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Peak Oil: Living on the Banks of Denial

On Accepting Peak Oil--And Finding Profit

Written by Chris Nelder
Posted April 30, 2008 at 4:58PM

I had pretty surreal experience in TV land on Monday.

I had the privilege of appearing on the Fox Business channel, to talk about why oil prices are so high and what the future holds for oil. (See it here: Part 1 and Part 2.)

In typical TV interview format, I was set up in opposition to another energy analyst who is well known for his cornucopian views. Him on one side of the "panel," me on the other, and the moderator.

You probably know what happened next: I sat there trying to stare at a barely visible camera in a small studio in San Francisco with only an ear bud and no video, thanks to the 5-second delay from New York, while the moderator gave the vast majority of our two short segments to the cornucopian, who called me a "peak freak."

I had to grin at that one. (Personally, I prefer the less pejorative "peaker.")

As he carried on about how technology will save the day, achieving vast increases in oil extraction, and about the 12 trillion barrels of oil left to exploit worldwide, I could barely stifle myself.

Unfortunately, they afforded me no opportunity to respond to any of those points. They only seemed to want my opposing view—that oil would stay more or less permanently over $100 a barrel—to make the segment "fair and balanced."

I tried to explain the importance of flow rates, the concept of a plateau at the top of Hubbert's Peak, the limits of enhanced oil recovery, and the time it takes to bring new solutions to market, but my words seemed to fall on deaf ears.

As any student of peak oil investing knows, this stuff is complex. It's hard to talk about in TV sound bites. Especially when you have to explain the gulf between the 12 trillion barrels of original oil in place that my opponent was talking about, and the 1 trillion barrels of remaining recoverable oil that I was talking about.

Presumably, Fox Business thought it best to leave it to the viewer to figure that one out.

What can I tell ya. I did what I could with it. Another appearance is scheduled for tomorrow. Maybe I'll get a few more words in next time.

Evolution of a Peak Freak

I really can't blame the media for their reluctance to face up to peak oil. It's an unpleasant concept and it immediately strikes fear into one's heart.

I have often reflected on how coming to grips with peak oil is much like the process of grieving, as identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. In peaker terms, I'd describe it like this:

  1. Denial: "There's plenty of oil out there, and we can drill our way out of this."
  2. Anger: "Why aren't those bastards drilling our way out of this?"
  3. Bargaining: "Well maybe ANWR, the continental offshore, the tar sands, and slightly more efficient cars will fix it."
  4. Depression: "Oh man, we're screwed, it's too big a problem for me, I might as well give up."
  5. Acceptance: "I'm ready for the second half of the Age of Oil and I'm going to find a way forward."

Stage One: Denial

My interview segment was an all-too-typical display of denial. Great: that's Stage One. It's a start.

Then I mused: How long have we been living on the banks of denial? And it slightly depressed me today to discover that I wrote an article by that very title back in September 2005, which I could have written today:

Energy will continue to get more and more expensive. In a short while, you won't be able to afford to fill the tank on an SUV. You will learn to like wearing sweaters, and living without A/C. If you live in a big city or a suburb, you will probably have to move. If you're in one of the red-hot real estate markets in the US, the value of your property will take a couple of sickening drops. Your money and investments will devalue. You will find it increasingly difficult to buy—or even get—food. Water will get scarcer, more expensive, and harder to clean.

Let me tell you, it gives me absolutely no pleasure to say that I was right. I've been trying to help keep this from happening for over a decade, and I've never wanted to be right less in my life

Yet, there are critics who claim that people like me are part of some unnamed shadowy conspiracy of "liberal elites" determined to destroy the economy, and other even less charitable characterizations. They say we're all congenital doom-and-gloomers.

I used to puzzle over that, until I realized that it was just denial.

Most peak oil deniers, I have found, are incredibly resistant to any sort of detailed discussion involving facts and numbers, and I have learned better than to argue with them.

But the fire in my belly says that we had better hurry up and move on here, because time is a-wastin'.

Stage Two: Anger

Stage Two seems to have arrived. Just in the last few months, we've seen it everywhere in response to food shortages, fuel shortages, panic buying, huge price increases and crazy volatility in the markets.

Over the last week fuel price spikes, panic and outrage were seen in the UK as a two-day strike shut down the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland, which in turn shut down the Forties Pipeline, taking over 40% of the UK's North Sea oil and gas production offline. As of yet I haven't seen much considered discussion about how that kind of vulnerability should inform future energy policy, but there's plenty of finger pointing going on.

In Congress, the anger was evident as well. And as usual, they came up with some terrible and short-sighted proposals.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) proposed a windfall oil profits tax, a notion supported by both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. Such proposals always come up around earnings season for the oil companies, but they're a bad idea because oil companies have few economical prospects left, and reducing their economic prospects even further is counter-productive.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), along with Senator Clinton and others, called for an investigation into market manipulation, speculation and possible gouging. Most senators also appear to support a temporary halt to filling the SPR (see my article of last week, "High Gasoline Prices Are Here to Stay," on why that's a bad idea.)

Credit where it is due: President Bush was right to dismiss the suggestion, on the grounds that removing 68,000 barrels a day from an overall U.S. demand of 21 million barrels a day wouldn't help bring oil prices down.

Several senators also want to close the "Enron Loophole," and make energy trading subject to federal regulation. That much I fully support, since I've still got my own anger about the way they bent me over back in 2001.

Clinton and many other senators even proposed filing a WTO complaint against OPEC to pressure them into opening the spigots a little more. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

Congress might as well tilt at wind turbines.

Even President Bush was forced to address the energy price issue again—a topic he has studiously avoided while America cried uncle—but he deflected the blame.

"I firmly believe that, you know, if there was a magic wand to wave, I'd be waving it, of course," he said during a news conference. "I've repeatedly submitted proposals to help address these problems, yet time after time Congress chose to block them."

As if he doesn't know that we can't drill our way out of this problem domestically!

I guess anger, like most things, comes around and goes around.

Anger is understandable, but it's not productive. We have to move on.

Stage Three: Bargaining

Bargaining seems to be the stage for our presidential contenders.

Senator McCain, joined by Senator Clinton, suggested a little gasoline tax holiday, which is akin to a first class upgrade on the Titanic.

Senator Obama called that one right, saying, "This isn't an idea designed to get you through the summer, it's an idea designed to get them through an election."

Indeed, a whole host of bargaining strategies are on offer from our leaders, such as:

  • Increasing production of biofuels and other alternative fuels such as coal-to-liquids (CTL), when it's already clear that the consequences of both are unacceptable, and that the contribution they could make is too little to make a tangible difference.
  • Raising the CAFE standard to 55 mpg by 2030, when PHEVs can already do that, and you can buy a car today anywhere in Europe that will do that. In 2030, remind me to mail them a letter saying thanks for nothin'.
  • Spending another $150 billion toward renewable energy research. That's great, and I'm all for it, but it's also roughly what we've already been paying every year for the war in Iraq. Given the challenges we're facing, we should be investing at least as much in domestic alternative energy and rail as we are spending on the war, which ultimately is about perpetuating a dying paradigm of fossil-fuel burning automobiles.
  • A lousy $1 billion for intercity rail, and $1.5 billion for public transit, when those are clearly—clearly—the most important and immediate investments we could contemplate. Instead of being at the bottom of the list, this should be at the top.

I suspect that Senator Obama may be nearing the end of the Bargaining phase, since he has quite sensibly called for a complete overhaul of US energy policy.

Moving Forward

Whoever is elected to the presidency, the next four years virtually guarantee that he or she will soon see Stage Four: Depression. There are going to be some extremely painful and difficult choices to be made.

So I hope that Acceptance will not be far behind. We have a great deal of transformation to accomplish, and very little time to do it.

Each of us has to go through this process in our own way and time. Every peaker is going or has gone through it. After five years of going through it, I'd put myself almost completely in Acceptance, although I do revisit the previous stages from time to time—another dynamic Kübler-Ross observed. It just seems to be how we're wired.

It's difficult. So I have some sympathy for every position on peak oil, including denial, because I've been there myself.

However, I have found one thing to be true time and time again: Action feels a lot better than inaction. Talking to other people about it, making plans to deal with it, and taking action helps to still that gong banging away in the brain, and relieve the tightness in the chest.

Reducing your energy consumption not only saves you money, it feels a lot better than raging at oil producers.

It also helps—a lot—to know that I can improve my odds, and hedge the inevitable losses of rising prices for everything, by investing wisely in energy. It really helps to take the sting out of a $70 fillup to see a couple hundred, or couple thousand dollar gain in the ol' portfolio.

Take a moment to think about where you are in this process, and may that reflection inform your future choices well.

Your friendly Energy and Capital peak freak,

Chris Nelder

Chris

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