To some geologists, the world is heading toward an oil crisis of historic proportions. The crisis will come, they say, not when the wells go dry, but when world oil production reaches a peak and begins to decline. At that time, prices are likely to rise precipitously unless demand, which has been growing year by year, also declines.

There is, however, little agreement on when the peak production will occur. For example, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy has made several projections, with the shortfall happening at the earliest in 2021 and at the latest in 2112. Others–such as geologist Colin Campbell, chair of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas in Uppsala, Sweden–suggest the peak may occur as early as 2005; geophysicist Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton University says the peak will definitely be next year. Economist Morris Adelman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology insists that “for the next 25 to 50 years, the oil available to the market is for all intents and purposes infinite.” The difference between oil optimists and oil pessimists is crucial, for if the pessimists are correct, there will be insufficient time for an orderly transition to alternative energy sources. …continued at Scientific American Digital for subscribers only