The Sound of No ‘Peak’ Story Popping

Last week, in a Capitol Hill press conference featuring congressmen Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.),  the Government Accountability Office unveiled a new report on the looming catastrophe the United States faces from “peak oil.” With gas prices up and environmental stories popping in the press, Bartlett, Udall, and the GAO had to be thinking they’d have a hit on their hands.

So, if a GAO report falls on Capitol Hill and the media ignores it, does it count as news?

I can find no coverage of the press conference or the report in either the New York Times or the Washington Post. The only mention of it on either of those papers’ websites is in a transcript of an online chat session with Post politics reporter Lois Romano, wherein a reader asks if the Bartlett-Udall press conference will generate buzz.  Romano’s response (in essence): What press conference?

In fairness, the report did get a bit of play: the AP moved a short story on it and the WSJ briefed it. But no one is interviewed in either story, and the two pieces have the whiff of being quickly typed up from a press release. In other words, the media decided the report didn’t merit any real attention.

Peak oil, if you’ve never heard the term, is the theory that oil, as a finite resource, will grow increasingly difficult and expensive to extract over time. At some point, the global extraction rate will peak and then decline because of the increasing cost and difficulty.

The GAO report investigates the theory and comes up with three scintillating conclusions (I’m paraphrasing):

(1)  The world will indeed reach an oil peak — in the next few years, or the next 15 years, or the next 35 years, or the next 70 years, or sometime in the 22nd century.

(2)  It’s currently unclear how the United States will adjust to declining production rates when they do occur.

(3)  We’re all doomed, doomed I tellz ya’!

OK, (3) is hyperbolic — but just a tiny bit.

The notion of peak oil gained currency back in the early 1970s, a little more than a decade after geophysicist Marion King Hubbert correctly predicted that (Lower-48) U.S.-produced oil would peak around 1970. (Peak oil theory is often referred to as “Hubbert’s peak.”)

But Hubbert wasn’t the first person to come up with the concept. The notion dates at least to 1875 (yes, 1875) when John Strong Newberry claimed the oil peak was imminent. From then on, there’ve been many versions of the same refrain: The End (of oil) is nigh.

In respect to Newberry, Hubbert, Bartlett, Udall, and all the other “end is nigh” guys, there is validity to their theory. At some point in the future, the rate of global oil production will max out and then begin to decline. And it’s quite possible that we may not have cheap and easy substitutes for oil when that occurs, so there’ll be some significant changes for the world. But it’s also quite possible that we’ll develop substitutes for oil long before the cost of extraction, by itself, produces an oil peak; instead, the peak would result from our preferring — and thus shifting to — the substitutes. After all, that’s what has produced many previous natural resource shifts.

But let’s assume the former scenario plays out. Does that mean we are, indeed, doomed? And should we thus adopt the GAO report’s two policy recommendations that the U.S. government (1) carry out a massive global information-gathering effort to determine when the oil peak will occur, and (2) orchestrate a bold, unified national program to prepare for the peak oil transition to substitutes?

Let’s consider the policy recommendations first. Given the U.S. government’s track record on determining Iraq’s supply of weapons of mass destruction, how wise would it be to rely on the government to estimate the future supply of known and unknown sources of oil in Iraq, Iran, Saudi, Nigeria, Russia, Kuwait, Syria, Venezuela, China, Cuba, under the world’s oceans, etc.? How reliable would be government projections of the future technological developments that will increase human abilities to access that oil? Moreover, given that the U.S. government’s only great success in developing and broadly implementing an alternative energy program is nuclear power, do we really want it to be orchestrating a national program for a major transition to new energy sources? (I won’t mention the risk that the government, in carrying out these policies, would “fix” its findings and efforts around various politicians’ agendas.) If we are solely dependent on government to save us from the ruination of peak oil, then we probably are doomed.

So, does this mean that we should do nothing? Quite the opposite, quite the opposite — we should, and already are, acting boldly on energy. There are countless scientists, engineers, business executives, economists, and others, both in the United States and abroad, exploring and developing all sorts of transition strategies and technologies to substitute for oil. And there are countless scientists, engineers, business executives, and others, both in the United States and elsewhere, who are exploring and developing strategies and technologies to extend the life of the oil we have yet to extract. And we consumers have the best (and only necessary) incentive to utilize those developments when it makes sense to do so — we have to pay for the oil and alternative energies that we use. Those dynamics are far broader, more powerful, and more effective than any government Great (Energy) Leap Forward would be.

Bartlett, Udall, and the GAO are correct to be thinking about peak oil. But realizing that oil will peak one day is only the beginning of a thoughtful policy discussion, not the clinching demonstration that immediate government action is necessary. The only necessary (and sufficient) government energy policy is to allow consumers, innovators and entrepreneurs the degrees of freedom to make their own energy choices and to experience the costs and benefits of those choices.

Government is not the sole enlightened, rational actor on the planet. (Some might say the word “sole” should be removed from the previous sentence.) Somehow, we need to get the politicians to discover that.