"Peak oil" is a subject that we've addressed several times over the years. In 2005, the year that fellow Fool Robert Aronen penned this piece on the subject, the Energy Information Administration estimated average global output at 84.6 million barrels per day. In the 10 months through October of 2007, that figure was 84.5 million. On the face of it, those arguing that we are at or near peak production appear to have the upper hand.

That doesn't mean that opponents of the theory are ready to capitulate. In a fresh salvo, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a subsidiary of advisory group IHS (NYSE: IHS), has released a study denying that dangerous decline curves lie ahead. The firm's analysis of more than 800 oil fields, representing two-thirds of world oil production, found that aggregate production decline rates are far lower than the figures others, such as Schlumberger's (NYSE: SLB) CEO, have cited. CERA also contends that not only are field decline rates not rising, they're trending lower.

I find this decline rate issue semantically slippery. Note that CERA discusses an aggregate rate for all fields in production, whether they're ramping up, stable, or in decline. This is quite distinct from the decline rate of the average individual field, which ranges from 6% for onshore fields to 18% for deepwater ones. It seems at least plausible that people who disagree on the matter are not necessarily using the same reference point.

The conclusion that worldwide decline is far less than that experienced at the average field hinges on the idea that some of the world's largest fields are still going strong. Skeptics take issue with this notion, but it's my understanding that heavy hitter Saudi Aramco is an ace at reservoir management. Unlike publicly held operators ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX), Aramco isn't pressured to crank the taps to "11" and maximize near-term profits. It has gained tremendous insight into its long-lived fields over the decades, and new technology -- potentially from the likes of Core Labs (NYSE: CLB) or OYO Geospace (Nasdaq: OYOG) -- would only enhance that understanding.

As much as anecdotal evidence from individual wells or mature basins may suggest otherwise, higher oil flows may indeed be in the cards for several decades to come. Sure, the light, sweet stuff is scarce, but high oil prices provide the incentive to tap massive unconventional sources. The greatest near-term crisis, in my mind, would not be an oil price spike, but a slump, which would derail the billions poured into promising alternative energy technologies in the past few years.

OYO Geospace is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. Try the market-beating small-cap newsletter service free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy never declines.