Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson


Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Is Peak Oil a Waste of Energy?

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 5:32 PM EDT

That's the thesis of Michael Lynch, a former MIT energy expert turned consultant, in a lengthy New York Times op-ed published last week. "Like many Malthusian beliefs," he writes, "peak oil theory has been promoted by motivated groups of scientists and laymen who base their conclusions on poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material." Lynch concludes that oil will come down to $30 a barrel as new supplies come online in the deep waters off Africa and Latin America, in East Africa, and "perhaps the Bakken oil shale fields of Montana and North Dakota."

Setting aside the pitfalls of oil shale, it's probably worth noting that Lynch is not your average oil supply forecaster. He's a frequent guest on talk shows who is famed for attacking Peak Oil with the same zeal that proponents defend it. Lynch is one of many disparate voices quoted in a 2005 Times piece, "On Oil Supply, Opinions Aren't Scarce."  And way back in 1998, he wrote "Crying Wolf: Warnings About Oil Supply," where he made some of the same points as he did last week.

It's worth noting that 1998 marked the birth of the modern Peak Oil movement with the publication, that same month, of "The End of Cheap Oil," a Scientific American piece by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, two oil industry veterans every bit as qualified as Lynch. Campbell was Amoco's former chief geologist for Ecuador, who spent a decade studying global oil production trends.  Laherrere supervised production techniques worldwide for Total. All of this is to say that the Peak Oil theory is not just a bunch of blog chatter, as Lynch would have us believe.

Still, sometimes those bloggers manage to shed some light on this arcane debate, as Kevin Rietmann, aka The Dude, did on the Oil Drum, the main online gathering place for the peak oilers, last Thursday. Rietmann broke down a graph comparing the accuracy 2008 oil supply predictions made by Campbell and Lynch in the mid-90s (see below). The result? Campbell underestimated 2008 production, which was just shy of 74 million barrels per day, by 4.79 million barrels per day. But Lynch was even further off, overestimating production by more than 12 million barrels per day.

Of course, as your stockbroker will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future profit. Wars, hurricanes, and botched geological assumptions can quickly throw off forecasts, or not. That's why the safest approach is often to consider a wide range of projections from multiple experts. And when you do that with the global supply of conventional oil, one thing is clear: we are running out fast.

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Obama Rethinking US Foreign Aid

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 3:30 PM EDT

Yesterday, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to conduct a broad reassessment of its global development policies. Revamping the government's approach to foreign aid has been a longtime goal of progressives, who see a smarter approach to development projects as a major non-military solution to global insecurity and environmental problems. The liberal Center for American progress cheered that the move begins to put "development alongside diplomacy and defense as a crucial instrument of US foreign policy."

In May, CAP released its "National Strategy for Global Development," a lengthy report that calls for reworking the federal government's balkanized approach to global assistance. The resources for foreign aid "are now spread across 24 government agencies, offices, and departments," it notes, "and are neither centrally coordinated nor guided by clear goals or a national strategy." Among other things, the report suggests appointing a single person to oversee global development policy, focusing on building strong government institutions abroad, and reinvigorating US AID, which had a staff of 15,000 during the Vietnam War but has languished to 3,000 today.

 Obama's executive order asks the National Security Council and National Economic Council to submit a joint report on US development policies by January. Any shakeup that results would come none too soon. CAP has found major flaws in how the US has provisioned aid in Afghanistan, which, along with other hotspots, may ultimately succeed or fail on the effectiveness of roads and schools as much as IEDs and smart bombs.

Wielding Stick on Climate, EPA Reminds it Could Regulate CO2 Itself

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 12:44 PM EDT

If the Senate does not pass a cap and trade bill this year—a prospect that seems increasingly likely—the Obama administration may start pressuring legislators by moving to regulate CO2 itself.

Yesterday, as leading Senate Democrats announced they were putting off introducing a cap and trade bill, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson let it be known that her agency would probably classify CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act "in the next months," triggering her ability to regulate it without approval from Congress. The so-called "endangerment finding," long sought by environmentalists, was announced in April but has yet to be formalized. It would hypothetically allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases much as it does other forms of air pollution, by capping point-source emissions and fining polluters.

Jackson and President Obama have said that they prefer letting Congress regulate greenhouse gas emissions instead of doing it through the executive branch, a process that might prove more cumbersome and disruptive to the economy. Still, with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans under intense pressure to block or water down the bill, Obama might gain a strategic edge by getting more specific about how he'd tackle the issue if they don't. That could in turn give some legislators political cover, allowing them to tell their corporate overseers and conservative constituents that voting for the bill was in their "best interests"—a way of averting something even stricter. (Indeed, even the hint of the threat has already swayed one prominent Republican, Grist notes).

Would that approach mean much bigger political risks for Obama? Of course. But it might be worth it: By 2012, when Americans realize that their electric bills haven't skyrocketed, gas doesn't cost $4 a gallon, and coal miners are still employed, Obama's stance on global warming might be old news, or even a plus at the ballot box.

When Pintos Explode in a Good Way

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 12:49 PM EDT

When is an exploding Pinto a good thing? When that Pinto explodes from zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds, powered exclusively by electric batteries. Last week, NPR ran a great piece on the National Electric Drag Racing Association, a group of hot rod enthusiasts who are replacing V8s with electric motors in old muscle cars and kicking ass on the racetrack.  "I tore it all down, took the front end down, took the engine," said Mike Willmon, owner of the 1978 Pinto. "The infamous exploding gas tank is gone. Now the batteries take up the back trunk area where the gas tank used to be."
To the extent that their hobby catches on, people like Willmon will be vital low-carbon emissaries to the NASCAR crowd. Sure, Tesla's $100,000 roadster has shown that electric cars can be fun, but taking that message to Joe Sixpack means proving that clean-tech can be done in your garage and can smoke the fossil fuel competition. Clouds of burning rubber, Willmon told NPR, "is the only emissions this car makes."

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Proposes "Scopes Monkey Trial" to Debunk Climate Change

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 1:39 PM EDT

Stephen Colbert could not have done better. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the leading opponent of regulating carbon emissions, says it wants a public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. A Chamber official told the LA Times that the hearing would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century."

The Chamber either forgot that the creationists won that fight--though in the long run, the famous 1925 trial over the teaching of evolution, portrayed in Inherit the Wind, humiliated them--or it's attempting the boldest metaphor in the history of climate spin: creationists = climatologists.

Setting aside the fact that the nation's largest business lobby has supported plenty of dumb ideas, let's assume that this isn't really about science. Because there's no way that a half-competent judge is going to rule that 95 percent of climatologists are wrong. Remember the Supreme Court case? The one that said the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon?

No, what this is really about is false populism. Though it's evoking Scopes, the Chamber is actually calling for a "public hearing," a gathering that would surely be more akin to the recent healthcare town halls that were stacked with anti-government nutjobs. What fearmongering and demagaugery did for health care, it could do for climate change!

Or not. My bet is that 90 percent of the Bubbas who'd show up would also be creationists, the people discredited in the first Monkey Trial. Good luck with that, fellas!

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