The Gospel According to Matthew

For more than twenty years, an extremely successful Houston investment banker has been trying to convince the world that the end (of oil) is nigh. Now that people are finally starting to listen, is it too late?

February 2008By Comments

Matthew Simmons, photographed in his office in Houston on January 2, 2008.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

UPDATE: Houston investment banker Matthew Simmons, the fiesty proponent of peak oil, died Sunday at his home in Maine at the age of 67. Mimi Swartz wrote this lively profile of him—and his bleak vision of the future—in February 2008 TEXAS MONTHLY’s “Future” issue.—August 10, 2010

The Coronado Club, in downtown Houston, is an unlikely place to contemplate the end of life as we know it. Plush and hushed, with solemn black waiters in crisp black jackets, the private enclave practically exudes wealth and stability. Captains of local industry enter and exit purposefully, commanding their usual tables, wearing the best suits. Everybody knows everybody else. The light is flattering. The wine room is nicely stocked.

But here is Matthew R. Simmons, the head of one of the largest investment banking firms in the world, stabbing at his salad greens and heatedly discussing the chaos to come when, as he has long predicted, global oil production peaks and for the rest of our time on earth we struggle and suffer and barely endure under a diminishing supply of fuel until it disappears entirely. This idea is known as “peak oil,” and Simmons is its most fervent, and fearsome, apostle. As he puts it, “I don’t see why people are so worried about global warming destroying the planet—peak oil will take care of that.”

Slashing through his entrée, barely stopping for breath, he describes a bleak future, in which demand for oil will always surpass supply, the price will continue to rise—“so fast your head will spin”—and all sorts of problems in our carbon-dependent world will ensue. As fuel shortfalls complicate global delivery routes and leave farmers unable to run their tractors, we will face massive food shortages. Products made with petroleum, from asphalt and plastic to fabrics and computer chips, will also become scarcer and scarcer. Standards of living will fall, and people will not be able to pay their debts. Lending will tighten, and eventually there will be major defaults. Growth will cease, and hoarding will set in as oil becomes increasingly rare. Then, according to Simmons, the wars will begin. That is the peak oil scenario.

Simmons is an unlikely Cassandra in this, the energy capital of the world. He is a consummate insider—a friend of Mayor Bill White’s and of innumerable nabobs in the local as well as global energy business, a graduate with distinction from Harvard Business School, a Republican who advised presidential candidate George W. Bush on energy policy, and an extremely wealthy man. In 2006 his investment firm, Simmons and Company International, closed 35 transactions worth $8.7 billion and co-managed 19 offerings worth $6.7 billion. He lives with his wife, Ellen, in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods and also owns a vacation house in Maine.

Yet at 64, Simmons opts to spend his days traveling the globe at his own expense, speaking at universities and business forums and to tiny alumni groups and just about anyone else, trying to convince an uninformed, uninterested populace that the end is very, very near. Like a lot of prophets, he has little patience for those who disagree with his message. He is an intense man, smallish and ruddy-complexioned, with a high, wide forehead and marble-blue eyes. Old ways of thinking—that the market will correct for skyrocketing prices, that the Saudis will always provide—drive him buggy. “Price has no impact on slowing demand,” he insists, as an anxious waiter hovers. “We’ve seen a stealth growth of eighteen million barrels a day, while the demand between the end of 1995 and last week went up tenfold.” What about when everyone said that Saudi Arabia was hiding vast reserves, ready to flood the world market and cause a price collapse? “That was the dumbest thing I ever heard,” he snaps. “What giant new oil finds have they reported in the last decade or so?”

Hardly anything escapes Simmons’s ire. He has no respect for those who, in his estimation, have not done their homework as diligently as he has. Daniel Yergin, one of the world’s foremost authorities on oil? “A silly person,” Simmons says. Ethanol? “A tragic scam.” Big Oil? “A brain-dead industry.” Pushing aside his plate, Simmons gives the top oil companies grades of D+, D-, D, and F, declaring, “The head of Exxon is a flake.”

“People used to talk about how tech had changed the name of the game in oil field development,” he reminisces, barely able to conceal his disgust with earlier industry predictions. “They said costs would come down. I thought it was BS. Tech sped up the decline curves.” He shoots his left arm nearly straight up, his palm stiff, like a rocket on takeoff. Then, hardly pausing to chew his food, he continues: “I spent two decades convincing myself that most conventional oil myths weren’t true. People thought I was nuts. They called me Matt the Alarmist.” Now he believes—“knows” might be a better word—that his conclusions spell doom for the American way of life unless people heed his warnings.

“The best we can hope for is a ten-year plateau,” Simmons says, skipping coffee. “This controversy is the single biggest risk for the twenty-first century.”

So can anything be done?

He looks sharply at me, the Coronado Club’s soft light reflected in his glasses, and shrugs, suddenly out of gas himself. “I’m a lot more concerned than I was three years ago,” he says.

The term “peak oil” was coined by M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist with Shell in the forties and fifties. At the time, the United States was the largest producer of oil in the world. But in 1956 Hubbert predicted that American oil dominance would peak fourteen years into the future. Though he was considered a serious crank by some contemporaries, just about everyone now knows that Hubbert was right. American crude production has been in decline since 1970, resulting in our current reliance on—some might say addiction to—foreign oil.

Hubbert’s model proposed that production of resources with a finite supply could be expected to follow a more or less symmetrical bell curve, meaning that the rate of decline once the peak was reached would be the same as the rate of increase had been. In other words, if worldwide oil production peaked in 2000, as Hubbert predicted it would, the rate of production in 2010 would match the rate in 1990. While Hubbert was wrong about his second prediction, many peak oil theorists believe he wasn’t wrong by much—that, in fact, peak oil was reached in 2005. Others put the date further into the future. The most optimistic peak oil supporters estimate that production will begin to decline after 2037.

Meanwhile, the peak oil debate has become one of the most fractious of our time, with Simmons and other advocates squaring off against their critics, not just over the timing of this supposed disaster but indeed over whether it will happen at all. Analysts like Yergin, who runs Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), contend that we are decades away from a peak, that there is plenty of oil left in the ground, and that new technologies will soon come online to help extract it more efficiently. This view, known as “nondramatic peak oil,” has a number of proponents, including the U.S. Geological Survey.

Other critics dispute Hubbert’s premise itself, arguing that oil production may never peak (this idea has been dubbed “cornucopian” by peak oil followers). There’s even a radical idea, known as the Abiogenic Theory, that holds that most petroleum comes not from dinosaur fossils but from naturally occurring carbon deposits, possibly dating to the formation of the earth, which are being regenerated as we speak. All attempts to understand production are vexed by the fact that oil reserves are always subject to debate. Just as it can be difficult to determine the status of a weapons program halfway around the world, it’s never easy to verify a country’s claims about how much oil it has.

In fact, Simmons and many others believe that Saudi Arabia, the largest supplier of oil to the U.S., has been fudging its production numbers for quite some time. In 1989 the famously secretive country claimed to have 170 billion barrels of oil in reserve. In 1990 the number had risen to 257 billion, despite the fact that no substantial fields had been discovered in Saudi Arabia since the Ghawar Oil Field, in the forties. Furthermore, oil in a new field gushes easily from the ground, and the complex technology now required to coax the oil from Ghawar and other large Saudi fields suggests that they are in deep decline.

Simmons believes that the worldwide peak was reached in 2005. He estimates the rate of decline for all oil production at somewhere north of 5 percent a year. At the same time, the global need for oil is expanding exponentially, particularly as China and India claim their places on the world stage. In India energy needs are expected to grow 72 percent by 2025; China’s are expected to roughly double during the same time frame. In seventeen years the world’s demand for oil may well be more than 50 percent greater than it is today, while production capacity may well sink to 1985 levels.

Most of the globe remains oblivious to this impending crisis, but the number of people who have come to see its logic is growing. The once-skeptical Energy Information Administration, a U.S. government bureau that keeps tabs on oil production, is slowly buying the argument, as is Sadad Al-Husseini, the former executive vice president of exploration and producing for Saudi Aramco. Simmons spends much of his day strategizing via BlackBerry with other peak oil believers, like Colin Campbell, the famed geologist; David Rutledge, a Caltech electrical engineering professor and wireless-communications expert; Robert L. Hirsch, a senior energy program adviser at the government-friendly Science Applications International Corporation; Maryland congressman Roscoe Bartlett; Randy Udall, the son of former Arizona congressman Mo Udall; and yes, T. Boone Pickens.

Simmons’s Web site,, which had just shy of 10 million visitors in 2006 alone, is designed to spread the word with a helpful if somewhat daunting compendium of gloomy speeches, papers, and PowerPoint presentations (“A Hungry World in Search of More Oil,” “Autopsy of Our Energy Crisis,” “Summer’s Over: Preparing for a Winter of Discontent”). There is an ever-growing list of Web sites devoted to peak oil:,, and, a site dedicated solely to the emotional fallout of declining oil production. All hail Simmons as a hero and pose the kinds of questions no one much wants to think about answering. For instance: “If your family were permitted to purchase only five gallons of gasoline per week, how would this change your lifestyle?” Or the somewhat perkier query: “Given the likelihood of oil shortages in the future, what might be good careers for young people making choices today?”

This growing anxiety may help to explain why one resource that seems to be in decline along with the availability of fossil fuels is the optimism that was always so intrinsic to the oil-and-gas business. It used to be that if you went broke today, you could always start over tomorrow, and in the meantime the country club would keep your membership on the books until your next well came in. But suddenly people in Houston and beyond are beginning to suspect that there might not be many more giant deposits—in the North Sea, the Middle East, Venezuela, or even the deep end of the ocean—so somebody had better start talking about life after oil.

That job has fallen to Simmons, thanks in large part to his evangelical zeal. “Peak oil is not as complicated a topic as people think it is,” he likes to say. But getting people to grasp the ramifications—and adapt—is much harder.

It is a suspiciously warm Tuesday in early December, and Simmons has just flown from Houston to Miami on a chartered plane to give a speech to the International Regulators Offshore Safety Conference, a worldwide organization dedicated to offshore rig safety. Simmons never charges for these presentations because he feels they are the perfect marketing opportunity for his investment firm. “Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs have spent billions of dollars on advertising. We don’t spend any,” he says, his eyes twinkling with the thought of more than a few pennies saved. “When I speak, I get a sublime introduction. It’s branding of the highest order.”

Today he wears a natty battleship-blue suit set off with a white monogrammed shirt and a theme-appropriate camel-patterned Ferragamo tie. Simmons’ speech is titled “Is Our Energy System ‘Sustainable’? ” He has already told me on the ride over that the answer is no, but after a decade of being known as Dr. Gloom, he likes to present his information as coolly as possible. “If you try to make it dramatic . . . well, it’s dramatic enough,” he says. He’s convinced too that “reasonably intelligent people can absorb bad news as long as it isn’t presented smugly.”

After what is indeed a very florid intro given by a Swede (more than twenty nations are represented at this meeting), Simmons takes the stage confidently. Screens on either side of him display his slides of doom. In about fifteen minutes, he goes through a variation on his usual speech. Our refineries are decrepit. Demand from developing countries will exponentially increase. Seventeen percent of our daily supply comes from only ten supergiant fields, and if their reported production numbers are correct, all are in decline. The North Sea is depleted. Brazil is problematic. The “easy era” of offshore oil and gas is over.

“These aren’t new fields,” Simmons tells the crowd. “The newer fields are aging at an even faster rate, because the production is so intense to satisfy demand.” He moves on to the incredible increase in the price of drilling ($2 billion to $4 billion is now the norm; estimates for a new project in the Caspian Sea are about $137 billion) and the protracted time it will take to get new wells online.

The optimism espoused by critics of peak oil is “faith based,” he tells the crowd, dependent on questionable reserve reports, the unproven ability of technology to come to the rescue, and the highly theoretical availability of vast Canadian tar sands to replace the light, sweet crude of today. To counter those who say that market corrections will bring oil prices down, he projects a slide showing that demand for oil is currently “insatiable” at a time when many oil basins have already peaked. Need is so great here in the U.S. and in developing countries that improved technology only speeds the depletion of what’s left in the ground. Oil demand, Simmons says, could exceed 115 million barrels a day by 2020, an amount that will still leave China and India “energy paupers.”

Simmons’s critics often cite past price collapses, which theoretically indicate that there remains plenty of oil that can be provided with the turn of a well-timed spigot. But price declines have been short-lived, Simmons says, and while production has accelerated over the past decade, prices have soared. The best he has to offer is that high oil prices—up to $200 and $300 a barrel—could have a positive outcome, but only if the profits are spent on exploring, rebuilding infrastructure, and closing the ever-widening economic gap among people in the politically unstable nations of the oil-rich Middle East.

Clicking to his last slide, titled “It Is Easy to Miss an Approaching Crisis,” Simmons quotes Alexis de Tocqueville: “Revolutions, before they happen, appear to be impossible and after they occur they appeared to have been inevitable.” The illustration is of a rearview mirror reflecting rusting oil barrels, a drilling rig, storage tanks, a list of rising oil prices, and the words “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

Afterward, Simmons makes his way quickly to the elevator. He usually stays around to pick up industry scuttlebutt about declining fields and faulty data, but he’s headed for South Africa the next morning, so he punches the button briskly.

A tall gray-haired man stops to say hello. “Great presentation,” he says.

“It’s not great news,” Simmons responds.

The man nods. “Most of us are gonna go jump off our balconies about now.”

Suicidal depression is not exactly the response Simmons would like his speeches to provoke, but it is preferable to the derision or indifference that his pitch used to receive. On the jet speeding back to Houston, with the Gulf of Mexico shimmering far below us, he explains his conversion from conventional businessman to pariah to, perhaps, visionary.

Born in Utah, in 1943, he grew up comfortably in a large, actively Mormon family believing he would follow his father into commercial banking. He had a hearty American childhood, reading Mad magazine and spending summers working on a cattle ranch. A naturally competitive child, he found his way in high school to the debate team, where he excelled. He still remembers the dicey topics—such as Nuclear Disarmament—and that he lost a state championship by being overconfident. The loss taught him that “the guy who had the best data owned the floor.”

After graduating from Harvard Business School, Simmons ignored the entreaties of professors who wanted him to teach and instead set about doing what he liked best, raising capital. He worked out of a small office in a tony section of Boston (“If you work on a shoestring, you don’t look like a serious person,” he says). His introduction to the world of oil and gas came in 1969, when he traveled to Palm Springs, California, to meet with Laddie Handelman, an offshore diving operator whom Simmons calls the Thomas Edison of deepwater drilling. Handelman wanted to sell his company, and Simmons put the deal together.

But this was only the beginning. Simmons was one of the first to see that the oil field—services industry could be more than just an adjunct to the oil business; instead, it could be—should be—a separate entity. (“The profit margins were so good!”) Soon his life took on a rhythm familiar to many oilmen. One year after the 1973 energy crisis, Simmons opened his own firm with his brother, L. E. Simmons, in Houston. They drew business from companies in Texas, Louisiana, and Alaska and from firms in the United Kingdom working in the North Sea. In 1975 he had an IPO for Handelman’s company, now known as Oceaneering, in which the investors’ value grew sixfold. Times were great. By 1979 oil was on its way to $50 a barrel, and Simmons was becoming a very rich man. Oil and gas had been good to him. He diligently studied the best journals and newsletters and thought he knew everything there was to know.

So, like everyone else, he was dumbfounded when oil collapsed in 1982. “For two or three years I couldn’t believe we’d survive,” he says, and in fact, Simmons and Co. came perilously close to shutting its doors.

The devastation, however, led Simmons to an epiphany. Instead of attributing his losses to plain old bad luck, he began analyzing the raw data himself. Looking at the numbers, he realized he should have seen the crash coming. Then and there he decided he would never again rely on “a club of energy economists.” He would rely on his own instincts and his own raw data and disregard the so-called experts.

Simmons’s research further suggested that the depression in oil prices was going to last for quite some time. He began traveling the country, offering this prediction and his analysis that the industry would not survive without consolidation. “Boy, did people in energy think that was stupid,” he says.

Still, Simmons persisted. “You know the Vietnam general who said in order to save the village we had to destroy it?” he told in 2005. “To save the oil services, we had to destroy it. Some of the projects we worked on . . . we did a final analysis that said if these three companies come together, they can fire four thousand people and one thousand people will have sustainable jobs. I learned how to go to industry forums and tell people they all had AIDS.”

Simmons thought that people would listen to reason if it meant avoiding financial destruction. And many did accept his views. He put together the deal for the company that became Texas Eastern; he assisted the Norton Company in buying 50 percent of Eastman Christensen in the spring of 1989 and then, a few months later, handled the company’s $550 million sale to Baker Hughes. “What a wild way to end the eighties!” he recalls. Leaner and meaner, the industry surged forward.

Then, of course, oil prices collapsed again in the late nineties, the result of tremendous oversupply. The size of the glut was estimated at about 3.5 million barrels a day. Conventional wisdom held that this had been created by the failure of the Asian markets, OPEC’s overproduction, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Experts claimed that demand had peaked just as new technologies were getting the oil out of the ground faster than ever.

Simmons’s private research showed something very different. He didn’t believe there was a glut at all. Instead, he thought the oil business was being ruined by bad math and a lack of common sense. “I don’t think we were understanding demand,” he says. During this time, he took a trip to China and got a glimpse of the future as he watched the country muscling its way into the modern age. He realized that, with developing nations driven by mobility and a passion for prosperity, “there is no glass ceiling to how big demand can grow.” As Simmons began to speak on this topic, he once again became the odd man out, disparaged this time for not being a trained economist.

In February 1999 oil was at $10 a barrel, and the experts believed that the price would stay low indefinitely. Instead, just a few days after the Economist published a story called “Drowning in Oil,” the petroleum ministers of Venezuela, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia took two million barrels off the market and prices went back up again, to $37 a barrel. Simmons, who had always suspected that the glut was a product of smoke and mirrors, was vindicated. He had come to distrust the International Energy Agency’s accounting. “I thought [that] either they had found data I’d never seen or they’re lazy,” he says. Or, perhaps, they just didn’t know: In 2000 Simmons served on a government energy task force; at meetings there was often no one else in the room who could name the largest oil fields in the Middle East, Mexico, or Angola.

Simmons went back to his studies, teaching himself not just more about oil but also about electricity and natural gas and how the businesses worked together. In February 2004, drawing on the lesson he’d learned in high school debate, he conducted a personal examination of the world’s largest oil fields, generating his own research data. His analysis suggested that production was already in decline throughout the Middle East. Though the Saudis were claiming to control 25 percent of the world’s oil field reserves, Simmons began to suspect that, in fact, their oil fields were aging rapidly and already required expensive and complex technology to extract their remaining reserves. This could only spell trouble for a world that was predicted to increase its oil needs by more than 50 percent by 2025. It seemed like a good time to hold the first peak oil conference. Fifty people attended the event, which was held in Sweden.

Shortly afterward, in 2003, Simmons was invited to Saudi Arabia by oilman Herbert Hunt. On a visit to an oil field there, he noticed the Saudis were using water pressure to get the oil out of the ground—a sure sign of an aging well. When he got back home, Simmons undertook another study, assembling 240 peer-reviewed papers on Saudi oil fields written by the Society of Petroleum Engineers—“It was about a foot tall,” Simmons says—and spending the end of a Maine summer reading through the stack, pinpointing evidence of decline. The research finally proved his long-held suspicions: Saudi supply was nowhere near what had been claimed for years.

But proving his hypothesis was bittersweet. Feeling something like a surge of panic, Simmons reported his findings in Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, a dense, four-hundred-page tome published by John Wiley and Sons in 2005. The book became an international best-seller, and Matthew Simmons became a true prophet of doom, the global authority on peak oil.

Mention the name Amy Myers Jaffe to Simmons and you will provoke a lot of sputtering. Jaffe is the Wallace S. Wilson Fellow in Energy Studies at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, the associate director of the Rice University Energy Program, and a frequent oil authority in the pages of, among other publications, the New York Times. In her forties, Jaffe also happens to be startlingly beautiful—almond eyes, flowing auburn hair—with a distinctively nasal New England intonation you might find particularly annoying when and if she’s disagreeing with you, which is a position Simmons finds himself in regularly these days.

“The question isn’t what’s left under the ground but where is it located and do I have access to it,” Jaffe tells me. In her opinion—and she is far from alone—there is plenty of oil but geopolitical issues and resource nationalism in oil-producing countries prevent investment by American firms. In addition, internal political problems in those countries inhibit their production capacities. This notion impresses Simmons not at all: “I’ve never tried to integrate geopolitics with the physics of oil and gas,” he sniffs.

Like Jaffe, Daniel Yergin’s CERA believes there is enough oil in the ground to keep us going for quite some time—3.74 trillion barrels, as opposed to the 1.2 trillion barrels the peak oil proponents claim. The group has produced a $499 downloadable report titled “Why the ‘Peak Oil’ Theory Falls Down—Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources.” Yergin likes to point out that this is the fifth time the world has been said to be running out of oil and that new sources or technologies always appear on the horizon to save us. CERA has argued that oil production won’t peak but will follow an “undulating plateau,” which should leave us plenty of time to come up with a solution to the problem of diminishing resources.

These opinions aren’t as reassuring as they sound. If Simmons believes the end is upon us, CERA’s time frame is just a few decades away. According to one of its papers: “During the plateau period in later decades, demand growth will likely no longer be largely met by growth in available, commercially exploitable natural oil supplies. Non-traditional or unconventional liquid fuels such as production from heavy oil sands, gas-related liquids (condensate and natural gas liquids), gas-to-liquids (GTL), and coal-to-liquids (CTL) will need to fill the gap.”

Simmons does not believe that the great industry hopes of Canadian tar sands or South American oil shales can ever fill this gap in time. They simply cannot produce the volume necessary to sustain the current levels of 80 million barrels used around the world every day. Simmons further counters that CERA’s plan to use this remaining time to squeeze the last drop of oil from declining wells is a fool’s errand. Companies will be spending more to get less and less out of the ground. “I’ve always said Dan [Yergin] was a fabulous historian,” Simmons says. “He’ll write the best history of how we crash.”

Then there are those who argue that simple economics will keep the oil business from imploding: As prices go up, demand will go down, until the price goes down and demand goes up again. “These were the same old arguments as to why oil would never stay above thirty dollars a barrel,” Simmons counters with impatience. “Free markets do not work when demand outstrips supply.”

One way of looking at the peak oil contretemps is to say that Houston boasts two Ivy League—educated oil authorities who are equally pessimistic about the future of petroleum but who disagree virulently with each other about the reasons why. Peak oil critics and peak oil supporters lob the same accusations at one another—that both camps use fuzzy data, that they don’t understand oil reserves, that they don’t understand the way markets work in this day and age. The fact that both sides believe that we have to move from a petroleum-based economy sooner or later is constantly and conveniently—for the major oil companies—overlooked. “We agree there’s a problem but for different reasons” is the way Jaffe puts it. “We know we’re moving to a carbon-restrained world. We know there’s a high risk of war in the Middle East over the next ten years.”

Fortunately, each side does offer a few solutions that are not necessarily contradictory. For a Republican zillionaire who thinks Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s movie was “crappy,” Simmons’s proposals are surprisingly green. First, he believes the workforce should be liberated from the nine-to-five grind, because 70 percent of our oil is used for transporting people and goods. “The biggest inefficiencies are long-distance commuting and traffic congestion,” he says. “People shuffle into work and get on the Internet. You can have staff meetings by webcam.”

Simmons also thinks we should put an end to the global food distribution system that allows us to have Chilean watermelon in December. “We can’t afford to do this anymore,” he says. We should also harness the power of the oceans and move more goods over water, a proposition that isn’t as quaint as it sounds. It’s currently being done off the coast of Washington State. Most important, the public should insist on data reform that includes quarterly reports on reserves and field production numbers. It isn’t just the Saudis who are stretching things, he says. Exxon Mobil, for instance, ran into trouble with its 2004 data; after the company boasted that it was replacing its own production to the tune of 125 percent, the SEC calculated that the actual number was 83 percent. “We’ve wasted four years,” Simmons says.

Jaffe’s solutions are more concrete but probably no easier to enact: Make the oil companies put more of their money into research and development instead of shareholders’ pockets, and make legislators commit to improved education so that more students will study science and math and speed up the technological curve.

Not coincidentally, both Simmons and Jaffe agree that if Houston doesn’t step forward and embrace these changes, it will lose its place as the energy capital of the world and that as Houston goes, so will Texas. At one time, the city prospered whenever oil prices were high; since then, the reluctance of the oil companies to innovate and the foot-dragging of anti-tax politicians to support education have changed the calculus. The economy is shifting away from a dependence on natural resources to a dependence on knowledge. Blue-collar jobs that once defined the city are rapidly disappearing. The population will be, increasingly, poorer and less educated. Meanwhile, Department of Energy funding for research that once came this way is heading out of state, to places like California and Virginia, where progressive, innovative thinking is more welcome. “If Houston isn’t the intellectual incubator for new carbon management,” Jaffe warns, “someone else will be.”

Simmons concurs, in his way: “If Houston grasps the issue and the magnitude of the issue, it can lead the way,” he says, allowing himself an uncharacteristic moment of hope. Then, of course, he reverts to type: “If we keep our head in the sand, we’ll be like Tulsa in 1965,” he says, referring to a city that, until the seventies, was more important in the world of oil than Houston. “I am trying to scare people. To tell them to wake up. This is a real defining moment.”

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