NYT Op-Ed Writer Michael Lynch Defies Second Law of Thermodynamics:Beats Peak Oil With Perpetual Motion Machine

957-AirBuoyedWheelIn “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.

Scarecrow52946btnFinally, 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?

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26 Responses

  1. Ted Kennedy died

    they just announced it on tv



  2. I hate to say it but Kennedy’s behavior during the primary last year caused me to lose a great deal of respect for him. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

    • Dee, I totally agree with you. Not only during the primary, but then when Kennedy prevented Hillary Clinton from getting on the health care committee, I had had enough.

      I won’t ever forget the site of two presidential candidate losers, Carter (in his attempt at a second term), Kennedy, Gore, Kerry, Richardson, Edwards, ALL LOSERS, ganging up on Hillary Clinton.

      Not to mention the chump celebrities like Michael Moore and Larry David.

      • I also had a problem with how Ted, along with Senator Boren and Senator Nunn (Democrats all) just simply blocked all of President Clinton’s efforts in his early days in office. They just wanted to show that smart-ass Governor from a small state that they were more powerful than he. How small.

        Now that I think about it I haven’t liked Ted Kennedy for a very long time. I actually went to my Democratic state convention as a delegate for Kennedy in 1980. Go figure.

        And now, NCLB is his enduring legacy. My, my.

  3. There is another aspect to peak oil that gets virtually no consideration. A barrel of oil weighs A LOT. We are taking literally 86 millions of barrels of oil out of the ground every day.

    It’s not just the weight of the 86 million barrels of oil that is taken out of the ground every day that concerns me, oil is also a lubricant that probably acts as millions of mini shock absorbers within the earth’s crust.

    How are we to know if the intense forces of gravity, mass, and rotation help “stir the oil pot underground”, how are we then to know if perhaps, just perhaps, the continual withdrawal of 86 millions barrels of oil a day wasn’t acting as some kind of internal lubricant/shock absorber that actually helps the planet maintain a normal rotation around the sun?

    I think it is logical to be concerned about the amount of oil we are taking out of the ground if we can deplenish a product in lets say 500 years that took 10 million years to create. That is math that does not add up in my book.


    • AM,

      That’s out of my depth, so to speak. Thanks for the provocation to learn more. ;)


      • I went ahead and did a weight calculation.

        305.36 pounds per barrel x 86 million barrels a day = 26 260 960 000 pounds per day gets removed from the earths innards. Sometimes water is used to pump out the oil, but, what does that mean? it is ok to replace oil with water?
        And water does not weigh as much as oil anyways.

        Plus, since oil is a lubricant, extracting it out of the ground at the rate of
        26,260,960,000 pounds a day may actually not be telling the true “weight” of what the extraction is actually “worth” to the rotation, gravity, and mass of the planet.

        The front end of a car has lube points so when a car turns there is lubrication.
        the car can weigh 2 tons, but the amount of lubrication needed to allow the movable parts in the front end chassis to make a turn is literally an ounce or two.

        Not being a scientist, I am just throwing this idea out there. As oil is being pumped out of the earth, the additional stress put on the planet may actually cause new oil to be created as internal forces increase and the new pressure causes a quicker creation of replacement oil. Sort of like using a strainer to get every drop out of whatever it is one is straining.

        The irony to me is that the sun produces sooooo much energy that taking a grab at the suns rays to produce energy seems an infinitely better plan than drinking from the inner earth’s teat at an ever increasing pace/amount.

        • AM,

          In a macro sense, the Sun is tied to the creation of our other energy sources. On our level, the Sun provides a dispersed source of energy, which lacks the power and portability of petrochemicals.

          Your thoughts are intriguing and I find myself hoping that a geologist will pop up and engage with them for our benefit.


  4. I actually posted a reply to the topic of peak oil but it does not appear to have made it in yet.

  5. Thanks for this post–if only to remind me of why I stopped reading the NY Times. It does get tiresome having to take apart specious argument after specious argument, day in and day out, doesn’t it? I was glad to see that there were over 180 letters in response to this op-ed, the great majority of which perform the same valuable service that this post does.

    One can understand why Michael Lynch, an energy “consultant” would write this dreck (that’s what he gets paid to do), but why does the New York Times have to publish it? That’s a silly question, I guess. It does make for a spirited, if needlessly time-consuming, debate. The writers over at The Oil Drum blog are busy fashioning a rebuttal to the NYTimes. Their initial response is well worth a read.

    • Btw, I apologize for putting “consultant” in quotes–I tried to follow that with [cough, cough, lobbyist] but used the wrong brackets, causing that part to disappear. I’m not feeling v. v. clever this morning. I have to say that was struck by the same B.S. in the piece that you were–the attempt to dismiss peak oil theorists by calling them “Malthusians”–I’m so glad you took that head on.

      • I,

        Thanks for the link.

        You might find it amusing to read what supporters of his piece have to say.


        • Is there a good link where I can read what the supporters have to say? As I noted above, I was rather gratified to see that his supporters were so greatly outnumbered in the letters section of the NY Times.

          • I,

            Wikio uk linked here and I used dogpile.


          • Thx. I never think to use sites like Dogpile.

            Btw, a commenter on TOD (The Oil Drum) brought up a good word to use against those who would call peak-oilers “Malthusians”–the word is “Cornucopians.” I just don’t get how anyone can be a Cornucopian about fossil fuel reserves–that is, unless one believes in the abiotic origin of oil, a theory that I think that Lynch was wise enough not to mention.

          • I,

            Conucopian is a good term that’s been around for over 30 years.

            If you are interested in the conceptual underpinnings of this stuff, I strongly recommend William Catton’s “Overshoot.” It is strongly relevant today.
            Udall wrote the foreward! ;)


  6. The industry and government keep and report statistics on “total reserves” (amount we guess we’ve “found”) and “economically recoverable reserves.” The later reflects at any point in time the available technology and associated costs for extracting oil, natural gas, etc relative to the revenue generated by production of the commodity. I have sympathy for the basic point of POs. As a society we should consider, plan, and prepare for an energy economy of the future that is likely to be quite different than today. However, as a combatant in the1980s natural gas “deregulation” debate, (against as a huge shift of dollars from many low to middle income consumers) I remember predictions that the “economically recoverable” reserves of natural gas available to the U.S. would be depleted in the near future. That reflected in part the influence of the industry on those who calculated and reported these statistics. Yet now a quarter century later, we are virtually awash in relatively inexpensive supplies of what must be considered a premium fuel. Did prior regulatory efforts to push gas out of industrial use and toward home uses results in significant costs — both economic and environmental? Probably. But the price of gas staid fairly low and that did not prompt larger shifts in usage. But the point will come when our enormous reliance on virtually unlimited quanitities of quite inexpensive fossil fuels is going to be unsustainable. My two cents.

    • M,

      Energy use curves indicate that the plenitude of methane is short term, even when we assume that the creation of carbon dioxide, or any of the other environmental additions associated with the petroleum economy, are not a problem. One need only consider the amount of energy that it is required to bring the world up to our lifestyle to appreciate how plenty becomes want in short order.

      This said, there are so many limiting factors, such as the sustainable availability of arable land and potable water, that large scale societal collapses are likely to occur before serious peak oil consequences become manifest.




  7. If you don’t have anything nice to say…
    OT Why are B0ots not supporting the healthcare plan? Some wrong answers

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