Toyota’s North American CEO, Jim Lentz, predicted back in 2009 that by 2020 the world would hit peak oil—the idea that the world’s demand for oil would exceed the world’s supply of oil. And since we’ve officially entered the year 2020, it feels like an appropriate time to look at whether his prediction was correct. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
“I think there’s no question, oil is going to be more expensive,” Lentz said at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on November 17, 2009. “Our model on future energy, is that we will probably see peak oil sometime around the end of the next decade. So whether it’s 2017 or 2020, it’s going to be some time in that neighborhood.”
Lentz went on to say that Toyota is trying to shift its production to other types of fuel while noting that he believes natural gas is likely to peak around 2050. Lentz, who at the time was president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales, also said that fuel cells were “a long way down the road.”
“But that’s our view on oil. We have about 10, 12 years left,” Lentz said.
But, as you might have guessed, peak oil just didn’t happen. In 2010, the inflation-adjusted price of oil was $82.54 a barrel. And in 2019, the price was just $46.25. The price of oil has actually fallen since 2010, and you don’t really hear people talking about peak oil anymore. Why? Because we’ve gotten really good at finding new reserves of oil and extracting harder-to-reach oil through technologies like fracking. And with or without peak oil, continuing to use fossil fuels will spell the end of a habitable planet.
Back in the 20th century, many people were obsessed with the concept of “peak oil.” In 1909, some people predicted that we only had roughly 25-30 years of oil left. And those same predictions proliferated for a century.
- “A geologist stuck a figurative dipstick into the United States’ oil supplies Tuesday and estimated that the country may be dry in 10 years.” — August 3, 1966, Brandon Sun (Brandon, Manitoba)
- “At any rate, U.S. oil supplies will last only 20 years. Foreign supplies will last 40 or 50 years, but are increasingly dependent upon world politics.” — May 1972 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
- “Unfortunately, oil production will likely peak by 2020 and start declining.” — 1996, Richard Smalley, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
- “Global supplies of crude oil will peak as early as 2010 and then start to decline, ushering in an era of soaring energy prices and economic upheaval — or so said an international group of petroleum specialists meeting Friday.” — May 25, 2002, Index Journal (Greenwood, SC)
The concept of “peak oil” is not the reason to get rid of our dependence on fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. We simply need to ditch oil because it’s killing our habitable climate and hundreds of thousands of Earth’s species.
If you’re about to point out that Lentz was wrong about peak oil, so maybe the scientists are wrong about climate change, I need to stop you right there. Because climate change isn’t a problem for the future. It’s something we can see right now and absolutely no predictive powers are necessary.
The world is unquestionably in the middle of a dire climate crisis. All you need to do is look at Australia, where the country is setting heat records, bushfires are raging, and towns are being evacuated by the military. At least seven people have died from the fires in the past day and dozens more are missing. An estimated 500 million wild animals have died, and the capital city of Canberra currently has the worst air quality of any city in the world. An elderly woman got off the plane in the Canberra today and died of respiratory failure, reportedly because the smoke blanketing the city was so bad.
Australia is bad and getting worse, and the world should start to take notice.
It’s entirely possible that we could hit peak oil within the next few decades. But the question of peak oil is beside the point. Lentz may have been wrong about his prediction, but hopefully, his inaccurate prediction at least lit a fire under Toyota’s ass to start taking alternative energy more seriously.
If humanity doesn’t get off fossil fuels, the planet will be so intolerable that few people will want to be alive, let alone driving their vehicles (gas-powered or otherwise) all over the place. Again, all you need to do is look at Australia. The rest of the world is getting a glimpse of the future right now in the land down under. And it’s not pretty.