Robert Hirsch: Peak-a-Boo, I don’t see you?


The WSJ blog reprints an incredibly dumb “You can’t handle the truth!” memo from uber-peaker Robert Hirsch.

Yes, the author of the seminal 2005 study funded by the Bush Energy Department on “Peaking of World Oil Production” has written a memo “To The Peak Oil Community,” recommending that group “minimize its effort to awaken the world to the near-term dangers of world oil supply.”

Well, I’m not on that distribution list, so instead of endorsing Hirsch’s inanity, I’ll endorse his original conclusion:

The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.

So why is a guy with such foresight now urging temporary blindness? Read his dopey memo and see if you can figure it out:


The world is in the midst of the most severe financial crisis in most of our lifetimes. The economic damage that has already been wrought is considerable, and we have yet to see the bottom or the turnaround. Against this background, I suggest that the peak oil community minimize its efforts to awaken the world to the near-term dangers of world oil supply. The motivation is simple: By minimizing our efforts in the near term, we may not add fuel to the economic fires that are already burning so fiercely.

We are all aware of how disoriented governments and business are right now. Our leaders, leaders-to-be, and best minds are disoriented and seeking pathways out of the current morass. The public is in a quiet panic mode — those who were reasonably well off are less well of, and their options for action are limited. Those that have lost their jobs and/or homes are desperate. Businesses and the markets are in what might be called a free fall. If the realization of peak oil along with its disastrous financial implications was added to the existing mix of troubles, the added trauma could be unthinkable.

Like many of you, I’ve devoted my recent efforts to trying to wake the public and governments to the impending horrors of peak oil. As much as that awaking is urgently needed, continuing to press forward now is almost certainly not in the broader interest.

Many may be tempted to directly challenge the recent IEA World Energy Outlook. I am among those who were very disappointed. Pressing those concerns at this time might further the peak oil “cause,” but it could well do much more damage than any of us really intend.

Please keep up your studies and thinking, because helping the world realize the dangers of peak oil is an absolute must. In the near term, keeping relatively quiet is likely the better part of valor.

That is both absurd and cowardly, just like the Shakespearean character who first uttered the words “The better part of valor is discretion,” Falstaff.

If Hirsch were a climate expert, would he urge “keeping relatively quiet” about “the impending horrors” of global warming because “the added trauma could be unthinkable”?

Seriously. With apologies to the Bard, here’s a maxim for the Climate Century: “The better part of valor is prevention.”

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17 Responses to Robert Hirsch: Peak-a-Boo, I don’t see you?

  1. john says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Joe. If your only frame of reference for energy and oil policy, was short-term economic consequences one could make the case for keeping mum on peak oil issues, I suppose. Although I would argue that the investments society makes in meeting the challenge of creating a new energy infrastructure are precisely the kind of economic stimulus we need to get our economy going again — jobs now, and a viable and sustainable infrastructure later.

    But of course, if you look at the energy issue systemically, the short term economic consequences of raising the public’s consciousness about peak oil fade away completely.

    I like your variation on Falstaff. To quote another Brit, Kazuo Ishiguro (no, not a misprint) from “The Remains of the Day,” the pain now is worth the pleasure later …

    And as long as we’re quoting Brits, might as well bring in the Stern’s Report, which blows away Hirsch’s bizarre recommendation completely.

  2. paulm says:

    Robert Hirsch seems to be one of the first victims of his predicted trauma!

  3. Jeff says:

    Its really too bad that Hirsch just able to envision preparing for peak oil as part of the econmic recovery. Energy being the cornerstone of our economy, wouldn’t it be wise to help move our country towards a more stable energy future. Deficet spending being the norm for this time, it would be an investment that has large returns in the future. Where is our common sense.

  4. Ronald says:

    Sometimes I just wonder how big a chessboard the other guy is playing on.
    Could just be Marc Anthony’s ‘I have not come to praise Cesaer but to bury him’ type of thing.
    Or at least by putting it to writing and seeing the reaction of other people he may come to see how wrong it is and brought it to people’s attention one more way.
    Any attention might be good attention even if someone has to go though a little ridicule.

  5. This memo from Hirsch is a major disappointment, particularly since we so often refer to his earlier work.

    During the recent federal election campaign in Canada, as the economy became the forefront issue of the debate, I tried to make the point that short term actions to help the economy were of course necessary, but do we really want to be re-establishing the old economy that got us to this place? Or would we be better to move toward the new economy instead? (I was a Green Party candidate.)

    The Conservative counter, of course was, “Now is not the time for unproven schemes…” yadda, yadda, BS.

    I did not win the seat. Nor did any Green candidate as it seems that people see us as unelectable for telling the truth, and most people just don’t want to hear the truth when it might interrupt their comfortable lifestyle.

    But I still stick to my conviction on this point. And contrary to Hirsch, I believe that more people understanding Peak Oil, and that fact that it is a geological certainty and that the only uncertainty is the ‘when’ bit, is vitally necessary. I also believe that it helps on climate change due to some of the solutions being the same.

    Plus, while I am fully on board with the scientific consensus on climate change. I find it easier to argue the Peak Oil case, so I find those common solutions easier to sell from that perspective.

  6. Jim Bullis says:

    While the peak is a lot broader than portrayed here, the peak in easy oil could well be. This situation might be seen as a help in reducing global warming trends. However, the coal peak is a long way out there, and the present wave of passion for electric plug-ins will facilitate a quick switch over to coal powered cars. The car companies know this. Congress thinks high efficiency will help solve global warming, but has no sense about how this will turn out with the bail out that is possibly going to stipulate high efficiency cars as a condition.

    Those who should know better have created so much misinformation about the benefits of plug-in cars that it is almost impossible to get Congress to understand the problem. The offenders include SAE with their J1711 procedure that ignores thermodynamics, Argonne National Laboratories that is less than independent in their judgment of these projects, various California agencies, and Google with their “recharge it” distortions of reality. The J1711 procedure converts mpg for electric operation without accounting for huge heat discharged in power plants.

    It seems SAE, Argonne, California energy agencies, and Google cut class when the Second Law of Thermodynamics was being taught. These offenders are just examples of a long list of offenders, some of whom I suspect might be self serving in their ignoring of physics rather than than simple ignorance.

    Oh yes, I was encouraged to read that cadmium telluride technology was nearing the $1 per watt production cost. I went to look at costs of this for my roof, and was quite discouraged. Even though the big hurdle of PV cell cost is nearly conquered, the economic reality of assembly, installation, supporting electronics, maintenance, and cost of money are still big problems. Profitability also must be provided for First Solar, and with their patent position, this could still not be a realistic near future possibility. (We are still paying $3 per pill for Lipitor.)

    Based on study of the Ontario electric power production facilities, it is clear that hydro power in limited places will be available for night time charging of cars, but where this is not the case, coal will be the fuel used to respond to the incremental load of electric vehicles.

    So we mostly need some serious re-education.

    And are we doomed? No. There is are simple engineering answers based on using a lot less energy whether it comes from coal, oil, hydro, or solar etc.

  7. Bob Wallace says:

    I find myself wondering about the path forward.

    Let’s say the Volt is real. And its technology can be adapted by other car manufacturers to produce plug-in hybrids which will allow us to do ~75% of our driving using no petroleum, only electricity.

    As I recall approximately 50% of American driving is done with vehicles which are 5 or fewer years old. That means that if affordable “Volts” were on the market we could make a serious dent in our petroleum consumption quite quickly. Certainly we could keep up with the estimated

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    Gee, I thought I had more to say than that.

    I guess the site decided not so….

  9. alex says:

    You misquote. The correct quote is

    ‘The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.’

    Note: ‘Valour’, not ‘ valor’ (uggg!) Why can’t Americans spell?

    [JR: Points taken. That’s what I get for trusting online quote dictionaries. As for spelling, on the side of the pond we are trying to save ink!]

  10. alex says:

    On the subject of publicising peak oil, it seems likely that the 10 year rise from $10 to $147 was, in part, due to peak-oil speculation. If that is how the market deals with the knowledge of peak oil then frankly what is the point of bigging it up?

    It would have been less disruptive just to let the market gently work it out for itself.

  11. Cyril R. says:

    Note: ‘Valour’, not ‘ valor’ (uggg!) Why can’t Americans spell?

    Are you implying that American-English is a bastard, illegitimate, or non-existing language?

    You’re hurting my poor chauvinistic American heart :)

    On the subject of publicising peak oil, it seems likely that the 10 year rise from $10 to $147 was, in part, due to peak-oil speculation. If that is how the market deals with the knowledge of peak oil then frankly what is the point of bigging it up?

    It would have been less disruptive just to let the market gently work it out for itself.

    Uh, speculation IS the market. It comes with the packadge. Don’t like that? Then don’t advocate markets that are free enough to speculate.

    But to answer your question: we don’t know, because we don’t know for certain how fast peak oil will hit and when it will occur, is it happening already or will it take another 50 years? Those things are important, because of the long time scale required to radically transform energy and transportation systems. When the market says: “Woa! this is peak oil, OK, let’s invest in transforming the energy and transportation systems” it may be too little, too late. The market may decide that 10000 dollar per barrel of oil will be needed now, which may devastate societies.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Cyril R. — Hubert-type analyss shows that peak oil is ‘now’, although that might mean last year or a few years from now.

    The central point is that we now face an eregy limited (expensive) future.

  13. alex says:

    “As for spelling, on the side of the pond we are trying to save ink!]”

    So why do you call ‘transport’ ‘transportation’? Is there a difference?!


    “Are you implying that American-English is a bastard, illegitimate, or non-existing language?”

    Yes (in 1596, when Shakepeare wrote Henry IV Part 1).


    On peak oil I do think the flood of peak oil sites has made the oil market much more volatile and has been the main reason for the recent peak of $147. It should have been a massive wake up call to get moving on alternatives but now that oil is back at $54 everyone seems to have forgotten it. The market has no memory – it just reacts to what happened 5 minutes ago.

    In retrospect, the peak oil sites seemed to miss the point. Peak oil = high prices. Hence the major immediate effect is a huge drain of cash from consuming to producing countries. This in turn could been seen as the main trigger for the global recession that followed $147 oil. The real effect of peak oil is economic chaos not any sort of forced global reduction in economic activity.

    I think the real problems will start at the steepest part of the Hubbert downslope, when oil is depleting globally at 6% to 8%. No amount of financial jiggery pokery is going to hide the effects of that. Just growing enough food will be a struggle, never mind fuelling our personal transport(ation). It seems unlikely that the market will provide for the countless millions of unneeded unemployed, preferring to cater for the better heeled with cash and assets. A recipe for social disaster.

  14. Jim O'Rourke says:

    In Collapse, Jared Diamond examines the reasons civilizations don’t take action to save themselves from crises (generally environmental) that they can see coming at them like a slow train. One of the most common problems he writes about is that the elite in these societies had a vested interest in not letting the general population know about the impending disaster. Knowledge is power and getting into the lifeboat with as few people as possible sharing the rations is the plan here: “we’re going for help, hang tight we’ll be right back”!

    I’ve been writing and speaking about peak oil for about a year and a half. Some people got it right off the bat, but initially most said well that can’t be true otherwise our “leaders” would all be talking about it and taking action – right? Wrong. When oil hit $140 and gas $4 and T-Bone Pickens spent millions running ads about it on TV people started to come around.

    Now though, in classic US Political culture, the crisis is over: gas is under $2 bucks in many places and a barrel of oil costs less than $60. Problem solved, Lets not get people upset and tell them the truth because they obviously can’t handle it.

    Barak’s speech to the Gov’s was right on but the time is coming soon for him and all of us to look our neighbors in the eye and give them the real story along with a Patriotic call to save our way of life and our future on this planet with a National Call for Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy.

  15. alex says:


    “One of the most common problems he writes about is that the elite in these societies had a vested interest in not letting the general population know about the impending disaster.”

    Doesn’t really apply in our case. Knowledge flows freely to anyone with the time to absorb it. Our problem is that our entire civilisation is based on fossil fuel and it is highly questionable whether it will survive when there is none left. In which case it doesn’t much matter who knows what and who believes what – we are likely heading off the cliff anyway.

    Your post was rather spoiled (for me) by the nationalistic focus in the last para. We need a Global Call for Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy. Actually, what we really need is for the world to agree to stop burning fossil fuel…

  16. Jim O'Rourke says:

    Didn’t mean to spoil it Alex but I hear you. My points on the issue of the elites and the issue of a national call are both political in nature. Those who seek information actively and think for themselves can certainly get what they need to understand events that affect our lives, but most people aren’t in that category and this is what drives our politics (our ability to elect people who will do the right thing and their ability to pass policy that will actually get the job done). You know that’s true because a dunce like GWB gets elected (sort of).

    The big money interests have developed a very sophisticated system of denying the truth and muddying the waters and confusing the American People on the most important issues facing us over the past 30 years and that has usually prevented us from being able to elect progressive leaders and even when we do (say Clinton) they are unable to enact meaningful policy changes.

    Hirsch is just playing that card again here – and doing so in a most obvious and overt way. I think he’s testing a line of attack that really won’t work but they will keep trying different lines to scare us off.

    My point is that to sell what needs to be done we need to appeal to the same psychology that allows the right wing to defeat us – that is “do it for your country, do it for your family” not necessarily altruistic but the point is to get the job done. Every great Democratic President has been able to rally the nation during a time of crisis and thats what I hope Barak can do. Thats what I was trying to say. You and I are on the same page.

  17. Theodore says:

    After the peak, profits in the oil industry will grow in a rather extreme way. Consumption will be restrained only by price to a level sufficient to contain very strong demand, but production costs will remain stable. The price will have to grow at a very high rate to constrain and then actually reduce the rate of consumption. Perhaps Mr. Hirsch is making investment plans and does not want the effect dampened by political efforts to defuse the problem.