Oil: The beginning of the end?
As he sat last month in his book-lined study, Colin Campbell got a phone call that made him shriek with joy.
"Holy Mother!" he yelped after he put down the receiver. "The good ol' moment's arrived!"
The call had brought word that the price of crude oil was shooting up - a climb that, in the days that followed, would take it to near $50 a barrel. To Campbell, a 73-year-old retired oil-industry geologist who lives in this coastal Irish village, this was sweet vindication. It meant that the "moment" he had been predicting for about 15 years - the beginning of the end of the age of oil - might finally be at hand.
Campbell is at the center of a small but suddenly influential band of contrarians known as the peak-oil movement. They see cause for alarm in the fact that since the early 1980s the world has been pumping more oil out of the ground than it's been finding. By as early as next year, they say, humanity will have reached a point of reckoning: It will have extracted half the oil it will ever get. Once that "peak" is reached, Campbell says, global oil production will start falling, never to rise again.
The peak would mark the end of cheap oil. Although people would probably keep using oil for another century or so, prices would steadily rise. To maintain economic growth, the world would have to become radically more energy-efficient, shifting quickly to alternatives such as solar and nuclear power. If the switch isn't fast enough - an outcome Campbell thinks more likely - the global economy would screech to a halt.
"The perception of this decline changes the entire world we know," says Campbell, whose wife affectionately calls him Mr. Doomsday. "Up till now we've been living in a world with the assumption of growth driven by oil. Now we have to face the other side of the mountain."
People have been incorrectly predicting oil's demise since the industry's early days, and the peak-oil movement has yet to make a serious dent in the energy policies of the United States and other developed nations. But the debate is flaring up with new intensity because of some powerful forces changing the geopolitics of oil, among them the rise of an oil-guzzling China and persistent instability in the Middle East and Russia.