Peak oil’s voice in Congress about to get louder

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, here seen at a museum event in Sept. 2010. Photo: MC4 Army via Flickr.

One of just two Republicans in Maryland’s House delegation, after the GOP takeover of the House in November Rep. Roscoe Bartlett stands ready to assume leadership on both energy and climate in the new Congress.

An 18-year veteran of the House, Bartlett’s seniority puts him in key positions on committees “at the fulcrum of two key debates in the 112th Congress — on climate change and on the future of the US military,” according to the Washington Post.

And that could be good news for clean energy, conservation and peak oil, issues on which the outspoken 85-year-old has championed for years and on which he has often disagreed with his fellow Republicans.

Not your typical Republican

A self-described “citizen legislator, not a politician,” Bartlett holds a PhD in physiology and served more than two decades as a researcher for NASA and the US military.

Now, in the new Congress, where he’ll hold a key post on the Science committee, Bartlett may come into conflict with members of his own party who want to cut government’s role in promoting clean energy, such as Michigan’s Fred Upton, new chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a proponent of nuclear power.

“On my side of the aisle, they tend to worship the marketplace,” Bartlett told me in a phone interview. “And when it comes to energy, my colleagues will say the dumbest things sometimes.”

For example, Newt Gingrich, in his most recent book, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine —updated in 2011—wrote that America has 500 more years of domestic coal at our disposal. But Bartlett thinks it’s more like 12 years.

Bartlett’s elevation is a bright spot in a Congress where a record number of freshmen who deny climate change are joining GOP veterans who are already cold on climate science, clean energy and conservation.

Within days of convening, the new House has already started rolling back both climate and energy policy, shuttering the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming and seeking cuts to Energy Star, weatherization and energy research. Yet, in its budget-cutting proposals, the GOP seeks no cuts in subsidies for oil, coal and corn ethanol nor any cuts in funds for new highway construction.

Bartlett, who started the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus with Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico in 2005, doesn’t see why energy has to be a partisan issue. And he doesn’t see why energy hawks and climate change activists can’t get along.

Not all about Al Gore

“I don’t want to argue about whether Al Gore is right about global warming. But most of what he wants to do is just what we should to do deal with our energy problems. The sooner America transitions to renewable energy the better it’s going to be.”

Bartlett is impatient with those who say we can replace conventional coal, oil and natural gas with untapped and harder-to-access unconventional fossil fuel resources.

“I have no idea if we’ll get any oil at all out of those oil sands,” Bartlett said, commenting on the poor net energy in producing oil from tar sands mining operations in the western US and Canada. “Unfortunately, most of the people on my side of the aisle believe that we have a problem because the Democrats won’t let us start drilling. But going into ANWR is not the solution. It would take at least ten years to get any oil from there at all.”

Bartlett and his wife Ellen have ten children, seventeen grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and Bartlett told me that he advocates for conservation for their sake. He thinks that today’s generations should not squander all of the oil at the expense of generations to come.

“Just as we shouldn’t leave our kids and grand kids with a huge national debt to pay off, so we should also leave them some oil,” said Bartlett, whose views on the US federal debt are more in line with his fellow Republicans.

Peak oil, for Bartlett, is one of the biggest problems the world has ever faced.  He thinks America should’ve been preparing for oil depletion since Admiral Hyman Rickover warned about the eventual end of “the Fossil Fuel Age” in a speech from 1957, a speech that Bartlett is fond of quoting.

Bartlett is also articulate about putting America’s current energy challenge in his own words.

“This energy thing couldn’t be worse — peak oil has hit just at the same time that the Chinese and Indians are demanding more energy,” Bartlett said. “The recession brought us some relief but it’s just a question of time.”

Chinese and Europeans get it

Even though China opens a new coal plant every day on average, Bartlett thinks that Beijing grasps the energy situation better than Washington.

In 2007, Bartlett was part of a Congressional delegation to China on energy. There, he was impressed that the first thing that came up was how the Chinese were planning for a “post oil” economy. Bartlett found their five-point approach to be a good model for the US:

  • Conserve energy
  • Diversify energy sources
  • Get as much energy domestically as possible
  • Be kind to the environment
  • Encourage international cooperation (though China is not optimistic on this score and is planning to go it alone if it has to)

Bartlett does not think anything positive on energy will come out of either the new Congress or the Obama White House.

He’s not even sure if Secretary of Energy Steven Chu knows about peak oil. When I suggested that Chu must be aware that world oil production has peaked, but that perhaps the administration was avoiding talking about peak oil for fear of causing panic among the public, Bartlett was incredulous.

“We’re in denial,” he said. “The first thing we need to do is recognize that there’s a problem.”

Bartlett doesn’t think the US will adopt anything like the plan for fuel rationing and personal carbon trading proposed by members of the British Parliament last week, though he is impressed with the progress among European governments in addressing energy issues.

And given that the group behind the British plan, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas, appears to be well organized and proactive, is there any chance that the US Congressional Peak Oil Caucus could also become more active?

So far, the group lacks its own website and seems to have been largely inactive in the last couple years except for Bartlett’s heroic efforts. Over his Congressional career, Bartlett has given more than 50 speeches about peak oil on the House floor, often to an empty chamber, and delivered hundreds more talks to civic and clean energy groups, including the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas — USA. In 2008, the group recognized Bartlett’s work by giving out its first “Roscoe Bartlett Speak Truth to Power” award.

Future for peak oil in Congress and among the public

Roscoe Bartlett speaking to the House on peak oil.

Even after delivering more than 50 floor speeches on peak oil, Roscoe Bartlett hasn’t given up trying to educate his House colleagues on energy depletion.

My call to Bartlett’s Congressional Peak Oil Caucus co-founder, Sen. Tom Udall, for comment on the British plan, was not returned. In addition, when I conducted a search on Udall’s website for the term “peak oil,” no entries came up. Has the New Mexico Democrat lost interest in the issue?

That would be a bad sign for the future of the peak oil caucus and for a new generation of Congressional leadership to take over when Bartlett is ready to pass the baton.

It could also be a bad sign for the Democrats, who may be taking a pass on the issue of energy depletion.

Does that mean Republicans will step in to fill the gap? As gas prices continue to rise, depletion is sure to become a bigger topic in the media. And given that the International Energy Agency announced last year that the world  reached the peak of conventional oil production in 2006, the issue of peak oil could finally be ready to hit the mainstream.

So far, Bartlett’s GOP colleagues seem to lean towards Gingrich’s view, that America has plenty of fossil fuels left if only the Democrats would let oil, gas and coal companies exploit them.

And that leaves Bartlett as perhaps the lone voice of sanity who’s willing to step forward in Congress to talk about depletion and its consequences.

To raise awareness, Bartlett puts more faith in the private sector than in his fellow Republicans. He thinks energy advocates need a public campaign similar to what deficit hawks have developed, led by the Pete Peterson Foundation and stoked by the documentaries it has backed — I.O.U.S.A. and I.O.U.S.A. Solutions — calling for action to cut the US national debt.

Is there a billionaire out there who’s willing to play the role of Pete Peterson for peak oil? If so, Bartlett would like to meet him or her.

Most of all, Bartlett puts faith in the much maligned voting public.

“Education is the main thing,” Bartlett told me. “The secretary of education should go on the road and talk about this. The American people respond well to challenges.”

— Erik Curren

Multimedia: Watch a House floor speech on peak oil that Congressman Bartlett delivered in 2008.

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  1. maria says

    Proof that peak oil is a non-partisan issue. As a mostly-liberal/progessive Marylander, I’ve seen other sides to Roscoe Bartlett that don’t sit well with me at all, particularly when it comes to social justice issues (e.g. “Defense of Marriage” as a prominent part of his platform). It won’t be easy for some of us who care about peak oil to put our other differences aside and work together. I hope we can.

    • says

      I agree, maria. I wish more liberal progressive Democrats would step forward on peak oil. I do hope that Sen. Udall is still interested, and it would be good if the peak oil caucus could do something this year.

  2. Fred Magyar says

    A self-described “citizen legislator, not a politician,” Bartlett holds a PhD in physiology and served more than two decades as a researcher for NASA and the US military.

    “Not your typical Republican”

    That might be the understatement of the century…

    • says

      Fred — I’m a big fan of Rep Bartlett. I hope he’ll stick around Congress a bit longer, as his voice of reason on energy is sorely needed there.

  3. says

    Bartlett wondered whether Steven Chu is aware of peak oil. It seems that he is. I’m not sure exactly what he thinks about global peak oil, but he is certainly aware of the U.S. peak, and is aware of ASPO’s forecasts for global peak oil. I spoke with a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where Chu used to be head, and he said Chu used to speak about peak oil when he first joined the lab, but then he switched to focus more on climate change as a motivation for moving off of fossil fuels.

    See this post on Energy Bulletin, which links to slides of a 2005 talk that Chu gave when he was head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

  4. says

    Mason — Good point. It would be hard to imagine that a man in Chu’s position as well informed as he appears to be in his own subject area would not know about peak oil. And you’ve just confirmed that he in fact did. That comment about how he won’t talk about it because he fears it would crash Wall Street seems to explain his silence.

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