Carpe Diem

Great moments in failed predictions of resource depletion

The idiocy of “peak oil” and other claims of pending resouce depletion have a long history, dating in many cases back to the 1800s. “Peak nitwitery” experienced an especially strong revival in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to Paul Ehrlich and his 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” In a blog post titled “Great Moments in Failed Predictions” at WUWT, Anthony Watts points to a great list assembled by University of Georgia economics professor David Mustard for his course “Economic Development of the US.”  Professor Mustard has compiled several dozen claims made over the last 150 years of resouce depletion and other calamities related to population growth and climate change.  All of the claims made by Paul Ehrlich and others have been spectacularly wrong, e.g. see the various claims below relating to “peak oil/nitwitery” and mineral depletion.

1. In 1885, the US Geological Survey announced that there was “little or no chance” of oil being discovered in California. In 1891, it said the same thing about Kansas and Texas.

2. In 1939 the US Department of the Interior said that American oil supplies would last only another 13 years.

3. 1944 federal government review predicted that by now the US would have exhausted its reserves of 21 of 41 commodities it examined. Among them were tin, nickel, zinc, lead and manganese.

4. In 1949 the Secretary of the Interior announced that the end of US oil was in sight.

5. In 1974, the US Geological Survey announced “at 1974 technology and 1974 price” the US had only a 10-year supply of natural gas.

For the full list of failed predictions, go here.

HT: Joe Lais

15 thoughts on “Great moments in failed predictions of resource depletion

  1. Reminds me of the first Mencken quote Mark posted the other day:

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

  2. There is simply no “market” for forecasts that do not involve massive interventions by elite “experts”. Similarly the market demand is very large for those who claim that they can outperform major stock market averages.

    • It’s even larger for those who do outperform and changes quickly when they don’t deliver. Forecasts that “require” massive interventions, however, never go out of style.

  3. In Titan it is said that John D. Rockefeller’s partners wanted him to diversify out of oil during the 1880s as they believed that NW Pennsylvania was the only place in the world oil would be found and production was decreasing there. Of course John D ignored them and moved to the upstream side with the discoveries in the Lima Oh area, and then sponsored some research to figure out how to make a good lamp oil out of this crude (it was full of sulphur). So even some folks in the oil industry at the time felt that it was to be a flash in the pan.

  4. Note that the USGS prediction in 1974 was closer to right than the others since it included the qualifiers of price and technology. I doubt there would be much exploration at .30/ mcf now and in particular before fracking (which combined with horizontal drilling was not standard tech in 1974). Likewise if oil where at the $10 level no one would be exploring for it, I suspect its correct to say that at $10.00/bbl we have passed peak oil.

  5. In about ’73, they were predicting somewhere about a 30-35 year supply of oil, assuming things stayed much the same for projected use and discoveries. I don’t think improving technologies were factored in.

    What I found more interesting was that my research for a class project back then turned up evidence that both the Government and US Big Oil seemed to be making a coordinated effort to increase oil imports while limiting the increase in domestic production. The reason was strategic, i.e., use up “their” supplies while husbanding our own for the future. That kinda backfired a couple of years later when OPEC decided to limit production…

  6. Theory rich, data poor was the case 40 years ago. Today we are data rich and theory poor. Information overload. The book “The Signal and the Noise” points the way to improved forecasts. However, my prediction is that the future will always surprise us.

  7. The fact is that the production of light sweet crude is already behind us. And all of the billions of new investment has yet to get production to go above the 2005 level. Do not be confused by the fact that massive new investments have led to more production from low quality sources like shale or by the fact that the contraction in the real economy has kept prices as low as they have been. The important factors are depletion and returns on energy invested. Bot suggest that Peak Oil is just as real as peak whale oil was.

    • “The idiocy of “peak oil” and other claims of pending resouce depletion have a long history..”

      I want to believe, but the price of oil has skyrocketed since the ’90′s. Some of this is due to government, but wouldn’t it at least partially indicate there’s simply not enough oil to go around?

      • But by the theory of the market there is always enough there is never a shortage, the price adjusts to bring demand into balance with supply. If by your comment you mean cheap energy well that is gone but the increased demand does lead to improved efficiency as well. Consider for example that oil used to be burned to make electricity and still is in Hawaii, which is why electricity costs .35/kwh there.

      • Paul: “Some of this is due to government, but wouldn’t it at least partially indicate there’s simply not enough oil to go around?”

        What does that mean when you write “not enough oil to go around”? Did you see lines of motorists at gasoline pumps today – queuing up to get that last drop of fuel? Have you read anything this week about petrochemical plants shutting down due to lack of feedstock? Where is the evidence of insufficient oil?

        Or perhaps you really meant that “there is not enough oil to go around at the price I’d really like to be paying”.

      • Paul: ” the price of oil has skyrocketed since the ’90′s”

        The data I’ve seen indicates that global oil consumption has steadily increased for the past 50 years – that we are now consuming nearly twice as much as we did in 1965. For Asia and the South Pacific, oil consumption has increased almost nine-fold.

        Do you think that the doubling of oil consumption since 1965 – or the 32% increase the past 20 years – might have something to do with the rise in price?

        Here’s a link to global oil statistics:

        http://www.bp.com/extendedsectiongenericarticle.do?categoryId=9041228&contentId=7074736

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