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The last ASPO conference

by Luis de Sousa Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 05:30:46 AM EST

On the evening of the first day of the 10th conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO), in Vienna, Rembrandt asked me if I'd write again the usual summary. My immediate answer was "No". Lack of time and motivation let me far from such undertaking. Hours later a title popped up in my mind; the dead time at airports and air planes provided the necessary space for the content.

The title "last conference" can be interpreted in varied ways. It can refer simply to the latest, it can also allude to this being the last ever, or even the last I'll ever attend. I haven't quite decided which is it. Below the fold is a short account of my feelings about ASPO 10, may it shed some light on the title.

This is a crosspost from AtTheEdgeOfTime.

front-paged by afew

Straight on the first session were present Dennis Meadows and Nebojsa Nakicenovic; the latter being the man behind the fossil fuel reserves estimates and production forecasts produced by IIASA and used by the IEA and the IPCC. He played a decisive role on the creation of ASPO, when in 2000 he chose to ignore a report delivered by Jean Laherrère at IIASA. These days IIASA is considering CO2 emission scenarios in line with the many forecasts produced by ASPO associates, after a decade of failed infinite growth forecasts. But these case studies always assume voluntary actions to reduce fossil fuel consumption in order to keep atmospheric concentrations of CO2 below 450 ppm. This is the threshold that according to the IPCC guarantees with some confidence a global temperature rise below 2 ºC of what it is today. Essentialy, IIASA is still using the same reserves figures they where using 12 years ago, Nakicenovic claiming these are the numbers found in peer reviewed literature. Back in 2008, when I tried to replicate Nakicenovic's scenarios I found reserves estimates several times higher those published by the Industry, let alone those assessed by ASPO associates.

In the second day of conference one of the speakers claimed that Man is transforming Earth into something like Venus with CO2 emissions. Climatologists is one group that ASPO has so far failed to sensibilise to Peak Oil. These researchers seem totally unaware of the ongoing fossil fuel consumption shift from the OECD to emerging economies, where consumption per capita is much lower. They also seem miles away from acknowledging the potential economic consequences of further declines in oil production.

In more than one presentation the figure of 100 Mb/d for oil production in 2020 was put forth. The same old discourse sides these forecasts: technological development is unlocking new reserves, as long as the capital and the investment are there production can continue growing, or at least remain at present levels. This provided, of course, the incentive from high oil prices.

Strikingly this is the same rhetoric underlying the renewable energy optimistic thinking: as long as oil prices remain high and the capital is there, the infrastructure can expand to cover the gap left by declining fossil fuel production. Maybe even to support further economic growth. This is all supposed to happen within the current economic framework, in just a few years and without feed-in tariffs.

Conveniently, both industries completely ignore Net Energy, an issue that was only referenced by one of the speakers throughout the whole conference. Little attention is also paid to the specificities of the Transport sector, where according to Robert Hirsch, 100 T$ of infrastructure presently run petrol and diesel, not on electricity or light crudes from tight reservoirs.

And finally the politicians. We had the presence of another European parliament member, this time Yves Cochet, former Environment Minister of the French government. Many where the reasons discussed to justify the lack of acknowledgement, and in many cases action, from governments. But the most important words on this subject where proffered by Reiner Kummel: politicians end up doing what we demand from them, the problem is not the politicians, it's us!

Dont' get me wrong. While I feel this conference was disappointing in general, the organisers are not to blame. They did their best and produced the programme that had to be, with ASPO opening itself to the wider Society. But after 10 years of activity ASPO's message has failed to pass. Policy makers, Climatologists, Energy Industry, by and large are all yet to fully acknowledge the problem and its implications.

Nevertheless I had the opportunity to assist to some very good addresses. In no particular order I'd highlight Euans Mearns, Arthur Berman, Reiner Kummel, Werner Zittel, Nate Hagens, James Buckee; sadly all well established luminaries of the Peak Oil cause. Since we had again parallel sessions I missed a good deal of presentations; you should always stop by at the conference website and browse the videos, which should be posted there in the next few weeks.

But my sour feelings don't come just from a frustrating conference. My country has had its Peak Oil moment and is now undergoing a self destruction process. Energy consumption is declining to levels of 15 or 20 years back, with most mechanisms once put in place for the energy transition being rolled back one after the other. As founding member of ASPO-Portugal I can only take this as failure. It was precisely to avoid this kind of scenario that I started working on Peak Oil in 2005. But here we are; the efforts of the handful of people macking up our association are now largely irrelevant. The media and the politicians that once showed interest on the subject are gone, and so are we; sadly I'm not the only exiled member of ASPO-Portugal. Long seem the days when the Depletion Protocol was discussed and recommended by Parliament. Looking back I can only acknowledge that I was delusional thinking I could change anything.

My friends from ASPO-Spain tell a similar story. A 10 year regression in energy consumption, with the deliberate slow-down of economic activity. Unfortunately, the role oil, coal and food prices had (and still have) in the economic crisis is not acknowledge by everyone, not even within ASPO. This is a terrible mistake, for it is exactly this way Peak Oil looks like. Getting ourselves intertwined in the debt or peak demand discourse is a self defeating path, that will veer policy makers away from addressing the structural weakness of our economies. It is never too much to remind that the states today cut off from the European sovereign debt market are precisely those that were most dependent on oil before the crisis.

Many of us question ourselves what future ASPO can have in the present setting. It can either remain a loose scientific organisation or push a more political structure to lobby on the institutions that have the means to act. I don't think ASPO should take the latter path, but more than that, it seems that it is presently unable to do so. Is there place for ASPO after the peak? This is the question many of us are facing.

Notwithstanding, national ASPO organisations can still have relevant things to accomplished. It was quite good to see Olivier Rech now with ASPO-France, a man with great analytical skills and particular insight into the subject. Indeed someone capable of following the path of excellence trailed by Jean Laherrère. It was also fortunate to have Pierre-René Basquis back to the ASPO conferences, with his irreverent, but rational, optimism. Nuclear power became an unpopular energy source at the worst of times in France; a careful path must be drawn for the country to abandon this technology and still survive Peak Oil.

New faces also in the ASPO-Germany roster. The fast growing renewable electricity sector in Germany is bringing up very important questions. With a relatively small penetration in installed capacity, it is already large enough to bring spot prices to negative territory, day in, day out, whenever the sun shines. How can the renewable energy sector generate revenues in this market setting? Especially now with fed-in tariffs on track to be suspended? And how can the traditional thermal power generation utilities survive to negative prices? These are all questions to which ASPO-Germany can have an important contribution.

Here a parenthesis. Jeremy Leggett is presently working on the development of new financial instruments for investment on renewable energies. I sincerely hope he succeeds, for this will be a crucial problem, with government after government haplessly suspending feed-in tariffs.

Another national organisation that may strive in the future is ASPO-USA. The shale rush is heading for a predictable crash, with large consequences for the financial sector. When it comes, the thorough analysis by our American colleagues shall grant them a great deal of credit and public exposure. May they be able to seize the opportunity. By the way, thanks to Arthur for getting up so early.

But there is more. Kyell Aleklett seems to be well ahead in preparing the continuation of ASPO-Sweden, around the research group he built at Uppsala University, and from which he should retire later this year. It was also pleasant to meet new blood from ASPO-Italy or ASPO-South Africa. And for the first time I can remember we had a delegation from Poland. Though not yet formally linked to ASPO, things seem moving in the land of coal and unfulfilled shale dreams.

There will be an ASPO conference in 2013, with the work for its realisation already under way. And I will probably be there too. But not any more as an avid information seeker, dreaming of saving the world, it will be just to see old friends and make new ones. After all, that was always the best about ASPO conferences.

Another exhibit of how people are unwilling to comprehend even one millimeter of the fossil fuel dilemma. A recent article of Spiegel Online on the ASPO international conference:

Finite Oil Reserves - Apocalypse Eventually [German]

How long will oil last? Apocalypse prophets gathered in Vienna to speculate about the nearing end of reserves. But reality is much more complicated than the theories of the "peakniks".
It's quite an achievement to get the first sentence wrong but the journalist in question managed to do it anyway. The article is the usual collection of 'failed predictions of the past', 'higher price will mean more oil', 'new technology', blablabla.

But there was one interesting aside.

"Peak Oil is near!" [...] He had heard the same message at the ASPO conference six years ago, said an irritated Meadows.

[...] The veteran Meadows has enough of the debate when exactly the peak will be. [...] more important to develop strategies how a world with less fossil fuels could look like.

Meadows speaks from painful experience. Forty years ago the Club of Rome restricted itself to crying wolf, said the scientist. Result: "Today the Club of Rome is irrelevant."

As Robert Hirsch said: "But eventually the wolf came!". The boy was no longer credible but the catastrophe happened.

ASPO is fighting the good fight but producing projections of the peak date only to be proved wrong later is very detrimental to ASPO's credibility. So what will happen when the moment of truth comes and ASPO has nothing to show for it but "We told you so!"? I don't think anybody will sign the Rimini protocol for example.

Maybe it's 'enough' to keep pushing the peak oil message and information (see how the Spiegel author gets the basic basics wrong), while researching the broad principles of energy decline. Concrete policy recommendations are maybe outside of the scope of ASPO's mission and there are enough self-ordained 'think tanks' who take part in the cacophony of voices.

I think soon after peak oil sets in (after the requisite media attention) ASPO will dissolve because everyone will be 'studying' peak oil firsthand. 'Solutions' or even a recognition of the problem go against our neurobiology and social/cultural assimilation. In the end: 'We did what little part we could. It wasn't enough to warn the world, but enough to salve our conscience.'

Schengen is toast!

by epochepoque on Mon Jun 4th, 2012 at 11:39:17 PM EST
Hi epochepoque, thanks for the link.

I don't think ASPO could have done its work without trying to forecast a date for Peak Oil - that's the only way we could stress the urgency of the matter. When we move towards "solutions" we are immediately in a mine field, particularly if Nuclear is involved.

By the way, this journalist seems to have been there only the first morning of the conference. Plenty of technological "solutions" where discussed, especially in the second day. I guess this is a good example of the general attitude journalists have towards subjects, it's always shallow digging.


by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 02:35:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The source of your grief are related to your expectations. Thats what over-optimism does.

There is indeed someone whose expectations about how this would play out have been spot on: John Michael Greer.

The corollary is that his style of preparations (and things like transition towns) are probably the best thing to do... Political/societal effort is therefore less impactfull

Interestingly Portugal has a fairly active transition town movement (at least a couple of years ago): critical mass, smart people...

by cagatacos on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 05:32:12 AM EST
I myself am part of the Transition Towns movement where I live. The problem is that we wont get the kind of long term investment required to overcome this crisis without some kind of state steering. The issue with feed-in tariffs in Germany is a good example, I believe.

by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 04:18:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, the Steel Interstates that the US needs to slash petroleum consumption in long haul trucking is another example of a transition investment that cannot be done on a distributed basis. I blogged about Steel Interstates again last Sunday.

The general systems principle of information overload tells us that we should decentralize what we may in order to conserve on government management capacities for those things that requires government steering. But subsidiarity does not mean that we should decentralize tasks below the level at which they can be effectively accomplished.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 05:45:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Energy consumption is declining to levels of 15 or 20 years back, with most mechanisms once put in place for the energy transition being rolled back one after the other.

Which is why monetary austerity as a response to resource scarcity is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The business-as-usual crowd is using austerity as an excuse to ensure that the transition away from fossil fuels will never happen, at least in these "peripheral" countries.

guaranteed to evoke a violent reaction from police is to challenge their right to "define the situation." --- David Graeber citing Marc Cooper

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 06:01:03 AM EST
Which is why monetary austerity as a response to resource scarcity is wrong, wrong, wrong.

That much we know. But blind "Keynesian" expansion may not be much of a fix either.


by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 04:16:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, but the only way to continue the transition is by "Keynesianly" funding it, given that the market won't provide and "austerian" government will roll back past gains.

guaranteed to evoke a violent reaction from police is to challenge their right to "define the situation." --- David Graeber citing Marc Cooper
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 04:22:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Crass Keynesianism won't hurt, though.

First, do no harm.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 05:59:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Blind "Keynesian" expansion is, of course, not actually Keynesian in a General Theory sense. If there is idle Labor and idle productive equipment and natural resources are under constraint, then obviously the Keynesian spending should be targeted to investments that increase efficiency of natural resource use.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 05:47:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Precisely what I think. Keynes is many times used to justify things with which he'd never agree.

by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Thu Jun 7th, 2012 at 06:10:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Keynes in three words: "Employment is paramount".

We have an anti-employment economic policy establishment.

If you are not convinced, try it on someone who has not been entirely debauched by economics. — Piero Sraffa

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 7th, 2012 at 06:16:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I appreciate this diary was written for another blog and for a specialist audience, but a short opening paragraph or editorial note to explain to non specialists what ASPO is all about would be useful - if you want to draw in a wider readership into the debate. I think the failure of ASPO can perhaps be linked to a failure to capture public imagination and link to public debate which makes ignorant articles like that on Spiegal still possible.

I think the general public IS aware of the finite (if inexactly calculated)  nature of oil and coal resources and of the need to develop alternatives. The problem is that political/economic/financial debates tend to be reactive and deal in very short policy-spans whereas the peak oil/climate change debate is necessarily more long term. The problem for political change is as ever: "when you are up to your neck in crocodiles, you forget that your original objective was to drain the swamp".

However there is almost no public realisation of the interconnectedness between peak oil and the banking crisis, and this is perhaps where the longer term energy debate can link into the shorter term crisis management debate. The proposals to eliminate FITs is perhaps one of those wedge issues where the long term world of science and short term world of politics and business collide. Nobody is suggesting that Germany isn't in a better long term strategic position as a result of the development of its alternative energy sector, so why aren't more following Germany's lead in alternative energy rather than its lead in regressive banking and fiscal management practices?

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 07:26:09 AM EST
Hi Frank, interesting thoughts.

This is not the first time I write about ASPO here at ET and in any case there are links for the conference website that explain what it is about. It would be a bit boring defining the thing every time I write about it. Those that do not know anything about ASPO are encouraged to follow the links to the national organisations.

I acknowledge your reflection on interconnectedness between long term and short term thinking. But whereas this is obvious for Germany, perhaps not any more for Spain or Portugal.


by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 04:14:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I must have missed your earlier diaries and had to google ASPO to discover it was the Association for Peak Oil. My point is that a non-specialist or time poor reader will not have time to google or follow links and will thus quickly move on - losing you another opportunity to influence. Even just putting (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) after your first reference to ASPO may draw some readers in - "there is such an association? What are they about?"

I didn't mean that you should attempt to include a history of the organisation - a link back to a diary/website that does this would be more appropriate.

You have one paragraph to draw in the uniformed/uncommitted reader. You used it to refer to an acronym many people don't know; about a conference most people have never heard of and which was such a failure it might never happen again;  to complain you'd been asked to write a summary you didn't want to write; and had only done so because you were bored at the airport. Not the sort of opening paragraph that presages a best-selling must read story!  

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 05:41:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I get your point. But unlike other conferences, when I wrote some thorough account of events, this time it is just an echo of my frustrations, not really a post for the larger masses.

I'm changing the first sentence as you suggest, it really doesn't hurt.


by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 07:48:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Done. Actually it was a bit stupid not having a direct link for ASPO's website.

by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 07:51:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Jun 7th, 2012 at 11:26:31 AM EST
Interesting. So far the comments there have been quite sceptical, even somewhat abrasive. Just a reminder of how well the community works here.

by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Fri Jun 8th, 2012 at 09:11:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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