King warns of oil woes

Neil King thinks the world is about to run out of oil.

King, the Wall Street Journal’s international energy reporter, told students at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea that the United States would be forced to diversify its energy sources beyond oil in less than 40 years. At the same time, King debunked more dire forecasts of America’s energy future, put forward by pessimists he addressed in his talk, “DOOMER’S DAY — Is the world about to run short of oil?”

Wall Street Journal energy reporter Neil King speaks at a Calhoun Master’s Tea in Swing Space on Wednesday.
Diana Thiara
Wall Street Journal energy reporter Neil King speaks at a Calhoun Master’s Tea in Swing Space on Wednesday.

“I think we’ll be lucky if we don’t get our comeuppance by 2017 or so,” he said, predicting that year as the start of a permanent decline in world oil production.

King began covering energy for the Journal in 2007. The assignment followed his stints on the paper’s international trade and terrorism beats, the latter up to and during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The beat was ripe with multitudes of stories, King said, but within months, he was ready to move on.

“That space had become so crowded and overrun,” King said, of covering terrorism. “I wanted to look at the world from a different point of view.”

That desire brought King to the energy desk.

“It sounds kind of nerdy,” he said he thought at the time.

But quickly King said herealized that energy issues — specifically those related to oil — were the main motive forces behind so much of the foreign policy reporting he had been doing.

Plus, the work could be touched — a marked shift from the abstractions of international relations. At America’s oldest oil field in Titusville, Penn., one worker offered to let him taste the product, King said.

“It lingered for hours,” he said, calling the taste of Pennsylvania oil “salty” and “sulfuric.”

Observing the incredible volatility in oil prices over the past spring and summer, King said he felt that the time was right to be reporting on oil.

He responded to those who cry “Drill, Baby, Drill,” arguing that opening additional fields to drilling would have an insignificant impact on prices and that existing fields are near capacity output.

Ultimately, oil prices may be too cheap, King said, adding that high oil prices are needed to drive exploration in alternative energies.

“We should stay at $3.75 per gallon and just deal with it,” he said.

Once world oil production starts to fall, he said, America will have to phase out its reliance on oil within 20 to 30 years — a transition he called potentially “wrenching.” Countries dependent on high oil prices to spur economic development could face staggering economic consequences should oil prices bust over the coming years — an “oil curse,” as he termed it.

That thought prompted Sam Vesuna ’12 to wonder about the fate of globalization in the wake of an oil crash.

“The idea of the world being flat could go out the window,” he said.

King then opened the floor to questions. One student asked King whether the current recession would help America find alternative energy sources. King said he was skeptical of that possibility.

“Pursuing alternatives is a luxury,” he said, “and it’s much harder to do when people are hard-pressed.”

Many found the talk revealing. “Oil as a curse: I’d never thought about oil like that,” said Katharine Gallogly ’12.

King’s visit — consisting of a talk on journalism at the News, the tea and the lecture — came through the University’s Poynter Fellowship, a symposium program responsible for bringing prominent journalists to campus.

Comments