Peak Oil, Propaganda Emails, and the Bakken Formation
Recently I said (in “Peak oil: Time to shut up as the conversation goes global“) that I don’t plan on talking about peak oil anymore despite my several years of doing so, because in the past year, and especially the past few months, the cultural conversation about it has become so mainstream and prominent that I’m just content to watch and listen instead of arrogating to myself the rather absurd role — and it’s a role that a lot of other Joe Blows like me have claimed as well — of a third-rate Hebrew prophet crying out in the wilderness.
Then I received a forwarded email from a friend today. Maybe you’ve seen it, too; it’s about the oil-producing potential of the Bakken Formation in southern Canada and the northern U.S. Specifically, it’s one of those oft-forwarded emails that use classic propaganda techniques — card stacking, oversimplification, scapegoating, and a few others — to push an ideologically slanted and partisan message. More specifically, it argues that the whole idea of an energy crisis because of oil supply problems is a lie, because the Bakken Formation contains more oil than all the rest of the world’s oil fields, and it’s just those damned environmentalists and liberals who are keeping us from accessing it. Et cetera and so on, ad nauseam.
You can read the text of the email yourself on the Web, since it has received wide circulation and some responses, both debunkings and enthusiastic hoorahs, from various quarters.
Before I Googled it and found those debunkings, the email had already elicited a flood of words from me in response. On the chance that you, too, may have read the missive in question, here are those words:
Be advised that this email is a prime example of the factually inaccurate and partisan-slanted propaganda that’s typical of these types of communications. Yes, there is indeed a lot of oil in the Bakken Formation, just as the email claims — BUT this oil exists in shale form. That means it’s locked in sand, gravel, and rock. The extracting of it is so galactically difficult and costly that the best estimates about how much can actually be extracted and used from the formation have ranged anywhere from 50 percent to 1 percent. The refining of it is also hugely difficult and costly compared to the refining of the light, sweet crude that just comes naturally to the surface during the early period of the developmental of a traditional oil field.
The email is also insanely slanted in its accusation that the only reason we’re not all dancing in the streets at our salvation from the energy crisis is because of those damned evil environmentalists who are threatening civilization by stopping us from tapping this messiah of an oil field. In fact, Bakken is being worked right now, and with a vengeance. Development of it has absolutely exploded over the past few years, and will only intensify. Ask anybody like, oh, say, my brother-in-law, who buys and sells heavy construction and agriculture equipment for a living, and who has, like many people in his business, seen some pieces of equipment become simply unavailable to medium and small buyers over the past few years, because these pieces are all being bought up and shipped north to work the Bakken oil fields.
Peak oil theory isn’t about the idea that “the oil is running out.” It’s about the end of cheap and easy to get oil. The crisis is found in the fact that our entire urban-industrial-technological civilization has been built upon, and can only continue to run upon, a foundation of cheap, plentiful, and ever-increasing oil. What’s going to happen is that this whole arrangement will start contracting and, maybe, imploding in interesting ways because of oil problems — not the problem of running out, which will never happen, but the problem of our cheap and plentiful supply shifting to a situation of ever-increasing cost and scarcity. Nobody in history has ever seen what’s going to happen over the next 20, 50, and 100 years, because the human race only started living on oil roughly a century ago (or actually a bit more recently than that; more like 1920 or 1930), so we’ve only ever known what life was like on the rising side of the oil supply curve, not on the falling side as we get into global depletion.
The fact that the Bakken Formation is being ferociously developed right now is actually evidence in favor of the peak oil scenario and its concerns, because we would never turn seriously toward working such a difficult deposit if the usual and traditional sources weren’t all drying up and/or being called seriously into question by geopolitical difficulties.
Now — to get to the most important part — if a shmoe like me can learn all of this over a span of years simply by reading, studying, paying attention, and thinking, then it should be easy, at least in theory, for everybody to recognize that email upon sight for what it is: low-level, politically/economically motivated disinformation. So why has it received such traction among, for example, conservative American bloggers?
The answer, of course, is found in the rise of politicization and decline of taste and critical thinking skills that has characterized American mass culture over the past few decades. Partisan ranting with all of its intellectual shallowness and sophistry is pervasively and relentlessly passed off as reasoned discourse, while more and more of us develop sound bite-sized worldviews because of our sound bite-sized minds, which have been inculcated by several decades of steady reductionism in the tone and content of political speeches and other mass communications. Sure, there are high points, veritable mountain peaks, in our current culture — I’m noticing more and more of those lately, which is as much due to an attitudinal shift in me as to anything else — but the gravitational pull of the lowest common denominator in mass communication culture is still inexorable on the large scale.
This means it’s going to be perpetually necessary for the foreseeable future for all of us to keep our eyes, ears, nose, and brains peeled for the sight, sound, smell, and substance of the bullshit that will continue to pollute our cultural atmosphere as we blunder through Very Difficult Times.