How not to prepare for peak oil

Russia, Nigeria, Mexico: Please open your arms to foreign oil companies so we can pump out your black gold even faster

By Andrew Leonard
April 17, 2008 11:23PM (UTC)
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Now that the price of a barrel of oil has topped $115, the words "peak oil" can be found just about anywhere -- including in the headline of an April 16 Financial Times editorial.

But "Preparing for the age of peak oil" offers little in the way of advice for how civilization might face up to a carbon-constrained future through such measures as conservation or energy efficiency or alternative energy technologies. Instead, the editorial recommends that Russia, which recently shocked the world by acknowledging that its domestic oil production appears to have peaked, should disavow its cold shoulder to foreign oil companies and cut domestic taxes holding back the oil industry:


In Russia, the problem is not so much a lack of oil but an investment drought. This has been caused by high taxes and hostile treatment of foreign and some domestic companies by a government reasserting control over its energy sector.

Russia will have to act quickly if it is to avoid a long-term decline in oil output. Bringing on stream untapped reserves in the Arctic and eastern Siberia will take years.

There you have it: the Financial Times' recipe for peak oil preparation is to pump more oil out of the ground now.

A similar undercurrent runs through media coverage of two other big, but troubled, players in the world oil market, Nigeria and Mexico. The April 16 issue of the Financial Times also features an article reporting that Nigeria President Umaru Yar'Adua's energy advisers have warned him that if he doesn't significantly boost joint ventures with foreign oil companies, "Nigeria risks losing a third of its oil output by 2015." Similarly, a fierce political war between left and right is raging in Mexico over President Calderon's proposed legislation to allow Pemex, the national oil company, more leeway in working with foreign partners.

How much simpler it would be if government didn't get in the way of independent oil multinationals! This is a favorite line of argument in such places as the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, where the writers are always eager to point out the inefficiencies that follow in the wake of oil industry nationalization -- whether as recently as that perpetrated by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez or as long ago as Mexico's Lazaro Cardenas' in 1938.


Granted, Pemex does not appear to be run very well, and Vladimir Putin's treatment of foreign oil companies smacks of unforgivable Communist-dictator-era insolence. But it's not clear to me how accelerating the exploitation of the oil resources still extant is the prudent long-term move -- even if such measures did result, in the short-term, in lower oil prices.

The high price of oil is a serious economic downer with regressive implications for the poor and working class, all the world over, but it's also the best incentive we've got for forcing conservation, improvements in energy efficiency, and investment in alternate energy technologies. And that's how you prepare for the age of peak oil, not to mention attempt avoiding the disruptions threatened by climate change.

Andrew Leonard

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

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works Latin America Mexico Peak Oil Russia