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Was the Oil and Gas Industry Promoting Peak Oil to Make Maximum Profits?

Richard Heinberg's new book explains why the oil and gas industry’s exaggerations of future supply have been motivated by short-term financial self-interest and are a disaster for America.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Snake Oil: How Fracking False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future by Richard Heinberg ( Post Carbon Institute).

For the past decade I’ve been a participant in a high-stakes energy policy debate—writing books, giving lectures, and appearing on radio and television to point out how downright dumb it is for America to continue relying on fossil fuels. Oil, coal, and natural gas are finite and depleting, and burning them changes Earth’s climate and compromises our future, so you might think that curtailing their use would be simple common sense. But there are major players in the debate who want to keep us burning more.

In the past two or three years this debate has reached a significant turning point, and that’s what this book is about. Evidence that climate change is real and caused by human activity has become irrefutable, and serious climate impacts (such as the melting of the Arctic ice cap) have begun appearing sooner, and with greater severity, than had been forecast. Yet at the same time, the notion that fossil fuels are supply-constrained has gone from being generally dismissed, to being partially accepted, to being vociferously dismissed. The increasingly dire climate story has achieved widespread (though still insufficient) coverage, but the puzzling reversals of public perception regarding fossil fuel scarcity or abundance have received little analysis outside the specialist literature. Yet, as I will argue, claims of abundance are being used by the fossil fuel industry to change the public conversation about energy and climate, especially in the United States, from one of, “How shall we reduce our carbon emissions?” to “How shall we spend our new-found energy wealth?”

I will argue that this is an insidious and misleading tactic, and that the abundance argument is based not so much on solid data (though oil and gas production figures have indeed surged in the United States), as on exaggerations about future production potential, and on a pattern of denial regarding steep costs to the environment and human health.

The change in our public conversation about energy is predicated on new drilling technology and its ability to access previously off-limits sup- plies of crude oil and natural gas. In the chapters ahead, we will explore this technology—its history, its impacts, and its potential to deliver on the promises being made about it. As we will see, horizontal drilling and hydrofracturing (“fracking”) for oil and gas pose a danger not just to local water and air quality, but also to sound energy policy, and therefore to our collective ability to avert the greatest human-made economic and envi- ronmental catastrophe in history.

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Permit me to use a metaphor to further frame the discussion we’ll be having about fossil fuel abundance or scarcity. Since all debates are contests, at least superficially, it’s possible to summarize this one as if it were a game—like a soccer match or a bowling tournament. Of course, it is far more than just a game; the stakes, after all, may amount to the survival or failure of industrial civilization. But games are fun, and it’s easy to keep track of the score. So . . . let the metaphor begin!

First, who are the teams? On one side we have the oil and gas industry, its public relations minions and its bankers, as well as a few official agencies—including the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA)—that tend to parrot industry statistics and forecasts. This team is respected and well funded. For reasons that will become apparent in a moment, we’ll call this team “the Cornucopians” (after the mythical horn of plenty, an endless source of good things).

 
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