Monday, July 22, 2013

Being A Peak Oiler Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry

It has been about 15 years now since Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere published their famous article in Scientific American, entitled "The end of cheap oil?" in which they predicted that oil supplies would soon peak and then decline. That article kicked off the modern peak oil movement1. So we can say that the peak oil movement is approaching its 15th birthday.

With that in mind, I think we should have a little retrospection. The peak oil movement1 is old enough now to reflect upon its history, its prior predictions, and its track record.

The peak oil movement has produced a long series of predictions, such as:

  • Production of all liquid hydrocarbons would peak in the mid-2000's or shortly thereafter (predicted by Campbell, Deffeyes, Laherrere, Aleklett, and may others)
  • Production of all liquid hydrocarbons would decline almost immediately thereafter, at about 2% per year (Campbell, Deffeyes, Laherrere, and many others)
  • Unconventional sources of oil, such as fracking, tar sands, and so on, would make little difference, and would not significantly delay the decline (Campbell, many others)
  • Oil production in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) would peak and then start declining in the mid-to-late 2000s. (Simmons, Stuart Saniford, WestTexas, and many others)
  • Natural gas production from all sources (including unconventional gas and fracking) would peak before 2010, and would immediately start declining rapidly (Simmons, Hughes, ASPO newsletter, ASPO Ireland, and many others)
  • Coal would peak around 2011 (Patzek)
  • Civilization would collapse (Savinar, Duncan, Heinberg, Kunstler, Orlov, Hansen, Ruppert, McPherson, and many, many others)
  • Global trade would end or be severely curtailed. Agriculture would re-localize. (Rubin, Kunstler, many others)
...and many other predictions, many times.

All of those predictions have been wrong. The peak oil movement has nearly a 100% failure rate of prediction, across many years, across an astonishing variety of domains.

What's more, many of the predictions of the peak oil movement, have not only been wrong, but drastically wrong. Predictions about a "natural gas cliff" in the late 2000's; predictions about civilization rapidly collapsing, and then reverting to a pre-industrial state; predictions that fracking would never work, or would amount to almost nothing; predictions that ocean shipping would soon end; and so on. Predictions like those were broadly shared within the peak oil movement. They were not only wrong, but drastically wrong.

Failed predictions are not the biggest problem of the peak oil movement, however. The biggest problem is how they respond when one of their predictions fails.

Every time a peak oil prediction fails, which is often, the prediction is immediately forgotten about within the peak oil movement, and is never mentioned again. There are no questions about why the prediction failed. Nobody ever asks, "what went wrong?" There is no retrospection. The theories are not modified in light of new evidence. Every time a prediction fails, peak oilers immediately forget about it and then just issue a new prediction; and when that fails too, which inevitably happens, it too is forgotten. Sometimes a few peak oilers will try vigorously to change the subject, when asked why a prediction failed, or will claim implausibly that the prediction had never been made. They do not, however, address the issue. Clearly, peak oilers are capable of forgetting.

The problem is, that nobody outside of the peak oil movement, forgets. People outside of the peak oil movement, are not part of the unspoken consensus to forget every failed prediction. They wonder why these predictions have failed. When they see the leaders of the peak oil movement simply dodging this issue, over and over again, it makes the movement appear like quackery. By forgetting their failures, the peak oil movement may comfort its members, but it further alienates itself from the wider public.

An example of this, is a recent post on The Oil Drum. The Oil Drum is shutting down at the end of this month, after 8 years of service. It's authors claim that the reason for it shutting down has nothing to do with the decline of readership after repeated failed predictions. No. Instead, one of the editors of The Oil Drum earnestly claims that they decided to shut it down because they've been so right that it would be pointless to continue repeating such correct things:

"The facts, in neither case, change, but the amount of new information while accumulating ... is often repetitive or confirmatory of earlier stories and thus harder to turn into interesting and exciting new material"

I don't feel that is an accurate recounting of the history of the peak oil movement. Nor is it an accurate recounting of the past content on The Oil Drum, or other peak oil websites. If I went back to 2007, I could find a fairly broad consensus, in peak oil circles, that industrial civilization was about to collapse and revert to a pre-industrial state. It's not clear to me, at all, that current stories are confirmatory of that. Even if I ignore the doomsday prophecies, and focus only upon the more sober elements of the peak oil movement, I come across graphs like this one (from Colin Campbell), showing that production of all liquid hydrocarbons should have declined by 25% by now.

This issue of the "memory hole" is very important, because of frequent claims by peak oilers that their movement is a science. Peak oilers frequently claim that their theories are scientific, that their predictions are based upon science, that their conclusions are derived in a straightforward fashion from the laws of thermodynamics, and that their theory is akin to climate science (people deny it because they're misled).

I must remind peak oil adherents that being scientific has nothing to do with just throwing around scientific-sounding terms. Nor does it have anything to do with mentioning the word "thermodynamics" frequently, or drawing tenuous analogies between themselves and climate scientists. Actual science requires falsifiable theories, something which the peak oil movement conspicuously lacks. In science, if a hypothesis fails in its predictions, completely, over and over again, then the hypothesis is wrong and must be modified or abandoned. You cannot just use the same hypothesis to issue another prediction (like, peak oil is perpetually five years in the future) because that method lacks any criterion of falsification. That method could simply be repeated, indefinitely, until peak oil actually occurs, whenever that will be.

It's not useful to retreat into saying "oil must peak some day" and call that a "fact". That is the method employed most recently by many peak oil writers. They say that peak oil is a "fact" because oil must peak some day. While true, that claim is obvious, extremely imprecise, and not a useful prediction. Even the major oil companies, such as Exxon, Shell, and Total, acknowledge that oil will peak some day, have always acknowledged it, and realized it before the peak oil movement ever came along. It's simply repeating a truism to say that oil must peak some day. It's simply a case of forgetting their earlier predictions, and then making their subsequent predictions less and less precise, until what they are saying is so general that it says almost nothing.

The question is whether the peak oil movement has been correct about any specific prediction, or anything which others denied. On the points upon which peak oilers differed from anyone else, they were mistaken. Although oil will certainly peak some day, and then decline, still, the methods from the peak oil movement for predicting when that will occur, how rapid the decline will be, and what will happen to civilization more generally, have been totally incorrect.

The peak oil movement is not science--quite the opposite. It does not contain any valid, specific, predictive hypotheses which were confirmed by subsequent evidence. It has not been honed in light of new evidence. It contains mistaken theories and methods, which have not been abandoned. Thus, the peak oil movement cannot be called science.

The peak oil movement is an ideology which is committed to a specific conclusion, no matter what. As such, the peak oil movement is more like an ideological group. It pretends to be scientific in order to comfort its members, but its pretensions to science are totally superficial. It lacks anything resembling a scientific method.

I realize these points must be very difficult for peak oilers to accept. Many peak oilers have devoted a considerable fraction of their lives and their resources, to the conclusion that oil would soon peak and civilization would soon falter. It must cause them significant suffering to consider that everything they thought about this topic, everything they spent so much time upon, has been wrong. That goes doubly for the many peak oilers who expressed very little uncertainty about these predictions.

Why, then, am I writing this? Do I want to embarrass peak oilers?

It has been fifteen years now since the peak oil movement began. That is long enough. It's time to acknowledge that there are serious problems with even the most fundamental tenets of peak oil theory2. I am not saying that the entire thing has been a waste. I'm sure many people learned a great deal about oil extraction, energy, and other topics, from reading The Oil Drum. However, it's time now to acknowledge that peak oil theory was wrong. It's time either to move on, or to make serious modifications to the theory, and to explain why its predictions have failed and why the newer theory avoids the prior mistakes.

There is a peak energy blog called "question everything", which has the following byline:

"When what is happening in your world doesn't make sense, when it doesn't conform to your beliefs about how things should work, it's time to ask hard questions."

Indeed, it's time to ask hard questions. It has been time to ask hard questions, for at least the last five years. So far, those hard questions have not been asked. Better late than never.


1. By "peak oil movement", I'm referring to the movement unintentionally started by Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, and so on. The movement was based upon the theory that global hydrocarbon production could be predicted using extrapolations of curves, such as creaming curves, Hubbert linearization, and so on. Using such curves, the movement predicted that global hydrocarbon production would imminently peak and then decline, which would cause severe disruption to industrial civilization, such as re-localization, and so on. The movement mostly congregated on websites such as "The Oil Drum", "", "Life After The Oil Crash", and so on. That's who I'm referring to, when I say "peak oil movement". I'm not referring to everybody who believes that oil will peak some day.

2. By "peak oil theory", I'm referring to the theory that global hydrocarbon production could be predicted using extrapolation techniques such as Hubbert linearization, creaming curves, and so on. I am referring to the theory that peak oil was very imminent, and subsequent declines would be fairly rapid. I am also referring to the related belief that imminent peak oil would cause major disruptions to industrial civilization, such as re-localization, and so on. Those things are what I'm referring to, when I say "peak oil theory". I'm not referring to the idea that oil will peak some day, which almost everyone believes.