No More Banging On The Oil Drum

Back in 1995 or so, I looked up the website of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which led me to the website of James Howard Kunstler, self-styled urbanist, professional curmudgeon and author of The Long Emergency. Kunstler led me to Matt Savinar’s doomer site Life After The Oil Crash (LATOC) and Professor Goose and Heading Out’s site The Oil Drum (TOD). Thus began an immersion into Hubbert’s Theory of Peak Oil.

In retrospect, Kunstler was archly amusing to read even though he was essentially predicting that the Long Emergency, a severe bout of oil scarcity leading to civil unrest,  would begin before his next column, or maybe the one after that. In retrospect LATOC was mostly about selling survival gear to doomers. After the 2008 oil shock and subsequent economic depression, when society did not devolve into his predicted Mad Max scenario, Savinar shuttered LATOC and moved on to astrology.

When I started reading it, The Oil Drum was a small online community, with recognizable personalities, in-jokes and good-natured banter among well-informed discussions of just how much shit was going to hit the fan and when. Like most good sites they suffered an invasion of disruptive trolls, thus became more moderated from above than within, and stopped feeling like a community. Having been through that scenario before, I stopped participating before TOD really got rolling, and read it only sporadically afterwards.

Katrina and Rita fit neatly into the Peak Oil playbook of everything changing overnight, and worried people flocked to TOD to look at the projected paths. When a Category 4 or 5 cyclone seemed headed towards oil production facilities in the Persian Gulf, many on TOD predicted that this was the big one. MidEast oil would stop flowing and Americans would be stumbling around between stopped cars. But that storm missed anything of great importance. At the time I thought TOD might have jumped the shark.

But then the price of oil hit $140 per barrel, the world suffered a global economic meltdown, and the Deepwater Horizon dumped a major spill of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. There was still plenty to talk about, but all I found were links to articles I had already read elsewhere, and more squabbles than sensible discussion. Smart folk like Jeffrey Brown were still worth reading. Other smart people, like Robert Rapier, had started their own blogs. Others had just left.

Now I read that the Oil Drum is shutting down but being maintained as an archive.

Techno-Cornucopians, those who believe that humans will always find the right technological response to any challenge, are crowing that the closing of The Oil Drum is a signal that the theory of peak oil has been proven wrong. A Reuters article reprinted at the Financial Post offers a typical gloat:

The decision to shutter “The Oil Drum”, the leading website devoted to peak oil, has come to symbolise the end of an era – and sparked a furious debate about whether the theory was all along based on a fundamental mistake. …

For critics, the site’s demise marks the end of a flawed theory and more generally the fact the commodity supercycle has turned.

“Peak oil theory has basically gone the way of the California Condor, from widespread existence and acceptance … to near extinction,” Forbes magazine wrote in a polemical column.

“Today, given the new abundance of shale oil, almost no real industry leaders are peak oil proponents,” Forbes added, dismissing peak oil as “a theory based on lack of imagination.”

In, Peak oil isn’t dead; it just smells that way, Chris Nelder of SmartPlanet offers a different post-mortem:

… what did in The Oil Drum was volunteer burnout, falling visitor traffic, and an insufficient flow of high-quality original work and contributors. …

But the reason The Oil Drum has been lacking for good original content wasn’t that it had lost the argument and there wasn’t anything left to say. Far from it. The flow of content simply moved to where good analysts and writers on the subject could actually get paid for their work. … Consultants and hedge funds began restricting their work to their private clients and subscribers, with maybe a teaser of free stuff posted in their blogs and newsletters. Investors and oil and gas companies began hiring capable analysts to do the work privately, after many years of enjoying the assembled intelligence on The Oil Drum (and trading it very profitably, I might add) for free. The volunteers who had put so much time into the site all these years discovered that they needed to spend their energies elsewhere. And the public got accustomed to higher prices, so the media stopped talking about peak oil, which led to a dropoff in traffic. Hey, that’s show biz.

Is Peak Oil dead dead, or even mostly dead? Nelder doesn’t think so. After a thorough discussion of all the unconventional stuff – tar sands and fracked gas – we’ve been scraping out of the earth to keep the machines humming, he summarizes:

I expect world oil production to rise, weakly, for another two years or so, as America falls into a deeper slumber believing that fracking has cured everything. The media will reinforce that belief. And when it comes, the wake-up call is going to be harsh. In the meantime we’re just going to be waiting for the punchline.

So to those who can grasp the data, here’s my final thought: How will you prepare yourself for The Great Contraction? You’ve got perhaps two good years left of business as usual, and maybe another three or four after that before things really get difficult. I encourage you to use them well, and do what you can to make yourself resilient and self-sufficient. What will you do 10 years from now if the price of gasoline is $10 a gallon?

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