Tom Whipple, retired CIA analyst and editor of this newsletter, will be a speaker at the ASPO-USA conference this October 11-13. When called up and ambushed for this interview, he immediately said he thought the idea qualified as “the dumbest idea of the week,” but eventually assented. From his home just outside Washington D.C. in Virginia, the amount of information that Tom single-handedly has gathered and circulated about the unfolding peak oil story is extraordinary. For his relentless efforts, ASPO-USA has named their award for volunteer of the year the Whipple Award.

Question

(from Steve Andrews): when did you first become aware of the peak oil phenomenon?

Tom Whipple:

I think it was the 1998 article in Scientific American, by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere [“The End of Cheap Oil”]. This was the first time I became aware that this was serious.

Prior to that, I had read a little about this in The Limits to Growth [1972], but that disappeared for about 25 years. Then, not much happened until 2004, when everything started moving rapidly: prices started flying up, the peak oil movement started ramping up, Peakoil.com and The Oil Drum started right about then. So I started to follow the information flow.

Question:

When did you start writing about the peak oil story?

Whipple:

The first thing I got involved with was writing a few columns for a local newspaper, the Falls Church News Press. For years the editor had asked me to submit some material. I finally asked him if he would publish something on peak oil. Just that week, a big story on peak oil had been in Rolling Stone, a review of The Long Emergency by Jim Kunstler, and the editor was quite taken by it, so he said “go ahead.” That was in early 2005, and I’ve been writing a column a week ever since; with just a couple of breaks, I must be up over 225 by now. I’ve been exploring a wide range of topics related to peak oil-not so much the geology, but what some of the implications are and how we’re going to get through this. Every week something new pops up. This week came the announcement that the world’s oil can be replaced by growing something akin to algae; whether this can pay off or not I haven’t a clue, but it shows that there are a lot of people out there working on a bunch of technologies.

Question:

When did you start assembling The Daily Countdown? [This was the precursor to the present Peak Oil News, the daily that Tom has assembled for ASPO-USA since Feb. 2006.]

Whipple:

First, I started doing the Virginia News when the major newspapers went on the internet back in 1996. My only claim to fame is that I was the first guy to recognize that it’s not too difficult to go through the 25 or 30 of the major Virginia papers every morning, pick out the important stories and send them out in a newsletter. Today I’ve got about 2500 people reading it, including lots of editors and reporters, and it’s just all by word of mouth. So when the peak oil movement came along about seven or eight years later, I had the software and processes worked out to create the same thing there; going from critical stories around the state to global stories about energy wasn’t actually that much of a shift when I started it in early 2005.

Question:

Did anything in particular trigger your start of the Daily Countdown publication?

Whipple:

I think I noted early on in The Oil Drum or another site when someone posed the question “what can we do about peak oil?” And someone wrote back, “tell people about it.” Then I thought, “oh I know how to do that,” so I immediately designed my own little peak oil newsletter. Soon afterwards I checked with 50 or 60 leading newspaper reporters and editors who were reading my Virginia News. I wrote that I was starting a new newsletter about peak oil and asked if any of them would be interested in reading this new publication that was free, just like the Virginia News. The response to that query was exactly zero. Not a single reporter or editor seemed to care about peak oil. Yet when I missed my first mail-out of the Virginia News a couple of weeks ago-for technical reasons-the reporters went absolutely berserk.

By the time of the first ASPO-USA conference, I had about 100 subscribers for the Daily Countdown. After the conference you asked me what could we do in terms of a publication. I said this could make a good foundation for a weekly publication; we just sift through the material we collected during the week, find the most important stories, and highlight those in the weekly.

Question:

Give us a little of your background at the CIA that helps these information searches.

Whipple:

I did a whole variety of things there. I drafted National Estimates for a while. I was an analyst for a while, working on individual countries. I didn’t have anything to do with oil up there. I spent a lot of time working on current intelligence, which was basically the daily publications.

Question:

What about your involvement with the presidential briefing papers?

Whipple:

There was a publication prepared every day called the President’s Daily Brief. One of my jobs for years was to babysit the Brief over night; it was prepared during the day, but not printed until 5 a.m. What looked black at 5 p.m. in the evening might look white by 4 a.m.-an army that we thought, in the evening, wouldn’t cross a border might have done exactly that during the night. So I had a lot of experience sifting through a vast flow of information from around the world. Following the peak oil story is very similar to what intelligence officers do. But 30 or 40 years ago, when I started doing this, you couldn’t access this information you needed on a computer in your basement. You had to be in a government office with banks of teletypes clacking away and reports coming in from a dozen wire services and 100 embassies around the world. After sifting through a flood of information for years, you get a feel how to go through it quickly and how to spot what’s important for policy makers.

To a certain extent, that’s what some of us are doing in the peak oil realm, but now we can get information from the internet-there’s so much out there. Before the internet, if magazines and newspapers didn’t want to pick something up, you never heard about it. That’s why the peak oil story has been an internet phenomenon: there is absolutely minimal information on it in the newspapers, in part because it’s controversial. And there are many that think there will be technology that will overcome the problem. Many of us who follow the peak oil story don’t think so; we think that oil depletion is going to overcome technology and new investment in the near future

 

So you don’t think technology will be the cavalry riding over the peak oil hill?

Whipple:

In the peak oil realm, you have the doomer side and techno-fix side. The doomers tend to think peak oil is going to tear society apart. The techno-fix group thinks there is going to be something that comes along that helps smooth us into the post-fossil-fuel world, though they’re not sure what it will be. I’m somewhat in the middle. On the technical side, there are a lot of things that can be done, no question about it. All of the energy we use comes from or came from the sun-or geothermal, or the Big Bang way back-so we just have to find the smartest ways to convert it and put it to use. We have to get by with a lot less energy-we can cut consumption by about a third without any real hardship…it’s the main thing we can do in the near term without spending too much money. Then we get around to collecting energy in other ways, shapes and forms. So that’s where I am personally on peak oil right now.

Question:

What do you anticipate will be the future for the airline and trucking industries?

Whipple:

I think they are going to have a lot of trouble. They almost went under last summer. The energy price crashes last fall helped these industries keep bumping along, but airline seats are down around 13 percent. I think we’re looking at more of the same. Right now I’m looking into the relationship between much too much credit, for these and other groups, and peak oil. I just don’t see how we can get out of this recession in any recognizable form. The minute you have a small recovery, oil prices will shoot up and we’ll have the same problems again.

Question:

What will it take to wake people up? Just responding to more high prices?

Whipple:

I don’t think anything else can do it but high gasoline prices. When they are back up at $4 a gallon, we’ll start paying attention again, but prices will eventually grow from there, which will mean people will have to start cutting back, with continued painful economic consequences.

Question:

You’ve briefed a lot of elected officials about peak oil. How have they responded?

Whipple:

I’ve talked with the governor, one of our senators, a number of congressmen, a number of state-level officials, and other officials over the years. It’s the same story; most people believe what I’m saying but they really have trouble internalizing the significance of all this. Everyone asks, “what are our alternatives?” They’ve heard of ethanol and coal to liquids and electric cars and other potential solutions, but they haven’t heard that these technologies cannot happen quickly. Oil production will likely drop a lot faster than the economy’s ability to invest in and bring on alternatives. It would take 25 years to replace the fleet with plug-in hybrids, etc., if we could afford to do it, given the shape of the economy over that time frame. More people are starting to understand this, but they don’t quite get that it’s going to happen soon.

Wrap:

Tom, thanks for your time.

Question:

3 thoughts on “Interview with Tom Whipple”

  1. I suppose all of us that bought into the Peal Oil argument will remember the first time we read about the concept. For me, it was Kunstler’s book “The Long Emergency” in 2006.

    Also interesting Whipple mentions reading about it first in a 1972 publication (just about the time the North Sea and Prudhoe Bay came online) and then he didn’t read about it again until 2004 (when both those fields had peaked and were producing less).

    North Sea and Prudhoe Bay bought us 30-40 years of oil-drive time. This should have all come to a head in the 1970s during the oil shocks instead.

  2. as you recall from the Long Emergency, that no amount of green technology will keep 300 millions cars on the road.It is pure fantasy. What we are really witnessing is the end of billions of years of cheap hydrocarbons in our time.As a result,The top 10 or so percent will have 90% of the energy that will be left over in the form of diminishing fossil fuels while the rest of us walk. Like the distribution of wealth, an oil based economy will mainley benefit the ruling elite.Please don’t be so wishey washy about this indisputable fact At ASPO…regards

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