thought a lot about – and that JHK tackled in the book – was mining of the municipal dumps. I have often thought about the amount of metals, useful plastics, and just various odds and ends that would be of enormous benefit in a resource-depleted world. I have no doubt that regardless of how the future plays out, there will come a time that we are mining the dumps regularly.

One thing that I haven’t discussed yet is the story itself. I really didn’t expect much from the story. The real story for me was what a world without oil might look like. But the underlying story was actually pretty good. The characters are really interesting, he makes the relationships interesting, and he throws a few surprises into the mix. I have to hand it to JHK – he tells a good tale. Some of the characters (and names) seemed a bit over the top, but otherwise I found myself wanting to know what was going to happen next. So I got a bonus in that aspect.

If you are like me, and you enjoy thinking about possibilities (good or bad), then this book is definitely food for thought. If you want to remain oblivious to the threat of peak oil, or are otherwise convinced that technology will enable the status quo to remain, then you probably won’t care for it (although again the book is worth a read for the story itself).

Note: If you are curious about JHK’s views, the current issue of Business Week has an extensive interview with him:

Good-Bye, Cheap Oil. So Long, Suburbia?

April 25, 2008 Posted by | book review, evolution, hubbert peak, Jim Kunstler, Matt Simmons, Peak Oil | 42 Comments