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Why the Peak Oilers are still right

The piece is excerpted from the new book Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future.

We're running low on cheap oil.
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We're running low on cheap oil.

For the past decade I’ve been a participant in a high-stakes energy policy debate -- writing books, giving lectures, and appearing on radio and television to point out how downright dumb it is for America to continue relying on fossil fuels. Oil, coal, and natural gas are finite and depleting, and burning them changes Earth’s climate and compromises our future.

In the past two or three years this debate has reached a significant turning point. Evidence that climate change is real and caused by human activity has become irrefutable, and serious climate impacts (such as the melting of the Arctic ice cap) have begun appearing sooner, and with greater severity, than had been forecast. Yet at the same time, the notion that fossil fuels are supply-constrained has gone from being generally dismissed, to being partially accepted, to being vociferously dismissed. The increasingly dire climate story has achieved widespread (though still insufficient) coverage, but the puzzling reversals of public perception regarding fossil fuel scarcity or abundance have received little analysis outside the specialist literature. Yet claims of abundance are being used by the fossil fuel industry to change the public conversation about energy and climate, especially in the United States, from one of “How shall we reduce our carbon emissions?” to “How shall we spend our new-found energy wealth?”

This is an insidious and misleading tactic. The abundance argument is based not so much on solid data (though oil and gas production figures have indeed surged in the United States) as on exaggerations about future production potential, and on a pattern of denial regarding steep costs to the environment and human health.

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Is the global oil tank half-full, is it half-empty … or are we running on fumes?

Cross-posted from Post Carbon Institute. In his article in the New York Times Sept. 24, “Oil Industry Sets a Brisk Pace of New Discoveries,” staff reporter Jad Mouawad cites oil discoveries totaling 10 billion barrels for the first half of 2009. The Tiber field in the Gulf of Mexico alone accounts for four to six billion barrels of crude that may eventually find its way into the world oil system. Indeed, this year has seen discovery results that could end up being the best since 2000. But, the article notes, the new oil was expensive to find, it will be …

Read more: Climate & Energy