Published: December 27, 2010
Five years ago, Matthew R. Simmons and I bet $5,000. It was a wager about the future of energy supplies — a Malthusian pessimist versus a Cornucopian optimist — and now the day of reckoning is nigh: Jan. 1, 2011.
The bet was occasioned by a cover article in August 2005 in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Breaking Point.” It featured predictions of soaring oil prices from Mr. Simmons, who was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the head of a Houston investment bank specializing in the energy industry, and the author of “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy.”
I called Mr. Simmons to discuss a bet. To his credit — and unlike some other Malthusians — he was eager to back his predictions with cash. He expected the price of oil, then about $65 a barrel, to more than triple in the next five years, even after adjusting for inflation. He offered to bet $5,000 that the average price of oil over the course of 2010 would be at least $200 a barrel in 2005 dollars.
I took him up on it, not because I knew much about Saudi oil production or the other “peak oil” arguments that global production was headed downward. I was just following a rule learned from a mentor and a friend, the economist Julian L. Simon.
As the leader of the Cornucopians, the optimists who believed there would always be abundant supplies of energy and other resources, Julian figured that betting was the best way to make his argument. Optimism, he found, didn’t make for cover stories and front-page headlines.
No matter how many cheery long-term statistics he produced, he couldn’t get as much attention as the gloomy Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich, the best-selling ecologist. Their forecasts of energy crises and resource shortages seemed not only newsier but also more intuitively correct. In a finite world with a growing population, wasn’t it logical to expect resources to become scarcer and more expensive?
As an alternative to arguing, Julian offered to bet that the price of any natural resource chosen by a Malthusian wouldn’t rise in the future. Dr. Ehrlich accepted and formed a consortium with two colleagues at Berkeley, John P. Holdren and John Harte, who were supposed to be experts in natural resources. In 1980, they picked five metals and bet that the prices would rise during the next 10 years.
By 1990, the prices were lower, and the Malthusians paid up, although they didn’t seem to suffer any professional consequences. Dr. Ehrlich and Dr. Holdren both won MacArthur “genius awards” (Julian never did). Dr. Holdren went on to lead the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and today he serves as President Obama’s science adviser.
Julian, who died in 1998, never managed to persuade Dr. Ehrlich or Dr. Holdren or other prominent doomsayers to take his bets again.
When I found a new bettor in 2005, the first person I told was Julian’s widow, Rita Simon, a public affairs professor at American University. She was so happy to see Julian’s tradition continue that she wanted to share the bet with me, so we each ended up each putting $2,500 against Mr. Simmons’s $5,000.
Just as Mr. Simmons predicted, oil prices did soar well beyond $65. With the global economy booming in the summer of 2008, the price of a barrel of oil reached $145. American foreign-policy experts called for policies to secure access to this increasingly scarce resource; environmentalists advocated crash programs to reduce dependence on fossil fuels; companies producing power from wind and other alternative energies rushed to expand capacity.
When the global recession hit in the fall of 2008, the price plummeted below $50, but at the end of that year Mr. Simmons was quoted in The Baltimore Sun sounding confident. When Jay Hancock, a Sun financial columnist, asked if he was having any second thoughts about the wager, Mr. Simmons replied: “God, no. We bet on the average price in 2010. That’s an eternity from now.”
The past year the price has rebounded, but the average for 2010 has been just under $80, which is the equivalent of about $71 in 2005 dollars — a little higher than the $65 at the time of our bet, but far below the $200 threshold set by Mr. Simmons.
What lesson do we draw from this? I’d hoped to let Mr. Simmons give his view, but I’m very sorry to report that he died in August, at the age of 67. The colleagues handling his affairs reviewed the numbers last week and declared that Mr. Simmons’s $5,000 should be awarded to me and to Rita Simon on Jan. 1, but Mr. Simmons still had his defenders.
One of his friends and fellow peak-oil theorists, Steve Andrews, said that while Mr. Simmons had made “a bet too far,” he was still correct in foreseeing more expensive oil. “The era of cheap oil has ended,” Mr. Andrews said, and predicted problems ahead as production levels off.
It’s true that the real price of oil is slightly higher now than it was in 2005, and it’s always possible that oil prices will spike again in the future. But the overall energy situation today looks a lot like a Cornucopian feast, as my colleagues Matt Wald and Cliff Krauss have recently reported. Giant new oil fields have been discovered off the coasts of Africa and Brazil. The new oil sands projects in Canada now supply more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia does. Oil production in the United States increased last year, and the Department of Energy projects further increases over the next two decades.
The really good news is the discovery of vast quantities of natural gas. It’s now selling for less than half of what it was five years ago. There’s so much available that the Energy Department is predicting low prices for gas and electricity for the next quarter-century. Lobbyists for wind farms, once again, have been telling Washington that the “sustainable energy” industry can’t sustain itself without further subsidies.
As gas replaces dirtier fossil fuels, the rise in greenhouse gas emissions will be tempered, according to the Department of Energy. It projects that no new coal power plants will be built, and that the level of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States will remain below the rate of 2005 for the next 15 years even if no new restrictions are imposed.
Maybe something unexpected will change these happy trends, but for now I’d say that Julian Simon’s advice remains as good as ever. You can always make news with doomsday predictions, but you can usually make money betting against them.