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Friday, June 11, 2010

Worst Book on Oil Crisis Written Yet

Former USGS staffer Steven Gorelick has written a book called "Oil Panic and the Global Crisis: Predictions and Myths". It has to rank as the worst of the neo-cornucopian books out there simply because it actually spreads myths instead of deeming to correct them, as the title implies.

The author acts the role of a somewhat neutral bystander and balanced pseudo-journalist, never giving the appearance of a rabid oil cornucopian, yet slipping in so many groaners that he basically gives away his not-so-hidden agenda. From a scientific context, providing both sides of the story makes no sense when the objective is truth rather than balanced reporting. Excerpts of the book would fit right into a Fox news piece.

To give a taste of how little original research that Gorelick has actually performed and how much he relies on other cornucopians, consider the passage wherein he references geology professor Larry Cathless. On page 128, Gorelick quotes Cathles as saying that we may find as much as "1 trillion barrels of oil and gas in just a portion of the gulf oil sediments".

I found the original statement by Cathles here:
Cathles and his team estimate that in a study area of about 9,600 square miles off the coast of Louisiana, source rocks a dozen kilometers down have generated as much as 184 billion tons of oil and gas — about 1,000 billion barrels of oil and gas equivalent. "That's 30 percent more than we humans have consumed over the entire petroleum era," Cathles says. "And that's just this one little postage stamp area; if this is going on worldwide, then there's a lot of hydrocarbons venting out."
Although not directly implicated as an abiotic oil advocate (unlike his late Cornell University colleague Thomas Gold), former Chevron employee Cathles has close ties to the largely mythical Eugene Island story. Several years ago new discoveries from the previously tapped-out Eugene area had people's hopes up that somehow oil reservoirs could go through a near real-time "replenishment".
"We're dealing with this giant flow-through system where the hydrocarbons are generating now, moving through the overlying strata now, building the reservoirs now and spilling out into the ocean now," Cathles says.
Well, as it turned out, the Eugene Island secondary production turned out just a blip on the radar screen, yet Cathles still gets a mention as a credible source?
(Think about it, if this turned out true, then the recent Gulf Oil spill could allow a never-ending release of hydrocarbons from beneath the waters, as this urban legend gets repeated still. How embarrassingly timely for Gorelick.).

Elsewhere, the book becomes safe pablum for a narrowly defined audience. Note the limited depth of Gorelick's analysis and the intentional dumbing down in his writing:

Hubbert used a straightforward formula that yields the curve as illustrated in Figure 1.2. The logistic-curve formula is a simple expression with three adjustable parameters (mathematical knobs) that control the slope, peak, height and time of peak

Now you see what happens when an author keeps it too simple. He ends up never explaining anything about the logistic, apart from providing the functional form in a footnote, and makes it worse by calling the parameters "mathematical knobs". That essentially gives a flavor of the depth of the mathematics.

Gorelick has an entire chapter called "Counter-Arguments to Imminent Oil Depletion". Notwithstanding that oil depletion is imminent by definition (it certainly does not regenerate contrary to the implications), this chapter contains some of the most unscientific assertions that I have come across. Consider this bullet point coming from Gorelick:
- The world has never run out of any significant globally traded, non-renewable Earth resource.
This false equivalency comes somewhere from the list of logical fallacies. I find it bizarre that a reputable scientist would appeal to this kind of argument. Further he bullet points:
- The trends in production of global oil and natural gas have not declined as predicted.
I call a strawman fallacy as no one has really come up with a formal theory for depletion. Instead every oil prediction that I have seen has relied on some sort of ad hoc analysis via heuristics. So to imply that something has not followed as predicted does not prove anything. As I have said before, heuristics do not substitute for theory and Gorelick unfortunately has not contributed any research of his own.

I listed only 2 of the 21 bullet pointed counter-arguments that Gorelick concludes the chapter with. I can understand the need for these bullet points if he wanted to act like an objective journalist wanting to tell both sides of the story. Yet we have all learned from Krugman that real science does not scream headlines that say "
Shape of Earth--Views Differ". A scientist should dig deep and try to come up with a model or theory that would confirm or rebut the empirical evidence. You just don't rely on tired worn-out assertions (the world has never run out of a resource, predictions have not come true, etc) from the cornucopian right, put them in a book and consider this an advancement of knowledge.

The book industry likely published Oil Panic because it does not even remotely challenge business as usual and actually condones the cornucopian viewpoint.

End of book review.


Since Gorelick has propagated half-truths and not resolved any myths at all in the oil depletion realm, I figured I would return the favor in his own research area.
From his CV, the "honored and awarded" Gorelick moved on from the USGS and became a professor of hydrogeology and part of the Environmental Earth System Science department at Stanford University. If he can write a book on peak oil and turn back progress on understanding oil depletion, I can opine on hydrogeology.

From his research papers, Gorelick claims to understand how to model principles of hydrogeology and presumably knows about breakthrough curves. It turns out that most of the dispersive transport involved in hydrology applications hinges on some very simple overriding principles. These principles are so obvious to me that I don't understand why the brilliant scientific minds in geology have not figured this out. Consider that Gorelick has expertise in "multiple-rate mass transfer" which I associate this with the simple idea of dispersion applied to material transport. I actually ran across Gorelick's work prior to reviewing his book because of my studies of generalized dispersive transport.

As Gorelick should know, all processes do not proceed at the same rate, and this includes variations in oil discovery rates around the world. This leads directly to the fat-tail effects that I see in oil reserves and to the fat-tails that Gorelick observes in solute transport in his groundwater contamination studies. Not all solute diffuses and drifts at the same rate, so that scientists see these long tails. How Gorelick can publish research on groundwater rates, but see no analogy to the larger issue of oil extraction seems such a waste of intellectual potential.

Should Gorelick ever read this review, I challenge him to read my work on dispersion and the math behind depletion of oil. These models come from solid math and probability underpinnings and simple physical first principles, and lead to the kind of insight that we all need to make sense of our fossil fuel energy situation.


Professor Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the reality check. I thought this was a great book from reading the review in science magazine.

1:47 PM  
Professor Blogger @whut said...

Thanks, I sent my review to the reviewer. May find out how upset he gets.

9:51 PM  

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