Casaubon's Book

I didn’t know Matt Simmons personally, and after some of his frankly ridiculous claims about what was happening in the Gulf, I am a little ambivalent about writing about his demise. One is supposed to speak well of the dead, and while I think some of his work on the Gulf (including his early claims that the flow rates from the well were much higher than were reported, which was entirely correct) was good, some of it was inappropriate fearmongering, and that shouldn’ be glossed over.

At the same time, however, I think Simmons deserves to be remembered for his most stunning accomplishment – his book _Twilight in the Desert_. If you aren’t a geek like me, you may never have worked through his 2005 magnum opus – the state of the Ghawar and Saudi oil fields is a dry subject for many. But it is hard to overstate the importance of this work in two respects. First of all, Simmons book brought the earlier work done by petroleum geologists into the mainstream, and put peak oil as an idea into discussion. Simmons was the single most public face of peak oil for most of the last five years, appearing regularly on news programs.

Even more interestingly, to me at least, _Twilight in the Desert_ is a particular kind of book – a rare bird indeed. It is uniquely interesting that the single best analysis of the state of Saudi Oil at the time it was published and for some years after (and remember, Saudi oil is still tremendously important, and in many ways, representative of the state of oil in general) came not from a petroleum geologist or geophysicist, but from someone who was troubled by fundamental inconsistencies he encountered and took the time to learn and master a new field, analyze a huge body of evidence, and come to an intelligent and thoughtful conclusion. In many ways, Simmons’ work was the triumph of the amateur, proof of where passion and intent can take people working outside their field.

Consider Simmon’s description of one such moment of inconsistency:

When I sat in Saudi Aramco’s EXPEC CEnter taking in the impressive large-scale 3-D model of Ghawar, I noticed a features that is not found on most ordinary maps showing all the Kingdom’s oilfields. I noticed all the dots, which I correctly assumed must represent the wells that accounted for Ghawar’s vast oil flows. I asked the senior executive making this presentation why so many of these well dots were bunched into the northern tip of the field. His response, in retrospect, was astonishing. He said, “You need to appreciate how long this field is. It extends almost 170 miles from the north to the south. We are just making an orderly march in drilling wells from the north, where we started, to well further south.” Thes success of an orderly progression o fthis sort would require, of course, that the large, sparsely dotted middle and southern areas of Ghawar be more or less uniformly similar to the heavily dotted northern tip, if not in geology, at least in productivity. The absence from the overall map of the divisions that separate Ghawar into five operating areas encourages this assumption of uniform similarity.

A few hours after I heard the reassuring explantion of this orderly progression from north to south, I carefully read teh text abotu Ghawar in Aramco’s Oil Museum located next to its EXPEC building. What caught my eye in this text was a statement to the effect that as Ghawar’s reservoirs go from north to south the permeability and porosity of the rocks decrease.

It is hard to overstate the difficulty of sorting out the actual situation in Saudi Arabia – there is somewhat greater transparency now, mostly because more and more petro-geologists have spoken out, and because it is harder and harder for the Saudis to deny things visible from Google Earth, but for Simmons to come up with an assessment of the state of the Saudi oilfields involved the most minute and painstaking analysis of more than 200 papers byt he Society of Petroleum Engineers – and to get those 200 papers, I’ve heard him say he had to sort through more than a thousand irrelevant ones. Most of the material was censored by Aramco, to delete references to specific areas and oilfields, leaving the reader to assemble clues in an exercise Simmons himself called “forensic pathology.”

Simmons’ work was neither the be all nor the end all, and I do not think he intended it to be. Now one can go to The Oil Drum and see complex analyses building on information gathered by thousands of people, many of them working as amateurs, at least partly out of their primary fields, putting together a picture of the world energy scene. But Simmons and a handful of other people led the way here – and only someone so passionately engaged with the problem of how to reconcile faulty data could have set himself to the intense and difficult project involved.

I first encountered peak oil as a concept in college in the early 1990s. A teacher of mine, Mary Campbell, was prone to making bleak pronouncements about our ecological state at random moments in her class (it was a medieval graduate seminar in 1994, btw ;-)), and in one, she stated solemnly that the oil industry knew that it was facing a forthcoming oil peak, and mentioned the name Hubbert. I was increasingly annoyed by her statements, uttered as though they were fact, and I set out to discredit this one, which led me to old oil industry journals and papers, to equations and statistics far outside my areas of study. But as I sorted through them, and began to accomplish the enormous learning curve required to understand them, I became (to my own displeasure, since I’d looked forward to challenging her) convinced that what my teacher had said might be right. I lacked, however, the ability to translate that sense into a coherent explanation, to sort through all the documentation. I suspected, but I did not fully know. And I found it enormously frustrating that something so basic and essential to our lives – the supply of energy resources – was such an opaque subject on which it was impossible to get answers.

It would be some years more before the first major technical papers on peak oil even came out, and years after that before the first popularly accessible book _The Party’s Over_ by Richard Heinberg was released. I would spend the next decade or so intermittenly ignoring my new knowledge and simultaneously wondering what to do with it. Much of our subsequent life changes, the move to our farm made in 2001, followed from the recognition that something had to come of this – that our life had to change.

Perhaps that’s why Matt Simmons’ book strikes me as so profoundly seminal and functions, in many ways, I think to erase any other public failures he had – what Simmons did was make available to the public materials concealed, for the most part. He gave ordinary people the tools to figure out whether the claims of peak oil were legitimate, and then made sure they understood fully how to access the primary source material that he’d used. The extensive research, bibliographies and methodology sections of the book make sure that any person can do what Matt Simmons has done – sort out and see for yourself the state of Saudi Energy. The amateurs who followed after him at a host of sources built upon this – and now it is possible to get answers.

And everyone needs those answers – they cannot live in the realm of obscure technical journals – how to address the limits we are facing is an issue not for experts, but the ordinary people who will live in the world we have made. The work Matt Simmons and others did enabled those without his tenacity and access to make choices that will wholly reshape their lives and future. I come at this from the practical “ok, what do we do now” end of this – I have a geeky affection for reading papers about oil flow rates that lingers from my first forays into this area, but fundamentally, I care more about what we do now than the technical specs. But the very fact that I *can* focus my energies on our changing way of life depends deeply on standing on the shoulders of those who did the scientific and technical work of describing the problem, who created a public face for peak oil, and who made peak oil knowledge available to the mainstream.

As I said at the beginning, I think some of Simmon’s latest work on the Gulf was not just incorrect, but deeply troubling. But I’m reminded of Emerson’s quote about Carlisle (which I’ve used to apply to a couple of other people over the years, since I like it so much) “If genius were cheap, we could do without Carlisle, but in the present population he cannot be spared.” Frankly, even now, even given his failures and limitations, I’m not entirely sure we can spare Matt Simmons, his public profile, his attention to detail, and most of all, his triumph as an amateur, and I am deeply sorry that we will have to.



  1. #1 darwinsdog
    August 11, 2010

    Wasn’t Simmons the doof who claimed that the entire Gulf was about to go up in a big fireball and that the Gulf Coast needed to be evacuated? Why do people listen to that kind of nonsense and ignore serious voices warning of real threats? The idiocracy is here.

  2. #2 mad the swine
    August 11, 2010

    Excuse me, but exactly what did Simmons say that was ‘inappropriate fearmongering’? I appreciate your desire not to speak ill of the dead, but listing specific claims against him (which his defenders can counter) is far better than such nebulous slander.

    Were you thinking of something like this?

    As world renown expert on oil and its industry, thus knowing what the future holds for the Deep South population in terms of oil-related ill-health and suffering, Simmons advocated for evacuation after the Gulf explosion. Heading his call for evacuation soon after the explosion would have helped prevent the ongoing chemical and radiation poisoning of the thousands of children and adults now being poorly treated. It would have helped prevent the “heavy resident death toll” Simmons predicted.

    Instead, no survival aid was forthcoming and media frequnetly bully-called Simmons “Mr. Doom.”

    See more information here. The true ecological and human cost of the pollutants and toxic, carcinogenic ‘dispersants’ now ubiquitous in the Gulf Coast food chain will most likely not be seen for years. The staggeringly high cancer rates found in communities exposed to the Three Mile Island fallout clouds weren’t noticed for decades (and are still being concealed from the public).

  3. #3 dewey
    August 11, 2010

    mad – you don’t give the source for that quote, but who in the Gulf is suffering from “radiation poisoning” as a result of being near the oil leak? Need a mainstream medical journal source for that one.

    And we can extrapolate from Katrina and Rita that evacuating large portions of the population of several large states would have a gigantic cost in human health and welfare – both immediate death and suffering, and stress and impoverishment (both of which reduce life expectancy) that would go on for years. A lot of people in the Gulf States are now unemployed and maybe breathing oil fumes, but at least, unlike carless people after Katrina, they haven’t been forced at gunpoint to toss their pets into the gutter and get on a bus to a stadium where they could live as refugees. Before you seriously suggest rendering tens of millions of people homeless to spare them some environmental toxin, you’d better be sure that (a) there aren’t just as many toxins in the slums they’ll end up forced to live in, and (b) that the health consequences of the toxin in question are worse than those of losing one’s income, home, and community ties. Surely Simmons knew very well that an evacuation of that scale would be a logistical disaster and a human tragedy – but it served very nicely to whip up fear.

  4. #4 Lee Borden
    August 11, 2010

    I too have great respect for Matt Simmons and his legacy. I’m struck as I read your piece today how few of us take the time to delve into a subject enough to become truly smart about how it works. It’s so much easier to float along on the surface of the data, sampling a little here, listening to a talking head’s opinion there, and never actually investigating the truth for myself.

    Thank you for reminding us that we need great men and women to stop, dig in, and really find out the truth. Simmons did that, and we are all the richer for it.

  5. #5 darwinsdog
    August 11, 2010’d better be sure that (a) there aren’t just as many toxins in the slums they’ll end up forced to live in

    Like the formaldehyde oozing out of the wall boarding of those cheap FEMA trailers?

    Know something, dewey? The more of your posts I read the more I think that you may be one of those rare people possessed with common sense.

  6. #6 dewey
    August 11, 2010

    Well, I like to think so, thanks. 😉

  7. #7 Joey Moore
    August 11, 2010

    We’ll undoubtedly learn more as this season’s hurricanes roll into the region. Truths, falsehoods, facts, fictions! That Matt Simmons died on the day the well was capped however, is deeply troubling. Cosmic justice or cosmic joke? Time will tell.

  8. #8 Stephen B.
    August 11, 2010

    My father died of heart disease eight years ago. It was a long, drawn out battle stretching back over thirteen years that included a bypass, lots of drugs, and a couple of heart attacks. All the while during those years, my father was coherent and fully in charge of his mental faculties until a few months before his condition worsened at which point his memory and other mental capacities slipped off noticeably.

    That was my dad and not Matt Simmons. Still, it makes me wonder just exactly what Mr. Simmons’ mental condition was as he made those pronouncements on the Gulf situation this past spring.

  9. #9 Cornish_K8
    August 12, 2010

    I was first alerted to Peak Oil at a meeting just over 2 years ago, during the oil price spike. I attended a meeting titled ‘Living with £5 a gallon petrol’ expecting it to be an amusing hypothetical talk about things far in the future.

    Matt Simmons was one of the names I encountered the following day as I feverishly scoured the web trying to find out whether I had been duped by a group of eloquent nutters. He and the Energy Bulletin were sufficient to convince me that it was true and also to prompt me to action.

    I’ve not got all my preps in place yet but at least I was able to protect myself against the stock market crash in time.

  10. #10 dewey
    August 12, 2010

    Stephen B – I wondered the same thing. My grandmother had, apparently, a series of microstrokes in the months before her death from CV disease; her cognitive function was obviously affected.

  11. #11 vera
    August 12, 2010

    Wow. Sharon takes a stand against panic-mongering. My life is now complete! 😉

    It would have been nice if you weren’t quite so circumspect about the exact nature of the panic-mongering in question. People would have learned more about doomer porn and how to spot it.

  12. #12 Amvet
    August 14, 2010

    The difficulty in gaining control of a blowout well depends on the pressure. Judging from the rate of destruction of the rig, the pressure at the beginning was very high, but decreased very much later so that the well could be controlled. Had the pressure remained high, Simmons comments would have been valid.

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