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'Peak oil' - all downhill from here

If Santa Rosa's Richard Heinberg is right, the recent dust-up over a Chinese attempt to buy a U.S. oil company is just a minor skirmish in what eventually will be a worldwide war over oil.

It may not be a shooting war, but it certainly will be an economic one.

Heinberg, who calls it a "fight for the last drop," believes it already has started. The signs are all around: The Chinese bid for Unocal, the war in Iraq, oil prices at record levels.

The cause, he says, is a simple matter of supply and demand. While the world's supply of oil is at or near its peak, demand continues to rise. Without major changes in human behavior, the coming decades will bring "a huge geopolitical contest" for a shrinking pool of oil.

Heinberg, a professor of human ecology at New College of California in Railroad Square, has become a leading voice in a debate over the timing of "peak oil." He leans toward the pessimistic view, saying all indications are that world oil production already is either at or very close to its peak. Optimists, on the other hand, believe that peak is still 10, 20 or even 30 years away.

"The 'when' is what's controversial," says Heinberg, sitting in the living room of his west Santa Rosa home. "But virtually no one argues that it's not going to happen."

And no matter whether it happens this year or in 30 years, "the world is facing a historic change that is unprecedented in scope and depth of impact," he writes in his most recent Museletter (www.museletter.com).

It's not a change that will happen overnight. There are still hundreds of billions of barrels of oil in the ground. But once the peak of production is reached, the world will face a steady decline in availability and an intensifying competition for the oil that remains.

If we don't start preparing now, Heinberg predicts economic and political chaos.

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