Finally, there's no equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for peak oil. This matters. Part of what makes the IPCC so important is that it does the job of consolidating many little theories into one big Theory. The IPCC reviews all of the scientific papers published on climate science and the impact of climate change. It looks at methodology and figures out which papers are more trustworthy than others, and it compiles all of that information into realistic estimates of what might happen and when.
If there are two competing little theories that should be given equal attention—because nobody knows yet which is correct—the IPCC tells you that.
In contrast, peak oil research is a confusing jumble of individual, often contradictory, papers. To a layperson, it's not easy to tell which little theories on this subject deserve more respect, and it's hard to get a sense of what the overarching scientific consensus is, if one exists at all. That means you have nothing to draw on when it comes time to judge the statements about peak oil that are made outside the scientific community. When you read an op-ed that claims oil production has already peaked and that our entire way of life is imminently going to collapse, do you know how much evidence supports that and how much doesn't? When another source tells you that peak oil isn't something to worry about at all, is there a reason to believe this statement? Without an IPCC-like entity, answering those questions requires a lot of time and a not-insignificant amount of scientific expertise.
There's been some progress made in solving this problem. In 2009, British researchers put together a sort of micro-mini IPCC aimed at answering the question "What evidence is there to support the proposition that the global supply of ‘conventional oil' will be constrained by physical depletion before 2030?" In other words, is peak oil a short-term problem or a long-term problem?
The researchers' report doesn't cover all of the questions surrounding the idea of peak oil. For instance, they specifically avoid predicting what economic, political, or social side effects peak oil could produce, and their research covered only supplies of "conventional oil"—no tar sands or fuels made from coal or natural gas. This group was also much smaller than the one that evaluates the evidence for climate change—only eight experts, drawn from the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet the project is an important first for peak oil: a group with no obvious bias had collected all of the available research, evaluated it in a transparent way, and summarized the whole body of evidence for non-experts.
Here's what they found. First, peak oil is a real occurrence. We know enough about how oil fields work and what happens during the life of a given oil deposit to say that production of oil will peak, and then it will decline.
Second, figuring out when that decline will happen isn't easy, for reasons I've already mentioned and more. Yet although the data on oil supplies are flawed and patchy and the methods used to forecast future supplies have some serious limitations, the researchers agree that there's still enough information available that we can start to form a clear picture of global oil supplies and make some adequate estimates about how long conventional oil will last. These estimates won't be perfect, but they're necessary, and they'll be accurate enough to help us plan for the future, at least until better data come along.