It's a Dogma-Eat-Dogma World

I WAS PLANNING to write some more about the Jurassic salt beds beneath the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but editor Greg has asked me to write about the public perception of Peak Oil. To my way of thinking, the Jurassic salt beds of the Gulf are very much related to Peak Oil, but that is perhaps my own geological way of looking at things. Greg wants me to discuss the policy impact of Peak Oil, so that is the subject of this article. Policy first. As for the Jurassic salts, they have been down there for about 100 million years, so if I have to wait a few more days to write about these fascinating geological formations in Whiskey & Gunpowder, it will not matter in the long run. So let’s discuss Peak Oil.

The Geology of East Greenland

But first, dear readers, allow me to discuss the geology of east Greenland. And let me introduce you to a man who, in my opinion, truly understood the field of structural geology. This was the late professor of geology John Haller (1927-1984) of Harvard University. I knew him, and at the age of 57, he died too young.

Professor Haller was born and raised in Switzerland. Thus, as you can probably appreciate, it was right up his alley to observe and understand rock structures. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Haller traveled and performed extensive research in Greenland on behalf of the government of Denmark. Haller was part of a team of scientists that mapped what are, I believe, some of the most complex tectonic and structural mountain systems on the face of the Earth. In addition, the locale is distant, isolated, and subject to fierce climatic stresses. One of the results of the efforts of the good Dr. Haller was a comprehensive and utterly definitive, albeit rather obscure, book, published in 1971 entitled Geology of the East Greenland Caledonides . I have my own well-thumbed copy at home.

The East Greenland Caledonides are the remnants of an ancient mountain range that rose up during Silurian and Devonian time, about 400-435 million years ago. The range extends about 800 miles, roughly north-south, along the eastern coast of Greenland. Farther to the west, the rocks are buried under the ice sheets. (But maybe not for much longer. This is another story entirely.)

These Caledonide rock structures are the remnants of a tectonic collision of the continental forbears of North America and Greenland (called Laurentia) and of the northern edge of the tectonic plate that is now northern Europe (called Baltica). Much later, starting about 200 million years ago, the northern opening of what has become the Atlantic Ocean disrupted the Caledonide mountain belt. This also had much to do with the formation of those Jurassic salt beds far to the south, deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico, but I am not supposed to write about that in this article.

Only fragmentary evidence of what is considered to be the original “Caledonide orogeny” is still visible at the surface of the Earth. These fragments are widely separated by geography, and particularly by the Atlantic Ocean basin. A significant measure of what remains of the Caledonide system is in East Greenland. Another significant mass of the same Caledonide system is in Scandinavia, forming much of the western coastline of Norway. And another very extensive body of the ancient Caledonides comprises the rocky spine of Scotland, in the northwest British Isles. In fact, the name “Caledonides” (pronounced “cal-e-do-ni-dees,” like the name of the Hebrides islands) comes from Caledonia, the Latin name for northern Britain.

So what we see today are the remnants of a vast, ancient mountain range that may have been of the same size and scope as today’s Himalayas, with mountain tops poking more than 30,000 feet above sea level. For the most part, the Caledonides that we see today display the deep, mountainous core of metamorphic and igneous rocks of Precambrian age, overlain by sediments of Cambrian and Ordovician age. There is evidence of the original uplift, faulting, and thrusting, and other related mountain-building events of Silurian and Devonian time. And to put things in perspective, the Caledonides were the “eastern” source for the sediments that became the rocks of today’s Appalachian basin, to include the oil-bearing Devonian sands that lie beneath Titusville, Pa. (Greg’s Note: Byron is writing about Titusville again.)

So the summary of the contemporary geological setting is this: Part of the Caledonides lie far to the north, in Norway. Part of the Caledonides lie to the south, relatively speaking, across the North Sea where the rocks form the mountains of wonderful Scotland. And parts of the Caledonides are far to the west, beyond the cold seas, in rugged Greenland. If you draw “great circle” lines across the Earth and between these points, you are crossing mostly the Atlantic Ocean basin (and allowing for the volcanic, island nation of Iceland at the center of the triangle). So the question arises how did these very similar, and, in fact, formerly contiguous, Caledonide rock masses come to be located so far apart? And what is with volcanic Iceland, pretty much in the middle?

Plate Tectonics

Today, we think we know the answer. The mechanism by which the Caledonides of east Greenland came to be separated by great distance and oceanic basin from those of Scotland and Norway is called plate tectonics. This term encompasses the tectonic processes of large-scale uplift and movement of a portion of the crust of the Earth. What follows (well, what sometimes follows) is called rifting, and then the seafloor spreading that creates ocean basins. The process includes relative tectonic movement of the plates of the Earth’s crust, all occurring over periods measured in tens of millions of years. And the process also includes “hot spots” that form deep in the mantle of the Earth, at which you see features like the basaltic, volcanic island of Iceland.

This dynamic process is what shapes the face of the Earth. This is why there are continental landmasses and deep ocean basins. This is why there are mountain ranges, and midocean ridges, and deep subduction zones and significant volcanism both on land and within the basins of the sea. It is why there are islands like Hawaii or Iceland. This is a process that appears to have been going on for billions of years, since the Earth cooled from its original accretion. What we are left with is the evidence in the ancient rocks.

The rocks are the facts. And as any good detective can tell you, “Follow the facts.” So this is exactly what professor Haller did. He mapped the rocks of east Greenland. He traveled extensively in Norway and Scotland. He could put one finger on a spot on a map of one locale, such as Norway, and put another finger on another spot on a map of Greenland and explain how the rocks were essentially identical. Haller had been there. Haller had photos to demonstrate the similarities. He had similar rock samples collected from vast distances apart. He had polished thin sections of rock samples that were gathered from locales many thousands of miles distant from each other, but which were optically indistinguishable under a petrographic microscope. Like the man says, “Just the facts, please.”

Professor Haller had developed his geological information during the 1950s and 1960s, when the first indications of plate tectonic theory were just being refined and publicized. The concept of plate tectonics, also called “continental drift” (the wrong way to characterize it, in my view, but the colloquial term that many people applied), was still considered “frontier” research, involving oceanography, geophysics, cartography, seismology, remote sensing, mineralogy, and many other related fields. Still, the whole scientific effort was controversial, leading to many an argument in both faculty lounges of universities great and small and on the pages of the finest peer-reviewed journals of the day. People had their scientific suspicions, but could anyone really say anything with complete certainty? Can anyone ever be completely sure of such things, particularly looking so far back into the recesses of geological time?

So what did professor John Haller think of his own evidence of the ancient connections between the distant parts of the Caledonides? Haller was, first and foremost, a scholar of plate tectonic theory. Haller could cite the previous writings of such informed scientific opinions as the great scientists Alfred Wegener and Eduard Suess, who pioneered the field of large-scale Earth deformation many decades before. And Haller certainly understood the implications of his own scientific research.

Still, professor Haller was careful about saying that one thing “proved” another thing. He read the learned journals, listened to the heated discussions, reviewed the large-scale maps and smaller-scale rock samples. And Haller always stuck to the facts. Deep down, I think that he knew where the scientific evidence was leading, but he was a careful man from the land where they really do make Swiss watches and a proponent of the scientific method. One of Haller’s favorite ways to characterize the scientific debate was to smile shyly, and say, “This is a dogma-eat-dogma world.”

Dogma and Debunking

I thought of professor John Haller immediately when I saw the headline in The Wall Street Journal, “Producers Move to Debunk Gloomy ‘Peak Oil’ Forecasts.” The first several sentences sum it up:

“Leading players in the petroleum industry, including Saudi Arabia and Exxon Mobil Corp., are aggressively arguing that plenty of crude oil remains for world consumption, in an effort to counter critics who contend crude output is about to plateau. That argument, known as the Peak Oil theory, has provided intellectual backing for the boom in crude prices and sowed doubts among some policymakers about crude’s long-term reliability as an energy source. Such doubts, coupled with concern over sky-high prices, have added impetus to the search for oil substitutes — including in Washington, where President Bush this year declared the U.S. ‘addicted to oil’ and sparked a boom in interest in ethanol. Some in the industry now are keen to fight the threat posed by such fears.”

So it appears that Peak Oil theory is beginning to gain some traction. And apparently, the Peak Oil concept is gaining credibility among policymakers in both the U.S. and abroad. This could lead to policy incentives that discourage future reliance upon oil, and further lead to policy incentives that encourage the development and use of alternative forms of energy. And thus some key players in the oil business are becoming more focused in their efforts to “debunk” the Peak Oil concept. Peak Oil is no longer a fringe concept being discussed by a handful of small-time, granola-eating, tree-hugging players at the margins of intellectual respectability. Peak Oil is becoming part of the mainstream in science, economics, politics, and policy. This may just be because the evidence of the rocks is starting to make sense. This is what happens when you follow the facts.

Good News From the Front Lines

I think that this latest news from the front lines of policy debate is actually quite good. Peak Oil has developed a credible scientific basis, and the evidence from the oil fields of the world has begun to withstand the initial rounds of cavalier dismissal, if not pathological denial. And the ominous implications of Peak Oil are of such high risk and severity of outcome that the concept has popped up on the radar screens of the highest-level political and economic decision-makers in the world. When it comes to Peak Oil, you simply cannot afford to bet against it. That is, if you lose the bet, you lose it all. And that is a lot to lose.

Peak Oil has moved out of the farm-club competition and is now in the major leagues. The question is can Peak Oil and its theorists and proponents hit that big-league pitching? Can Peak Oil stand up to “debunking” by the likes of Exxon and Saudi Aramco?

Let me put it another way: Can the likes of Exxon and Saudi Aramco stand up to the hard evidence of Peak Oil? After all, as the late John Haller used to say as he pieced together the ancient Caledonides, “This is a dogma-eat-dogma world.”

Are you coming to the Peak Oil conference in Boston? I hope to see you there.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
September 19, 2006

P.S.: Will I see you at the Peak Oil conference in Boston, Oct. 25-27, 2006?

I want to take the opportunity to let you know that the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA (ASPO-USA) and Boston University (BU) will co-sponsor the 2006 World Oil Conference, Time for Action: A Midnight Ride for Peak Oil , on the BU campus, October 26-27, 2006.

The conference will bring together energy experts from around the world to discuss the likely timing, impacts, and intelligent responses to the growing Peak Oil challenge. As you probably know, virtually every sector of our society and economy will be affected by Peak Oil, from transportation, manufacturing, airfreight, and agriculture to homebuilding, city planning, and finance.

“What better place than Boston to hold A Midnight Ride for Peak Oil?” asks Matthew Simmons, chair of ASPO-USA’s advisory board. “We are recruiting the best minds in the business — geologists, industry experts, academics, and environmentalists — to take up arms with scientific data to meet the historic challenge of Peak Oil.” Simmons is author of The Wall Street Journal-listed bestseller Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. For conference details, please see:

In addition to Matthew Simmons and Robert Kaufmann, conference speakers will include Ali Samsam Bakhtiari of the National Iranian Oil Co. (retired), about whom I have written in Whiskey & Gunpowder; Roscoe Bartlett, U.S. congressional representative from Maryland; and more than 20 others. The full list of speakers may be viewed at the Conference Website.

Conference topics include:

· Oil and Gas Depletion (What’s the evidence on Peak Oil? What geologic, political, economic, and technical constraints limit oil production? Why is forecasting a date for Peak Oil an inexact science?)

· Mitigation (What responses are available, and when can they be implemented?)

· Alternative Energy (What unconventional petroleum and nonpetroleum energy sources are available, and can they fill the depletion gap?)

· Economics (What economic challenges do decreasing energy supplies present?)

· Transportation (What is the future direction of personal transportation, its limitations and prospects, and how should planners and fleet managers respond?)

· Net Energy (What’s the meaning of energy return on energy invested — EROEI — and why is it critical to intelligent responses to the Peak Oil dilemma?)

· Energy Security (Can we achieve energy security in a world of escalating competition for a finite resource?)

· Government Policy (What is the direction of energy policy at the local, state, and federal levels? Do these policies need obvious tweaks, or a massive overhaul?)

I am planning to attend, and I hope that many of you who read Whiskey & Gunpowder will also be there.

Note: Agora Financial, LLC has no financial or other business relationship to ASPO-USA, Boston University, or the World Oil Conference. We are running this promotional piece as a public service, and because we believe that the conference offers our readers the opportunity to improve their understanding of the critical topic of Peak Oil.