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$500 Oil? Why Not $1,000? Does It Matter?

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Everybody in the world should read a new Fortune article about Matt Simmons, the oil analyst turned peak-oil prophet. As a lifelong Republican, Bush campaign and energy policy contributor, and Houston-based oil guy, he's an unusual leader of the peak oil theorists. Simmons has become convinced that Saudi Arabia and others don't have as much in reserve as they say.

Simmons is not alone. T. Boone Pickens, oil billionaire, has been making a lot of noise about how we can't drill our way out of this...and he's building the world's largest wind farm to demonstrate his commitment. Not a commitment to the environment, but to making money and enhancing national security.

Just to clarify: peak oil doesn't mean we've run out. It means we've hit the peak of production. There's still a lot in the ground, but it's harder and harder to get out. It's not just analysts warning about this. We're at 85 million barrels per day now globally, but clearly the world is growing. So can we supply the 100 million barrels and more we'll need in short order? Well, let's listen to James Mulva, CEO of Conoco Phillips earlier this year: "I don't think we are going to see supply going over 100MM barrels a day...Where is all that going to come from?"

So supply is a problem, but it's not actually the biggest one. My college days, when not spent on other pursuits, included a degree in economics. I can't claim to remember that much, but I do know one Econ 101 basic fact. If demand grows, and supply is "inelastic" (meaning it's really hard to change the amount), the price will rise, and sometimes very, very fast.

As much as supply is certainly inelastic - you know how hard it is to get oil from Canadian oil sands or from 5 miles under water? - the real story is demand. It's almost trite to say, but the growth of India and China is impossible to grasp and will drive prices of everything up and up. The highly respected business strategist, CK Prahalad, recently talked about some trends in India. Every minute 30 people move to the city, meaning India will need hundreds of new cities over the next 20-30 years. As these people desire more middle class lifestyles, consumption will rise. Just one example: If they all add a bit of chicken protein to their diet, Prahalad says, we'll need to double current global agricultural output to feed them. A lot of oil goes into agriculture, and that's just to satisfy India. China statistics are just as crazy (another Fortune article recently described a nice little Cleveland-sized community going up outside of Shanghai - and it's one of ten suburbs being built).

But in the end, the debate is almost moot. The problem is not just that it's harder to get oil - it's that we're all in deep trouble if we do actually get it and burn it all. Climate change and environmental damage are going to push us away from fossil fuels long before we get through it all. This is a hard reality for an industry to take, but we're going to have to leave a trillion barrels in the ground - or at least only take it out to make stuff from it (those molecules are really useful for chemicals, plastics, etc). Burning it is the problem.

Peter Schwartz, the futurist (a job that I absolutely love -- but how do you really know if you're good at it?), says some very wise things along these lines. He says the peak oil guys are wrong and couldn't possibly know how much is left, but he says it doesn't really matter:

"We are not going to run out of oil before the issue of climate change drives change. It'll be costly oil. But it'll be climate change catastrophes [such as sudden, unexpected displacement of large numbers of people, and massive property damage], and more expensive oil, not the fact that we're running out of oil, that will drive change."

I agree. But take your pick - constrained supply, rising demand, and climate change. All are pretty good indications of one fundamental reality: Energy will never be cheap again. There will be some incredible pain coming for people, companies, and countries that don't use energy wisely. Getting lean will not be only one element of a good, sustainable business - it may be the only thing that matters.

Andrew Winston helps companies use environmental thinking to grow and prosper. He is co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold, writes a monthly e-letter Eco-Advantage Strategies, and regularly blogs on green business.