Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Congress Meets Peak Oil

Falls Church News-Press

By Tom Whipple
December 15, 2005

Last week the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce held its first hearing on peak oil. Appropriately, or perhaps ironically, it took place on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. The hearing was held at the instigation of Maryland Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, who recently introduced a resolution calling on the government to immediately embark on an international crash program to mitigate the effects of declining world oil production.

However, given the issues currently confronting Congress —Iraq, poll numbers, congressional elections, record budget and trade deficits, global warming, and a pandemic— hearing the world is about to run out of cheap oil is close to the last thing any member of Congress wants to hear. Who on earth would want to go into the next congressional election with their voters thinking gasoline was about to become unaffordable? Just to get a hearing on peak oil is a testimony to the legislative skill of Congressman Bartlett and his standing in the Republican caucus.

When confronted with holding a hearing they really didn’t want, the Committee leadership and staff used the time-tested technique of turning something completely obvious into an academic debate with different points of view.

In effect, the title of the hearing said it all— “Understanding the ‘Peak Oil’ Theory.”

The speakers for both sides were excellent. Bartlett and Congressman Udall of New Mexico led off with a clear case as to why world oil production would be peaking soon with very serious consequences. They were followed by star witnesses Kjell Aleklett, from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, and Robert Hirsch, from the consulting firm SAIC. The four speakers could not have made the case for peak oil more clearly or succinctly.

The peak-oil-is-imminent speakers were followed by Robert Esser, a senior consultant for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, who told the committee the world “is not running out of oil imminently or in the medium term.” “Rather than an isolated ‘peak’ we should expect an ‘undulating plateau,’ perhaps three or four decades from now,” he said. “The major risks to this outlook however are not below-ground geological factors but above-ground geopolitical factors.”

And that was the hearing. Take your pick: either the world is faced with an imminent catastrophe or an “undulating plateau” decades from now. In the midst of a dozen pressing crises, a theoretical peaking of world oil production certainly will look to most in Congress like something that can be put off until the evidence becomes clearer.

Thus far, the press coverage of the event has been sparse despite the presence of at least a dozen journalists at the hearing. The Oil and Gas Journal, whose readers are obviously concerned, ran an extensive piece on the hearing and the arguments for peak oil. At the other end of the scale, the Wall Street Journal ran a story from Market Watch reporting only the Cambridge Research contention that there will be plenty of oil for decades.

If one were expecting that Congress would have a “ Eureka ” moment because they were given a forceful case that peak oil is imminent, then you should know that Congress does not work that way. A threat thought to be five years away is meaningless.

Thus, this hearing is unlikely to result in the Peak Oil Resolution being reported out to the House floor where the whole House would have to vote on whether peak oil is imminent. The hearings and the resolution however, did result in the formation of a bi-partisan Peak Oil Caucus, which thus far, only has a handful of members.

Someday however, the Energy and Commerce Committee will be holding hearings on “Why is Gasoline $5 a gallon?” Hopefully Congressman Bartlett will still be around to testify about peak oil and his caucus will have grown into the hundreds.


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