Randy Udall – A Comet Passes

[Ed: For those who may not have heard, James "Randy" Udall, a co-founder and driving force in building ASPO-USA, died recently while hiking in Wyoming's Wind River Range. Below is a tribute from three friends who enjoyed many years working alongside Randy as volunteer leaders for ASPO-USA. Their words speak for many of us. This remembrance was first published in Peak Oil Review.]

By Sally Odland, Steve Andrews, and John Theobald

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is."

– Albert Einstein

Last week our universe was rent asunder by the untimely death of our great friend, colleague and mentor, Randy Udall. The passing of this lanky, unprepossessing comet of a man with his wide-ranging intellect, uncompromising honesty and stiletto wit leaves a wide vacuum in its wake.

We knew Randy primarily through his crusade to bring honest discussion of America’s energy predicament into public dialog and policy. Randy started tracking and writing about world oil and gas depletion in the 1990’s. He co-founded the US chapter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil in 2005 and spearheaded five highly touted and provocative energy conferences, creating for a few years the ultimate big tent for international energy thinkers. He was famed for his poetic speeches, wicked humor and accessible metaphor. And also for his insistence on speaking truth to power, no matter its rank.

Randy was a formidable autodidact. When he designed and built his passive solar house by hand, he taught himself plumbing. Auto mechanics? No problem. In his two decades working with CORE—his Colorado energy efficiency group—and ASPO-USA, he taught himself the math and technologies of renewable energy and fossil fuels along with a fair bit of geology. He learned by seeking out smart doers and leaders to probe them with questions that could vault him up the learning curves.

Randy was a contrarian thinker. He worked problems from all angles, refusing to succumb to groupthink and revisiting old assumptions whenever new information came to light. Because of this uncompromising truth-seeking and refusal to toe a party line, he held the respect of many people and groups that would not normally sit in the same room much less at the same table. On any given day, his inbox might field emails from climate scientists, exploration geologists, energy historians, economists, utility operators, environmental groups, and—maybe his favorite—the people actually steering the drilling rigs.

He admired the immense brainpower and ingenuity of petroleum geologists and engineers to find and develop fossil fuels, and he understood exactly how much we rely on them to support the American Dream. All the while, he looked for concrete ways to move houses off energy ‘life support’, individuals to a lower carbon budget and his country towards renewable energy flows.

There was always solid research behind Randy’s picturesque quips. When he threw out one-liners like “Oil shale has less energy content than pig manure,” you could be sure he had calculated the per-ton BTUs of both. If he noted that “Energy extraction is now the dominant land use in America”, you knew he had run down comparative numbers on acres leased for drilling versus agricultural acreage.

Always present in the moment and engaged with his audiences, Randy connected the abstract world of energy use to ordinary people’s lives. He avoided graphs to tell the story, preferring visceral and iconic analogies. To illustrate the power needed to fuel our electricity appetite, for example, he would show a slide of nude Lance Armstrong on bike, share data from a personal correspondence with Armstrong’s trainer, then inform us all that the most powerful man on earth can’t generate enough juice to run our hair dryers. A presentation to hundreds of professionals in Boston might divert into a technical discussion of CO2 emissions. The same presentation to a group of college students at UC Davis would morph into an analysis of the energy demands of their campus.

Unlike many pundits, partisans, educators and activists, Randy never punctuated his public conversations and presentations with moral judgments. He refused to jettison facts or objectivity on behalf of a moral crusade. As Garrett Hardin has said, “the tender flower of objectivity is easily crushed by what is taken to be the necessity of the moment.” While Randy made damning comments like “Time may be our most precious resource . . . D.C. is fiddling that away while the petroleum burns” and “Without a scorecard, our policy responses are liable to stay stuck on stupid,” he did not characterize the American life style as evil. Instead he dubbed us “the Oil Tribe” and made people aware of what that actually meant.

"‘So much for peak oil’ is a popular meme right now” he would say. “But there's a difference between reporting and quoting. All this talk about Saudi America is misleading boosterism. “

“This notion that ‘it’s morning in America’ is simply hype. The pore throats in shale rocks are 20,000 times smaller than a human hair. On these rocks, we've bet our energy future.”

“Eventually, the politics of energy has to surrender to the physics of energy.”

Randy never played off the Udall family name. Virtually without ego, he shunned all self-promotion. With his eloquence and charisma, people thought him a natural for politics and urged him to run for office to further his message. But, in fact, he had no taste for that. He exercised his public persona at great personal cost and would retreat for long stints to the wilderness to recharge his spirit and soul.

Randy died like he lived, questing nature’s energy flows, in the Wind River Mountains he so loved. Death snuck up and felled him on the trail. It is not hard to imagine Randy, led by his boundless curiosity, walking through the portal separating his last worldly step from the universal energy.

We loved Randy like oxygen and will miss him desperately. His was a light the rest of us could navigate by. What a privilege to have been hitched to his star for the ride.

Sally Odland is a former oil geologist and ASPO-USA board member, now at Columbia University. Steve Andrews is a retired energy consultant in Colorado and a co-founder of ASPO-USA. John Theobald teaches at the University of California, Davis. Each worked closely with Randy to build ASPO-USA and advance critical discourse on America's great energy challenges.

A beautiful tribute to a beautiful man. Thank you Randy for inspiring an energy journey that changed my life.

Yet another baby boomer dies before he can enjoy the fruits of old age. Many people think that "nature" or physics are the enemy, but there is actually the true enemy of all life: TIME. All other fears pale before it.

"Yet another baby boomer dies before he can enjoy the fruits of old age."

I can think of no better way to die than this, absolutely none. My hats off to a man who didn't shrivel up into a decayed and diseased mass of overly medicated flesh, but instead chose to go on living... until he stopped.

What an inspiration. If only 1% of Americans had these type of values I believe we would already be well on our way to working things out, too bad they don't.

Time for another backpacking trip, I hope I have the tremendous good fortune to go out like that as well when my time comes.

I can think of no better way to die than this, absolutely none.

The Winds are magical, and it was good they were never made a National Park, as proposed.

May most of us be that lucky.

I have never met Randy Udall. All I know of him is from he said and wrote. He wrote about Peak Oil with intelligence, calm, and patience. With his death, the world is now poorer. Randy Udall R.I.P.

I did have breakfast with him at one of the ASPO meetings. A delightful experience. We still have his U-tube presentations

Would it be possible for one of the moderators here (Joules or Gail?) to post some "best of Randy" links?


thought a few words from rudall himself might fit here--concise, packed with info, measured tone but strong voice...still resonating...

rudall on November 3, 2012 - 12:20pm Permalink | Subthread | Parent | Parent subthread | Comments top


I always enjoy your thoughts on the biz.

As per your comment above, I stand by the statement that the 26 bcf/day increase in US shale gas production
between 2000 and 2012 represents the largest infusion of new energy into the American economy in many decades.

Prudhoe, flush, was about 1.5 MBd, as I recall. http://tinyurl.com/b345kyy

So... is this a "revolution"? Is it a game changer? The coal industry would sure as hell say it was.
Cheniere would sure as hell say it was, since it stranded their billion dollar investment in LNG imports. The game
changer isn't doing wind industry any favors, either. Or the CBM play in the PRB for that matter. Or the Russians.

Perhaps in 2000 or thereabouts, I think some of you guys in the biz understood that the Barnett wasn't a one-off, but the EIA certainly early in the last decade and even the NPC was saying we gonna need 10 bcf/day of LNG imports. Dozens of LNG terminals were planned. People in the biz were frankly freaked by the first year decline rates they were seeing in Texas conventional wells. 56% was the number in an OGJournal article from that period by a respected analyst. Swindell?


I think at TOD we get stuck in defending our EROEI, finite fuel, steep decline rate world view--and that has prevented many of us from fully appreciated what the industry and technology have wrought.

At the same time, the cheerleading about shale gas and shale oil seems so over the top sometimes, and so ignorant of climate change and so heedless of what these staggering depletion rates in shale wells really mean... that an autoimmune reaction is going to be fierce, particularly at this web site.

Recall that the 1.5 mbd from Prudhoe... this came from 200 wells. Just 200. I think there's still fewer than 600 production wells there now.

And how many shale wells has it taken to get to 26 bcf/day. Don't have that number, but am guessing we've drilled about 240,000 gas wells in the U.S. since 2000, perhaps 40% into the shales. Would be interested in seeing the real number, if someone has it handy. But certainly the number of shale gas wells must now number 30,000 or more.

The o/g industry has leased at least 10% of the Lower 48 now, and will need to drill perhaps 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 gas wells
over the coming century for the "100 year promise" to pan out.

And then? What comes then, pray tell?

I think what so many people miss is that it's not turtles all the way down. Shales are the source rocks. Once they're drilled up, well then all bets are on abiotic gas and hydrates. LOL

I always appreciated Randy's comments. He was lucky to depart doing something he enjoyed. I hope his exist was quick and painless.

Is it impolite to ask what caused his death? Did he have a fall or something?

From news reports...autopsy results are pending, but it appears he died suddenly of a medical condition, maybe a heart attack. He was found in open, rolling terrain, his poles still in his hands.

He was only 60, but otherwise, h2 is right. Randy Udall died doing what he loved best, where he loved best. There are a lot worse ways you can go.

I was curious myself, for two reasons: 1) I'm the same age as he was. 2) I'm physically very active and might be prone to take off on a hike through the wilderness by myself just like he did. Still, I'm guessing something like he was probably pushing himself harder than his physical limits would allow and he had a heart attack and there was no one around to help him out there. Would be good to know the truth!

Didn't know him personally only through his posts and through watching his presentation on Youtube, as they say, "the good they die young!" RIP, Randy.

His appearance and demeanor suggested excellent physical condition. But vigorous activity - climbing a steep grade with backpack at altitude - could have contributed to a heart attack or stroke.

From Spain, my condolences. Randy writings were some of my preferred readings on energy. He will stay in my memory.


I miss Randy a great deal. We met each other and spoke occasionally at the ASPO meetings but it wasn't until this year that we spoke/emailed often. A prince of a man.
He emailed me the day before he left on this hike and told me to go out and buy/check out the book Requiem for a Species - by Clive Hamilton. I just bought it.

The world needs more people like him. Selfless, thoughtful, deep, friendly, pro-social, outspoken. I'll miss him.