International oil firms and OPEC producers have learned from the 1980s price crash to plan for an orderly retreat from record levels.

The history of oil is punctuated by price collapses but the sharp falls of the mid-1980s were different being partly triggered by the industry, which flooded the market with oil and ultimately lost money.

"The chief executives of Exxon Mobil, BP and the rest remember those days. No one wants to make the same mistake," recalled an industry insider.

A Reuters poll of analysts sees oil easing from its $78 a barrel peak to $64 in 2007 and $56 in 2008.

"We don't see prices falling off a cliff in the second quarter. We do not expect a catastrophic scenario," said Carl Calabro, analyst at PFC Energy.

Prospects for the retreat are different from the 1980s boom and bust.

In 1980, the year after the Iranian revolution, crude oil surged to an inflation-adjusted high of $88 a barrel.

The majors went hell for leather drilling. The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries pumped every barrel it could.

By 1986, demand had collapsed with the price - to $25 adjusted for inflation. OPEC put production in mothballs and the international oil compan ies had loss-making fields.

Many of the same people involved are calling the shots today.

"In the early 1980s we drilled our hearts out and we were massively successful at adding supply. But for every dollar we invested we only got back 60 cents," the insider said.

Since the start of 2002, prices have gradually climbed from a shade above $20 to about $75, within sight of the 1980 high. Yet oil companies remain cautious about investment decisions, pricing projects on $25 oil.

"A major drop in the next year or two would cause severe disruptions and volatility," said Sadad Husseini, a former top executive at Saudi Arabia state oil firm Saudi Aramco. "In the longer term this can only slow future supplies and damage the global economy."

Oil analyst Geoff Pyne agreed: "Ideally everyone wants an orderly retreat."

The challenge is how to manage it.

"OPEC, seeing the world economy has survived (so far) with oil at $70, would be reluctant to let oil prices fall," said Richard Batty, Global Investment Strategist at Standard Life Investments.

But OPEC members are keen to avoid repeating past mistakes. In 1981 and 1982, sensing demand was falling, they began cutting output.

They failed to shore up prices, because non-OPEC producers continued to pump full tilt, and the organisation ended up ceding market share to new frontiers such as the North Sea.

By the start of 1986 OPEC's production had sunk to 17 million barrels per day from 31 million in 1979. Today OPEC is pumping just below 30 million barrels per day, or a third of the world's oil supplies.

"There is absolutely no reason that OPEC should offer non-OPEC a licence to print money," said Deborah White, an analyst at SGCIB.