Thursday, February 10, 2005

The peak oil Cassandras

If people call you a Cassandra, they often mean you make catastrophic predictions that never come true. This points with certitude to their ignorance of her, but not necessarily of you. As it turns out, when Cassandra refused Apollo's love, he cursed her with the gift of unerring prophesy. She is known especially for her empassioned, but unheeded warnings about the impending fall of Troy. (Why was her talent for prophesy a curse? Read through to the end.)

And, so we come to Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and longtime "Cassandra" about world peak oil production. Which way should we take the characterization, the naive way or the one that comes from a thorough study of Greek mythology? We'll know in a couple of years for Campbell has reaffirmed his prediction of a disturbingly imminent worldwide peak in 2007 in the association's latest newsletter. In addition, a recent study prepared for the Oil Depletion Analysis Center and conducted by the editor of the respected Petroleum Review concludes that after 2007 supplies from new oil projects are likely to drop off sharply. This is in the face of accelerating depletion rates from existing fields and rising demand from places such as India and China. (A serious economic recession would, of course, reduce demand and push back the peak.)

There are multiple ways that the world can get to an ultimate production peak. They involve a complex mix of economic, geopolitical, geological, infrastructure, and business factors. (See my post Drilling on Wall Street for some insight on why the current strategy of the oil majors may be bringing the peak forward.) So, it's not surprising that peak oil estimates are easy to challenge on a number of grounds. But, the fact of a peak remains. No serious scientist disputes that there will be one. The only question is when.

As to why Cassandra's gift of prophecy was a curse--well, Apollo also included one condition, namely, that Cassandra would never be believed.

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