Fisking Scientific American on Oil

My friend Gregor Macdonald has up a nice and intemperate comment debunking the recent Scientific American article on technology and oil supplies:

I have now read the Scientific American article. It is perhaps one of the more, if not the most insidious of the recent media pieces on peak oil, in that it leverages the truth about technological advances in oil exploration and extraction to create a falsehood: that these technological advances increase aggregate flows in world supply. It was bad enough that the NYT piece invoked Kashagan as an example–a howler of an example really–because of course Kashagan was discovered in 2000 and not a drop of oil will flow until 2014 (at huge expense and after many western oil cos have abandoned the project after huge losses). That the NYT would invoke Kashagan as an example of recent discoveries is almost absurdist. 

The Sci-Am article also trades on one of the most common, recurring misunderstandings and that has to do with scale. In other words, we are always finding new oil and we have to find new oil because we are losing at least 4 Mb/day each year to decline. So we have to not only find new oil, but we have to develop it and get it flowing each year to make up for existing decline. Sci-Am is reporting on technology advances that have been used for years, but, then very inaccurately runs those advances like a stupid battering ram against peak oil. Which is about peak flows, not peak reserves. 

It was a truly astonishing article. Any article that conflates reserves and flows is incompetent. The treatment of California and Alberta in particular in the Sci-Am article was so misleading as to be a textbook example of statistical and polemical obfuscation. California oil production peaked in 1986 at over 1.2 Mb/day and is now at half that rate. To lead the reader into thinking that something new is coming for California is quite the dereliction of journalistic duty. Alberta has billions of bbls of oil but would that stop, for example, a US politician from claiming we can increase flows of tar sand oil quite alot, from Alberta? No, but one would have expected something better than a politician’s approach to a real problem from a magazine that uses the word Science in its title. 

So just to wrap-up here: both the NYT and the Sci-Am articles would have been fine had neither tried to leverage their reporting on discoveries or technologies to refute peak oil (peak flows). Once each article did that, a new systemic and geological problem was being invoked that neither article addressed in any way. It was fallacy of composition at the very least, and laughably but even willfully misleading at the worst.