By Harold Brubaker
High crude oil prices - near $60 a barrel this week - are fueling debate about how much of nature's economic elixir is left on the planet.
A growing chorus is predicting that oil production will soon begin a gradual decline, with the potential to wreak havoc on oil-dependent economies.
Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a retired Princeton University geology professor, is among the "peak oil" prognosticators arguing that mankind is heading into the downside of the age of oil.
Peak-oil proponents are not saying that the Earth's store of crude is nearly gone. Rather, they say it is nearly half gone, and daily production will begin slowing - while growth in demand continues, according to Deffeyes.
"I'm very concerned about the five-year time scale. There's not much we can expand rapidly on a five-year time scale" to make up for a shortfall in oil, he said in a recent interview at his home in Princeton.
But Cambridge Energy Research Associates asserted just the opposite yesterday in a report predicting that oil production capacity could exceed demand by more than six million barrels per day by the end of this decade - far above the current margin of one million barrels per day.
That projected capacity increase could push prices below $40 a barrel again by 2007 or 2008, the Cambridge, Mass., firm said.
Cambridge Energy expects major new contributions from Russia, the Caspian Sea region, and West Africa. Unconventional crudes, such as extra-heavy oil, oil from wells drilled below more than 2,500 feet of seawater, and other liquid hydrocarbons will increase to 30 percent of total production capacity in 2010, up from 22 percent now, the company said.
Cambridge Energy predicted that much of the increase in supply will be light, sweet crude oil - good news for Philadelphia-based Sunoco Inc., whose refineries are designed to process that type of oil.
Peter M. Jackson, Cambridge Energy's director of oil industry activity, acknowledged during a teleconference with reporters yesterday that last year's discovery of 13 billion barrels of new oil worldwide did not nearly offset the 30.7 billion barrels pumped out of the ground. That propels the belief that rapid depletion is at hand.
But that is not the case, Jackson said, because upgrades and expansions of existing fields have made them capable of producing more oil than was previously thought possible.
Cambridge Energy does not see a peak in overall production until around the middle of the century. Even then, it will be an "undulating plateau rather than a peak," he said.
Deffeyes, however, does not buy predictions that production can keep increasing for decades, especially since in 1986 the world began burning more oil annually than it was finding.
Although oil production has continued increasing worldwide, discovery of new oil reserves has been in a relentless decline for 40 years.
"There are a few juicy places," said Deffeyes, who worked for Shell Oil in the 1950s before leaving for an academic career. Among those places are Russia, where political instability is a serious concern, and Iraq, which is the only Middle Eastern country that has not been thoroughly explored, Deffeyes said.
To move the peak of oil production a few decades forward, "they've got to find another Middle East, plus another North Sea on top of that," Deffeyes said.
Deffeyes, whose book Beyond Oil - The View From Hubbert's Peak was published this year, based his prediction that global oil production would peak late this year on the methodology of M. King Hubbert, a geologist with Shell Oil.
Hubbert correctly predicted in 1956 that oil production in the continental United States would peak around 1970. His notion was that adding all the production from oil fields in a large region, such as the lower 48 states, would generate a bell curve showing a peak and subsequent decline.
Production climbed again in the United States after Prudhoe Bay in Alaska came online in 1976, but it never reclaimed previous heights, Deffeyes said.
In Beyond Oil, Deffeyes listed things consumers should expect during the next five years. They included:
A growing need to avoid long daily automobile commutes.
A new appreciation in cold climates for winter vegetables that do not need to be transported thousands of miles.
A scramble for high-efficiency diesel engines.
If his prediction turns out to be correct, Deffeyes still is not predicting a long-term apocalypse. "On a 20-year time scale," he said, "we'll figure out a lot of things."