Sunday, July 13, 2014

Orwellian Newspeak and the oil industry's fake abundance story

When what you are saying is so obviously at odds with the plain truth, it is useful to choose your words carefully to obscure this fact. This was the strategy of the Ministry of Truth, the propaganda arm of the authoritarian government depicted in George Orwell's novel 1984. The altered language was called Newspeak, a variant of standard English.

The oil industry's fake abundance story is so full of verbal legerdemain that it has become a sort of lexicon of Newspeak for oil. The public relations firms and fake think tanks behind this Newspeak have already achieved a notable goal, one styled as "doublethink" in Orwell's 1984. In an afterword to the edition I have social psychologist Erich Fromm explains the essence of doublethink: "[I]n a successful manipulation of the mind the person is no longer saying the opposite of what he thinks, but he thinks the opposite of what it true."

We now have nearly an entire population in the United States and nearly an entire media establishment that believes that oil is abundant--not because of the objective facts, but because of the oil industry's highly successful public relations campaign, a campaign that is still underway. The reason it is still underway is that it is essential to repeat the fake abundance story again and again in order to drown out any possibility that contrary facts will make their way into the public mind.

Just to assure you that there are contrary facts, let me list two key ones:

  1. Growth in world oil production (defined as crude plus lease condensate) in the eight years from the end of 1997 to the end of 2005 was 10.1 percent according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). During the eight-year period from the end of 2005 (an important inflection point) through 2013 that growth was 3.0 percent. The dramatic slowdown in the rate of growth occurred despite the wide deployment of new technology (such as high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing), record average daily prices (based on the world benchmark Brent Crude) and record oil industry spending on exploration and development. All of these things would have dramatically increased production if we weren't facing limits on what is cost-effective to extract.


  2. From its secular low of $9.10 per barrel on December 10, 1998, the Brent Crude spot price has leapt to $107.51 as of the close on Friday. That's a 1,081 percent increase in the last 15 years. The average daily spot price of Brent Crude reached two successive records in 2011 ($111.26) and 2012 ($111.63) before dipping slightly in 2013 ($108.56). So far in 2014 through July 7, the average daily price has been $108.95. All this price data (except the Friday close) is available here from the EIA. The price of commodities that are abundant tend to fall, not rise sharply. The sharp rise indicates that buyers are competing vigorously for constrained supplies.

These two facts will give us a start on oil Newspeak. Those of you who have read 1984 will recall that the ruling party in the country depicted in the book has three simple slogans: War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. Appropriately, the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Love oversees the internal security forces and conducts torture when necessary, and the Ministry of Truth, mentioned above, rewrites history and journalistic accounts of the past to conform with current positions of the ruling party.

When it comes to oil, however, we won't find the oil publicists saying things so obviously ridiculous as "low growth means plenty" or "high prices spell abundance." Instead, the oil PR machine has deftly ignored worldwide developments to focus only on the United States where oil production has been rising in the last several years. Had it not been rising, world production might well have begun to decline or at least stalled.

This PR machine likes to use the word "abundant" as much as possible. Yet, saying "abundant" won't change the fact that the average U.S. gasoline price for all grades has moved from a secular low of 95 cents per gallon in February 1999 to $3.75 as of July 7. That's an advance of 295 percent. For comparison inflation as calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics during that period was 43 percent.

Another useful oil Newspeak word is "resources." The word has a well-known meaning within the industry, namely, a preliminary estimate based on sketchy data (which, incidentally, is almost meaningless for determining the rate of flow). Outside the industry, however, most people conflate "resources" with "reserves." In this case ignorance is indeed strength, or at least it strengthens the persuasive power of the industry by keeping the public in the dark. (Reserves, by the way, are only the tiny fraction of resources that have been proven to exist by the drill bit and are economical to extract at current prices.)

The industry loves to say that the world's resources of oil are huge. But in recent years its spokespersons have shied away from using the word "reserves" since oil reserves (crude plus condensate) at the major oil companies have been falling in aggregate. And, not surprisingly, so has their so-called liquids production (which includes oil), about 12.4 percent from 2009 to 2013.

This has resulted in a series of oil Newspeak terms designed, so to speak, to put lipstick on a pig. Oil companies now report reserves as "barrels of oil-equivalent" or boe. They calculate the energy content of their natural gas reserves, convert that to its equivalent in oil and then add that number to their oil reserves. If we had to compose a slogan for this in Orwell's 1984 that is consistent with such gems as "war is peace" we might say: A gas is a liquid. But, of course, it's not. And natural gas sells for considerably less per unit of energy than oil. So, the entire picture misleads those investors who don't know how to read between the lines. It's another case where ignorance (on the part of investors) is strength for the company.

But perhaps the most audacious oil Newspeak term ever is now emerging just as the conflating of oil and natural gas reserves fails to spark enthusiasm in investors anymore. "Return on invested capital," not profits, not reserves, is the Newspeak term being marketed to investors as the proper indicator of a shrinking oil company's success. (Of course, the word "shrinking" would never be uttered by oil company representatives with proper Newspeak credentials.)

As the majors cut back on exploration and development expenses, they hope to increase their "return on invested capital." That sounds much better than saying that it has simply gotten too expensive in many places to find and extract oil. The easy stuff is gone; now only the hard-to-get, expensive stuff is left, and no one can make a profit on it or only a very meager one. How much better it sounds to investors who've been told for years that oil reserves are what to watch (and then boe) that companies are now pursuing "return on invested capital."

One bit of oil Newspeak appears almost singlehandedly to be keeping oil supplies growing even though they may not be. "Total oil supply" is being treated as interchangeable with "total liquids supply." To see what I mean, check out this page of oil statistics on the EIA website. Click on the dropdown menu for "product" which by default reads "total oil supply" and see what's actually included.

Beneath the words "total oil supply" (and sometimes "total liquids supply" in other sources) lie substances which simply cannot be sold as oil on the world market, substances such as natural gas plant liquids, condensate, and biofuels. There is also a mysterious liquid called "refinery processing gain" which conjures additional fuel volumes (but no more actual energy) because crude oil inputs expand when separated into their constituent parts during the refining process.

Without these additions to the oil supply statistics, it is a good bet that the trend in worldwide oil production would be reported as nearly flat from about 2005 onward. Despite this (or maybe because of this), both the industry and the government seemingly without embarrassment spout an oil Newspeak phrase that Orwell's Ministry of Truth might have authored: Total liquids supply is total oil supply.

Perhaps the most obviously ridiculous piece of oil Newspeak is "U.S. oil exports." Now, if I have to buy (read: import) 10 steaks from the store and I give three to you, I suppose you could say that I'm exporting my steaks to you. But, once I've eaten my steaks, if I want to replenish my supply, I must go to the store and buy some steaks again and then import those steaks into my freezer (from where I can export them to you once again, perhaps after I grill them for you).This is essentially what those in the industry who are calling for an end to the ban on U.S. oil exports are advocating.*

With just a few mouse clicks, however, any curious person could arrive at the EIA's U.S. oil import and export statistics and see that we are a long way from ever becoming a net exporter of oil. By asking the right questions, such a person might arrive at the most recent projections by the agency which have U.S. oil production peaking and then declining after 2020 at a level far below anything that would allow the country to export more than it imports. In keeping with Orwell, perhaps we could style this as "exports equal freedom." It makes about sense as what the industry is saying.

If you want to corrupt a people, corrupt the language. I'm not sure who said that, maybe me. Once it becomes impossible to say the truth with the language we have, it will ultimately be impossible for us to adapt and survive. That's almost certainly what we risk as we slide down the oil Newspeak slope unable to understand what is actually happening to global society's most critical commodity.

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*There is an argument for lifting the U.S. ban on oil exports that has to do with maximizing market efficiency, getting the right grades of oil to the refineries best suited to refine them (and thus willing to pay more for them) wherever those refineries are in world. But this isn't the argument the industry is making to the public since the effect of allowing such exports would be to raise domestic oil prices and thus lift profits for domestic oil producers, not exactly a winning argument with the American public.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

8 comments:

DaShui said...

What else is being lied about ? Everything?

Anonymous said...

The energy supply picture is indeed confusing. I live in Belgium and reading the newspapers everything seems OK. Plenty enough is supplied. No worries needed. Fracking, gas, oil: nothing to worry about.
Or maybe the reason everything seems ok is the human habit only to remember, write and read positive stories.
Mvg, Didier

Anonymous said...

Great article. The carbon bubble is about to burst....

Kurt Cobb said...

Commmenters may want to read my comments policy before posting, if they haven't read it already. Many comments on this post have already been deleted for failing to conform with that policy.

Anonymous said...

It's just so easy to corrupt an inept, distracted populace. Even those who are "educated" can be duped into something, if the something is outside their narrow field.

ChemEng said...

Kurt:

Thanks for the facts that you summarize regarding oil supplies. I often refer to your blog when thinking and talking about the dilemmas that we face. However, I think that equating oil industry publicity with Newspeak to be something of a stretch.

1984 must be one of the most frightening books ever written — the only society that I can think of anything like it is Russia of the late 1930s (the Third Reich did not achieve this type of mind control). And the very fact that this blog exists shows that we are not living in such a society. The oil industry may manipulate language - so do most advertisers. But they do not create Newspeak.

The following quotation is from the Appendix to 1984.

“The word bellyfeel refers to a blind, enthusiastic acceptance of an idea. Consider, for example, such a typical sentence from a Times leading article as ‘Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc.’ The shortest rendering one could make of this in Oldspeak would be: ‘Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism.’ But this is not an adequate translation...Only a person thoroughly grounded in Ingsoc could appreciate the full force of the word bellyfeel, which implied a blind, enthusiastic and casual acceptance difficult to imagine today.”

People today may accept industry information that there is plenty of oil. But there is an underlying feeling of uncertainty; they do not “bellyfeel”. Fortunately, our advertisers have not yet learned how to write true Newspeak.

George Orwell was an amazing writer. Consider his essay “Down the Mine” written in the 1930s. In it he writes,

"Down there where coal is dug is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly."

Were he alive today I suspect that he would be a magnificent Peak Oil writer.

Kurt Cobb said...

ChemEng,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I must disagree with you, however, in the strongest terms.

Having worked in advertising agencies and on political campaigns for many years I can tell you that you are vastly underestimating the subtle and powerful ways in which people's perceptions can be controlled through modern methods of propaganda.

There are so many examples of how our language has been altered by conscious programs. Chief among those examples is Newt Gringrich's successful campaign to turn "liberal" into a disparaging term, so much so that few true liberals use the word anymore.

And, with regard to energy and particularly oil, many very smart people have been beguiled by the industry's rhetoric. It's not that these people are not capable of being skeptical. It's that IT NEVER OCCURS TO THEM that they NEED to be skeptical about the industry's pronouncements. That's expert manipulation of the mind.

Incidently, you missed reading the many "bellyfeel" believers of the industry story who commented on this piece because I deleted them for being abusive or simply deceptive or completely irrelevant to the argument I made.

We have a whole new vocabulary in which "energy independence" equals "more production of hydrocarbons." Of course, the best way for us to reach energy independence is to use a lot less energy. But that isn't even allowed as a possible path. And, we are nearly as unmindful of the possibilities for renewables, especially solar.

And, of course, the hyperbole about U.S. oil and natural gas production is designed specifically to prevent people from focusing on climate change. You will notice how effectively the industry's abundance narrative has wiped out the climate change narrative. Almost no story that mentions the abundance narrative also mentions climate change.

The techniques used by modern propagandists (highly sophisticated polling, focus groups, demographic information, computerized analysis) would make Nazi and Communist propagandists of the 1930s and 1940s stand in awe.

I think Noam Chomsky's analysis of manufactured consent is apropos.

Perhaps the very best example of what I'm talking about was the selling of the Iraq War. McClatchy newspapers' Washington bureau did an excellent job of debunking all the arguments for the war (including the fake weapons of mass destruction claim) BEFORE the war began. But for all the people who should have been skeptical (particularly in the media), it just didn't occur to them to actually BE skeptical about these claims. They weren't being coerced into staying silent or saying the opposite of what they think, they were thinking the opposite of what is true. The information was available on the Internet and in dozens of newspapers around the country, and yet few people thought to use McClatchy's superb reporting as a starting point for their skeptical search for the truth.

It is truly amazing mind control to make people think that they came to the conclusions you want them to all by themselves through some kind of critical thought (however superficial it may seem to us). That's what we've got today, and it is far more subtle and far more dangerous than anything we've have previously seen with regard to the manipulation of public opinion.

ChemEng said...

Kurt:

Thanks for your response. The word “genius” is often used too freely but I think that Orwell really was a genius. For example, he died before television became available in homes yet the Newspeak word “prolefeed” so neatly sums up what is offered today on television.

It seems as if there are three levels of language manipulation here. The first is simply changing the meaning of words. For example, after I wrote my first response I randomly opened a web site and saw an advertisement for a credit card that said, “Earn 40,000 points”. The word “earn” has been corrupted, of course. What they are saying is, “Spend money with us and we will give you a discount”. This type of manipulation is commonplace; it is the water in which we swim. Your example of “energy independence” = “more production of hydrocarbons” falls into this category.

The second level would appear to be what you allude to when you say, “It's not that these people are not capable of being skeptical. It's that IT NEVER OCCURS TO THEM that they NEED to be skeptical about the industry's pronouncements.” People who should know better choose to switch off their critical faculties. One reason may be that the publications they work for exert subtle censorship.

But Newspeak, the topic of your post, goes beyond the above two categories. In 1984’s Appendix (http://orwell.ru/library/novels/1984/english/en_app) the key sentence is, “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” So it becomes literally impossible to say, “Oil supplies are declining”. The words to express such a thought intelligibly simply are not available.

One way this is done is through abbreviations. Orwell states, “The words Communist International, for instance, call up a composite picture of universal human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune. The word . . . Comintern . . . can be uttered almost without taking thought, whereas Communist International is a phrase over which one is obliged to linger at least momentarily.

Another example I can think of would be “Nazi”. That word arouses immediate bellyfeel in all of us, but “National Socialism” may make us pause for a moment to figure out what is really being said. The same could be said about the “Affordable Care Act” as distinct from “Obamacare”. And so on and so on.

Ironically, the term “Peak Oil” may fall into the same trap of merely generating bellyfeel. But if we say, “The gradual but inexorable decline of economically available crude oil and condensate” then we may stop to think for a moment as to what is actually being said.

Anyway, thanks for initiating this doubleplus good discussion even though it is ungoodthinkful.