In “Peak Oil” is a Waste of Energy,” Michael Lynch, knocks down a strawman made to stand for the Peak Oil (PO) theory. He wants to do so because he believes concerns over PO could cause us to engage in “hare-brained,” “money wasting” and “unnecessary” alternative energy ventures. Given the danger of PO theory, it is strange that Lynch entirely avoids the theory and focuses on data points. Curiously, he thinks that pointing out where predictions or interpretations are wrong is the same as proving that the model is wrong. Were Lynch to be doing the social service of clearing up misconceptions about oil production and the consumption of oil that are commonly made by Peak Oilers, then this could be forgiven. He has chosen to ridicule his opponents, however. Mr. Lynch has given himself enough rope.
In this brief post I will describe some of the central premises of PO theory as well as summarize Lynch’s depiction. In doing so, I will show how his knockdown blows against PO theory are as imaginary as the foe he defeats.
Peak Oil theorists claim that there is ultimately a fixed amount of oil, regardless of whether or not it has been discovered. “Fixed amount” implies that during human time the processes that create oil will make so little that it will have no meaningful effect on the actual amount. Given this fixed amount, ceteris paribus, at some point we will reach a peak rate of consumption. After this point, we reach the rate of consumption that falls necessarily because the remaining oil will be that which is most difficult to access or produce. This means it will gradually become more expensive to the point that it will become too expensive.
Historically, peak oil theorists know that the sources we have discovered and developed presently have been those easy to find and cheap to produce. These theorists deduce that future discoveries will tend to be in places, and from sources, where recovery is not as easy or inexpensive as it has been in the past. Examples would be those from off shore sources in the arctic, oil sands, coal, or oil shales.
The conceptual premises that drive peak oil are the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the principle that it’s not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or more) variables at the same time. Concurrently, these imply the Principle of Net Yield and the Law of Diminishing Returns. The central ideas that derive from these premises are that it takes energy to find energy and produce that energy. At some point, the energy gain is too small to justify the search.
Lynch begins his caricature with a dual insult by association describing PO theorists as Malthusians that lack expertise. Lacking expertise, they base
conclusions on poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material.
I don’t doubt that many people interested in PO are laypeople who are out of their depth in terms of expertise. It’s worth noting that only polymaths don’t encounter that problem when examining complex situations.
In this regard, should I presume that Lynch is comfortable slagging Malthus because he bases his conclusions on Malthus’s work on his own poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material? Here’s why.
Malthus was an astute researcher and a meticulous analyst. It is true that Malthus was wrong when he argued that food production only increases arithmetically, while population increases geometrically. Technological advances changed the equation. What Lynch disregards is that Malthus’s conclusion was accurate with respect to the agricultural data he worked upon, as noted by David Hackett Fischer in “The Great Wave”. Malthus was guilty of induction which is a common flaw among humans and notably, the basis of Mr. Lynch’s argument. In other words, how things were done in the past, and what was possible in the past, doesn’t not necessarily determine future modes and possibilities.
Mr. Lynch then states
that most arguments about peak oil are based on anecdotal information, vague references and ignorance of how the oil industry goes about finding fields and extracting petroleum.
He goes on to anecdotally note that some PO theorists continue to move the peak point, others misconstrue the effects of oil field changes, and some lack understanding about mathematical applications in the oil industry.
Finally, Lynch outlines what he takes to be the core of Peak Oil theory:
for the most part the peak-oil crowd rests its case on three major claims: that the world is discovering only one barrel for every three or four produced; that political instability in oil-producing countries puts us at an unprecedented risk of having the spigots turned off; and that we have already used half of the two trillion barrels of oil that the earth contained.
Mr. Lynch then appears to disprove these statements, which I’m willing to grant, and, in doing so, concludes he has falsified peak oil theory.
All he has done is disprove three empirical statements. He did not disprove Peak Oil theory.
To disprove Peak Oil theory, in the manner he proceeds, which means he’s not assuming the discovery of an alternate energy source, he would have to show that the amount of available oil is infinite, with respect to our needs, or show that the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not hold when it comes to the practices of the oil industry.
Lynch chooses option Two.
But that may not keep the Chicken Littles from convincing policymakers in Washington and elsewhere that oil, being finite, must increase in price.
Environmental Capital intuits a difficulty in this notion.
Given that much of the oil that supply-siders are counting on costs a lot more to extract than the so-called easy oil of the Middle East, it seems fair to wonder whether that oil can be both cheap and abundant at the same time.
The problem that they correctly note is that it is impossible to maximize two variables in a closed system. We cannot have infinite abundance and infinite inexpensiveness. This is not a problem for Lynch, however, because the logical outcome of his view is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a social convention and that the oil industry can create perpetual motion machines.
Mr. Lynch wrote his op-ed to warn people about the dangers of allowing Peak Oil theory to influence us to engage in unnecessary, hare-brained, alternative energy ventures. Why would any reasonable person disagree with him, in the face of the perpetual motion machine he promises?