Friday, July 23, 2010

"Is Matt Simmons Credible?" (BP)

Here's an extensive follow-up to Wednesday's "Matt Simmons Says Gulf Clean Up Will Cost Over $1 Trillion, Sees BP At $1, Says "We Have Now Killed The GoM'" (BP).
From R-Squared Energy blog:


I am going to address a touchy subject in this essay, but I simply can’t ignore it any longer. I have noticed that a lot of people are finding my blog through keyword searches of “Debunking Matt Simmons.” About two and a half years ago, I did write an essay called Debunking Matt Simmons. Because of Matt’s recent claims about the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, there has been a spike in interest over whether his claims related to the disaster are actually credible. So now seems like a good time to revisit the subject.

The topic is touchy because Matt Simmons has long been revered in the energy business, and some of his fans will be upset with me for writing this. But Simmons has lately been making what I feel are very irresponsible and sensational claims that don’t hold up to scrutiny. So I will review his history here to show a pattern of Simmons making sensational predictions based on meager and/or misinterpreted data; predictions that later proved to be grossly inaccurate.

Matt Simmons, Investment Banker and Author

Matt Simmons is an investment banker to the oil industry, probably most well-known for writing the book Twilight in the Desert. The book laid out the arguments that Saudi Arabia had overstated their oil reserves, that their oil production was on the cusp of decline, and that prices were set to soar. The book became very popular, especially when Saudi production began to decline shortly after the book came out. My view was that Saudi production fell not because of the arguments Simmons put forward in Twilight, but rather because the Saudis were holding production back to keep prices up. So my feeling was that the Saudi decline was unrelated to many of the arguments that Simmons put forth. And in fact a couple of years later as oil prices climbed, Saudi production climbed back into record territory.

But I thought the book was important for two reasons. One, it put a spotlight on Saudi Arabia and really highlighted the importance of that country to the rest of the world, especially once oil supplies began to shrink. Second, it called a lot of attention to the issue of peak oil. I have always said that Twilight and The Long Emergency were both influential in causing me to become more involved in writing and talking to people about energy.

That isn’t to say the books don’t have flaws. They do. In Simmons’ book, I felt he frequently came to conclusions that weren’t warranted by the arguments he presented. A famous example is his “fuzzy logic” argument. Fuzzy logic is the basis of many control systems, but Simmons incorrectly interpreted the phrase to mean “hunch.” So when the Saudis used fuzzy logic in their control systems, Simmons made an argument that they were really guessing about their oil reserves. In his own words, “if they can basically just keep turning on a tap, why does it take fuzzy logic?” The comment was nonsensical, but as later events would show not simply an isolated example of Simmons speaking out when he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Matt Simmons, Layman

Twilight in the Desert made Simmons famous, and he began to be called upon as an expert on all things oil-related. There were two very big problems there. First, Simmons is an investment banker, and is not remotely an expert on all things oil-related. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is. But the bigger problem is that he either thinks he is, or just can’t say no to requests to do interviews and presentations. And when he does those, he frequently makes sensational claims and predictions. I am on an e-mail list where I saw this recent comment about Matt from a long-time admirer of his work, which I think hits the nail squarely on the head:
I think something happens to the psyche when the media pay attention to you for so long. You stop all self criticism, believing that whatever thoughts come to your mind have validity and import. In truth, it doesn’t matter if you are eventually proven wrong, because by then you’re off on the next topic.

Simmons’ Blunders at ASPO 2008

In my previous essay on debunking Simmons, I provided some examples of Simmons making factually incorrect statements. These statements were based on him not having enough information (or bad information), yet still speaking authoritatively on a topic. There were two later examples from his talk at the 2008 ASPO conference — where I also presented. (See his presentation here). He claimed in his presentation that we don’t have a good idea of our gasoline inventories, and because of Hurricane Ike we were just beginning a gasoline crisis that could bring the entire country to a halt. He spun quite a frightening tale, and I could see the shock on some people’s faces.

Contrary to Matt’s argument, the evidence was just the opposite. Even as he was speaking, refineries were coming back online from the hurricane outages and inventories were recovering. I caught up with Simmons later and told him that I used to work in a group in a refinery that provided inventory data to the Department of Energy, and we do indeed have very good data on gasoline inventories. So his fundamental premise was wrong. I was asked about Matt’s comments on a later panel session, and I said that gasoline inventories were beginning to recover and that I predicted they would be higher in a month. They were. Matt’s frightening scenario based on Hurricane Ike didn’t come to pass.

Another example is his argument about the $100 trillion corrosion issue in the oil industry. The gist is that he argues that the oil industry is full of rusting infrastructure, and he questions whether we have the money or even the iron resources to fix the problem. Further, he questions aloud how it is that he – Matt Simmons, investment banker – has ‘discovered’ this problem that the oil industry has missed. I won’t go into all of the reasons that Matt is way off the mark on this, as that would be an essay in itself. A corrosion engineer at The Oil Drum once weighed in on this issue, and explained that corrosion is well-understood, and not something that Simmons discovered. Oil companies are full of corrosion engineers who work to replace corroded equipment as needed. But it was another oil-related “crisis” Simmons “discovered” and he ran with it.

And that brings us to his recent interviews over the spill in the gulf....MORE