Thursday, July 29, 2010

Matt Simmons Has Had Quite a Ride

Oil and gas industry investment banker, Matt Simmons, has achieved success and acclaim in a second career as a "peak oil prophet."  Mr. Simmons is famous for claiming that Saudi oil fields are in rapid decline, and that world oil production peaked in 2005.

During the recent BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Mr. Simmons was in great demand as an oil industry insider and expert.   But storm clouds are beginning to form over the reputation of Simmons as someone whose judgment and veracity can be counted on.  Strangely enough, some of the mumblings of mutiny are arising from the peak oil ranks themselves.

Peak oiler, energy blogger, and chemical engineer Robert Rapier has published a series of critical evaluations of Simmons' work, the most recent of which was published -- of all places (!) -- in The Oil Drum website. The TOD article takes a close look at some of Simmons' recent statements about the oil spill in the Gulf. A careful reader will come away with the clear conclusion that Simmons' credibility is in tatters, blowing in the breeze. Only the truest of Simmons true believers in TOD comments persists in defending the recent incredible and fantastic statements that Simmons had made to the press.

But is this a new phenomenon, or has Simmons always been this way? Some of the questions relating to Simmons' credibility go all the way back to his magnum opus, Twilight in the Desert.
Matt Simmons has been wrong about virtually every important trend he has tried to call.

He was wrong in his shrill predictions about US gas "going over a cliff". He predicted a catastrophic drop in US natural gas production by summer 2005. That never transpired, and in summer 2008 US gas production is *rising* at a rapid clip. Details

He also predicted a near term collapse in Saudi oil production (Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock) which never transpired. The book was released in June 2005, and in the last 18 months, Saudi crude+condensate production has steadily risen, reaching a high of 9,700mbd in July 2008 (EIA stats, Table 1.1c). Historically, that's an extremely high level. The last time Saudi crude+condensate production was that high was almost 30 years ago, in October 1981 (see EIA, 2008 Monthly Energy Review, Table 11.1a Link).

Simmons staked his reputation on the claim that Saudi Production was going to collapse, and it did exactly the opposite. No wonder he's having a nervous breakdown and promoting bizarre schemes like mowing the bottom of the ocean with "underwater lawnmowers":
“Call it seaweed, if you want,” Simmons said. Whatever you call it, Simmons said the world must start harvesting this micro algae using what he called “underwater lawnmowers.”

Simmons acknowledged that any plan for large scale harvesting of micro algae likely would be strongly opposed by environmentalists. His blunt message to them: "Get over it. We’ve already destroyed the fish stock."Source
Simmons' consistent view has always been that high prices will not temper demand, that demand will continue to follow optimistic IEA forecasts even if supply massively undershoots that level (economic gobbledygook like "In seventeen years the world’s demand for oil may well be more than 50 percent greater than it is today, while production capacity may well sink to 1985 levels."Source), and that prices are going to go through the roof. Which, of course, is completely at odds with the actual situation of falling demand and prices. The man is overwrought and out of touch: on Sept. 22, 2008, as the price of oil was nosediving to $33, his comment was: "There really is no roof on oil prices at this point."Source

Petroleum is a finite resource. But if you want to build a career (even a second career) out of claims that "it is all downhill from here," you need to substantiate your claims much better than Mr. Simmons has been able to do. His recent spouting off about the Gulf Macondo oil spill tells us plainly that his judgment is not trustworthy. Which means that Mr. Simmons is even more obligated to provide factual substantiation to even the least of his claims and predictions.

Readers and administrators of The Oil Drum website generally seem to feel that Simmons should be referred to with respect in every instance -- as if Simmons had recently died, deserving the respect of the dead. But perhaps it is only Mr. Simmons' reputation that is dying, misstatement by misstatement, failed prognostication by failed prognostication.

Update: 31July2010 -- I just remembered a pertinent post by Robert Rapier from early January of this year:
The Saudis had production back above 9 million bpd by December 2007, and by July 2008 they had production at 9.7 million bpd – the highest level in almost 30 years (and without the aid of some of the major new projects that were expected to bump production a little). Their production then pulled back after prices collapsed. Just the fact that production flat-lined for 7 months with no new major projects coming on says without a doubt they were sitting on spare production when I was arguing that they were. If they hadn’t been, they would have declined a bit each month and could have only reversed that by bringing new projects online.

One argument that many people made for a permanent decline was that if Saudi had spare production they would have brought it online in 2006-2007 as prices climbed. As I replied at the time “Not if inventories are full.” (Of course Saudi production rose with the price of oil in 2008, and hit 9.7 million bpd in the same month that oil prices hit $147).
Robert provides a great deal more of interest to observers of peak oil in that brief article. Smart people will read it and take heed. Dull-witted disciples of the peak oil gurus will avoid Robert's reasoning for the head-pounding cognitive dissonance it would have provoked.



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