National Review: We have an infinite supply of oil

Larry Kudlow, a columnist for the popular right-leaning magazine and website National Review, has written an extraordinarily terrible article on energy. Kudlow makes the incredible claim that “there is no finite supply” of oil. I won’t even bother to refute this, because it is patently obvious that there is no infinite source of energy available for our (or anything’s) use. Moreover, it places the blame for rising oil prices squarely on supply, while ignoring massive surges in demand from rapidly industrializing nations, and grossly misrepresents the real issues of supply as simply “running out of oil.”

This isn’t the first time the National Review has published such terrible energy journalism. This article from 2003 by Raymond Learsy claims that because oil collapsed to $10 per barrel in 1999, this is the “reflection of what the price of oil should be in a free-market environment,” in 2003, when oil prices were at about $30 per barrel. While it’s true that neoclassical economics predicts that a market dominated by cartels will result in higher prices, Learsy draws the ridiculous conclusion that because oil was $10 a barrel in 1999 and $30 a barrel in 2003, “OPEC’s manipulations have added some $20 to the price of oil.” That’s right, it’s OPEC’s manipulations, and not the surging demand from rapidly industrializing nations, that were responsible for the rise of oil in this period; furthermore, the fairy-tale “free-market” price of oil stays at $10 per barrel for all eternity, forever undisturbed by the aforementioned soaring demand. I wonder what Learsy has to say now that oil prices are over $130.

In a Feb 2008 post on the “Planet Gore” blog run by National Review, Ken Green misconstrues an article by Proskurowski et al. published in Science titled “Abiogenic Hydrocarbon Production at Lost City Hydrothermal Field.” Green suggests that Proskurowski’s findings lend credence to the theory of abiogenic petroleum origin, which claims that a sizable amount of the Earth’s petroleum comes from abiotic (non-living) processes that occur below the crust. The abiogenic petroleum theory challenges the widely accepted view that petroleum is a fossil fuel, formed from the remains of long-dead animals, but is largely unsubstantiated. If it is true, petroleum may be a slightly more “renewable” fuel, and so it is popular with and espoused by those who have an interest in denying the existence of Peak Oil, whether the peak has occured or will occur in the past, present or future. 

Unfortunately for Green, and for those who want to believe in the abiogenic petroleum theory, Proskurowski’s discovery of methane and other lightweight (one-to-four carbon) hydrocarbons formed by abiogenic processes at the so-called “Lost-City” hydrothermal field in the mid-Atlantic has little to do with the abiogenic petroleum theory. The diversity of the chemical composition of petroleum is far greater than the abiogenically formed hydrocarbons Proskurowski discovered at the Lost City. Even if a petroleum-like mixture of organic compounds had been found at the field, its location – about 1500 miles east of Florida – makes drilling a logistical nightmare, if not impossibility. This isn’t to say that Proskurowski’s research isn’t important – this abiogenic formation of hydrocarbons is of great interest to biologists and other scientists – but Green blatantly construed his findings as evidence for the “renewability” of oil.


13 Responses


    The supply is not infinite and certainly not in terms of accessible supplies. The days of poking a hole in the ground and striking a gusher are gone for good.

  2. Great, we should just drop all foreign oil. Now.

    Relax all laws on drilling the in the US. The free market will magically do the rest. We dont’ have to worry about where it will come from, it will come.

    Start an oil company today and get in on the ground floor.

  3. Of course what Kudlow actually said was: ” There is no finite supply, or if there is we are 100 years away from it.” as a way of illustrating the point that – given the size of the Bakken fields, fields on the continental shelves (see Brazil), the Siberian fields, ANWR, oil shale in Colorado, etc. there is no near-term shortage of supply – there is simply an unwillingness to tap into said supply.



  4. Being 100 years “away from it” isn’t exactly a good deal. While the antecedent is unclear (does he mean 100 years from peak, 100 years from running out, or 100 years from when it suddenly becomes “finite”?), there is a huge difference between 100 years and infinity. It was actually being kind to simplify his statement to infinity, because otherwise it is rather cryptic.

    Responding to your comment, Rich, oil shale and oil in Siberia is not cheap to extract. It will be a factor, but remember we’ve already picked low-hanging fruits. The return to be had will largely depend on technological development, but so far, oil shale tends to produce darker oil than the usual light, sweet crude that makes our gasoline and is less viable than even liquefying coal. (some interesting, cited information on this topic is available on wikipedia, but it’s hard to get good estimates of returns).

    Thanks for all the comments.

  5. Indeed, i think the Brazilians are having a hell of a time trying to tap into their newly discovered stuff thats under hundreds of feet of salt. Also, with the low grades, it’ll be hard to get production up high enough to really offset depletion of every other field

  6. “…100 years from peak, 100 years from running out, or 100 years from when it suddenly becomes ‘finite’?”

    Apparently, the so-called “conservatives” simply believe that they’ll be dead when things get ugly, so it’s not their concern.

  7. I reckon Carson Park Ranger has hit the nail on the head. Even if we think of the next generation, my youngest child is 28 now so she’ll be a very old woman before exhaustion of oil supplies, global warming, and the rest of it, get really serious. So it’s easy to take the lazy option.
    On the more general thrust of the article, I’d guess that National Review is mostly preaching to the choir; does it really matter what it says?

  8. I’m just going to say, if you think your 28 year old is going to be very old before these issues get serious, you are mistaken. There is no doubt that this will get serious in the next 20 years, and its very possible that it could within 5 years.

  9. […] You may remember our coverage of the National Review’s stunning claim that there is an infinite supply of oil available for drilling. Now, they have outshined themselves in their coverage of the WaMu bank […]

  10. “I won’t even bother to refute this, because it is patently obvious that there is no infinite source of energy available for our (or anything’s) use. ”

    Technically solar would be about as infinite as we could get, at least insofar as when it does run out we’re really boned anyway. Obviously there’s a way to go on solar, but I can’t imagine that won’t be a major source of power in the coming century.

    On the oil thing, I do tend to think there is more available than we currently believe. If there isn’t, well that’s why you get your pistol license. See? All bases covered!

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