Memorial Day, 2008: The Tipping Point in the Peak Oil Debate

May 28, 2008 at 11:28 am
Contributed by: Chris


Here is my latest article for Energy and Capital, in which I mark Memorial Day, 2008 as the end of the peak oil “debate,” and the beginning of a new dialogue about the future of energy…


P.S. Speaking of which, my book actually reached #42 on the overall Amazon charts last week…a pretty remarkable thing, considering that only a couple of years ago peak oil was considered a fringe theory!

Memorial Day, 2008: The Tipping Point in the Peak Oil Debate

The Game Is Afoot

By Chris Nelder

Those of us who have watched for the inevitable arrival of the peak oil crisis have been waiting for years for the day when we no longer had to fight for the acceptance of the idea, and could start getting on with the hard business of what to do about it.

And then, just like that, it happened.

Like a chorus line turning in unison from left to right, the media and the financial markets turned and embraced the notion of peak oil last week.

For convenience, let’s call it Memorial Day, 2008.

CNBC devoted a whole day to peak oil coverage, allowing some in-depth discussion of the issue possibly for the first time. In the evening, it broadcast a special called “Oil Crisis.”

Billionaire hedge fund manager and oil man T. Boone Pickens said he saw oil going to $150 this year, and this time, was widely quoted in the financial press. (Check out this excellent interview with him from the Milken Institute Global Conference 2008 in April.) He put the reasons behind rising oil prices plainly:

“They’ve got to go up, because the people that have the oil want it to go up. They’re running out of oil. They’re going to have to have—85 million barrels a day is all the world can produce. The demand is 87 million. It’s that simple. It doesn’t have anything to do with the value of the dollar. It’s a fact of supply and demand. That’s it.”

While we might politely disagree with the legendary oil investor about the dollar part, in terms of the overall trend being about the fundamentals, he was spot-on. He took a 14 percent loss in the first two months of this year by shorting oil and natural gas, and quickly learned from the error to get long again and back into the black.

Goldman Sachs analyst Arjun Murti, the only major investment bank analyst who correctly predicted oil over $100 last year, said that oil could breach $200 this year, and $150 was very likely. Again, this time, Wall Street sat up and took notice instead of laughing.

In the last couple of weeks, when I talked about peak oil in my radio and TV appearances, I didn’t get shouted down immediately, or dismissed for holding a “controversial theory.” Instead, they actually listened to hear what I had to say next.

In an interview with CNN radio last week, I think the host was rather shocked when she asked me if recent predictions of $12 gasoline in the next few years could happen.

“Easily,” I said, “easily.” And then explained why peak oil means that prices will have to keep going higher as long as global demand continues higher, because supply appears to be maxed out. Even as demand in the developed world declines due to price-induced demand destruction, the red-hot developing economies of the world are more than making up for it.

And you could have heard a pin drop when I explained that “there are no supply side solutions to peak oil” to another radio interviewer last week.

The dialogue didn’t shift because pundits suddenly understood the importance of flow rates, or because the data on reserve estimates suddenly became clear.

It was the price that did it.

With oil and gasoline making an almost a unbroken string of record-breaking prices since the start of the year, the problem finally got the attention of the media, and now they are grasping for answers. Reaching the $130 mark was apparently the last straw.

There is still much confusion over why oil prices are so high. Some blame speculators, even though the ultimate holder of a futures contract must take delivery of the oil for use in a refinery. Some still point to a “terror premium,” even though oil prices have continued straight up as geopolitical events come and go. Others vastly overrate the importance of the declining dollar, or the latest inventory numbers, or pronouncements from OPEC.

At least nobody is claiming that oil will go back to $45 a barrel anymore, or that new supply in the next few years will somehow resolve the tension with unflagging global demand. Oil futures have gone back into a contango mode, indicating that fears about supply have gripped the market, prompting the Financial Times to report last week that “peak oil views” are now influencing oil prices.

IEA’s Bombshell

As the Street grappled with the new reality of oil price, the Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell that reinforced the supply question decisively. They previewed the International Energy Agency’s upcoming report, which won’t be out until November, on the world’s top 400 oil fields, including their individual depletion rates.

The bottom line was a zinger.

For the first time, the IEA admitted that the depletion of aging oil wells, combined with the dampening effect of skyrocketing costs on new field development, means that the world will have a hard time reaching 100 million barrels a day of production within the next two decades.

Their previous estimate from only last year was 116 mbpd by 2030, which was backed up by similar reports last year from the EIA and the National Petroleum Council.

Their projected supply curves are now sharply reduced, while their global demand projections continue to show about a 1.5% annual rate of growth.

Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, said: “One of our findings will be that the oil investments required may be much, much higher than what people assume. This is a dangerous situation.”

For those who understand this data, this was a major, major announcement. It means that the IEA—the official energy data agency of the OECD—has given up on its long track record of ridiculously optimistic projections that supply would always meet the expected demand. They are no longer assuming that any supply gap would be filled by big OPEC producers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran or Kuwait.

Perhaps they felt emboldened to leak this preview of their findings because they realize that their credibility is at stake. They have consistently underestimated the challenges of today’s oil business in their previous annual outlook reports, and their projections for both supply and price have been way off the mark.

The world’s remaining undeveloped oil resources will require enormous efforts and capital to produce, including extreme technology, extreme physical challenges, and unprecedented geopolitical risks. Any increases in oil production that the world does manage over the next couple of years aren’t going to come easily.

Whatever the IEA’s reasons, however, the game is up. Most of the world now recognizes that we are up against a bona fide supply limit, and all the market is doing now is trying to find the proper value of a barrel of finite, nonrenewable, and diminishing petroleum.

In fact, I’m having my doubts about anything over 90 mbpd. I suspect that in another two or three years, as we reach the end of plateau at the global peak of oil production and start down the other side, the IEA will once again revise its estimates downward to match up with reality.

Those of us who have been laboring for years to explain that we really do have a supply problem and that no, drilling ANWR or deepwater Gulf of Mexico won’t fix it, should take a brief moment to shout “Hallelujah!”

With all the media attention, the game of investing to profit from the peak is most certainly afoot, and we’ve got some excellent picks in the $20 Trillion portfolio that can produce domestic oil for under $50 a barrel.

Hold on, folks. The ride is just about to start getting interesting…

Until next time,


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