Casaubon's Book

Oops, They Did It Again!

I spent my weekend in Washington DC with folks from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, talking about the future of peak oil research and advocacy. It was an interesting weekend, but for a farmgirl who spends most of her waking hours during the summer outside and working in the dirt, it was a strange weekend. Two hermetically sealed 8 hour train journeys to Washington and 48 intense hours in a equally hermetically sealed hotel gave you that “I’m in the Matrix” feeling.

I admit, I don’t sleep well in a room with windows that don’t open and such, and even though I could have technically slept late (no children leaping on the bed at 5:30 am), I found myself wide awake at five in the morning in my hotel room, which leads pretty much directly to weirdness.

The night before one of the things we’d been asked to do was come up with strategies for media campaigns to raise awareness of peak oil in the mainstream, and for some bizarre reason, at five in the morning, I was awakened with a Britney Spears song in my head. Ordinarily, this is just one of those nightmares you’d shake off with a five mile walk, something caffeinated and by banging your head against the shower wall for a while until Britney and her red pantsuit disappear, but oddly, it took my fancy….

Just in case you have lived in a cave for the last decade, here’s the song in my head – but since my blog is resolutely a Britney-free zone, I offer you a funnier version by Max Raabe:

And what emerged was this – a music parody video, with a group of young people seeing the whole picture, the plumes of oil and the wet waterfowl, the price spikes and collapses, every president left or right pretending we were going to get off oil, megaprojects figures revised down…the montage of the lies, including “we thought we were really running out in the 1970s, and because we didn’t that means it must be magically impossible that we ever will…”

Oh yes, they did it again,
They made you believe that the oil never ends
Even though it seems like a crock,
They played with the facts,
Got lost in the game
…But they aren’t that innocent!

The whole thing is silly, but maybe a little bit of silly is what we need, because the media is still able to report that there is plenty of oil, or imply that oil 5 miles under ground in undeveloped sources is equivalent to oil we have been pumping out of Saudi Arabia for 50 years, that tar sands and light sweet crude are functionally the same thing on a planet trying harder and harder to keep up with demand.

As Jeremy Leggett pointed out last week in The Guardian, we’re still letting the oil industry and OPEC be the ones who make up the figure (and I use the term “make up” correctly, here, I think). BP’s record of misrepresentation in their own interests should make us skeptical of their claims about world oil reviews – but that’s not the case as Leggett writes:

I scanned my copy of the Statistical Review. At the top of the inside cover I read, in a big, bold font: “The Review is one of the most widely respected and authoritative publications in the field of energy economics, used for reference by the media, academia, world governments and energy companies.”

A bible in other words. Journalists base statistics in articles on it, the world over. Students base learned papers upon it. World governments base their energy policies on it. And energy companies echo it, for it most part, to all who will listen.

And in small print at the bottom of the same page I read: “The data series for proved oil and gas reserves … does not necessarily meet the definitions, guidelines and practices used for determining proved reserves at company level, for instance, …. as published by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), nor does it necessarily represent BP’s view of proved reserves by country. Rather, the data series has been compiled using a combination of primary official sources and third-party data.”

Let me reword that. “We wouldn’t necessarily get the SEC to sign off on this stuff, and to be honest, we don’t even necessarily believe it ourselves. But go ahead, use it as a bible if you like. We don’t want you to be worried about peak oil. The small print gets us off the hook.”

“Primary official sources” includes Opec, of course, as the body of the report makes clear. Here is where the problems start. The ITPOES companies, and many others, fear that Opec have been being – how can I put this politely – “political” about their proved reserves since the 1980s. We fear they are 300bn barrels or more light as a result of political reserves, in a supposedly proved global reserve base of over a 1,300 or so, if we include a slug of the tar sands, and forget for the moment about any constraints on deepwater production.

This is a life or death question for many of us – how seriously should we take this? What are real extant reserves? Because we are betting our lives and our children’s future on the continuation of resource supplies – and yet we have credible reasons to believe those supplies are much scarcer than we’d hoped.

Oops, they did again. And again. And again. They made you believe that the oil wouldn’t end. But they are NOT that innocent. Britney has her uses.



  1. #1 Cynical
    June 14, 2010

    Anyone who’s been watching knows that OPEC ran up its claimed reserve figures immediately after the cartel moved to limit annual production to a maximum fraction of reserves.  There was no technical basis for this.  On the one hand, OPEC looked like it was moving to husband resources for the future; on the other hand, OPEC continued to hold prices low (and demand high) for the moment, and let the future take care of itself.

    Anyone who believes OPEC production projections, or the IEA’s, or the EIA’s, would probably have been better off with Bernie Madoff.

  2. #2 Tamakazura
    June 14, 2010

    What do they have to gain from lying about it?

  3. #3 PClark
    June 14, 2010

    While half-asleep listening to the BBC overnight news report on NPR last night, my usual night-time companion when sleep is more scarce, I heard someone say the words Peak Oil. Some (journalist, I think, as opposed to a field expert) person was being interviewed, and I can’t give you anymore details than this because everything was being filtered through a sleepy torpor but I heard it. Anh, anh, I heard it. Yeah, yeah, I did hear it. Did someone else?

    I’m pretty sure the utterance had a bit of a question mark emphasis after it (something like….Maybe we blah blah reached Peak Oil?) and we know how that goes, and I thought that was OK for this split second burstoid of inquiry. If they’re pondering the question, they’ll be further digging for the answer, me thinks.

    Before I go back to ogling my fluffy pillow, I shout: Let’s keep up the Berry Berry good job, BBC!!!!! Help Peak Oil become household words of understanding that inspire worldwide realization and preparation. Plea-ZZZs??

    (un)Twist the numbers & Shout the words Peak Oil out.

    It’s time.


  4. #4 Eric Lund
    June 14, 2010

    @Tamakazura: The business world, at least in the US, is strongly geared toward short-term thinking. Maximize profits in the current quarter, and don’t care about what will happen five years out when, if you are a C-suite executive, you will probably no longer be working for the corporation in question. Overstating reserves tends to reassure the public that they can continue to rely on your product instead of having to switch to an alternative in short order.

    The OPEC countries have a different incentive with the same result. As a cartel, they try to maintain prices by setting quotas for their members (a strategy which has historically had mixed results since overt cheating is hard to punish). These quotas depend on the amount of reserves each member country has, so their incentive is to overstate reserves in order to be allowed a higher quota. Many of these states use oil revenues to support social programs without which there would be a significant risk of revolution–again, skimping on profits today to put your country in a better position five years out doesn’t make sense if you expect to be exiled or worse in a year or two.

  5. #5 Nomen Nescio
    June 14, 2010

    What do they have to gain from lying about it?

    the less alarmed their customer base is about their future prospects, the more predictable demand (and prices, and profits) will be in the short term, and the easier it will be to manage (or manipulate) those prices and profits — at least in the short term, since the lying obviously can’t be kept up indefinitely.

    but as mr. Lund pointed out, people are amazingly good at willfully blinding themselves to the long term for the sake of short term profits. also, people really, really like the comfort of thinking the future is predictable and won’t involve any drastic change — even to the point of deluding themselves about it. couple those two tendencies…

  6. #6 View From Here
    June 14, 2010

    I just feel sorry for Brittany. I use her as the example of a sad life for my little kids. Surprised that an eco-feminist like you wouldn’t have another take on poor ‘ol Brittany. Wonder how one recovers from child stardom?

    Oh yeah- we were talking about Peak Oil. Oops.

  7. #7 Cornish_K8
    June 15, 2010

    Actually the BBC are very clued up on Peak Oil and often broadcasts related news, comment and programmes. My perception however is that as in the parable much of the broadcast seed falls on stony ground!

    My feeling is that they are going through a softening up process; rasing awareness slowly so as not to cause mass alarm. The positive news is that it means that the Government is also aware of the problem; even if their ability to act is limited I’m glad they aren’t totally oblivious.

  8. #8 Dunc
    June 15, 2010

    What do they have to gain from lying about it?

    Well, at the time those “political” reserve revisions were made, they gained increased production quotas, i.e. lots more money (in the short term, at least). Having made those revisions, they’re now in the position of either maintaining them, or publicly admitting that they’ve been lying to everyone for nearly 30 years. Oh, and triggering an oil panic into the bargain…

  9. #9 Sharon Astyk
    June 15, 2010

    I don’t know or care enough about Britney to know what it is she’s suffering from, but I know she can’t sing. What other take am I supposed to have? And what does ecofeminism have to do with thinking someone has a crappy voice?


  10. #10 Jadehawk
    June 15, 2010

    the shitty reliability of oil reserve predictions is what worries me personally most. I’m not at a stage where I could just up and move to a place with less oil reliability right now because of lack of money and the knowledge about dirt and plants and critters (though, I have been daydreaming of doing the move, and found my absolute dream-farm; which is just making me miserable because there’s no way I can have it). so I’m making more-or-less long term plans to get there slowly. But how can I make long-term plans when I don’t and can’t know when the whole thing will come crashing down?

    It feels a bit like a lottery: go too early, and I’ll be struggling with enormous debt and money sunk into failed attempts at farming because I’m just too clueless about it. go too late, and I might not be able to do it at all, and suffer the grave consequences of lack of independence from oil.

  11. #11 Cornish_K8
    June 15, 2010

    With reference to my previous comment. The BBC put this up today

  12. #12 PClark
    June 16, 2010

    Thanks for your input and link, Cornish_K8. Jadehawk, please hang on to your beautiful farm dream, and maybe keep searching for some true life companions to share in it?

    I feel a Peak Oil anthem coming on. What’s the delicious Susan Boyle doing this summer?

    Let’s bring it home,


  13. #13 tahoevalleylines
    June 18, 2010

    Maybe Chevron checks this page; they have an ad…

    Doing something about The oil Interregnum too early? Or wait until it is too late? It was always a paradox, reading about the railways in the US during WWII, how the US rail system did the heavy lifting after the general political mood was slanted to rubber tire transport. Gas rationing and rubber shortage (mostly) put nearly all of the freight and much passenger traffic on trains, Electric interurban and street railways (streetcar/trolley lines).

    US rail traffic volume is considerably more than WWII era, and this on less than 1/2 the track mileage; the rail mode is capable of dealing with the inexorable drawdown of annual oil supply, period. Rather than racking one’s brain about trying to figure out where best to move the family, it seems a better course of action to look at replicating the rail footprint of 50 years ago. Dormant rail branchlines, when rebuilt, assure access to victuals and mobility.

    Railways operate on any known energy source; electricity generated from the sun equals continued operation of electric railways. Use diminishing liquid fuels for agriculture, manufacturing processes, priority aviation and local transport of people and goods. Persons of initiative can determine their locales’ extant and dormant rail footprint from US Rail Map Volume (

    Knowing proximity to nearest rail corridor is first step, next determine ways and means of rebuilding tracks if needed, or establishing freight (container) handling facility on nearest mainline point. Energy EMERGENCY is what we are sliding into here… It is appropriate for every US State to engage reformed Army/Guard Railroad Operating & maintenance Battalions for assisting with rehab of agricultural rail traffic branch lines, etc. After you have learned the rail lines, talk to local planning agencies, elected ones, National Guard Commandant in your state about the Peak Oil issue, and share the rail maps of concern.

    We live at a rail/highway junction. We post using “tahoevalleylines” on and, “aspoarticle1037” on Jim Kunstler’s blog. See articles 374 and article 1037, respectively, on the “” page. Boilerplate for the railroad discussion. “Suntrain Transportation Corporation” is a worthy look at renewable/railway methodologies. See Christopher C. Swan’s book: ELECTRIC WATER” (New Society Press, 2007).

    Anyone can do preliminary research on these particulars. Events will determine your personal effort level to move forward. Federal Executive Emergency Orders for motor fuel rationing is one such motivating event.

  14. I’m problem. The positive news is that it means that the Government is also aware of the problem

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