Right Thinking From The Left Coast
Freedom of Press is limited to those who own one - H.L. Mencken

The Peak of Ignorance
by Lee

In the late 1970s my cousin, who was at the time in her late teens or early 20s, came to visit my family in Australia.  My father, as most of you know, was in the oil business, specifically the drilling aspect.  He knew all there was to know about getting oil out of the ground.  My cousin, a good soul, expressed great concern that “within ten years” the world’s supply of oil would be depleted, and regaled him with the horror stories of global doom that would accompany this eventuality.  My father listened to her, then patiently explained how she had no idea what she was talking about, that her head had been filled full of mush by leftist professors, and the idea that the world would ever “run out” of oil is absurd.  Remember, this was thirty years ago that we were “ten years” away from running out of oil.  Oddly enough, we’re still now “ten years” away from running out of oil. 

You would not believe the number of times I had this conversation with liberal coworkers in California, all of whom believed the peak oil nonsense.  It’s a means by which left-leaning people scare other people into supporting environmentalist causes.  We heard exactly the same thing in the 1970s about population explosion, how by the turn of the century there would be global starvation due to overpopulation.  Oddly enough, not only did this never come to pass, but the exact opposite is true—in the aggregate, people the world over are better fed and living longer lives than at any time in their past.

This morning I read this particular piece of stupidity linked on Drudge, and couldn’t let it go without comment.

Most people believe oil is running out and governments need to find another fuel, but Americans are alone in thinking their leaders are out of touch with reality on this issue, an international poll said on Sunday.

On average, 70 percent of respondents in 15 countries and the Palestinian territories said they thought oil supplies had peaked. Only 22 percent of the nearly 15,000 respondents in nations ranging from China to Mexico believed enough new oil would be found to keep it a primary fuel source.

“What’s most striking is there’s such a widespread consensus around the world that oil is running out and governments need to make a real effort to find new sources of energy,” said Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, a global research organization that conducted the poll.

Note that we’re back to “consensus” in science.  In other words, the more people believe something the more likely it is to be true.  Unfortunately, science is not about consensus.  Something either is or is not true.  Just because the vast majority of people on the planet believe in some kind of higher being does not prove, in and of itself, that a higher being exists.  (Something like 90% of Americans believe in angels.  I suppose that this should be taken as scientific fact supporting their existence.)

To me, what is striking about this poll is the degree to which the media have done nothing to debunk this peak oil nonsense to the point that there is a global consensus about something so utterly and demonstrably false.

In the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer and among the biggest emitters of climate-warming pollution from fossil fuel use, 76 percent of respondents said oil is running out, but most believed the U.S. government mistakenly assumes there would be enough to keep oil a main source of fuel.

“Americans perceive that the government is not facing reality,” Kull said.

This is the milkshake analogy.  People just think that one day there’s going to be a huge empty sucking sound coming out of the ground, like what happens when you get to the bottom of a milkshake.  People who think this have no grasp of economics or a fundamental grasp of how oil markets work.  This isn’t really anyone’s fault, these are specific areas of expertise, and it only makes sense that most people wouldn’t understand them.  That being said, the fact that there’s a global consensus about something which most of the globe doesn’t understand thus makes the consensus argument completely worthless. 

Note what was said:  “Americans perceive that the government is not facing reality.” [Emphasis mine.] This doesn’t mean that the government actually isn’t facing reality, only that there is a perception that it is not.  The tone and manner of this news article, however, indicates that this fact alone is something which should cause great concern.  Why are we not conducting global opinion polls about whether or not light is a particle or a wave?  Surely if it turned out that there was global public consensus that light was a wave and not a particle this would have merit, right?  Or would it be a completely worthless statistic?

The United States is alone among major industrialized nations in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate global warming.

Note the wording used above.  The Kyoto Protocol “aims” to reduce emissions.  It doesn’t say that it “will” reduce emissions, only that it “aims” to.  The sentence is written in such a manner as to say that the United States, by not signing on to the Kyoto Protocol, is not reducing greenhouse emissions by doing so.  But that’s not the case.  It’s been shown time and time again that the Kyoto Protocol is a complete failure, that the signatory nations not only are not meeting their targets but are actively working to find legal loopholes to try and weasel out of doing so because of the damage that this asinine piece of legislation will cause to the global economy.

It’s articles like this one, which use the type of linguistic trickery shown above, which is the reason for this global “consensus” that oil is running out.  It’s just like the argument with healthcare.

1.  Country X needs to provide universal coverage to its citizens.
2.  Proposal Y details a plan for a socialist, government-run, taxpayer-funded healthcare system.
3.  Group A supports this type of program.  Group B, which agrees with the concept of universal coverage, disagrees that a socialist government program is the best means of achieving this goal.  Group B then opposes Proposal Y.
4.  Group A demonizes Group B by implying that because they oppose Proposal Y they are opposed to universal coverage.  This is, of course, patently false and anyone who has ever taken a logic course in college can explain why.  Unfortunately, most people don’t know what logic is, let alone had a course in it, so they fall for these types of assertions.

I am an avid proponent of providing universal access to all residents of the United States.  I am also adamantly against this program being administered by the government.  These two views are not diametrically opposed, despite the fact that this is how they are presented in the media.  I bring this up because it illustrates the following point from the article.

Concerns over climate change, which is spurred by emissions from fossil fuels including oil, also were a factor among respondents, Kull said.

This is where the manipulation comes in.  If you want to get a particular piece of legislation passed you scare people into supporting it.  Making a case FOR a particular proposition is difficult.  Making a case why OPPOSING a particular proposition will result in some kind of doomsday is vastly easier.  Think about any hot button issue, from either side of the aisle.  Look at torture.  “If we don’t do this, there could very well be a mushroom cloud over Manhattan.  Are YOU willing to take that chance?” Rather than make a case for torture they make a doomsday scenario and tie it in to not torturing.  Global warming is exactly the same way, it’s presented in the same cataclysmic, end of the world, doomsday manner that the population explosion was presented in the 1970s.  The world’s “top experts” were warning that if we didn’t address population growth immediately, why, in just a few years there will be global starvation.  “Do YOU want that on your conscience?  Well, do you?”

(Allow me to go on the record, once again, with my views on global warming.  It’s real, it is happening, humans are contributing to it, and something should be done about it.  I do not, however, subscribe to the “end is nigh!” hysteria that surrounds the issue.)

Thus with oil.  The difficult argument is to explain to people, calmly and rationally, the situation with oil.  The easy thing to do is terrify people into thinking that, just like sucking on a milkshake, one day we’re just going to run out.  As I’ve said before, technological advances will make oil obsolete long before we ever actually run out of it.  If oil were actually in any danger of running out any time soon it would be $500,000 a barrel instead of $100.  (That’s freshman economics, folks.  Everyone should understand that.)

We need to develop clean technologies.  We need electric cars.  We need to be concerned with global warming and the environment.  These are all legitimate, and you will find no bigger proponent of finding solutions to these problems than me.  But what I refuse to do is buy into the Chicken Little syndrome whereby I wail and screech about how the world is going to end if I don’t support a particular political proposition.  Kyoto was a stupid idea when it was first proposed during the Clinton administration, and there’s a reason it was voted down 95-0 in the Senate.  (That’s right, liberals, not one member of the Democrats voted in favor of it.) But opposing bad legislation does not equal a desire to ignore the problem, it’s a disagreement about the means.  And, given the total, utter, abject failure of Kyoto since its ratification the United States seems eerily prescient with its rejection.

Oil will never run out.  Ever.  There is too much money to be made in the technology industry for the world to keep relying solely on oil.  We don’t need nightmares, we don’t need screaming histrionics, we don’t need end of the world scenarios.  What we need are smart people taking the problem seriously, and finding workable, reasonable solutions to transition the world from a petroleum economy into the next generation.

Unfortunately, doing things reasonably and sensibly doesn’t win elections.  So we’ll continue to have global consensuses on all sorts of things that make no sense. 

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, allow me to recommend you familiarize yourself with the famous Simon/Ehrlich wager.  It demonstrates the dynamic I have described here beautifully.  Obviously having never heard of this bet, a bunch of peak oil lunatics have made a similar $100,000 wager concerning the price of oil. 

Anyone want to predict how this one will turn out?

Update: The Wikipedia link about the wager contains a link to this 1997 Wired aricle concerning the wager.  In light of everything I wrote above, read this section.

All of [Ehrlich’s] grim predictions had been decisively overturned by events. Ehrlich was wrong about higher natural resource prices, about “famines of unbelievable proportions” occurring by 1975, about “hundreds of millions of people starving to death” in the 1970s and ‘80s, about the world “entering a genuine age of scarcity.” In 1990, for his having promoted “greater public understanding of environmental problems,” Ehrlich received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.”

[Simon] always found it somewhat peculiar that neither the Science piece nor his public wager with Ehrlich nor anything else that he did, said, or wrote seemed to make much of a dent on the world at large. For some reason he could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence just as if they’d been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days “experts” spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker.”

Far from being pilloried for being monumentally wrong about everything, Ehrlich was heralded for “promoting understanding” of a particular viewpoint (i.e. left-wing socialism economic policies tied to environmental hysteria).  And the more wrong he was, the more he was heralded for being so.  Thus we now have a global consensus about peak oil, something absurd on its face.  And the more wrong peak oil turns out to be, the more people will believe it and the more the consensus will grow.

Why?  Because people are stupid.  This was illustrated beautifully in the film Men In Black, in an interchange between Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Edwards (Will Smith).

KAY:  Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.

EDWARDS:  Why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it.

KAY:  A person is smart. People are dumb.  Everything they’ve ever “known” has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat.  Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

Individuals are smart.  People are stupid.  And consensus polls about technical or scientific issues are beyond worthless.

Posted by Lee on 04/21/08 at 06:07 AM (Discuss this in the forums)

Comments


Posted by on 04/21/08 at 06:35 AM from United States

Anyone want to predict how this one will turn out?

While I have no doubt that world oil production is capable of increasing by the bet’s required 20M bbl per day in 10 years, I think that there’s a good chance that the peak oil people will win the bet. Governments the world are already falling all over themselves to pass endless “green” legislation, and I think that before long, only the known and already tapped oil fields will be drillable, and any new fields will largely be placed off-limits via legislation, thus artificially restricting our ability to increase production. We already see this happening with the debate over opening up ANWR in Alaska and the resistence to placing more oil derricks in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast.

This is why the bet should include some kind of clause specifying that if production could be increased by 20M bbl per day due to increases in discovered reserves regardless of whether they’re actually drilled or not, then the anti-peak-oil side still wins.

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 08:59 AM from United States

I’m extrememly math-minded, but admittedly lacking in my economics, so bare with me.  I have some questions that somebody on this blog might have the kchops to address.

1) Oil prices have skyrocketed.  The increase has eclipsed both the rate of inflation and the rate of population/usage growth.  My math tells me that, in order for the ole’ supply/demand equationsn to work out, this increase, therefore, must be based mostly on an insufficient supply.  Is this a correct assessment?

a) If so (and I’m suspecting that it is), what is the cause of this?  The worlds usage has not quadrupled in the last 10 years, so there should be no reason why the price has quadrupled.  Is this a situation where OPEC is creating artificial shortages?  If so, for what purpose?  If not, then wouldn’t the shortages be related to an inability to pump the stuff out fast enough (a different issue than “running out”, to be sure, but an equally troubling one)?

b) If not, then how can the graph for crude prices suddenly diverge so greatly from both inflation and usage rates in such a short period of time?  Is “The War” as much of a factor as some people would suggest?

Thanks in advance to anybody who can make some sense of this for me....

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 09:06 AM from United States

KAY:  A person is smart. People are dumb.  Everything they’ve ever “known” has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat.  Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

I originally wanted to post my outrage at the referenced article about it being poll-based, but you covered it below the fold.  Lee:  You do such a great job at fisking things like this that there is all too often nothing left to say! 

The above quote from MIB covers EXACTLY why I take my “creationist” stance on evolution.  I agree that the evidence is out there to put forth a valid theory on evolution.  It is constantly being updated as new data comes in and that is the way that science works.  I, as a believer, take it a step further and suggest that humans will never know the complete truth, just like we will never “see” an atom or fully understand the particle/wave duality of matter without a unified theory, for example. 

For me, anything that removes a creator from the equation must be wrong.  We are incapable of finding the answers we need due to our limited portal on the passing of time. We’ve been wrong on so many “truths” in the past, that I cannot use the manmade theory of evolution as proof that a creator does not exist.  Note that , from the theory of evolution, I CAN accept the details of how species evolved and changed within the limits of our observations, but I realize that they are just that:  limited observations. 

Of course, I’d expect someone who does not believe in my particular sky pixie to think otherwise, but I would be nice to hear SOMEONE from the Christ-punching side of the argument at least admit that we could be limited in our knowledge of how we got here, etc. and understand why someone with faith in God MUST think the way they do.  The argument so often degenerates in to attacking the person for believing in the first place, IMO.

Then again, maybe not.  I surely cannot understand how someone with no or limited faith rises every day to cheerfully face the void. This has motivated me to understand my faith and to develop a relationship with my creator that cannot be understood by someone outside of my beliefs.  Without my this, I guess I would HAVE to put my faith in man’s ability to understand all? 

Not trying to be mean here, just trying to show those on the other side of the faith aisle how a believer cannot be expected to understand the non-believer side of things, too.

Pillage forth......

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 09:12 AM from United States

Kevin:

I am no economist, either, but doesn’t it have SOMETHING to do with the fact that oil is a monopoly Ii.e. no real competing source of portable energy) and the producers have a finite supply.  They can create artificial shortages to prop up prices and thus extend the profits off of what is still in the ground for a much longer period of time?  If oil were still less than $25 a barrel, their profits would be the same or lower and world use would have skyrocketed as the cheap oil fueled the industrialization of the third world, for example. 

Then again, what do I know.....?

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 09:39 AM from United States

NNCM -

You’re essentially right.  A monopoly creates a situation of “artificially” high prices and low volume of production as compared to a free market in equilibrium.

Of course, this recent run up in oil prices also has a lot to do with the recent pop in the real estate bubble.  There’s still a TON of liquidity out there, and hedge fund managers and others have been plowing into the commodities market, thus creating a new bubble in prices.  Historically, bubbles burst to around where they started, which means that we’ll probably see $25-40/bbl oil in the next couple of years.

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 09:42 AM from United States

I’ve been listening to “peak oil” bullshit ever since I had a hippie substitute teacher one day in the 7th grade.  This same hippie also told us the anyone that lived next a nuclear reactor would just fall over dead after a couple years, or perhaps become a mutant.  The planet was to completely out of oil by 1985.

Oddly enough, they just keep finding more and more of this stuff, and in places that totally debunk the idea that oil is a “fossil fuel” (ask the Russians about how deep they drill).

While we most likely will stop using oil for fuel someday, we still need it to make plastics.  You had better hope we don’t run out of oil, because without plastics most of our technology and toys are going away…

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 09:59 AM from United States

Thanks NNCM and Retluocc1.  I appreciate the insight.  However, if the price of crude is due to prices being set at random by a money-hungry monopoly, what recourse do we have other than to bend over and take it?  If this, in fact, *is* the problem, then wouldn’t that make oil indepedence our top priority?  I mean, I cannot thing of another single commodity where the United States are at the mercy of *anybody* other than themselves.  It’s our Achilles Heel and I suppose it’s high time that we secure that vulnerability.

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 10:50 AM from United States

Kev:

I actually LIKE the idea of using up the ME oil while we sit on our reserves and pay (somewhat higher) prices.  As long as the prices don’t go too high, that means that we will have reserves when the rest of the world finally DOES go to higher priced biofuels, etc. 

[tounge-in-cheek]Then we can open the spigot, destroy the planet, drive our gas guzzling SUV’s, and outprice the rest of the world on energy when they are forced to go to solar/nuclear/etc at much higher prices.[tounge-ou of-cheek]

Actually, it means that we will have a competive buffer in reserve while we transition to the other sources of energy and not be at the mercy of technological development of said alternatives any longer than we have to.  The major problem is that thinking like this may actually delay our ability to develop cheaper alternatives?  Not sure.

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 11:26 AM from United States

The major problem is that thinking like this may actually delay our ability to develop cheaper alternatives?

And continue our slide from “innovators” to “followers”.

I would much rather see the US reclaim the mantle as Kings of Innovation that we have should rightfully hold as the last great superpower.  However, our biggest contribution over the last decade has been reality television.  Ouch.

Posted by Hal_10000 on 04/21/08 at 11:41 AM from United States

I agree with you up to a point, Lee.  And I’ll defer to your superior knowledge of the oil business.  But I do think there is a saturation point in the amount of oil we will get out of the ground.  We haven’t reached it yet.  We may not even be close.  But it may be there.

Just because the Peak Oil Theory has failed to come true so far doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally wrong.  I’m reminded of a quote from Bill James:  “We knew a guy back in high school who drank like a fish and drove like a maniac.  We are all convinced he would die in a car accident before he was 30.  Boy, where we wrong.  He didn’t die in a car accident until he was nearly 40.”

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 12:35 PM from United States

Peak Oil very likely is true for what is usually considered ‘conventional sources’ of oil.  However, there is the distinct possibility that UNconventional sources will completely change the assumptions of Peak Oil.  Royal Dutch Shell is/has been developing in-situ shale recovery in which oil bearing shale strata are essentially ‘cooked’ to create a fairly traditional field (of massive proportions in some cases).  And although it’s not taken very seriously, the abiogenic petroleum theory has not been completely debunked.

On top of that, the assumptions of doom & gloom predictors have consistently, and without fail, underestimated human inginuity.  We’ll continue to find ways to improve the percentage of oil that is recoverable from a given field, and this will not only push the Peak Oil date further into the future, but will flatten the other side of the production curve.

Oil will never run out.  Ever.  There is too much money to be made in the technology industry for the world to keep relying solely on oil.

To elaborate on Lee’s point here, companies like Shell, Conoco-Phillips, and Exxon-Mobil are NOT really oil companies.  They are ENERGY companies, and as such will either discover the next big energy source/fuel, or someone else will and they’ll be put out of business.

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 02:46 PM from United States

I would much rather see the US reclaim the mantle as Kings of Innovation that we have should rightfully hold as the last great superpower.

I must have missed when we gave up this mantle.  Last time I checked, the US was still the world leader in innovation and new technology.

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 03:53 PM from United States

I must have missed when we gave up this mantle.

You’re not alone.

Posted by HARLEY on 04/21/08 at 08:56 PM from United States

great post LEE, right on the head of the nail.
drilling tech will improve and we will get to the deeper and deeper oil deposits, far below that traditional depths for oil. The non-tradationl sources as pointed out will take up much slack as new tech comes on line…
the problems with eclectic cars, is electric generation.. of and electric cars woudl be mostly made o plastics, which is derived from oil.

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 09:23 PM from Canada

While we most likely will stop using oil for fuel someday, we still need it to make plastics.  You had better hope we don’t run out of oil, because without plastics most of our technology and toys are going away…

For the record, all plastics can be made from acetylene, which can be made from coal.  The only reason we don’t do this now is that it’s more expensive than to make them from oil.  In fact, East Germany used to use acetylene for polymers, so the technology is well established.  In other words, plastics aren’t going anywhere for at least several hundred years.

Posted by on 04/21/08 at 10:52 PM from United States

all plastics can be made from acetylene, which can be made from coal.

And with all this talk about the end of oil, coal is something we have plenty of.

Posted by Loud on 04/21/08 at 11:43 PM from United States

This is the milkshake analogy.

I drink YOUR milkshake!

(I’m sorry, I just watched There Will Be Blood, and felt compelled to make the reference.  I never have anything relevant to add anyway.)

Posted by on 04/22/08 at 07:35 AM from United States

For the record, all plastics can be made from acetylene, which can be made from coal.  The only reason we don’t do this now is that it’s more expensive than to make them from oil.  In fact, East Germany used to use acetylene for polymers, so the technology is well established.  In other words, plastics aren’t going anywhere for at least several hundred years.

Most plastics are made from “cracked"/refined petroleum.  Petroleum crackers produce, in addition to branched and linear alkanes/alkenes and aromatics (i.e. gasoline/kerosene), propylene, ethylene, styrene, butylene, isobytlene as well as acetylene.  The crackers are “tuned” to produce what is needed. You could do the same with coal, but would have to add more hydrogen to get polymerizable hydrocarbons.  To make plastics from acetylene, you would have to add hydrogen to the acetylene(acetylene is not used for polymers from my info)and “recrack” it to get anything higher than C2 (for propylene, acrylic acid, butylene,styrene, etc.) and that would be much more expensive and energy intensive.  We would have to go that way when oil runs out, though.

Posted by on 04/22/08 at 07:36 AM from United States

This is the milkshake analogy.

I drink YOUR milkshake!

(I’m sorry, I just watched There Will Be Blood, and felt compelled to make the reference.  I never have anything relevant to add anyway.)

I’ve seen that used a lot.  Sounds way too gay for me to ever use it......

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