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Husseini isn't the first to raise the specter of a peak in global oil output. For decades oil geologists have theorized that when half the world's original endowment of oil has been extracted, getting more out of the ground each year will become increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible. Global output, which has risen steadily from fewer than a million barrels a day in 1900 to around 85 million barrels today, will essentially stall. Ready or not, we will face a post-oil future—a future that could be marked by recession and even war, as the United States and other big oil importers jockey for access to secure oil resources.

Forecasts of peak oil are highly controversial—not because anyone thinks oil will last forever, but because no one really knows how much oil remains underground and thus how close we are to reaching the halfway point. So-called oil pessimists contend that a peak is imminent or has actually arrived, as Husseini believes, hidden behind day-to-day fluctuations in production. That might help explain why crude oil prices have been rising steadily and topped a hundred dollars a barrel early this year.

Optimists, by contrast, insist the turning point is decades away, because the world has so much oil yet to be tapped or even discovered, as well as huge reserves of "unconventional" oil, such as the massive tar-sand deposits in western Canada. Optimists also note that in the past, whenever doomsayers have predicted an "imminent" peak, a new oil-field discovery or oil-extraction technology allowed output to keep rising. Indeed, when Husseini first published his forecasts in 2004, he says, optimists dismissed his conclusions "as curious footnotes."

Many industry experts continue to argue that today's high prices are temporary, the result of technical bottlenecks, sharply rising demand from Asia, and a plummeting dollar. "People will run out of demand before they run out of oil," BP's chief economist declared at a meeting early this year. Other optimists, however, are wavering. Not only have oil prices soared to historic levels, but unlike past spikes, those prices haven't generated a surge in new output. Ordinarily, higher prices encourage oil companies to invest more in new exploration technologies and go after difficult-to-reach oil fields. The price surge that followed the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, for example, eventually unleashed so much new oil that markets were glutted. But for the past few years, despite a sustained rise in price, global conventional oil output has hovered around 85 million barrels a day, which happens to be just where Husseini's calculations suggested output would begin to level off.

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