Avoiding the Question - the continuing peak oil production debate. An interview
with Robert Hirsch, Author of Peak Oil Report for U.S. Department of Energy http://www.threemonkeysonline.com/threemon_article_peak_oil_production_us_energy_department_robert_hirsch.htm
Quietly last month a revolution took place: the United States was forced by scientists
it had commissioned to acknowledge the imminent and potentially disastrous effects
of the phenomenon known as 'Peak Oil'.
At the request of the Department of Energy, Robert Hirsch, a senior energy programme
adviser at Science Applications International Corporation, along with Roger Bezdek
and Robert Wendling, issued a report entitled The Peaking of World Oil Production:
Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management.
Between the lines of the reasoned analysis a frightening picture emerges:
"The world has never faced a problem like this," the report states.
"Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem
will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood
to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt
and revolutionary." 1
The question that springs to mind upon reading this is, of course, "So when
is the problem expected to occur?"
In answer, Hirsch wrote to eclipsenow.org:
"No one knows with certainty when the world production of conventional oil
will peak, but a number of experts think it will happen in the next 5-15 years.
Our work illustrates that the oil peaking problem can be mitigated with available
technologies, but the time required for implementation is measured on a 15-20
year time line, at best.
The character of the oil peaking problem is like none other; without timely mitigation,
the impacts will be dire, worldwide, and long-lasting. Prudent risk management
dictates serious attention and massive action soon, which is difficult for most
people and many decision-makers, who tend to wait until a problem is obvious before
taking action." 2
Several commentators have noted with disapproval the report's wish to brush aside
the usual precautions such as Environmental Impact Statements that potential mitigation
projects have to take before implementation. For the most part, the report does
this in scientific-ese but the desperate-measures-for-desperate-times mindset
eventually comes through: referring to the attitude of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard)
the report alleges that this has evolved into BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing
Anywhere Near Anything).
Perhaps the saddest section is entitled 'Wildcards'. These are supposedly the
other side of the coin, possible balancing forces that could turn the tide. But
their implausibility gives the section the bittersweet irony of fantasy:
"Huge new reserves of natural gas are discovered...
World economic and population growth slows and future demand is much less than
Middle East oil reserves are much higher than publicly stated...
Some kind of scientific breakthrough comes into commercial use, mitigating oil
demand well before oil production peaks..."
Hirsch's sense of urgency was brought home to me literally when in addition to
answering eclipsenow.org, he responded to my request for an e-interview:
"Answering some of your questions gets fairly complicated. Here are the simple
Q: Your report talks about other potential energy sources such as coal and natural
gas to mitigate the effects of dwindling oil supplies. Could any of these sources
replace the oil used in fertilizers, pesticides and plastic?
Q: The report imagines three possible scenarios: 1: Mitigation begins twenty years
before the Peak Oil is reached. 2: Mitigation begins ten years before Peak Oil
is reached. 3: Mitigation begins when Peak Oil is reached. However you don't talk
about what life is like during the transition to other fuels. In the worst case
scenario do you envision something more extreme than the depression of 1929 such
as lack of food deliveries and starvation, particularly in the cities?"
This is a possibility put forth by several experts including oil insider Jan Lundberg.
Hirsch passed on the question presumably because it 'got complicated.' The other
he didn't address was:
Q: It took about 150 years to get from the discovery of oil to where we are now,
during which time life changed relatively slowly. The population is larger now
but apart from that, why would the corresponding decline of oil reserves be in
your words "abrupt and revolutionary?"
He did kindly answer three more questions:
Q: Do you have a sense of how priorities would work during the transition: for
instance, would petroleum for obtaining water take priority over gas for personal
A: This is one of many complex issues that no one can prejudge in my opinion.
Q: The media are covering Peak Oil but not in a way that conveys its urgency in
the eyes of some experts. Do you feel that getting the word out is helpful because
it galvanizes the public and therefore possibly the government into action or
do you feel that it might instill panic, thereby precipitating precisely the economic
disaster we're seeking to avoid?
A: The sooner that the public and policy makers take the problem seriously, the
sooner we will have appropriate public policy. Right now, the issue is "below
the radar screen".
Q: Do you think that the dangers of delaying efforts at mitigation outweigh the
dangers of exerting those efforts too soon [a subject addressed in the report]?
1. Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management
2. Government Departments that almost admit an early peak - eclipsenow.org
Jenna Orkin is a member of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization