activism, media

Peak Oil Follies: Business Journal and Libertarian Reporting Is Too Often Idiotic

Do you have to have a lobotomy to write for the Wall Street Journal or Reason?

Recently, there have been three major articles about there is “no peak oil”, that peak oil has been “debunked” and that “supply responds to necessity and price”

You’re right, the Wall Street Journal. We have a necessity for instant, clean energy. Everyone does. So cold fusion exists, right?

Wrong.

Supply responds to necessity and price, ceterus paribus. But that’s not all it responds to. Sometimes, something just doesn’t exist.

No amount of necessity and price will make it so that the dinosaurs come back.

No amount of necessity and price will make it so that the Second Law of Thermodynamics will not continue to be a thorn in our side.

No amount of necessity and price will let us have faster than light travel.

Maybe at some point we will be able to clone dinosaurs, Jurassic Park style. Maybe at some point we will be able to reverse entropy. Maybe we will develop an Alcubierre drive. But right now, at this point, there’s no way of doing any of those things. So we don’t have dinosaurs, no matter how much the market may want it, nor do we have FTL or unlimited free energy so cheap to meter.

I’m being polemical and asking an anecdotal question, of course. I’m sure that Michael Bastasch and Ronald Bailey are perfectly smart people. But their agenda is making them say incredibly silly things. Things that really call into question their capability to speak honestly on, well, any issue.

I’m going to say something that shouldn’t be news to anyone: The Earth has a finite size.

Even if the entire planet was an oil rig, we’d eventually run out. That’s what a non-renewable resource is.

Only so many dinosaurs died and made fossil fuels. (Or, more accurately: Only so much algae and microscopic organisms died and made fossil fuels).

Maybe individual peak oil predictions have proven wrong. And I do concur with the Wall Street Journal article that Malthusian predictions have tended toward being both unduly pessimistic but also deeply inhuman.

But the fact is all resources are finite. There are species that are extinct now as a testament to that unfortunate fact. Phosphorus and rare earth elements are in particular in short enough supply to cause some serious issues. And cryolite still exists somewhere, but we have yet to be able to find a way to extract any of the natural reserves left. The Wall Street Journal article is just misleading in claiming that there’s never been a time that some kind of natural resource has dwindled to the point that it can’t be extracted.

Further, let’s grant for a second that we have unlimited oil reserves, which is the only way that “Peak Oil Debunked” can be an accurate argument.

So what?

As I’ve repeatedly pointed out to both fracking advocates and anti-global warming advocates, our inability to kick the petrochemical habit has immense costs. Even if we put aside global warming, everything from instability in the Middle East and the way that petro-dollars go to fund extremely nasty people to the costs of smog to people and to the environment is a consequence of burning all of these fossil fuels. 30% of asthma cases in childhood is due to various environmental exposures according to the National Resources Defense Council, of which smog and petrochemical-related pollution are a leading (probably the leading) cause.

The extraction of oil has serious costs too, directly. We blast away landscapes, leave behind plenty of damage, and leave behind rigs in the ocean that really don’t have a lot of potential functions that they can be adapted toward.

Does anyone at the Wall Street Journal really honestly believe that we have enough oil reserves for everyone on the planet to enjoy the lifestyle that Americans now enjoy? Do we think that if everyone in China, India and Africa started driving cars and having huge highway systems and “coal-rolling” in turbo-diesel trucks that we wouldn’t be facing immense problems of pollution?

Remember, petrochemicals aren’t just about gasoline for cars, heating oil and natural gas for commercial and residential use, and other uses that we think about when we hear “oil”. Polymers, synthetic rubber, industrial chemicals, dyes, detergents, fertilizers, and a host of other products have petrochemicals either directly or indirectly involved in their production.

The fact that oil costs are going down is not really a cause for celebration. We need to be implementing mechanisms like carbon taxes to make sure that consumers and producers bear the true social costs of oil products.

In discussions with my father on this topic, I’ve always held out hope that we’d have just a little more gas and oil out there, that some of the more sanguine expectations about being able to safely extract more petrochemicals would be accurate. He always hoped that we’d have to kick the habit sooner. What’s clear is that we need a legislative response now that makes sure that future generations have access to petrochemicals too and that we begin to consume energy in a way that doesn’t destroy the material basis for our existence or harm marginalized groups.

Finally, I want to conclude with noting that we have major newspapers that are willing to run articles where the headline is not only emphatically false but so false as to call into question the science education and indeed basic reasoning skills of the person who wrote it. Yes, maybe from an economics perspective it’s sensible to never view a resource as exhaustible, but that to me only indicates the fundamental bankruptcy of micro-economics. I know human beings everywhere have a propensity to think what they would like to believe rather than what is accurate, but we have to hold people to a better standard than that if we want the species to continue.

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