National Commentary

On the Death of Matthew Simmons

Last week Matt Simmons, who was America’s preeminent proponent of the idea that world oil production was about to peak, died at the age of 67. Simmons was unique among those talking and writing about peak oil in that he came from the very heart of American capitalism, a self-made investment banker for the oil industry. Unlike most who are outspoken on the issue of peak oil, Simmons was a Republican, an energy advisor to President George W. Bush, and commanded the attention of the financial and mainstream media.

Whenever the price of gasoline got a little too high for comfort, the worthies of the Fourth Estate would summon the unorthodox-but-acceptable Simmons to explain to obviously skeptical interviewers just why he believed that cheap gasoline would not be around much longer.

In the days following Simmon’s death some 400 obituaries appeared on the web, on television broadcasts and in hard copy publications around the world. Some of these were written by people and organizations who understand the threat of peaking world oil supplies and praised Matt for his leadership in analyzing and publicizing the issue. Others were written by hostile skeptics who sought to play down his significance or focused on those instances in his voluminous pronouncements where he was wrong. A few even attributed his death to assassination at the hands of the CIA or BP because of recent anti-BP comments on the Gulf oil spill.

Many of the obituaries however were prepared by mainstream and financial news organizations that are either agnostic about peak oil or hold plainly hostile attitudes towards the concept because of the threat a falling oil supply holds for the American way of life or perhaps even to capitalism. Forced to say something because of Simmon’s position in the business community, it is interesting to see just how peak oil treated is in the various obituaries that appeared in the financial press.

Most of the major publications relegated the story of Simmon’s death and works to their blogs. In an era of dwindling advertising revenue, however, this has become normal and should not be taken as an effort to downplay the story. Nearly all the stories had some reference to Simmon’s global prominence as a proponent of peak oil. One or two even said he invented the concept. Most mentioned his 2005 book Twilight in the Desert which discussed in detail the prospects for Saudi Arabian oil production

The most interesting distinction, among the major publications’ mentions of peak oil was the use of the word “theory” as a means of denigrating the concept. Many put the term in quotes as another sign of denigration, but a few devote a phrase or two explaining what it means.

Now anybody following peak oil soon learns that 50 years ago, when the concept was seriously introduced, peak oil could easily be called a “theory.” Today, however, with global production stagnant, the peak oil story has been reduced to a handful of numbers denoting how much oil was actually produced in a given year. This can be the actual number of barrels of oil produced in a single year – currently around 31 billion — or is more commonly expressed as the average daily production during the year, currently about 86 million barrels per day.  When the number of barrels of oil or equivalents produced each year becomes generally smaller in successive years, then you have peak oil.

There really is not any “theory” in this concept, for a declining number series is about as much of a fact as anything in this life can be.

With dozens of obituaries prepared for mainstream and financial media outlets, the treatment of peak oil varies widely. Among the most favorable treatment of peak oil was that of Llewellyn King writing for the Hearst newspapers who took the occasion of Simmon’s obituary to remind us that peak oil is an open secret that haunts the oil industry.

The Wall Street Journal landed somewhere in the middle of the controversy by concluding that peak oil remains hotly contested and the information about reserves from less than forthcoming oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia and Nigeria is incomplete.

At the other end of the scale a few writers were almost gloating that Simmons was gone and as evidenced by cheap and plentiful gasoline, peak oil was still nowhere in sight. One even suggested that the whole concept of peak oil might have died with Simmons.

And so the debate goes on. Even in death Matt Simmons, as evidenced by the unprecedented widespread treatment of the subject, made yet another contribution to spreading the word about peak oil. For the time being, however, it would seem that for many peak oil has much in common with Harry Potter‘s dark lord, Voldemort – something so terrible that it cannot be spoken of or written about.


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.