What Ever Happened to ‘Peak Oil’?

Media 'retreats' from doomsday theory as U.S. production spikes

• February 2, 2018 4:13 pm


"From the steps of the Supreme Court to the White House press room, from global trading exchanges to the snowy reaches of Alaska — over the last week, you could hear the creak of history as it began to pivot in a half-dozen locales," an editorial in the New York Times read.

"The Age of Oil is at an end. Maybe not this year. Maybe not for five years. But signs of the coming collapse are evident."

The article, with the stark headline, "Oil's End," ran in March 2008.

Ten years later, we're still waiting for that "coming collapse."

In fact, this week we learned the U.S. topped 10 million barrels a day in oil production in November, a level not reached since 1970. We hit that mark four months ahead of schedule, largely on the back of the shale industry, "once dismissed" by global oil exporters.

For years we heard about "peak oil," the theory of hitting a maximum amount of oil production and waiting for it to run out, none louder than in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Paul Krugman told us we were "running out of planet to exploit" in 2008, warning, "this time may be different."

By September 2010, the Times green blog was circulating a study projecting the world would hit peak oil that year, leading to a "dire global economic crisis" by 2025 as a "result of a peak and an irreversible decline in world oil supplies."

By November: "Peak oil is not just here — it's behind us already."

Quoting from the International Energy Agency, the Times blog reported that crude oil production "probably topped out for good in 2006, at about 70 million barrels a day."

Of course by 2016, the IEA reported world production of 96 million barrels of oil per day, or 35 billion barrels a year.

The Times peak oil scare was not limited to its editorial pages. In June 2010, the Times profiled environmentalist "survivalists" who were stocking up on seeds and supplies out of fear the world would run out of oil.

Raven Gray, the leader of Transition US, a group helping towns "brace for life after oil," said, "There's lot of apocalyptic people in environmental circles." You don't say?

The Washington Post was also a bit premature on its peak oil scare. "Wake Up, America. We're Driving Toward Disaster," an editorial read in May 2008. The editorial advocated changes to the "way we produce food, "conduct commerce and trade," the "way we travel," the "way we occupy the land," and the "way we acquire and spend capital," in response to peak oil.

The next month, the Post, remarked that the "world may have arrived at Peak Oil," while acknowledging that "this may not be literally true."

"[E]stimates of vast undiscovered oil reservoirs imply that Peak Oil is decades away," said Robert J. Samuelson. "But governments that control 75 percent or more of known reserves are behaving as if Peak Oil is already here."

"The grim price outlook by [economist Jeffrey] Rubin and others presumes that this situation persists," he said.

"Of course, they could be wrong."

By December 2011 the Post pronounced, "Oil's getting harder and harder to come by."

But, of course, they could be wrong.

In 2015 the Post and Samuelson declared, "The retreat of ‘peak oil.'"

"Oil is a finite natural resource," Samuelson said. "There's only so much of it. When it's gone, it's gone."

"The trouble is," Samuelson added, "that this compelling logic has yet to play out in the real world."

Published under: Oil