Review: Peak Oil Personalities

Peak Oil Personalities


A Unique Insight into the Greatest Crisis Facing Mankind

Edited by Colin Campbell

Pbck; 337pp

Inspire Books 2011

Dr. Colin Campbell has collected short biographies from 27 contributors, many of them oil geologists and petroleum engineers, who have worked with Colin over the past 20 or more years on the issue of peak oil and its implications for the world economy.

One of the most striking impressions one gets from reading this fascinating collection is what a colorful life it must have been to be an oil geologist or engineer during the Golden Age of Oil.

His own chapter makes for colourful and entertaining reading on the professional career of one of the founders of the peak Oil movement.

Colin read geology at Oxford and went on to work for Texaco, BP and Amaco, taking assignments in Trinidad and Columbia, Australia and Papua New Guinea, and later in Europe, including Norway, before taking early retirement in 1989. He continued work as a consultant, and it was during this period that he published the first book on the subject of Peak Oil, The Golden Century of Oil 1950-2050, published in 1991. He lived in France for some years and then settled in Ballydehob, West Cork, in 1999.

Much of the early oil exploration in Latin America was adventurous and risky work:

{In 1958} I then had two heroic and fantastic years doing field work in the Andes and Magdalena Valley. It involved riding mules with about twelve Columbian field workers and camping in very remote and often bandit-infested country.

Colin says he first became aware of the geological limits of a countries’ resources in oil and gas in 1966 while writing a comprehensive report on the resources in Columbia, but it was only later while based in Chicago, when writing an evaluation for the resource base of the whole of Latin America for Amoco, that he began to understand the significance of global limits in oil production:

…the pattern I had already identified in Columbia applied to all countries in varying degrees. The most prospective areas were normally identified early, being too big to miss. My colleagues evaluating the other regions of the world confirmed the same general relationships, and it became evident that the world, as a whole, faced limits that in turn set the pattern of production. Admittedly, in those days we had limited knowledge of the offshore, which has produced much more than we foresaw, but the evaluation of the onshore regions has been generally confirmed.

For me, this was so to speak my Peak Oil Moment, making a deep impact, both professionally in that I realised the transcendental value of any genuine geological prospect, whatever its current economic attributes might be, and in more personal terms, as it became obvious that the age of consumerism, nowhere more evident than in Chicago, could not continue indefinitely.

Others in the oil industry became interested, and in 1997 the International Energy Agency held a conference at which Colin and Jean Laherrere, a former exploration manager for the French company TOTAL, “confronted the flat-earth economists.” -this last phrase being used by Colin to describe those who believe that the Market will always supply resources, once the price is right.

The team within the IEA, lead by Jean-Marie Bourdaire {who also has a chapter in the book}, was satisfied with the evidence for Peak Oil but faced many political constraints. They did however succeed in delivering a coded message in their World Energy Outlook of 1998 in the form of a table showing that oil demand would outpace supply by 2010, save for the entry of unidentified unconventional, a euphemism for shortage.

Colin now sees the IEA as “coming clean” about Peak Oil “as the long predicted crisis unfolds”.

In 1995 Colin began publishing a monthly newsletter for the newly formed Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, which he continued to do for 10 years, submitting the final, 100th newsletter in 2009.

He concludes:

The evidence indicates that the peak of all categories of oil was reached in 2008, heralding the onset of long-term decline during what may be termed the Second Half of the Oil Age….The transition to the new chapter of history threatens to be one of great tensions as indeed are already being observed around the world, especially in urban circumstances.

It is not, however, necessarily a doomsday scenario as the end of the current financial and military empires may herald a return to rural living in local communities, opening a new more benignage for the survivors who may develop a greater respect for themselves, their neighbours and, above all, the limits within which Nature has ordained them to live.

The other contributors in the book are oil industry experts who have come across Colin’s work during the course of their professional careers, and come to accept as valid his conclusions, that oil peak is passed or not too far off, and that this will have dramatic effects that the world’s governments and populations should know about.

The emphasis is on biographical accounts putting a peak oil awareness in the context of the author’s careers and personal lives, successfully in showing that the predictions of Peak Oil are coming, not (only) from some lunatic fringe cult of apocalyptic environmentalists, but a wide range of technical specialists and oil industry professionals who have come to appreciate the value of Colin’s work though direct experience of the oil industry over many years and decades.

This is mainly an older generation of oil geologists and analysts- at 47 I am, as the single “environmentalist” represented here, the youngest contributor by more than 10 years; and, although wives are mentioned in many of the chapters, it is an all-male cast.

One of the most engaging chapters is by Jeremy Gilbert, originally from Dublin, now also retired to West Cork, who gives a fascinating and account of an exciting life in the oil industry, working all over the world. His account of escaping from Iran after the overthrow of the Shah in 1978 is gripping. In 1988 he became appointed BP’s chief petroleum engineer. It was only on retirement to West Cork that he really became aware of Peak Oil and on first encountering Colin and his work was highly skeptical:

{I} felt confident that I would be able to find flaws in whatever data Colin had managed to acquire.
My confidence was misplaced. Over the next few months I had many meetings with Colin, reviewed his data, and was made aware of the methods he had used to make estimates of the likely future production for each of the world’s oil-producing countries.

Another chapter of particular interest is from Roger Bentley, a solar scientist from the University of Reading, who elucidates some of the technical issues that permeate the peak oil debate, such as the different categories of oil viz. “Proved Reserves” (those classed as being close to being produced, which therefore may remain fairly constant for decades) and “Proved-plus-Probable-reserves” (which are likely to give a better estimate of what may ultimately be recoverable). After a seminar from Colin Campbell in 1995, Bentley and his colleagues became persuaded that Campbell might be more right than wrong, and investigated the sources for the data, and were “astonished to discover that mankind’s knowledge of how its future dependency on oil would evolve was largely down to the data judgements of a single man {Dr. George Lecke of Petroconsultants.}” Issues with the industry data is a recurring theme in the book, and continues to be contentious in the peak oil debate.

For several of the book’s contributors, a key reference which sets their investigations in context, is the 1972 report by the Club of Rome The Limits to Growth. While the peak oil authors are not generally environmentalists (I am the only contributor listed as such) in citing the influence of this book they share common ground with them.

While the contributors all agree pretty much on an early peak of world oil production, on related environmental and energy issues their differences are quite interesting, particularly on the issues of climate change and nuclear power.

French petroleum geophysicist Jean Laherrere- an early collaborator with Colin Campbell- is an outspoken climate skeptic:

All scientists agree that in Vostok and Dome C {ice cores} if carbon dioxide and temperature vary in parallel, the driver is temperature (Milankovitch) and that CO2 follows with a lag from 800 to 1,300 years….
CO2 is now taken as the main cause of global warming but it is against the facts. It is a minor part in greenhouse gases, with water being the main contributor with 60% to 90%. Everybody knows that in winter a cloudy night will be warmer than a cloudless one….
Cloud coverage is very difficult to model, and anyway cannot be modeled with the size of grids (average IPCC models = 200km).
Everybody knows that warm temperatures, as experienced in 1998, resulted from El Nino, which has nothing to do with CO2…
Carbon dioxide is the wrong target for government policy. The right one is saving energy because energy reserves are limited and because energy is often wasted. CO2 is considered by many as a pollutant , when it is the source of life, being transformed into chlorophyll by plants….. Life is based on carbon and on carbon dioxide. Aiming at a post-carbon world is a joke.

He goes onto criticize the fraudulent carbon trading market, and condemns IPCC head Pachauri for making up excuses for “Himalayagate.”

Colin Campbell also expressed a skeptical position on climate change when I interviewed him in February 2010, and most of the other contributors who mention climate change see it as an important issue related to oil depletion;

but while Laherrere saw global warming as detracting attention from the more urgent issue of energy supplies, Schindler and Zittel, who both worked for the German think-tank LBST, found the opposite view expressed when tensions arose between themselves and climate activists who felt that Peak Oil might be stealing their thunder. They found that other institutions looking at fossil energy use

spoke with one voice: It’s a matter of fact that fossil energy resources are finite.
Nonetheless this fact will not be relevant in the foreseeable future or in the decades to come. There is only one urgent problem which requires immediate action- that is climate change.

On another occasion they found their findings for a hearing in 2000

received some quite hostile reactions from scientists actively involved in climate politics. When I entered the room… I was attacked by a scientific member of the parliamentary committee with whom I had shared quite good personal relations up to then: “What the hell are you doing in Munich? We have spent years to convince the politicians that climate policy has to get top priority. Now, you are distracting the politicians with the finiteness of fossil energy sources…”

Film producer Amund Prestergard, who made the film featuring Colin Campbell Peak Oil- Imposed by Nature, tells another occasion in which these two issues were intertwined, when interviewing the Norwegian Minister for the Environment in 2007. Off camera she confessed to him she was aware of peak Oil, but seeing it likely to be delayed a long time if the Arctic continues to melt- she believed that there were vast deposits locked up under the ice.

Opinions are also diverse on the issue of nuclear power, the only non-fossil alternative that could conceivably replace oil to a significant degree with current technology.

Another French petroleum geo-physicist, Jean-Marie Bourdaire, says:

It would be a long story to describe my fight against the OECD Ayatollahs who were pushing market reforms and green energy without any reservations, and were also against nuclear energy. (When I arrived at the IEA nuclear was like a four-letter word in countries like Austria, Denmark, or New Zealand, and nobody was disputing this judgment, even in France.)…Some countries were stubbornly green and anti-nuclear.

Investment banker and consultant Chris Sanders takes a different view, claiming that the risks the oil industry is increasingly taking cannot be justified in any way, citing the recent disaster at BP’s Macondo well:

As the oil industry has moved to the frontiers of technology, depth, and scarcity, it has also shifted its risk profile to something more resembling the nuclear industry, Nuclear power plants are uneconomic, not because they are expensive but because the risks they pose are uninsurable. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than Chernobyl, which is the true forebear of Macondo.

Renewables are not discussed much by the authors, although Jeremy Leggett, founder of Solar Century, believes

we have the clean-energy technologies and strategies for running a world without oil, and indeed without any fossil fuels for that matter

but sees a real challenge with the lead-in times for energy transition;

and solar engineer Ron Swenson is actually working on many renewables innovations, including proposals for “people pods” or “podcars” as mass transit in urban areas, consisting of little cars suspended from an over-head rail, underneath a roof of solar panels to power them, which, he claims, would work even in cloudy northern climes.

Petroleum industry analyst Charles Maxwell, sees the potential for shale gas as a “bridge fuel” with nuclear playing a role as well, but also has concerns for the long lead-in times required; and is on the board of American DG Energy Inc, which converts diesel engines to run on natural gas to be used as Combined Heat and Power systems which can be a cheaper alternative to grid electricity.

Perhaps the most maverick character included in this collection is Mike Ruppert, who ran the website From the Wilderness, and in 2004 wrote the lengthy Crossing the Rubicon in which he describes his early career working for the LAPD, during which he uncovered widespread drug smuggling activities by the CIA, and honed his skills as an investigative journalist which later helped him uncover the true story behind 9-11, the gist of which he repeats here:

according to Rupert, the Bush administration arranged to deploy the air defense forces far from New York on the morning of the attacks in apparent connivance with Al Qaeda. It was about a month after the attacks that Ruppert became aware of the Peak Oil hypothesis, and claims that 9-11 was staged because of the threat of Peak Oil, providing a pretext for the invasion of Iraq, the country possessing the second-largest oil reserves in the world.

The inclusion of Rupperts’ conspiracy views might seem somewhat incongruous amongst the otherwise relatively sober voices from oil industry professionals and scientists, and it runs the risk of discrediting the whole peak oil theory in the eyes of sceptics; but Ruppert would certainly count as a Peak Oil Personality and he appears in films like The End of Suburbia, as well as having attended many of the significant peak oil conferences over the years.

Ruppert represents the extreme end of doomerism amongst the authors here, citing Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Gorge theory, which sees peak oil as presaging humanities’ painful but inevitable reversal back to a more stone-age level of existence;

Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over, and Powerdown is not quite so bleak, and invokes us to try our best to weather the storm by good preparation along the Transition Towns type model, but also sees collapse as inevitable:

…it is now too late to avert a collapse of the existing system. We have hit the limits to growth and the collapse has begun.

Dutch mechanical engineer Francis de Winter condemns American profligacy, saying his experience of growing up and surviving in the war have shaped his views that the main problem is greed, and simpler lives would be better;

the US consumes the full body-weight of its total population in petroleum every week. To somebody who survived on very little, this is very clearly not a US need. Indeed, it is very clearly a US disgrace and it is time for the population to wake up to it.

he is passionate about the Iraq war, “a war that the whole world has recognised as nothing but an oil war” costing thousands of US soldiers’ lives and countless thousands of Iraqi’s lives, as well as squandering colossal amounts of resources:

If even a very small fraction of these wasted and destroyed resources and killed people had been devoted to serious and well designed energy programs instead of being wasted on an unnecessary, useless, illegal, and destructive oil war, the world would be in better shape. The Iraq oil war started because the US population was too naive in believing the US government, but such oil wars must not be allowed to happen again.

Richard Bentley sees the possibility that adaptation, energy substitutions such as increased availability of shale gas and non-conventional oil, combined with energy efficiencies, could offset a peak but warns

we “peakists” point out that if society goes on as it is, without a dramatic change in how it sources its energy, then calculations show that the world will almost certainly hit its recoverable-resource oil limit fairly soon. Moreover, in such matters, we think it is better to be forewarned.

This is an original contribution to Peak Oil literature, fascinating on many levels, and should be widely read and discussed.

I shall return to the issue of Peak Oil soon with a future post looking at the counter arguments.


One thought on “Review: Peak Oil Personalities

  1. Forty years since the Club of Rome’s announcement all our resources were going to run out, and I’m still waiting!

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