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The Republican Who Dared Tell the Truth About America's Looming Oil Disaster

Matt Simmons didn't let the money, bullshit or arrogance surrounding the oil industry cloud his judgment.

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That lack of transparency got Simmons crunching numbers on oil supplies in Saudi Arabia. Energy analysts and Saudi spin-doctors said the country had fabulous reserves and could easily boost production from 9.5 million to 11 million barrels a day. But after reading through some 200 scientific papers published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Simmons concluded that Saudi's 200-billion reserve claim was "an illusion." Most of the country's oil came from five aging fields that required constant flooding with salt water to maintain production. He thought that Saudi Arabia was not only over producing its key fields but had probably peaked.

The Saudis hated the book, as much Alberta's Tories dislike Greenpeace. But Sadad al Husseini, a retired Saudi Aramco executive, thought Simmons got it mostly right: "Those who criticized his conclusions missed the global issues he was addressing: maturing oil resources, an over-extended industry, runaway energy demand, and the absence of a 'Plan B.'"

A vision of social justice

Unlike most analysts Simmons didn't shy away from talking about energy inequities. In a Beijing presentation in 2007 he told the Chinese that 565 million people in the U.S.A., Russia and Japan consume the equivalent of 44 barrels of oil a year while 3 billion folks in China, Brazil, Nigeria and India got by on 5.6 barrels. Simmons didn't think this sort of inequality was a recipe for global stability.

Simmons also gave the Chinese some straight advice. Lead the way in energy-efficient transportation and efficient shipping. Invest in renewables and hybrid cars. "China can cope better with oil peaking better than U.S.A. or Europe where infrastructure is too deeply embedded to make urgently needed changes." He also thought China could lead the world in creating a less energy- and oil-intensive economy.

Wise about water

Simmons understood the ugly marriage of energy and water, too. He understood that it takes energy to pump and treat water and that it takes extreme amounts of water to make energy. For example it takes three gallons of water to make one gallon of motor gasoline. Simmons also estimated that industry consumed 72 billion gallons of water in Texas's Barnett shale just to frack 10,000 gas wells over a three-and-a-half year period. Water consumption in the tar sands also horrified him.

Although no one has yet quantified how much water is needed to consume 85 million barrels of oil a day in the globe, Simmons reckoned it would be an offensive number. "Energy's water usage has been free and this wasteful practice has to stop."

In 2007 I interviewed Simmons about the tar sands for Canadian Business magazine. He was gracious and blunt. "If I were a Canadian, I'd make it illegal to use precious natural gas and potable freshwater to turn gold into lead in the tar sands."

His recommendations for policy makers were equally stark: go slow, charge for water, cap tar sands production and "find some other way to produce this atrocious resource other than using scarce natural gas... to get addicted to the tar sands doesn't make any sense to me." (According to Cambridge Energy Research Associates the tar sands annually consumes 20 per cent of Canada's natural gas demand.)

Limits to renewables

Unlike most greens Simmons didn't think renewables could be scaled up fast enough to create some kind of golden energy age. He thought an industrial wind farm looked as ugly as a refinery and cost an enormous amount of energy that only returned a small intermittent supply. Solar held promise, but he really liked the idea of using algae as a biofuel. In the end he invested in offshore wind with the idea of producing electricity to desalinate water to create ammonia to run cars. The desperate scale of the project aptly illustrates the desperate state of the challenge if not the limits of green technology.

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