SAN FRANCISCO -- Oil, the black gold of the world economy, is
almost insanely cheap. Yet it won't be for long, according to a
small but growing band of doomsayers.
Based on a debated theory, they fear world oil demand will begin
to exceed supply as early as about 2010. That might revive sights
not seen since the oil crises of the 1970s: long lines at gas
stations and Saudi Arabian princes buying American skyscrapers.
"Anybody who wants to drive their motor home up to Alaska better
do it now while the supply of oil is cheap," said veteran oil
geologist L.F. "Buzz" Ivanhoe. "It's not a joke. I hope I'm wrong
as hell, but I fear that I'm not."
Such claims have sparked a debate among oil geologists,
economists, engineers and industry officials, most of whom insist
there is plenty of oil left for many decades to come.
Nowadays, the world is awash in cheap oil. Prices are so low that
they are hastening the collapse of the economy of Russia, a major oil
Ron Swenson, a mechanical engineer who is president of EcoSystems
Inc. in Santa Cruz, Calif., uses the World Wide Web to warn about
"the coming global oil crisis."
While the American Petroleum Institute insists that the world's
known oil reserves increase every year, Swenson dismisses such talk
as "a play on words."
"Between 1973 and today, we have consumed a quarter of the world's
entire endowment of oil from the beginning of history until the end,"
said Swenson. "If we've consumed a quarter of our oil in that time,
we don't have more oil, we have less."
Such fears of a post-millennium oil crunch are "primarily bunk,"
said economist Mike Lynch of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. Lynch, an expert on oil-supply trends, laughingly
recalls past flubbed forecasts of an oil apocalypse. One of the
leading present doomsayers is Colin Campbell of Petroconsultants in
Geneva who, Lynch said, "predicted in a 1989 article ... that world
(oil) production had peaked ... and that the price would go to $40 to
$50 (a barrel) in the early 1990s.
"And now," Lynch said, "it's about $12 to $13."
The fate of oil supplies is starting to attract attention in the
scientific community. "The Next Oil Crisis Looms Large -- and
Perhaps Close," is the headline on a four-page story in the Aug. 21
issue of Science.
Pessimists like Ivanhoe "gained a powerful ally this spring when
the Paris-based International Energy Agency of the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development reported for the first time that
the peak of world oil production is in sight," said author Richard