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The End of The End: How the Peak Oil Movement Failed

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Message Mike Bendzela

"Demand has peaked for good. It has declined four years in a row and will not reach the 2006 level again, even when the economy fully recovers." "Government and industry officials," quoted in Jonathan Fahey's AP article, "US gas demand should fall for good after '06 peak."

When I first began reading about peak oil in 2003, the year 2010 seemed like a distant, dire time, the Post-Peak Era, when suburbia and all its accessories would End.

It is now 2011, and the same world is still too much with us. The traffic on our road keeps increasing, and the acquisition of the last technological marvel is still the important issue of the day. As a critical thinker, I'm committed to changing my mind when predictions are invalidated. My view of "peak oil" has evolved from True Believer into Ambivalent Agnostic. The scales are dropping from my eyes.

I began seeing the handwriting on the wall about a year ago. It eventually caused me to cancel the module on peak oil in my College Writing class in the Fall of 2010. Advocates of peak oil apocalypse may be thinking that this sounds like the testament of a born-again Cornucopian who has seen the Light. No such luck.

This revelation was vouchsafed to me by Jonathan Fahey, via the Associated Press, in a recent article titled "US gas demand should fall for good after '06 peak." It contains a brilliantly-executed, if largely-unspoken, rhetorical strategy: Peak Oil is dead. Long live peak demand.

What I have read in their article confirms my nagging suspicion that the peak oil argument is over. Regardless of the validity or invalidity of the case, the debate is dead. Perhaps we only have ourselves to blame.

That which fervent peaker imaginations previously announced as intimations of doom, the prophet Daniel Yergin now preaches as Good News. The Peak of Demand is coming in clouds of glory. This is a gospel we can all embrace. Even loathed environmentalists will react with "delight."

We all know that the "peak demand" argument is fake, a distinction without a difference. When extraction peaks, demand peaks by definition. We taste the spoonful of sugar, but the pill still goes down like a chocolate-covered Valium. Fahey and his source, Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), recast the very terms of "peak oil" in their own image. They articulate these refurbished terms as foregone conclusions, and they do so with confidence, not with apocalyptic fervor. Their argument is a Winner.

The end of growth--which peakers have spoken about for so long now that it is something of a clichà --is spun not as our punishment for failing to prepare for peak oil but as our reward for increased fuel efficiency standards, ethanol mandates, and less driving due to demographic shifts, such as the aging of the Baby Boomers.

If oil indeed has peaked, as many of us suspect, then the quote that Fahey attributes to Paul Sankey of Deutsche Bank is actually true: "...by 2030 America will use just 5.4 million barrels a day, the same as in 1969"; and this quote by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is true: "...the country's dependence on foreign oil will wane and heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide will grow more slowly"; and what Yergin says is true: "the heady days of gasoline growing in the U.S. are over."

In the same way that New Testament scribes recast ancient Hebrew apocalyptic expectations in the image of their risen "christos," Jesus of Nazareth, so these latter-day CERA prophets and their scribes have supplanted the apocalyptic terms of the peak oil movement with the messianic message of "peak demand." It's an inspirational message: Even with 27 million more cars on the road by 2020, as foretold by NRDC, and with high per capita demand, we can still consume less and lower our carbon dioxide emissions. Yes, we can.

This is not the Apocalypse per se, but it is still the onset of the Kingdom of God. How silly of us for not seeing the distinction before.

So how did they do it? How did Yergin and CERA, Exxon Mobil, and "Government and industry officials" so completely outmaneuver the peak oil prophets of doom? How did they manage to get their AP-disseminated articles stuffed into everyone's stockings, while the peak oil message withered on the tree?

Easy. They co-opted the peakers' terms, converting lead into gold, and they stayed on message. How have our own prophets fared by comparison?

Saint Matthew Simmons gained a huge following by saying Saudi Arabian oil production was in its twilight. He wrote a book, "Twilight In the Desert," that made many startling inferences based on published technical papers rather than on direct data because the data are unavailable State secrets. Many of us were convinced by his inferences. But he also said that oil would be $200 a barrel by the end of 2010 and that natural gas production was about to go over a cliff. Before his untimely death, he even claimed that the Deepwater Horizon disaster left an "open hole" in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and that the whole coast would have to be evacuated. Given these startlingly deluded claims, one wonders if he ever knew what he was talking about in the first place.

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Mike Bendzela lives in Maine where he teaches and is partner in a small Community Supported Agriculture farm.
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