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Oil Experts Draw Fire for Warning Oil Experts Draw Fire for Warning
Fri May 24, 6:38 PM ET

By BRUCE STANLEY, AP Business Writer

Global supplies of crude oil will peak as early as 2010 and then start to decline, ushering in an era of soaring energy prices and economic upheaval — or so said an international group of petroleum specialists meeting Friday.

They hope to persuade oil-dependent countries like the United States to stop what they view as a squandering the planet's finite bounty of fossil fuels.

Americans, as the biggest consumers of energy, could suffer a particularly harsh impact on their lifestyle, warned participants in the two-day conference on oil depletion that began Thursday at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden.

"There is no factual data to support the general sense that the world will be awash in cheap oil forever," said Matthew Simmons, an investment banker who helped advise President Bush (news - web sites)'s campaign on energy policy. "We desperately need to find a new form of energy."

Colin Campbell, a retired geologist who helped organize the conference, argued that governments are too caught up in short-term issues to focus on the long-term threat of depleted oil reserves. Oil companies prefer not to talk about it for fear of upsetting their investors, he said.

Their warning defies the more commonly held view that global crude reserves will remain plentiful for decades. Critics say similar predictions of scarcity at the time of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo didn't come true.

"There's a lot of phony baloney in there," said economist Michael Lynch of the U.S. business forecasting firm DRI-WEFA. "A lot of prominent geologists just laugh at this."

"There are wolves out there, but if you keep crying wolf and no wolves show up, you start to lose credibility," Lynch said by phone from his office in Lexington, Mass.

The dispute centers on the precise timing of what is variously described as "peak oil" or "the big rollover" — the predicted date when existing oil production, together with new discoveries of crude, can no longer replenish the world's reserves as quickly as consuming countries are depleting them.

Roger Bentley, head of The Oil Depletion Analysis Center in London, insisted that the predictions made in the 1970s were basically correct. About 50 countries, including the United States, have already passed their point of peak oil output, he said.

The world's total reserves of crude, excluding oil found in shale and tar sands, are estimated to exceed 3 trillion barrels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (news - web sites) and other conventional sources of data.

Campbell insisted the true figure for reserves is closer to 2 trillion barrels, due partly to what he described as overstated reserves reported by Saudi Arabia and other OPEC (news - web sites) nations.

He played down the significance of new oil discoveries in the Caspian Sea region of central Asia and in deep waters off the coasts of Brazil and West Africa and in the Gulf of Mexico. Now that geologists have effectively surveyed the globe for crude, Campbell and others at the conference said they doubted that any giant new oil fields still await discovery.

Also, unlike Lynch, Campbell believes that improvements in the technologies used to explore and drill for oil will increase production by only modest amounts.

As a result, Campbell forecast that oil output would peak by 2010 — at least 26 years sooner than the rollover point predicted in a U.S. government study prepared in 2000.

"It's not a cataclysmic event," he said. "But oil will become scarcer and more expensive. That's undeniable."

Campbell estimates peak-year production at about 87 million barrels a day, compared to daily output last month of 74.5 million barrels, as calculated by the International Energy Agency, a watchdog agency for the world's wealthiest nations.

Simmons, the banker, predicted that the United States would suffer an energy scare even sooner, due to a 10 percent decrease he foresees in U.S. production of natural gas this year.

"If it's only 10 percent, we've dodged a bullet," he said. "And 10 percent is a disaster. It could be 20 percent."

Simmons, based in Houston, said Americans will have to embrace coal and even nuclear power once fossil fuels pass their global peak in production. Higher and more volatile prices are sure to accompany the transition period, he said.

"You couldn't get serious people focusing on this issue, and we're going to pay dearly for it."

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