Monday, July 18, 2016

The limits to society's attention span: peak oil ten years after the ASPO-6 meeting in Pisa

The concept of peak oil has gone through a peak, too, about ten years ago, approximately coincident with the sixth meeting of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO) in Pisa, Italy. Ten years later, peak oil has nearly completely disappeared from the attention of the media and of the public. Here are some reflections of mine on this subject, together with recollections of people who participated in the meeting in Pisa.

Ten years ago, only five years had passed from the 9/11 attacks. We were still reeling from discovering that the collapse of the Soviet Union didn't mean the "End of History", and that there would be no "peace dividend" for us. At that time, the concept of "peak oil" was new, interesting, and being explored by a group of smart people who were interested in the future of humankind. The Pisa meeting, in 2006, was a high point of this wave of interest.

In the ten years that followed, history moved forward at an incredible pace with wars, revolutions, financial crisis, and changes of all kinds. We saw oil prices spiking up to $150 per barrel in 2008, then crashing down, and then restarting the cycle. We saw the US production reborn from its ashes with the great "shale oil" revolution that should have lasted for centuries but that, right now, is collapsing. We saw the Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we followed the story of the great oil field of Kashagan in the Caspian sea, once touted "the New Saudi Arabia" that still has to deliver its first barrel. We saw the collapse of oil producing regions such as Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela, all accompanied by political turmoil. And, more than all, we saw Climate Change moving from a side threat to a major challenge for civilization.

In this great turmoil, the peak for conventional oil seems to have appeared, more or less, when it had been originally predicted, around 2005-2008. But the old forecasts had not taken into account the dogged reaction of the industry and of the financial system, that pushed for producing combustible liquids from anything that could even remotely produce it. As a consequence, "peak liquids" has been postponed of about a decade, and it seems to be here, right now.

But, with all this turmoil ongoing, people simply forgot about peak oil, that receded beyond the event horizon, as if it had been sucked in by a black hole, leaving only a faint glow behind it. Nobody seems to be interested in peak oil any longer, as you can see from the results of Google Trends, shown at the beginning of this post. This peculiar blindness of our civilization appears not just for peak oil, look at how people have lost all their interest in Global Warming, just now that we see everything melting around us. It is a typical behavior of memes, as I already commented about one year ago.

So, as usual, we are moving into the future blindfolded, head first, and at full speed. What we will find there, is all to be seen.

In the following, you can read comments by some of the participants in the ASPO-6 conference in Pisa received in occasion of the 10th anniversary. If you were there and you wish to add your recollections, write them in the blog comments.

In the picture, the group of ASPO-Italy that organized the 5th conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas in Pisa, Italy, that started on July 18, 2006.

Colin Campbell

I have the best of memories of the Pisa Conference which was excellent in regards to both contents and location. It is true that ASPO seems to have passed its peak as there have not been any recent international conferences, although ASPO USA remains very active. I think it is now widely accepted that so called Regular Conventional Oil passed its peak in 2005. I think that the peak of all categories is imminent, if not already passed last year, but that will not be recognised for a few years down the other side. I will be 85 years of age next month and am certainly too old to do much more on this subject, although I do try to update my depletion model. The last version was for 2014 but for some reason I cannot at the moment access the EIA website to get updated production, consumption and reserves data for 2015 by country.

I assume you have seen my last book Campbell's Atlas of Oil and Gas Depletion which was published by Springer in 2013. They chose this very presumptive title and charged a lot for it, but I think sales have declined steeply. I was thinking of trying to produce a short book comprising no more than updated versions of the country tables and graphs in the book and have proposed same to Springer. If they should agree I would have to find someone to come and update all these spreadsheets or even better design some kind of computerised model that integrated them all. If one of your students were to be interested in such a project, he or she could come to Ballydehob for about six months to do it, assuming some money can be found to cover the cost.

Regarding the wider picture, I think the world does enter the Second Half of the Oil Age, when this critical supply of cheap energy that fuelled the First Half declines from natural depletion, leading to general economic contraction and falling population. The transition will no doubt be a time of great tension as indeed already witnessed by massive immigration pressures, being especially felt by Italy. These subjects are being covered by the new quarterly journal The Oil Age : Understanding the Past and Forecasting the Future which is edited by Roger Bentley.


Dennis Meadows

I do remember the Pisa meeting, though mainly because it was my first visit to Pisa and meet you, more than for anything I learned about peak oil. I was already well informed and convinced about peak oil. And I did not need more professional contacts in the field. So the meeting was interesting to me, but not especially influential for me. It was well run, and I appreciated that you created the chance for me to run a STRATAGEM session.

It is unfortunate that peak oil has suffered the same fate as all other limits. Between those who are ideologically opposed, those who profit from the current system, and those who just don't think about it, the issue has essentially disappeared.

The pretext is low gas prices in the US and the (short) burst of production from shale. But if that pretext had not appeared, some other one would have been found. This world is simply not equipped to do the sort of short-term sacrifice and long-term planning required for an adequate preparation for the end of an era of cheap energy. Add to that the fact that the future without cheap energy will definitely be much less fun for the rich than the present one, and you have a guarantee of denial.

What lies ahead? I would guess that another profound financial crisis is coming. It will depress energy demand enormously. And it will attract all the attention, just as the pain receives the attention of someone with cancer. They treat the pain, not the cancer, perhaps even becoming addicted to pain killers, without ever understanding the true nature of the problem. And in every time of crisis control of the political system drifts towards simplistic authoritarians. You had Berlusconi; we are likely to get Trump.

I read John Michael Greer's books as they come out. They stimulate me to think about that future without abundant oil. I expect that will be evident by 2030.

EROI is a key concept that could bring clarity to the situation. But it will not be pursued, because it just brings bad news. Politicians only like good news stories.


Pedro Prieto

I remember from the Conference the carps in San Rossore, good weather, Denis Meadows signing to my colleague Daniel a first edition of the Limits of Growth, some interesting talks, as usual in all the ASPO meetings, the surprising disappearance of Ali Samsam Bakthiari, Robert Hopkins in his probably last intervention out of the transition town where I suppose he lives since then, some high expectations on the KiteGen from Alessandro, that I am afraid have not yet materialized, a set of electric motorbikes, and me driving one of them.

Sad that ASPO web page is fading if not completely disappeared now. I am not so sure that we can say yet in ASPO, as George W. Bush said on the air carrier: "Mission Accomplished" on the end of military activities in Iraq in 2003.


Robert Hirsch

I remember the conference very positively. Yes, a great deal has happened since the conference. Some comments in italics:

— How did you find your experience in Pisa? Very positive. It is a beautiful city and the arrangements were fine. Most of the conference was worthwhile but, as always, some of the presentations were of little value.  

— What has changed during the past ten years in your worldview? The drop in oil prices took the wind out of “peak oil” to the point where it is not now given much credence. That’s extremely unfortunate in my opinion, because the problem has not gone away. It seems likely that OPEC spare capacity will be gone within the next year or two, and oil prices will escalate. Thereafter, some production will come back on line but large scale bounce-back is generally a slow process, as you know. It is likely that the onset of the decline in world oil production will occur within a matter of years, but then again, most who have forecast that date have been proven wrong in the past! 

— How do you think that the peak oil idea has evolved and changed the world? See above. Also, the concept has lost popular credibility. That likely won’t change until oil prices escalate dramatically, likely a few years from now. 

All the best, Bob


Charlie Hall

My response would be similar to Bob's -- I found it wonderful! I remember the big tent (which worked very well), the thrilling speakers like Colin and Jean and Ugo and Rui and Chris Screbowski, the wonderful new friends and the urgency of the topic. I was not alone or crazy (well...). And the Italian food!! [I looked for my presentation (probably something on EROI (yawn) but could not find it on my present computer. I probably could if anyone cares.] Not to mention Pisa itself. I had no idea the tower was so beautiful, leaning or not. My wife and I then visited the Carerra Marble mines (with lots of old pictures of pre fossil fuel mining) and then Lucca, where Puccini was born (and his duck hunting retreat on the big Lake to the North). I broke the rules and touched the piano on which (I think) Madama Butterfly was written! 

To tell you the truth I liked the one in Lisbon even better, for it was my introduction to ASPO. Dick Lawrence insisted that I go, and it was this meeting (and Pisa) that pulled me out of my doldrums as an ecologist and back to my real interest in energy, which was a very good thing for me and my career. Upon arrival I overheard someone saying that Jean Laherrere and Colin Campbell were headed for such and such a bar for lunch, so I hustled there like an ambitious grad student to meet my new heroes and buy them a beer. I also had a terrific time meeting Bobbins Campbell, Jane Screbowski and others. Gosh what fun and laughs!! Cork was great too, for there I met Pedro Prieto, who has been a great colleague. 

So I guess my main message is: THANK YOU ASPO EUROPE!!! for bringing me back to my real interest, energy, helping me to meet many super people, and resurrecting my (quite good in retrospect, I think) work of the 1970s and 1980s which I had abandoned for seeming lack of interest/funding. My guess is that Peak oil and related topics will be back with a vengeance, and all but we will be caught with their pants down. There are now three studies Mohr (attached) Maggio and Cacciola 2012 and Jean's own analysis on ASPO France which all show a peak in ALL fossil fuels perhaps as soon as 2025. Well its like Gustav Mahler said in 1910 or so: I wish I could conduct my symphonies 50 years from now! (Leonard Bernstein got famous by resurrecting Mahler). So everybody hang on to your power points, your notes and so on. Whatever is left of civilization in 50 years will be pouring over your notes as we pour over Darwin's and Newton's. Its that fundamental!!!! 

Congratulations to everyone on this list for your pioneering work! Meanwhile let me put in a plug for Ugo and my (as editors with economist Gael Girard ) new Journal from Springer "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality". Please send us your best work!


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)