It was a typical oddball Milken conference matchup: longtime Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens sparring with magazine editor and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes in a lively debate on oil prices and energy policy.
The result in the packed Beverly Hills ballroom Tuesday? Horror -- and amusement.
Pickens drew a mix of groans and quiet gasps with his prediction that U.S. oil prices would top last year's record high of $78.40 a barrel by year's end, and that consumers would feel the pain through sharply higher pump prices.
"We're going to come to the wall this year," said Pickens, 79. "You'll have to kill the demand with price."
It's unclear what that price would be. In California, where the average cost of self-serve regular is $3.32 a gallon, consumers seem to be making few concessions. On Tuesday, an L.A. Shell station had plenty of customers buying regular at $3.75 when they could have saved 50 cents a gallon at an Arco a few blocks away.
Forbes was slightly more optimistic. He contended that today's oil futures prices -- which closed at $64.58 a barrel Tuesday -- were primarily a reflection of supply strains caused by politics and overseas nationalism. More drilling, particularly in Alaska and in U.S. offshore regions, is the ticket to lower oil prices, he said.