We’re Doomed! The Errant Message From Peak-Oil Documentaries

  • Date: 30/08/15
  • Paul Dvorak, Windpower

Pull up YouTube.com, search on “peak oil documentary,” and you’ll find dozens of apocalyptic videos detailing an impending world crisis that is certain to befall us any day now. The crisis is the downside of peak oil. This is a period that defines when the world’s oil fields have provided the maximum monthly rate, leaving us an ever-decreasing flow rate.

First, there are lesson to be learned here in writing frightening headlines. Consider: Oil apocalypse, The End of Suburbia, The End of Fossil Fuels, and my favorite: There is no tomorrow. The narrations are no less frightening. Even in the more subtly titled Fuel, a serious commentator insists that hurricane Katrina was made by the oil industry.

If you were born yesterday, these videos might be scary. All of them preach two messages. One is of impending doom, the end of growth, then decay, decline, and anarchy. The second message is that we cannot learn, we are scientific and engineering idiots, and today’s state of technology is the best anyone can do. Look closer and you’ll see many of these videos are getting long in the tooth. For instance, the only way one commentator could envision charging an EV in 2007 is with power from a coal-fired plant. Another presents a dire future scenario…for 2012. These myopic documentaries share one other commonality: They are all wrong.

If you were not born yesterday, you’ll recall The Wealth of Nations or have read The Population Bomb (1968), excellent examples of end-of-days authorship. And if it sells books, why not? In both cases, authors Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich, respectively, predicted exploding populations that would devour the earth’s resources and lead to mass starvation and chaos. You can forgive Malthus. He was living at the beginning of the scientific revolution. But Ehrlich could have easily checked the population trends of the day to see he was likely to be dead wrong. People still starve today but it is because of their government’s meddling and incompetence, not because of food shortages from overpopulation.

Watch one of the shorter videos, Fuel, and you see a production that looks as though it is made by college animation and film majors. There are no interviews with experts, just statement after statement made to backdrop of cartoonish images. Several comments are quite preposterous. For instance, “Shale is a poor fuel,” and, “Cities are designed with residential and commercial areas far apart.”

For a slightly more honest and provocative film, watch Pump. The producers correctly make the observation that our choices for just about anything – clothes, food, entertainment, religions – are almost limitless. But when it comes to what we put into our cars, it is quite limited to gasoline or diesel. In the Midwest, most liquid fuel is E10, 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol. In a truly free market, say Pump producers, we might have access to E50, E85, Methanol, hydrogen, or natural gas. If you drive an electric car, you have opted for still another choice and don’t need a fuel station. The engineering to make use of these fuels is well understood. The high costs for the vehicles must now be addressed.

Why does peak oil matter to a wind power advocate?  Because most of us drive to work, and because, for the time being (and despite the documentaries’ message) the world is awash in oil. At this writing in August 2015, West Texas Intermediate, a type of crude, dipped below $40 per barrel for a few days. The most prophetic comment from a book on energy from at least 10 years ago was that the more energy we use, the more we find. That seems to be the case.

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