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World: Oil (Part 1) -- 'Peak' Movement Argues Supplies Are Running Out

When oil broke the $50-a-barrel barrier in late 2004, uneasiness rippled through markets and capitals around the world. Some experts in the oil industry said the price spike was merely a taste of what's to come. Grouped together as the so-called peak oil movement, these analysts predict world oil supplies are about to peak and then start a slow downward slide. (In Part 2 --> /featuresarticle/2005/01/480134ec-795a-4356-a8cd-2045e1aeaef6.html of this series, RFE/RL looks at the state of some of the world's key oil fields, the hopes of Caspian oil, and rising demand for petroleum.)

Prague, 24 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Fertilizer, DVDs, rubber, cheap flights, plastics, and metals.

None of these things has anything in common, right? Think again. An ingredient in all, in one form or another, is oil.

Oil is the precious primer of the world economic engine, making it hum.

Oil provides 40 percent of the world's energy needs, and nearly 90 percent of all transportation. It's also a building block for many products and goods.

Cut supplies of this natural resource and life as we know it could change.
The so-called peak analysts paint a gloomy picture: falling oil supplies plus rising demand will equal shortages -- and perhaps a rising risk of war.

But while some experts say the world runs no risk of running out of oil, others disagree.

Sounding the alarm is the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. Its president is Kjell Aleklett, a physics professor at Sweden's Upsalla University.

"[During] the next 30 years we will find more than 150, maybe 200, but probably not, but 150 billion barrels of oil, is roughly what you're going to find," Aleklett said. "And during the same period, we will consume 1,000 [billion barrels of oil]. So that means we are now digging deep into the reserves we have at the moment."

Aleklett is among a group of international experts -- ex-oil executives and geologists -- who believe there is less oil percolating under the ground than the oil industry acknowledges. They say the world has burned up nearly half of all its oil -- an estimated 900 billion barrels of crude.

In industry jargon, that halfway point is the "peak," after which reserves no longer rise but drop.

No one denies this will happen eventually. After all, oil is a finite resource. But these oil skeptics -- so-called "peak" oil analysts -- say the "peak" is coming sooner rather than later, maybe even in 2008. The paint a gloomy picture: falling oil supplies plus rising demand will equal shortages -- and perhaps a rising risk of war.

Mainstream experts, however, dismiss such talk scaremongering.

They say predictions about the end of petroleum have been made since shortly after the first commercial oil rig went up in western Pennsylvania back in 1859.

But the reality, they say, is that supplies are growing, with more oil coming out of Iraq, Russia, the Caspian Sea, and elsewhere.

And if supplies dip and prices rise, these experts say that will spur the industry to explore for more. Plus, breakthroughs in technology will make it easier to extract oil hard to get at now, such as the petroleum locked in sands in Canada.

Michael Lynch, a critic of the peak oil movement, said the movement's guru, geologist Colin Campbell, has a long record of making inaccurate predictions.

"The people who predict peak oil have been predicting it any day now for 15 years," Lynch said. "Like Colin Campbell said in '89 that this is the peak right now, in '91 he said the peak is next year, and in '95 he said it's in '97 and so forth. I've generally been predicting continued rise [in oil supplies] since I started working on this; really making forecasts in the late '80s. I think over the next 30 years you won't see a peak unless it's from the demand side."

But with oil breaking the $50-a-barrel barrier in October, and amid other concerns, the peak oil crowd is grabbing more attention.

One of their most startling claims is the following: Six barrels of oil are now used for every new barrel discovered. Major oil finds -- that is, over 500 million barrels -- peaked in 1964. In 2000, there were 13 such discoveries; in 2001, six; in 2002, two; and in 2003, zero -- the first time that ever happened.

The "peak" oil analysts also say that oil industry investment patterns seem to indicate that there isn't much oil left to discover.

In 2004, the "Financial Times" quoted a study by Scottish energy consultant Wood Mackenzie showing major oil companies had invested $35 billion to develop existing oil fields in 1998. Five years later in 2003, the amount was $50 billion, a record, according to the Mackenzie study. During the same time period, spending on oil exploration dropped from $11 billion to $8 billion. Peak oil analysts contend the oil companies were putting their money where the oil is -- and that's not oil exploration.

Analyst Lynch refuted that claim. Exploration is down, he said, because companies are drilling even more oil from existing fields. He said there are other factors at play as well.

"When you look at oil discoveries and production, these are partly influenced by geology, but they are heavily influenced by politics, economics and infrastructure, and things like that,: Lynch said. "So they [the 'peak' oil people] are mistakenly assuming that what they're seeing is a lack of oil. In other words, geology is determining it, when in reality what's happened is that people in the Middle East cut back drilling because they had a huge surplus of oil and they nationalized their operations in the 70s and so forth."
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.