The left and Exxon join forces

Greg Palast goes to war against peak oil. Be very afraid.

Published May 23, 2006 9:33PM (EDT)

It's not uncommon to run across attacks on the concept of peak oil as alarmist, based on bad science, or flat-out tree-hugger propaganda. Usually, these broadsides are launched from the right, or directly from the oil industry. So we were intrigued to see the alert from Energy Bulletin that peak oil had been attacked from the left. None other than longtime bomb-thrower Greg Palast is arguing that peak oil is actually an oil industry scam to push up oil prices.

Well, I read the piece, "No Peaking: The Hubbert Humbug," and I find it hard to imagine anyone making a more incoherent and unconvincing contribution to the debate about peak oil.

King Hubbert was the Shell geologist who published a paper in 1956 predicting when the rate of production of crude oil would peak in the United States, and the world.

The first problem with Palast's essay is his reading comprehension. Palast summarizes Hubbert's view as this: "Sometime during 2006, we will have used up every last drop of crude oil on the planet. We're not talking 'decline' in oil from a production 'peak,' we're talking 'culmination,' completely gone, kaput, dead out of crude -- and not enough natural gas left to roast a weenie."

Well, huh. Palast doesn't appear to understand what the word "culmination" means. Hint: It doesn't mean "completely gone." It means "the highest point." In this particular case, anyone who took the time to actually read Hubbert's paper can see quite clearly from his graphs and his own definition of terms that he is predicting the culmination of the rate of production of crude oil -- that moment when we are pumping out the highest number of barrels per year that we will ever record. This is not the same as "running out of oil" and to suggest so is either ignorant or dishonest.

Reasonable people can disagree on when the peak will arrive or what its implications for the world economy will be. The Hirsch Report has a good summary of various estimates. Notably, Palast makes no mention of the fact that Hubbert's prediction of when oil production would peak in the United States -- 1970 -- was right on the money. Instead he ladles on buckets of sarcasm predicated on the observations that Hubbert's figures for global reserves of oil were incorrect, and peak oil in the world doesn't appear to have occurred, yet.

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn't. We don't really know how much oil is left in Saudi Arabia or Iran or the countries of the former Soviet Union. But to ridicule the reality of peak oil based on the state-of-the-art of petroleum geology 50 years ago is juvenile. There's been a ton of work since then by scores of geologists endlessly refining the data. When Palast jokes that every 20 years, they push the deadline back 20, he sounds like nothing so much as an oil industry shill paid to make arguments against government subsidies of renewable energy or energy efficiency technologies. Of course, sooner or later, someone will be right, and if we haven't already started preparing for that moment in earnest, decades in advances, we will be in for some rough economic waters.

Most ridiculously of all, Palast suggests that we dismiss Hubbert and peak oil because Hubbert was a petroleum geologist who worked for Shell. Oil companies, Palast tells us, want us to believe in peak oil, because it gives them an excuse to keep raising prices. Tell that to Exxon, who just this February calmly assured the world that there's plenty of oil to satisfy demand.

The argument doesn't stand the most basic sniff test. The oil industry does not want the world to think peak oil is right around the corner, and watch government and consumers rush to embrace alternative energy technologies. For a glimpse at how the industry reacted to Hubbert at the time, try Hubbert's own recollections. Executive summary: They thought he was crazy.

I probably should have stopped reading Palast when I realized he didn't understand what the word "culmination" meant. But if there's anything more annoying than corporate-subsidized right-wing propaganda it's half-baked left-wing conspiracy theorizing.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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