Just an off the top of my head bit of thought that came about after reading Dan's post on Peak oil.
The vehement rhetoric directed against Big Oil is understandable. Most are too blinded by the numeric "billion" and the chronology "quarter" to even consider what Exxon spent for that profit. And so the return on investment comparison between Exxon and, say, Microsoft is of little use. The general public see massive amounts of cash flowing into Big Oil, the politicians shake their fingers, promise "taxes" (if you believe that for one second, I've got this bridge for sale...) and build platforms of hollow sympathy, the media reports these gross amounts of profit in just a breathless enough fashion to feed the fires. Big Oil is, officially, America's Economic Villain.
Contrary to the imaginations of many, Big Oil isn't a villainous few chuckling, middle aged men with monocles and cigars lording over a Risk map and reveling in the screwing of the American public. Exxon-Mobil, whatever their massive profits, still maintain and answer to shareholders, a considerable amount of overhead and a want to make the most money for the least amount of investment. Eventually, either through a collapse in demand or finite supply, they will face the prospect of economic obscurity. I very much doubt this obscurity will be simply accepted and the likes of Exxon Mobil will simply fade away. More likely such conglomerates will, for the sake of self preservation, adapt to the demand of the market place.
So here's a "prediction" of sorts.
Big Oil will continue to enjoy it's short term profits even as semi trailer freight fades back to railroad, traffic in LA and NYC takes on the scooters and bicycles of Tokyo and our energy infrastructure takes wind, solar and nuke seriously. Meanwhile;
Big Oil, being the industry that stands to lose the most over the long term, will also embark upon a very competitive race to find that "Golden Alternative." I suspect we'll see a slow but growing funneling of cash from exploration and drilling into increasingly advanced R&D toward a sustainable replacement. Big Oil, for all the evil we consider them to be, is not ignorant of the future and possesses an incredible amount of money to explore and develop alternatives to its own current, hydro-carbon economic mother lode.
Consider that Exxon Mobil spent nearly $5 billion dollars in a single quarter in 2006 on exploration and drilling. Annually that's more than Canada spends on it's military (14th out of the top 170.) Companies like Exxon Mobil possess both the self preservation and the economic means to study, develop and deliver the Golden Alternative.
Our national villain might well turn out to be a hero after all.