David Mcnew  /  Getty Images file
Wells pumping in the oil fields of California's southern Central Valley, one of the nation's most important oil producing areas.
By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 10/25/2004 6:10:25 PM ET 2004-10-25T22:10:25

When the modern oil industry was born 145 years ago in Titusville, Pa., few people worried about just how long petroleum would keep flowing out of the ground. But since production peaked in the United States in 1970, a growing number of geologists, economists and industry analysts have been pondering the question of just how long worldwide   supplies will keep up with growing demand. And some are predicting that global production may peak as soon as next year.

The outlook is muddied by the data. Estimating oil reserves — how much is left in the ground — is a notoriously perilous endeavor. The task is complicated by the secrecy of OPEC producers, who are reluctant to dislose just how much oil they’ve found. 

This year, global demand for oil — currently at more than 80 million barrels per day and climbing — has come closer than ever to exceeding the world’s known production capacity. Disruptions in oil supply — due to wars or market forces like OPEC embargoes — are nothing new. But with producers pumping as fast as they can, there is little cushion for temporary supply interruptions or heightened demand from industrializing countries like China and India.

“We really are close enough to the edge to have no excess capacity. Demand growth shows no sign of slowing and now it seems to be accelerating,” said Matt Simmons, a Houston-based investment banker. “It’s really important to know what the real story is — as bad as it may be.”

Another Great Depression?
No one is suggesting that the world oil industry is close to pumping its last drop. But the question now being raised is whether new reserves can be discovered fast enough to both replace depleted oil fields and keep up with growing demand. Some argue that the world is rapdily approaching the point where the pace of oil depletion overtakes the growth in new supplies.

“The worry is whether there is something worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s waiting for us —  particularly that the United States gets heavily hurt because we burn a quarter of the world’s oil,” said Princeton University geologist Kenneth Deffeyes.

From the fieldDeffeyes is perhaps the leading proponent of the work of the late M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil geologist who accurately predicted, in a controversial 1956 paper, that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970. Deffeyes has applied Hubbert’s work to global oil supplies and has come up with his own projection for peak global production. He expects world production to peak around Thanksgiving of 2005, give or take a few weeks.

But with a surge to record oil prices in recent weeks and gasoline consistently selling in the $2 a gallon range for most of the summer, energy issues have played a surprisingly low profile in the presidential campaign. The reason, experts say, are clear: There are no simple solutions.

“The presidential candidates aren’t going to stand up and say ‘I’ve got bad news.” said Deffeyes. “They don’t want to promise you blood, sweat and tears. So it’s not being debated as an issue on the presidential campaign.”

No more 'cheap' oil
Oil industry officials say there are still promising regions that have not been fully developed, including areas of Alaska and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S. that are currently off limits. But they generally agree that the days of major new finds of cheap oil are over.

“There is lots of oil out there,” said Karl Kurz, vice president of marketing and minerals for Anadarko Petroleum.  “But it’s a finite resource; we can’t get around that. Eventually, you’re going to get to the point where there’s not any more to find.”

There are skeptics to the production peak theory. Morry Adelman, an MIT economics professor, says there is plenty of oil around as long consumers are willing to pay the price to produce it.

"There are a lot of prospects that were not worth developing before which are worth developing now. And there are a whole lot of prospects which were not found before which are worth looking for and worth developing today.”

A lot depends, of course, on just how much oil remains underground. Many of those who fear a production peak is imminent base their forecast on estimates of what geologists call the “ultimate recoverable resource” of about 2 trillion barrels of oil. But there’s disagreement among geologists on that number. A comprehensive study by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2000 estimated that some 3 trillion barrels of oil will ultimately be produced. Adelman argues that the amount of oil left to be produced is “unknowable.”

Regardless of how much oil remains in the ground, says Deffeyes, the critical bottleneck is production capacity. “I can’t drive into the filling station and say fill her up with reserves.”

Deffeyes argues that production capacity has grown more slowly than demand – based on production figures that are a lot more reliable than reserve data.

“Production is a pretty firm number,” he said. “Oil gets counted twice: once when it gets produced and once when it goes into the refinery. So we pretty much know how much is produced, and my Thanksgiving Day prediction is entirely based on production.”

In theory, higher oil prices should expand supplies, by bringing on line oil that just isn’t profitable to produce at lower prices. But the recent surge in prices and continued growth in demand haven’t been matched by a major boost in oil industry capital spending on exploration and production.

New spending has been constrained, in part, by political instability in parts of the world believed to hold vast potential, such as Venezuela, Iran, Iraq and parts of Africa.  But Big Oil is gun shy for other reasons. The sting is still fresh from a major investment boom in the 1990s, when the industry lost heavily when it bet on an oil price run-up that collapsed following a global recession. By 1998, the price of a barrel of oil had fallen to $12.

“I would say the oil companies are right -- those of them that have not made commitments on the basis of $30 to $40 oil,” said Adelman. “Because the price is going to turn around and may turn around quite drastically.”

“Seeing” underground
Meanwhile, technology is expanding the industry’s ability to find and extract oil – in some case finding new fields once thought to be fully exploited.

Horizontal drilling has provided access to pockets of petroleum otherwise unaffordable or unreachable. So-called 3D visualization, in widespread use for the past five years allows geologists to “see” underground formations with a degree of clarity and detail unimaginable a decade ago. Advances in remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are extending the reach of deep-water exploration and production further and further offshore.

“There’s no such thing as limitless, but the limits keep being expanded all the time,” said Adelman. “There are many offshore places that in the fullness of time will get explored. But I don’t know (how much oil) there is there, and in fact nobody does.  That’s the kind of frontier you have. It’s disorderly.”  

Adherents to imminent peak forecasts point to data showing that the overall pace of new discoveries has been slowing. If increased production isn’t accompanied by expanded discovery of new reserves, all that new technology is simply depleting existing fields more rapidly, said Simmons, the Houston invesment banker.

“Modern technology has created super straws that do not extend the amount of oil by any significant degree,” he said, “but actually suck out the amount you were ultimately going to get a lot faster.”

Economists also argue that higher oil prices will eventually reduce demand as consumers choose more efficient cars and energy producers develop alternatives like wind power. But there is no way to predict whether oil demand will fall fast enough – or alternative energy sources will be developed quickly enough -- to avoid an economic shock like the oil shortages of the 1970s.

'Hard' landing or 'soft'?
The debate over oil reserve estimates and demand-production trends is not just academic; at stake is nothing less than the economic well-being of the world over the next few decades. There are numerous scenarios describing the transition from a global economy based on fossil fuels to whatever energy sources ultimately replace them. The most extreme pessimists – found on Web sites like dieoff.com – foresee a kind of global return to the Stone Age as a world deprived of energy is beset by anarchy and starvation. 

And even the most optimistic scientists who believe oil production will soon peak warn that the transition to a post-petroleum world will require an enormous undertaking involving breakthrough technologies and massive amounts of capital.

“If I’m right about the time scale we’ve got a problem,” said Deffeyes.  “I don’t think you could reverse the decline. In an ideal world you might stretch the time decline of the curve out about five years. “

In the meantime, many scientists are looking for those alternatives sources. Some have suggested that technologies promoting cleaner-burning coal -– still in plentiful supply in the U.S. -– will help bridge the oil gap. Others have suggested that nuclear power will become more attractive if oil production declines too rapidly. Wind power, more widely used outside the U.S., has a proven track record. More advanced technologies -– like the conversion of coal to hydrogen –- also show promise, but are years from commercial production.

Some are already beginning to sketch out what the world’s energy infrastructure will look like later in this century. The so-called “hydrogen” economy has been widely touted because it relied on an energy source that produces no carbon or other pollutants when burned.  But hydrogen requires massive amounts of electricity to produce; it’s also difficult to transport and store in small quantities for use in, say, the family automobile.

Carbon tubes
Dr. Richard Smalley at Rice University thinks the answer may be found in a fundamental overhaul of the global electrical grid. Smalley won a Nobel Price in Chemistry in 1996 for his work in the discovery of fullerenes, a structure of carbon atoms arranged in a closed shell. He’s now working on tiny carbon tubes that could be used to produce a highly-conductive, carbon-based wire that would improve the efficiency of the electrical grid and permit cheaper long-distance power transmission. He also envisions advanced electrical storage devices that would allow homeowners and businesses to smooth out periods of peak power production and demand. But the breakthroughs needed to make that happen will amount to “minor miracles,” he said.

“And at the rate were going, we won’t have anything nearly soon enough,” he said. “Frankly, even if we has the technology right now to supplant to the current energy system  with something new and wonderful, it would still take us several decades to do it because its such a big enterprise.”

As a result, Smalley and others looking at the transition away from petroleum say conservation will inevitably play a role – because every gallon of gasoline saved or megawatt of energy not used is the equivalent of producing more.

“At some stage , someone is going to have to stand up and say, ‘We have a problem here and I think we ought to go out and solve it,’” said Smalley. “But at the present moment neither of the people involved in our presidential race have found the words or the motivation to do this.”

              (Next: U.S. refiners stretch to meet demand. )

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