[9/11, the War on Iraq, the War on Terror – everywhere you look there’s a desperately maintained smokescreen. What’s behind it is the obscene fact that our behavior in the past century and a half is destroying the future of the human species. Classical economics is a disaster: wealth comes from the Earth, not from the bank or the public or the hereditary plutocracy. We live on a beautiful little rock with limited resources, and there is nowhere else to go. The pro-growth position sounds more and more like flat-Earth creationism, a brittle fantasy that rages at the facts when it cannot ignore them.
The smokescreen is clearing. From Capitol Hill to Denver, from Caltech to Australia, high-profile discussions of Peak Oil and Gas are happening almost too fast for FTW to cover them. Here Michael Kane reports back from the House of Representatives in its first hearing designed to explain Peak to Members who are new to the issue. Audio of the hearing is available online. – FTW]
“Peak Oil Is Not A Theory”
Congressional Hearing Explains Peak Oil
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“Peak Oil is not a theory.”
Dr. Robert L. Hirsch, author of the Hirsch Report
“Peak Oil is not a theory.”
Professor Kjell Aleklett, Ph.D.
Photo by Lisa Lyons Wright
December 8, 2005 2030 PST (FTW): The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality held the first full-scale Congressional hearing Peak Oil on December 7, 2005. The audience of fifty was sizeable for the small conference room, with all eyes fixed on the speakers for two and a quarter hours of bracing information. The reactions from Representatives were widely varied, ranging from disbelief to acceptance.
Several Members brought out the old saw, that catastrophic depletion of fossil fuels has been predicted in the past yet supplies have always continued to flow. Others understood that it doesn’t matter exactly when world oil production peaks; the important thing is to start mitigating the inevitable shortages as soon as possible.
The hearing began with Representatives Ralph M. Hall (R-TX), John Shimkus (R-IL), and Gene Green (D-TX) in attendance. Before the day was over, Joe Barton (R-TX), John Sullivan (R-OK), Rick Boucher (D-VA), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Hilda L. Solis (D-CA), Heather Wilson (R-NM) and Tom Allen (D-MA) had made it to the hearing. The meeting was chaired by Mr. Hall.
Representatives Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Tom Udall (D-NM), who co-chair the newly formed House Peak Oil Caucus, presented testimony to their colleagues. This was followed by testimony from Dr. Robert L. Hirsch, Senior Energy Program Advisor, SAIC, and author of the Hirsch Report; Robert Esser, Senior Consultant and Director, Global Oil and Gas Resources, Cambridge Energy Research Associates; and Professor Kjell Aleklett, Ph.D, of the Department of Radiation Sciences at Uppsala University in Sweden. Aleklett is a founding member of ASPO and President of that Association.
After Mr. Udall read his written testimony, Mr. Bartlett gave a brilliant presentation of Peak Oil – the data, the curves, the 1962 peak of discovery and the current peak of production, the inexorable rise of demand, and the total dependence of our society on cheap and abundant oil and natural gas – not only for transportation and electricity, but for food itself.
Congressman Bartlett explained why he now opposes drilling in ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska) with an incisive rhetorical question: how it is in our national security interest to consume the last oil reserves we have as quickly as possible? If you’ve got money in the bank earning good interest, you don’t take it out and squander it.
Synthetic fuels from coal are being widely discussed since we have an estimated 250 years’ worth of recoverable coal reserves in this country. But that figure assumes zero demand growth! According to Bartlett, if you increase the consumption rate by 2%, and calculate in the energy loss for converting coal to liquid fuel, you’re down to only 50 years of coal reserves – not to speak of the prodigious environmental impact of increased mining. He described the Canadian tar sands project as a net energy loser, in which vast natural gas reserves are being wasted in the production of poor quality petroleum in meager amounts. Nuclear power plants dedicated entirely to the production of oil from shale are now being considered.
Bartlett did say that nuclear energy could and probably should grow, since it would be “preferable to shivering in the dark.” FTW does not share this opinion. Perhaps it would be preferable to chop wood for the stove and be asleep by sundown.
ASPO and its allies were compared to “the boy who cried wolf” by Rep. Gene Green, but Bartlett noted that, “In the parable the wolf did eventually come, and he ate all the sheep and the people.” He quoted Matt Savinar at the end of his testimony. Savinar, who operates one of the best Peak Oil and resource scarcity websites on the net – www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net – has said he learned about Peak Oil from FTW.
Rep. Hall, who chaired the hearing, said his mother had once told him it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it. He asked no questions. He praised Bartlett for his many professional accomplishments and said he looked forward to re-reading Bartlett’s written testimony.
Rep. Hilda Solis stated she felt the topic was interesting and important especially as it relates to finding alternative sources of energy. She had no questions.
The only question for Bartlett came from Rep. Shimkus, addressing hydrogen and synthetic fuel from coal. Shimkus believes the market is capable of taking care of the situation. “We seem to deify the market,” Bartlett responded. “The marketplace will work if there are infinite resources. There are not infinite resources here. We should’ve started 20 years ago if we wanted to make sure we weren’t going to have any dislocations in this transfer.”
Bartlett urged everyone to think of fuel cells as batteries: they are not an energy source. The issue of coal and synthetic fuels was adequately addressed in Bartlett’s original presentation but he reiterated the information to Shimkus.
After Bartlett’s testimony to the Committee, he joined them for the questioning of a second panel of witnesses. In that capacity he came very close to talking about the unsustainable nature of our current lifestyle when he said, “We need massive conservation efforts.”
After the hearing I asked Congressman Bartlett when he though the unsustainable nature of the “American way of life” would be brought to public debate. Bartlett said, “My hope is that we will be able to talk about that before it is a reality… but I anticipate that we won’t do anything about it until there’s a crisis, and it’s going to be a real rough ride.”
The night before this hearing, at a Christmas party, Bartlett was praised by President Bush for his leadership in the area of Peak Oil. Given that we know Dick Cheney was aware of Peak Oil (without using the term) at least as early as 1999 based on his own public statements, is it possible Bush was unaware of this issue until Bartlett recently met with him to privately discuss the matter?
“We have in our government a really good application for the tyranny of the urgent,” said Bartlett. “I think the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of Energy understand Peak Oil, but that is not the most urgent thing on their plate. Iraq, Social Security, upcoming elections… the urgent frequently sweeps the important off the table and I think that is what happened.”
When asked if he thought the Iraq War might have been a failed attempt to mitigate Peak Oil, Bartlett responded, “I have no idea. I can’t get inside of their heads. That is maybe a more justifiable reason for having gone there than what was originally stated.” I asked the Congressman about a recent cornucopian statement from Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA):
“You know, what-- what makes our economy grow is energy. And, and Americans are used to going to the gas tank [sic], and when they put that hose in their, uh, tank, and when I do it, I wanna get gas out of it. And when I turn the light switch on, I want the lights to go on, and I don't want somebody to tell me I gotta change my way of living to satisfy them. Because this is America, and this is something we've worked our way into, and the American people are entitled to it, and if we're going improve (sic) our standard of living, you have to consume more energy."
"Well,” Mr. Bartlett replied, “he may want that to happen, but I'm about to be 80 years old, and I want to be 60. There is about as much chance of that happening as what he wants to see happen. It's not reality."
Bartlett, who has had successful careers as a scientist, inventor, professor, and farmer, has taken a leadership role in educating Congress by forming a Peak Oil Caucus in the House of Representatives and pushing for hearings such as this one. It was absolutely exhilarating to hear what FTW has been writing about for four years being presented before Congress. CNN had a camera crew filming for a January report on Peak Oil.
The rest of the witnesses presenting testimony agreed almost entirely on the facts surrounding Peak Oil, with the sole exception of Robert Esser, a colleague of Daniel Yergin at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, who felt that Peak will not occur any earlier than 2020 and likely much later. Esser also stressed that he did not believe there was going to be a peak followed by a sharp decline, but rather an “undulating plateau.” As CERA members have stated repeatedly in myriad publications, they regard “technology” and “unconventional oil” as the major bulwarks against shortage. They generally ignore the fact that improved recovery techniques only accelerate depletion, and that Canadian tar sands are an environmental disaster that wastes natural gas and freshwater on a vast scale. They also mislead the public by confusing Peak with “running out,” the same mistake made in 1970 when the U.S. peaked, and economists mocked Hubbert by saying “look – we’re producing more than ever!” The U.S. was indeed producing more than ever before, and more than ever again: that is Peak Oil, exactly what and when Hubbert had predicted.
Rep. Tom Allen countered that whether there is a plateau or a peak with a sharp decline, in a market economy of exponential growth, there must still be a substantial energy deficit. Esser agreed with this, saying the “undulating plateau” was not a good thing.
The American Way of Life
Changing the gluttonous lifestyle Americans are now accustomed to only came up once during the hearing. Rep. Michael Burgess was suggesting that new technology is creating opportunities to get at new oil capacity. Professor Aleklett said this new technology that Burgess is so proud off has made the problem worse by diminishing reserves faster. When asked if biodiesel would make a difference, Aleklett said it hardly would, and Dr. Hirsch agreed with him. Burgess was now frustrated that no solutions (quick fixes) were being suggested, to which Aleklett suggested one solution would be for Americans to save oil by not consuming so excessively.
He pointed out that Europe consumes half of what we do yet maintains a high standard of living. Dr. Hirsch jumped to Professor Aleklett’s defense, saying that biofuels will only provide to a sliver of energy and that there needs to be a “worldwide will” to address this problem, with governments helping the private sector to do things that haven’t been done before. Burgess then said, “I have a lot more faith in the private sector than in One World Government.”
At this point the acting chair presiding over the hearing jumped in and explained how suburban sprawl in America requires that we travel further than is required in Europe. No one mentioned that sprawl might be the problem.
Robert Hirsch outlined his epochal Report with characteristic brilliance. If we initiate a crash program 20 years before Peak occurs, we have the possibility (not the guarantee) of significantly mitigating the problem.
One of the most important aspects of Hirsch’s testimony was his analogy with natural gas. In 1999, the EIA (Energy Information Agency) and NPC (National Petroleum Council) projected there was plenty of natural gas in North America for years to come. Six years later we see they were wrong. Now they see adequate oil supplies for years into the future. Did they get it right this time?
For this reason, a crash plan has to be implemented now, while we (at least some people, at least in public) hope Peak is still twenty years away. Add massive conservation efforts beyond what most Americans are willing to tolerate, and the crisis might become manageable.
“If you dig into Peak Oil it will probably be one of the most depressing subjects that any of you will ever have to worry about or think about,” said Hirsch. For some time after the Peak there will be plenty of oil, but it won’t be cheap – and cheap oil is the lifeblood of our economy.
Some Congress Members were frustrated to hear the problem described with such frightful gravity while the solutions remained elusive. Anything they thought was a solution turned out not to be. Hydrogen was completely dismissed by Hirsch, as it was by James Woolsey recently at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on November 16 of this year. The energy bill recently passed made some effort to implement alternative energy sources but, according to Hirsch, “It wasn’t created with Peak Oil in mind.”
The competing studies of world oil reserves are shaped by the assumptions they encode. Two studies can use the exact same data and arrive at completely divergent conclusions if (for example) each study assumes a different depletion rate for the array of mature oilfields under analysis. Peak Oil is an issue of terrific complexity with immense consequences. The testimony presented to this committee was a cold shower for all who dared to listen.
After the hearing, Roscoe Bartlett, Robert L. Hirsch, Kjell Aleklett and John Darnell (Bartlett’s energy advisor) lingered briefly in conference room 2232 on the third floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. Everyone had a look of deep concern imprinted on his face, wondering if this first hearing-level effort to explain Peak Oil to a Subcommittee of Congress had made an impact.
*Hear the entire hearing on Real Player:
The Honorable Roscoe G. Bartlett
U.S. House of Representatives
The Honorable Tom Udall
U.S. House of Representatives
Mr. Kjell Aleklett Ph.D.
Department of Radiation Sciences, Uppsala University
Dr. Robert L. Hirsch
Senior Energy Program Advisor
Mr. Robert Esser
Senior Consultant and Director, Global Oil and Gas Resources
Cambridge Energy Research Associates
Mr. Murray Smith
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