The record run-up in oil prices over recent years is igniting fierce debate over the "peak oil" theory — that once the maximum rate of global crude production is reached, it begins a terminal, and possibly steep, decline.
It has become a high profile debate — Boone Pickens weighed in on it before Congress — that depends not just on whether one tends to see the barrel half empty or half full — it’s often a question of getting a good look at the barrel.
That’s certainly a debate swirling around OPEC countries — which produce about a third of the world's oil — which are widely believed to overstate their reserves. Just how much, no one knows.
The reason: cartel members' reserves are the basis for calculating quotas; the lower the reserves, the less oil they can sell. (Non-OPEC, oil-producing countries are more transparent on the subject because their respective international oil companies have to report estimated reserves to investors.)
So far, there is no definitive indication that production is headed southward, much less that any decline is permanent. Saudi Arabia, for instance, recently demonstrated its heft by bringing on excess capacity.
To be sure there are warning signs. Global production fell last year (by 0.2 percent), while consumption continued to grow (by 1.1 percent), and peak oil proponents (which includes an international association) say this squeeze will really bite by 2010.
Skeptics insist oil remains a cyclical business, where the question is always how much oil at a certain price. By this reckoning, today's high prices will eventually lead to more supply — through more exploration, enhanced recovery and development of "unconventional" oil.
Geological variables are just part of the supply equation. Human factors — politics, taxes, investment levels, and that 80 percent of the world’s oil is state-controlled — can be equally important.
It's no wonder, then, that passions can run high in the peak oil debate, sometimes to a pitch that makes it a challenge to bring rival camps to share a stage. That's where a cyber soapbox comes in handy. Here we present two opposing views from long-sparring rivals.