Instead of ‘peak oil,’ maybe we’re headed towards the oil plateau

You may know about the much-debated theory of “peak oil,” which holds that global oil production will soon peak — at the point at which half the world’s available oil has been pumped — and then decline. But now there’s a new twist on that theory: Some oil industry chieftains say the world is “approaching a practical limit to the number of barrels of crude oil that can be pumped every day,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Some predict that … producers could hit that ceiling as soon as 2012. This rough limit — which two senior industry officials recently pegged at about 100 million barrels a day — is well short of global demand projections over the next few decades. Current production is about 85 million barrels a day.

The world certainly won’t run out of oil any time soon. And plenty of energy experts expect sky-high prices to hasten the development of alternative fuels and improve energy efficiency. But evidence is mounting that crude-oil production may plateau before those innovations arrive on a large scale. That could set the stage for a period marked by energy shortages, high prices and bare-knuckled competition for fuel.

The reasons for the expected plateau? “[R]estricted access to oil fields, spiraling costs and increasingly complex oil-field geology.” There may not be enough engineers or equipment to ramp up production fast enough to keep up with demand; plus, new oil discoveries tend to be smaller and more complex to develop, the article says.

What’s interesting is that this scenario isn’t being painted by the usual doomsayers. The predictions come from: the CEO of French oil company Total SA; the CEO of ConocoPhilips; and the chairman of the Libya National Oil Corp.

Source: “Oil Officials See Limit Looming on Production,” by Russell Gold and Ann Davis, The Wall Street Journal (19 November 2007)

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