SAUDI OIL….Most analysts think that in order to meet rising oil demand, OPEC will have to increase its production by 20 million barrels per day over the next 15 years. In order to do that, Saudi Arabia will have to increase production by about 10 million bpd. Can they do it?

At today’s prices, the world will need the cartel to boost its production from 30m barrels a day to 50m by 2020 to meet rapidly rising demand, according to the International Energy Agency, the energy watchdog for consuming countries.

But senior Saudi energy officials have privately warned US and European counterparts that Opec would have an ?extremely difficult time? meeting that demand. Saudi Arabia calculates there is a 4.5m b/d gap between what the world needs and what the kingdom can provide.

….Saudi Arabia pumps 9.5m b/d and has assured consumer countries that it could reach 12.5m b/d in 2009 and probably 15m b/d eventually. But a senior western energy official said: ?They said it would be extremely difficult to move above that figure?.

This isn’t surprising news for anyone who’s been paying attention to Saudi oil production. What is surprising is that apparently even the Saudis themselves are now fessing up to it.

The fact that the Saudis are trying to talk down expectations means they must have figured out that Matt Simmons is at least partly right. After all, they claim they have the capacity to produce 11 million bpd today, and if the best they can say is that production “could” increase by a meager 1.5 million bpd over the next four years, finding new oil must already be getting pretty hard. Give the Saudis a few more years to face up to their production difficulties and they might eventually decide that Simmons is completely right.

In either case, it means the western world really, really ought to start getting serious about conservation, increased efficiency, and alternative fuels. ANWR is just a drop in the bucket.