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On this basis, Chevron, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, and other major firms indeed invested enormous amounts of money and resources in a growing unconventional oil and gas race, an extraordinary saga I described in my book The Race for What's Left. Some, including Chevron and Shell, started drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico; others, including Exxon, commenced operations in the Arctic and eastern Siberia. Virtually every one of them began exploiting U.S. shale reserves via hydro-fracking.

Only one top executive questioned this drill-baby-drill approach: John Browne, then the chief executive of BP. Claiming that the science of climate change had become too convincing to deny, Browne argued that Big Energy would have to look "beyond petroleum" and put major resources into alternative sources of supply. "Climate change is an issue which raises fundamental questions about the relationship between companies and society as a whole, and between one generation and the next," he had declared as early as 2002. For BP, he indicated, that meant developing wind power, solar power, and biofuels.

Browne, however, was eased out of BP in 2007 just as Big Oil's output-maximizing business model was taking off, and his successor, Tony Hayward, quickly abandoned the "beyond petroleum" approach. "Some may question whether so much of the [world's energy] growth needs to come from fossil fuels," he said in 2009. "But here it is vital that we face up to the harsh reality [of energy availability]." Despite the growing emphasis on renewables, "we still foresee 80% of energy coming from fossil fuels in 2030."

Under Hayward's leadership, BP largely discontinued its research into alternative forms of energy and reaffirmed its commitment to the production of oil and gas, the tougher the better. Following in the footsteps of other giant firms, BP hustled into the Arctic, the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, and Canadian tar sands, a particularly carbon-dirty and messy-to-produce form of energy. In its drive to become the leading producer in the Gulf, BP rushed the exploration of a deep offshore field it called Macondo, triggering the Deepwater Horizon blow-out of April 2010 and the devastating oil spill of monumental proportions that followed.

Over the Cliff

By the end of the first decade of this century, Big Oil was united in its embrace of its new production-maximizing, drill-baby-drill approach. It made the necessary investments, perfected new technology for extracting tough oil, and did indeed triumph over the decline of existing, "easy oil" deposits. In those years, it managed to ramp up production in remarkable ways, bringing ever more hard-to-reach oil reservoirs online.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production rose from 85.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 92.9 million in 2014, despite the continuing decline of many legacy fields in North America and the Middle East. Claiming that industry investments in new drilling technologies had vanquished the specter of oil scarcity, BP's latest CEO, Bob Dudley, assured the world only a year ago that Big Oil was going places and the only thing that had "peaked" was "the theory of peak oil."

That, of course, was just before oil prices took their leap off the cliff, bringing instantly into question the wisdom of continuing to pump out record levels of petroleum. The production-maximizing strategy crafted by O'Reilly and his fellow CEOs rested on three fundamental assumptions: that, year after year, demand would keep climbing; that such rising demand would ensure prices high enough to justify costly investments in unconventional oil; and that concern over climate change would in no significant way alter the equation. Today, none of these assumptions holds true.

Demand will continue to rise -- that's undeniable, given expected growth in world income and population -- but not at the pace to which Big Oil has become accustomed. Consider this: in 2005, when many of the major investments in unconventional oil were getting under way, the EIA projected that global oil demand would reach 103.2 million barrels per day in 2015; now, it's lowered that figure for this year to only 93.1 million barrels. Those 10 million "lost" barrels per day in expected consumption may not seem like a lot, given the total figure, but keep in mind that Big Oil's multibillion-dollar investments in tough energy were predicated on all that added demand materializing, thereby generating the kind of high prices needed to offset the increasing costs of extraction. With so much anticipated demand vanishing, however, prices were bound to collapse.

Current indications suggest that consumption will continue to fall short of expectations in the years to come. In an assessment of future trends released last month, the EIA reported that, thanks to deteriorating global economic conditions, many countries will experience either a slower rate of growth or an actual reduction in consumption. While still inching up, Chinese consumption, for instance, is expected to grow by only 0.3 million barrels per day this year and next -- a far cry from the 0.5 million barrel increase it posted in 2011 and 2012 and its one million barrel increase in 2010. In Europe and Japan, meanwhile, consumption is actually expected to fall over the next two years.

And this slowdown in demand is likely to persist well beyond 2016, suggests the International Energy Agency (IEA), an arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the club of rich industrialized nations). While lower gasoline prices may spur increased consumption in the United States and a few other nations, it predicted, most countries will experience no such lift and so "the recent price decline is expected to have only a marginal impact on global demand growth for the remainder of the decade."