Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Call To Arms: The End Of The Oil Drum

I felt a deeply saddened by the news that The Oil Drum was to stop publishing new posts at the end of the month. It was a good place not only to read new project updates, but also buy article online for future uses. The comments both on the website and on Twitter have been resoundingly positive, with many long time readers/first time posters logging on specifically to say how much they had learnt and to thank all the contributors.

The end of something familiar is always hard to take but as seems the administrators cannot be swayed it is time to look elsewhere. I personally have chosen which is the relatively new reincarnation of the Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Bulletin.

Why then did Energy Bulletin morph into something quite different while The Oil Drum remained relatively unchanged over the years? I think the answer is survival. Many people may cringe to hear this but success on the internet is about how well you can market your product (website). You may have great content but unless lots of people are reading it then what is the point?

I think this is where the downfall of The Oil Drum lies. It has published incredibly important work but refused to change with the times and become more relevant. Public interest in peak oil peaked at the end of 2005 with another surge of interest in the middle of 2008. And yet The Oil Drum faithfully stayed the course, publishing in depth technical articles that often showed an alternative view to the mainstream story being fed through the media.

I think though at a certain point they began preaching to the converted and needed to change gear. Readers knew their was a problem, and rather than providing solutions The Oil Drum kept outlining the same problems in different ways. If you look at today compared to Energy Bulletin a few years ago the main difference is a lot more stories on growing your own food, building community and transitioning to a low energy lifestyle. This is all very important stuff that people are really want to learn about.

As an ecologist I am drawn to the the conversation biology metaphor of charismatic megafauna, also commonly known as umbrella species. These are your dolphins, whales, lions, tigers and pandas that people generally love and will spend a lot of time and money trying to save. The benefit of course is that when you conserve something like wild panda habitat, all the other less attractive plants and animals in that same area are also protected by association. While snails, cockroaches and rats are all ecologically important they would never gain as much attention as a panda. The main reason why The Oil Drum steadily lost readers is that its main topics were lowly cockroaches and rats which did little to bring in new readers. What was needed were some attractive topics that would bring in new people who would then hopefully stay around for the more in depth technical topics. I think those of us that have been into peak oil and energy issue for years forget that at the start it can be a very daunting topic with a steep learning curve.

This is not to say that the technical topics should have been watered down, just that more variety should have been provided if the goal was to attract and maintain new readers.

As Robert Rapier mentioned on Twitter, it may have been the Bakken that ultimately killed The Oil Drum, but I think it is also the stubbornness of the The Oil Drum administrators to stay the course rather than move with the times. This is not to dig the knife in, merely to serve as a warning to other sites and content creators out there that also do important work. Stay relevant.

So where are we at with peak oil right now? Oil production continues to grow in the States thanks to shale, the media keeps trumpeting ‘energy independence’ despite countless rebuttals of this by a small number of journalists and bloggers and the general public are carrying on business as usual. We have been on a global production plateau since 2005 and  we keep getting told the global economy is getting better. Most people want to believe that and so they do, despite all the evidence to contrary. It’s basic human nature to ignore a problem until it affects you personally. This has been displayed recently with Hurricane Sandy and the resurgence of interest in climate change.

Peak oil is still a problem and while many peakers were saying it should be here by now, shale oil can only delay the real shocks for so long. As John Michael Greer has written, we are in for a long descent with many short lived ‘recoveries’ along the way. Until oil prices become personally  unbearable and the global economy grinds to another halt no one will take any notice of those of us still plugging away and preaching to the converted few.  That won’t stop me at least and neither should it stop you. Pick up a pen or tap away on a keyboard and add your voice to the mix. Because while no one may be listening right now they sure will be when the time comes. We need all the voices we can get.


  1. John KnottsJuly 6, 2013 at 5:21 PM

    Recently I wrote to Dr. Russell Norman
    I did not receive a reply however.
    Dear Russel,
    Thanks for all the great work you are putting in.
    I am a confused Green member however.

    John Key announced a rail link for Auckland great news. The tunnel in 2020 not so great as it has no link to rail.

    For the last 10years I have followed the fossil fuel debate. The Oil Drum; James Kunstler; Prof.Richard Heinberg Nicole Foss ;IEA and others.

    Iraq did not produce the outcome in oil for Halliburton (Bush Cheyney) nor did Afghanistan for the Cheyney pipe line from Uzbekistan.
    The world powers will fight over the hard to get oil and Japan may fall into a pre- 1900 economy as she has zero fossil fuel resources. The grand industrial idea worked while oil was at $15-$20 dollars a barrel but not at $100. Nor does it help that Japan now has just two nuclear power plants operating and the rest of the power from oil and massive debt.

    What confuses me is that we plan motorways at billions of dollars for our country when all science points to the end of cheap oil by 2020 or earlier.

    I will shortly drive from my home in an SUV from Omokoroa to the city 21 kilometers. My cost will be 3 liters of fuel at $2.19. I will see truck and trailer units on the main road in a continuous stream making the journey from Auckland to our port each carrying approximately 50 tons. That is say 200 kilometers these trucks consume 117litres per hour on basis ($1.80/Ltr) 500 HP*.052 at 80% engine power so cost per ton Auckland to Tauranga is about $8.52 per ton.

    If we only talk in terms of fuel only a train pulling 1000 tons over the same distance with say 3600HP model CKD-9B KIWIRAIL then cost per ton would be 3600HP* .052/ hr= 187litres per hour at $1.80 2.5 hours of travel (more slowly I think than a truck) the cost per ton is .841 cents.
    Why are we doing it?
    We did have rules in the 60's about freight traveling alongside a rail line bring it back.
    You have seen the road statistics for truck deaths A friend driving a truck has false log books said to me it is common practice.

    My suggestion is electrify the line Tauranga Katikati open the rail to private companies run a service each hour I can walk to the old station. We may need some loop lines to let freight through (it only takes 6mins to let them pass)

    Do the infrastructure then put up the price of fuel to $5.50 or even $6 per liter as it is in Germany and see us all change our ways of travel!

    I do not know the date of the oil shock that will hit us some say 2015 others 2020 America lies about oil sands and being self sufficient as a sop to the populace it will never happen. They quote figures that include their refined oil as production yet it is only being processed in America.

    Our own Government sells mining rights to drill but many in the oil industry say where is the investment to come from?
    The world financial system is on a knife edge.
    From discovery of oil to market or even pipe line to shore and infrastructure is often 10 years we do not have that time.

    Our asset in New Zealand is electric power we have given away years of energy in South-land for a few jobs to see profits go offshore.

    You must push for change of attitude or nature will force us to change.
    Thank you

    for many years now I have been a follower of The Oil Drum and have been informed by their great posts.
    I suppose I am still waiting for the inevitable collapse of petroleum man.
    I do remind my grandchildren that they may not drive as we did in the 60's
    It is so hard to get this argument across.


    1. Southern LimitsJuly 14, 2013 at 5:12 PM

      Thanks for your letter John. You make some good points on rail transport vs road freight. I too have wondered why it is that rail that used to be relatively cheap but is now considered to be an expensive option, when it only takes a few simple calculations to show that it is still in fact cheap!


  • Big GavJuly 12, 2013 at 12:43 AM

    I think you are right to a certain extent - TOD became very narrow in its outlook which was one factor in a lot of contributors to just drifting away over time - leaving the others to burn out and lose interest even while they hung in there.

    There are other factors obviously - some contributors also became fed up with the abuse they copped in the comments and there were schisms about issues like global warming that caused others to lose interest.

    By and large i think TOD did well to last as long as it did - hopefully something else can replace it over time...


    1. Southern LimitsJuly 14, 2013 at 5:21 PM

      I think it's tough to run site that at its centre is non partisan facts, but attracts a wide range of people from all walks of life. However this is also the essence of community, and perhaps more could have been done to point out to people where they had fuzzy thinking.

      There does always have to be a line though and I have been on a number of forums where one or two commentators would constantly derail any constructive discussion and make it about themselves or whatever happened to be their particular candle. By banning them it made the forum much more enjoyable for everyone. I'm not sure of the details of that happened on TOD so I can't comment either way.

      It's worth checking out Zurk's work here creating the The Planet Beat

      Too early yet to say whether it will provide a meaningful and useful platform for discussion but probably best of the bunch at the moment.


  • Andrew MartinJuly 12, 2013 at 4:38 PM

    Agree with John - peak oil is like the financial crisis, no one saw it coming apart from those on the fringe and those who orchestrated it. I am reading a lot of hype of how energy demand is dropping and efficiency is improving. I must be living on another planet as I don't see these things happening. China alone is putting over 20 Million new cars on the road each year. With oil depleting at a pretty good rate and the average consumer not being able to afford a new energy efficient vehicle (some of which cost 30 to 50K and upwards) I believe many people are looking at pie in the sky stuff. John is right in his view that rail is the way forward. Just google Warren Buffett and peak oil, Buffett himself (worlds greatest investor) purchased Burlington Santa Fe Railway in 2009 as he sees the future more clearly than others. He also believes we have hit the peak and are on the way down.


    1. Southern LimitsJuly 14, 2013 at 5:25 PM

      Demand is certainly dropping in the developed world. Here in New Zealand we haven't driven over 40 billion km since 2007. The same pattern exists for most of the rest of the developed world.

      China and India are increasing consumption to such an extent that that overall the situation is still on an upward slope. Who know how long this will last.

      Totally agree that rail, us unattractive as it may look right now to most people is definitely the way of the future.