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Robert L. Hirsch is the lead author of a seminal report–Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management—written for the US Dept. of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE, NETL) and released in early 2005. He has remained very active with respect to his concerns about peak oil. ASPO-USA’s Steve Andrews tracked him down last week and posed some questions about the report, then and now. Bob will be a presenter at the ASPO-USA conference in Denver next month (October 11-13).
Question: What have been your primary areas of focus during your energy career?
Hirsch: I started out in nuclear power. Then I did fusion research and later managed the government fusion program. I spent a lot of time with renewables over the years, including managing the federal renewables program. From there I went to the oil industry where I managed long range refining research and then synthetic fuels. Later I managed upstream research and development—exploration and production of oil and gas. Still later, I spent time in the electric power industry—all aspects of electric power. And then I got into energy studies and have been doing them for a number of years with Rand, SAIC, and now MISI. That’s it from the work standpoint; from another standpoint I’ve been involved with the National Academies [of Science] in energy studies since 1979 and have been involved in almost every aspect of energy through the Academies, either as a committee participant or as Chairman of their Board on Energy and Environmental Systems.
Question: When did you first learn about the peak oil issue?
Hirsch: I learned about peak oil after I got out of the oil industry, because there was essentially no talk about it when I was involved. In the early 2000s I did a study for the DOE dealing with long range energy R&D planning. One of the six drivers that I came up with was peak oil; I had never really thought about it prior to that. It’s kind of a “tar baby”; once you get your hands into it, you can’t get your hands off of it. When oil production goes into decline, it’s going to be a defining issue for humanity. So I’ve been involved for six or seven years in analyzing oil peaking and its mitigation.
Question: How did the 2005 peak oil study for DOE’s NETL come about?
Hirsch: It was basically my creation. I was working with DOE NETL at the time, and they gave me a great deal of leeway to look into important subjects. I felt that peak oil was extremely important, so I did some study on my own and then proposed to NETL that I do a much larger study, with Roger Bezdek and Bob Wendling, who are extremely capable guys, who I had worked with along the way, and who were very pragmatic about energy and the real world. NETL accepted. I already was under contract, and they added Roger and Bob.
We coordinated closely with NETL as we did the study, so they had input and knew what was coming. But when they saw the final report, it shocked them, even though they could see what was coming. This is nothing negative about people at NETL, but when you’re thinking about other things most of the time, bad news creeping up on you doesn’t necessarily capture your attention immediately.
When the report was done, management at NETL really didn’t know what to do with it because it was so shocking and the implications were so significant. Finally, the director decided that she would sign off on it because she was retiring and couldn’t be hurt, or so I was told. The report didn’t get widely publicized. It somehow was picked up by a high school someplace in California; eventually NETL put it on their website. The problem for people at NETL—and these are really good people—was that they were under a good deal of pressure to not be the bearers of bad news.
Question: Under pressure from whom?
Hirsch: From people in the hierarchy of the DOE. This was true in both Republican and Democrat administrations. There is, I think, ample evidence, and some people in DOE have gone so far as to say it specifically, that people in the hierarchy of DOE, under both administrations, understood that there was a problem and suppressed work in the area. Under President Bush, we were not only able to do the first study but also a follow-on study that looked at mitigation economics. After that, visibility apparently got so high that NETL was told to stop any further work on peak oil.
Yes, that was terrible. And it was strictly politics and political appointees—I have no idea how far up in either administration (the current one and previous one) these issues went or now go. People in the Clinton administration had talked about peak oil, including President Clinton and Vice President Gore, and the same thing is true in the Bush administration, and the same is true, to the best of my knowledge, in the Obama administration.
The peak oil story is definitely a bad news story. There’s just no way to sugar-coat it, other than maybe to do what I’ve done on occasion and that is to say that by 2050 we’ll have it right and we will have come through the peak oil recession—quite probably a very deep recession. At some point we’ll come out of this because we’re human beings, and we just don’t give up. And I have faith in people ultimately. But it’s a bad news story and anybody’s who’s going to stand up and talk about the bad news story and is in a position of responsibility in the government needs to then follow immediately and say “here’s what we’re going to do about it,” and no one seems prepared to do that.
Peak oil is a bigger issue than health care, than federal budget deficits, and so forth. We’re talking about something that, to take a middle of the road position—not the Armageddon extreme and not the la-la optimism of some people—is going to be extremely damaging to the U.S. and world economies for a very long period of time. There are no quick fixes.
Question: How do you describe your key take-away from your 2005 study?
Hirsch: What we did was to look at a world-wide crash program of mitigation. We were interested in the very best that was humanly possible. That was the limiting case. There are lots of reasons why, under the best of conditions, things can’t and won’t go as fast as we assumed. We knew at the outset that the energy system was enormous and that the amount of oil-product-consuming end-use equipment was enormous. We knew it could not be changed quickly, and that in a number of cases, there was nothing to change it to – no alternative to liquid fuels. We also knew that energy efficiency could make a big difference, but we were surprised to learn that improving vehicle fuel economy would take much longer than we had imagined prior to doing our analysis. We found that because the decline rate in world oil production was going to be in multiple percents per year, it was going to take a very long time for mitigation to catch up to the decline in world oil production. Basically, the best we found was that starting a worldwide crash program 20 years before the problem hits avoid serious problems. If you started 10 years before-hand, you are in a lot of trouble; and if you wait to the last minute until the problem is obvious, then you’re in deep trouble for much longer than a decade. As it turns out, we no longer have the 10 or 20 years that were two of our scenarios.
Question: What was the immediate feedback from people outside of the government?
Hirsch: We briefed it to all kinds of audiences, including people in the hierarchy and at the committee level at the National Academies. We gave talks to technical and lay audiences, and have been doing so for years now. We’ve also published shorter versions in various media. Probably the biggest response we’ve received was disbelief—“this can’t happen.” And then there are number of people who agree, either quickly or after some reflection, that the reasoning is sound, both in terms of world oil production as well as mitigation. There are always some people who reject peak oil out of hand and, in fact, go on the counterattack and argue against it. I suspect that the kinds of reactions that I just described are what many people in the peak oil community have run up against.
Question: What was your impression of the National Academy of Sciences’ October 2005 workshop on peak oil? What do you think that accomplished?
Hirsch: It was useful because we attracted a cross-section of thinking, and there was some open discussion. But the discussions were nowhere near satisfying. People basically stated their positions, and there was no debate as to what was real and not real and what the evidence was and how solid it was. But that’s the character of an Academy’s workshop; they are set up, and for good reason, for people to present positions with the idea of educating and, possibly beyond that, lead to a more detailed Academy study. The Academies don’t take positions without doing detailed analysis and putting the subsequent study through a very careful review process. I think that approach has served the Academies well. But in this particular case, with governments wanting to shush up any open discussion of peak oil, there was no follow-on.
Question: At the time you published your paper, I would characterize you as being intentionally neutral about the timing of peak oil so that readers wouldn’t get stuck on that issue. Since the study was published, how has your view of the timing of peak oil evolved?
Hirsch: To begin with, I knew enough about oil production and the uncertainties and unknowns to feel, when I got into the subject, that I could not make a reasoned judgment early on. So I spent a number of years listening to what other people had to say, studying their analyses, and looking at what was happening in the real world before I came to a conclusion for myself. It wasn’t a matter of politics. It was the fact that this problem is enormously complicated, and there are lots of unknowns. For me, at least, I wasn’t about to take a position on timing without having a lot of evidence that would support my position. And so it wasn’t until about a year-and-a-half or two years ago that I began to home in on the likely timing of the decline of world oil production being sometime within the next five years.
Question: Given where we are today, if you were made energy czar, what policy initiatives would you pursue?
Hirsch: If I was involved in the government at a high level, I would argue very strongly to the president that he needs to take national and international leadership on the problem. He should do some homework to be sure that he hears what the issues are — do it quietly — and then stand up and say, “world and country, we’ve got a very serious problem and here is what my administration is going to do about it.” That’s what I would argue for because somebody has to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes. That’s going to be very difficult because people don’t like to hear bad news, and this is terrible news, and as it sinks in, markets will drop and there will be an immediate recessionary reaction, because people will realize that this is such a horrendous problem that having a positive outlook on employment and the economy is just simply unrealistic.
Question: Given where our leadership at the top is today, what should “peak oil concernists”—a phrase I think you coined back at the 2005 NAS workshop—do that they aren’t doing today?
Hirsch: I wish I knew. This is a bad news subject under any circumstances but its “badder news” in the midst of a recession. My approach is to present and argue facts and realities and try to clarify confusion. I don’t think it does any good, and it’s not my style, to argue that the world is coming to an end, to argue Armageddon. But that’s my position. Other people feel that Armageddon is indeed likely. That’s their right. I’m afraid that, no matter what any of us do, we’re not going to get the public’s attention until oil prices jump way back up again and people feel pain. That happened last year; the issue was getting more and more attention as oil prices went up because 1) people were hurting, and 2) people knew something was wrong. People’s focus and attention these days is on recessionary issues, and they don’t want new bad news added to the bad news they’re already dealing with. I wish I could be optimistic and say that there is a magic wand of some sort, but if there is I don’t know what it is.
Question: Any final thought?
Hirsch: I’ve tried to think outside the box in terms of how we get the message out and get people’s attention. I found nothing that I could do that I’m not already doing, except write a book, which we’ve just started. But other people have other thoughts, opportunities, and connections, so I would urge them to conceive of ways to rationally and reasonably get more decision-makers involved in 1) recognizing the problem and 2) helping to elevate it to the highest levels of government, so serious action can begin.