A Story Nobody Wants to Hear

August 4, 2008 at 11:58 am
Contributed by: Chris

I have several updates today, to catch you up with my busy East Coast trip last week. First is my Energy and Capital article for last week, which discussed my appearance on the Tech Ticker show.

More to follow…

A Story Nobody Wants To Hear

Talking Peak Oil on Yahoo Finance’s “Tech Ticker”

By Chris Nelder

As we prepared to tape the final segment of my interview with Aaron Task on the Yahoo Finance “Tech Ticker” podcast at their Times Square studio on Monday morning, the producer asked: If there is no hope of increasing the supply of oil from here, and prices are going to just keep going up, what changes did I expect in the future?

Watch Chris Nelder
on Tech Ticker

Part 1: ‘Sky’s the Limit’ for Crude, says Peak Oil Advocate: Buy Drillers, Avoid Majors

Part 2: No Relief from $120 Oil Anytime Soon — or Ever, says Energy Expert

Part 3: The End Is Nigh: Peak Oil Proponent Forecasts Grim Future

We both laughed. Aaron flashed me a knowing grin. “Does she really want to know?” I asked him. Yes, yes she did. The tape rolled, and I tried to tell it straight.

Not only does it mean the end of personal transportation using internal combustion engines, I told him, but much, much more. It means the end of cheap air travel. It means we won’t be able to keep living in the suburbs and commuting to cities. It means the end of globalization, such that we will have to relocalize our production of manufactured goods and food. Eventually, it might even mean that if you didn’t grow it yourself, you won’t have anything to eat!

Being an old friend of mine (we used to work together at Microsoft, 11 years ago), Aaron has heard it all before from me, and has read my book, so he accepted my perspective with a certain panache. But when we encountered the producer again after the taping, he asked if she found it shocking.

Yes she did, she said, “but by the time it happens, I’ll be dead.”

Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that reaction…

Afterward, I retired to my hotel room and flipped through CNN, CNBC, and the other business news shows. I shook my head as I watched the pundits worry over the future of energy, and bemoan the impasse in Congress right now over the energy bill. If you’ve been following the news, you know the score: The Republicans want to open the remaining federal lands to drilling, and the Democrats want the oil companies to drill on the leases they already have.

If you have read my previous articles, you know that both sides of that debate are wrong if they think their proposals can alleviate high oil prices. If we started drilling ANWR and the OCS now, it would take on the order of 10 years-about 7 years after the global peak of oil production—to begin producing a very modest flow of new oil, at which point it will be too little to make much of a difference in prices at the pump. And the oil companies don’t drill on their existing leases because they know there isn’t enough oil there to make it worth their while!

It seems we are still firmly stuck in denial about the future of oil. (See “Peak Oil: Living on the Banks of Denial.”) The buzz over the new USGS report on Arctic oil is just the latest example. I read that report, such as it was, along with whatever additional analysis I could find, and found absolutely nothing there to get excited about. If and when that oil does arrive on the world market, it will probably be another modest flow of the most expensive and difficult-to-get oil the world has ever produced…and that will be decades from now.

The truth, as best as I can make it out, is an ugly story. If you’re still alive in 10 years, you will see the end of life as we know it, and the beginning of a long transformation in which we learn to live within an energy budget that shrinks ever year. No amount of new drilling can change that fact. And the long-term trend will be toward higher and higher prices for oil, at least until a global depression sets in and reduces demand.

I know it’s a story nobody wants to hear, but I tell it because I have always tried to tell the truth as I see it. I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but I have seen nothing yet to convince me otherwise.

We can blame each other until the cows come home for failing to plan for this day, but that will get us nowhere. All of the solutions are on the demand side now. Instead of crossing our fingers for some new supply of oil, we should be driving less, driving more efficient vehicles, and investing in renewable energy and electric transportation. That is truly the only way forward, as far as I can see.

A side note: Since I am a big believer in rail as part of the solution to the peak oil crisis, it was a great pleasure for me to take my very first inter-city train ride in America after the interview, from New York City to Baltimore. (I have spent most of my life on the West Coast, where there is so little inter-city train service that it almost never makes sense.) It was clean, quiet, comfortable, and cheaper than driving. Here’s hoping that the rest of the country can have such an option as soon as possible!

I may have a story to tell that nobody wants to hear, but those who long for sweet assurances can always flip on the TV and find some commentator to put their minds at ease, like the one I heard on TV the morning of my interview, claiming that oil would soon be back at $80 a barrel. There will always be analysts out there willing to tell you whatever you want to hear-that Arctic oil will prove the peakers wrong, or that drilling the OCS will bring gasoline back down to a buck a gallon, or that Saudi Arabia will always ride to our rescue.

No doubt they will be much more popular than me, too. But I’m not here to be popular. I value credibility above all else.

Maybe that’s why I had an old Shel Silverstein poem titled “The Perfect High” stuck in my head all day, in which a thrillseeker named Roy seeks out a guru named Baba Fats who was said to know the secret to the perfect high. But the guru tells him that he must find it within himself. This makes Roy furious, and he insists that the guru tell him the secret. So Baba Fats makes up a wild story about a mythical magical flower, and Roy goes off in search of it. The poem ends:

“It seems, Lord”, says Fats, “it’s always the same, old men or bright-eyed youth,
It’s always easier to sell them some sh*t than it is to tell them the truth.”

Until next time,

chris nelder


P.S. Although I do not believe that there are any supply-side silver bullets that might solve the peak energy problem, I do believe that oil, gas and coal producers will continue to see high demand for their hydrocarbons. That’s why we created the $20 Trillion Report—to find the best plays and alert you to them. Check it out today and take your share of the profits while you still can.

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