Peak oil made what might be described as its MSM debut today, and in dramatic fashion, as the cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Weighing in at just about 9,000 words, the article by Peter Maass qualifies as a quick read just about as much as it qualifies as uplifting.

After describing some of the effects of peak oil on life as we know it, Maass then asks: “But will such a situation really come to pass?” (Collective sigh.)

Like it or not, Maass says, Saudi Arabia is the key to the if and when of peak oil. It’s difficult to read the article and not be, among other things, a little miffed about the practices of Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC, between the vague numbers about output and reserves and the outright refusal to be audited. Matt Simmons, the peak oil “Cassandra” of the article, is frustrated as well — if the Saudis issued the necessary data, he says:

It would then take anybody less than a week to say, “Gosh, Matt is totally wrong,” or “Matt actually might be too optimistic.”

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For better or worse, Maass presents both sides of the story throughout the article, leading off the final section with, “So whom to believe?” After citing a US DOE report [PDF] that claims peak oil will be “abrupt and revolutionary,” the article states (in the very next sentence) that “most experts do not share Simmons’s concerns about the imminence of peak oil.” Maass does, however, conclude by saying:

When a crisis comes — whether in a year or 2 or 10 — it will be all the more painful because we will have done little or nothing to prepare for it.

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For more on “PO,” check out Dave’s post handicapping the Hamilton v. Kaufmann, free-market v. intervention discussion.