- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

UPPSALA, Sweden The world's supply of crude oil could begin to decline in less than a decade, according to a group of petroleum specialists. The forecast drew fire from other experts who say the peak in world output is decades away.

Supplies will start falling after peaking as early as 2010, ushering in an era of soaring energy prices and economic upheaval, said participants in a two-day conference on oil depletion that ended Friday at Uppsala University here.

They said they hope to persuade oil-dependent countries like the United States to stop what they view as squandering the planet's finite bounty of fossil fuels. Americans, the biggest consumers of energy, could suffer a particularly harsh impact on their lifestyle, they said.

"There is no factual data to support the general sense that the world will be awash in cheap oil forever," said Matthew Simmons, a Houston-based investment banker who advised President Bush's campaign on energy policy.

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

The 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.

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 output, plus new discoveries of crude, can no longer replenish the world's reserves as quickly as countries are consuming them.

Roger Bentley, head of the Oil Depletion Analysis Center in London, said the predictions made in the 1970s are 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 and other standard sources. Mr. 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 nations.

He downplayed the significance of new oil discoveries in the Caspian Sea region and elsewhere. Now that geologists have effectively surveyed the globe for crude, Mr. Campbell and others at the conference said they doubt any giant oil fields still await discovery.

He also believes that improvements in the technologies used to explore and drill for oil will increase output by only modest amounts. As a result, Mr. 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."

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