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October 2005

The Peak Oil Crisis: Congressman Bartlett's Conference

By Tom Whipple
Of the 535 members of Congress, it seems that only one, Roscoe Bartlett of western Maryland , fully appreciates the nature and seriousness of the impending peak oil crisis. Bartlett has given a series of speeches on the House floor outlining the problems ahead and scheduled a meeting to discuss peak oil face-to-face with President Bush. On Monday, he participated in an energy conference in Frederick , MD organized by his office.
As the only peak oil Congressman— the rest presumably remember what happened to Jimmy Carter— Bartlett was able to attract an all-star panel consisting of: Kenneth Deffeyes, the geologist who reworked the original Hubbert calculations to determine that peak oil will occur on Thanksgiving Day 2005; Matthew Simmons, the Houston banker who recently published a book concluding that Saudi oil production has, or is about to peak: and Richard Heinberg, who has written extensively on life after oil depletion starts. Another set of panelists talked about actions we can take to soften the impending crash. A transcript of the proceedings will be available on the Congressman's web site.
For those familiar with the tenets of peak oil, the message was familiar: It will start soon; it is already too late to mitigate the effects; and a global economic depression will only be one of the many hardships the world will face.
On a humorous note, Deffeyes revealed that calculations that oil production would peak on Thanksgiving Day 2005 really had some wriggle room so that the appointed day could come as much as three weeks before or after Thanksgiving. On a more somber note, Deffeyes said there is bound to be some sort of oil rationing
Simmons characterized the present situation as the culmination of 50 years of energy planning mistakes. Only a few years ago, energy planners believed demand would peak, supply would grow, and oil would be cheap. But instead, demand grew, production costs doubled, there were few new discoveries, and reserves turned out to have been overstated.
All this led to a situation where by August 2005 spare capacity had dropped to the point that the world was effectively at 100 percent of production capacity. Then came the Hurricanes taking away more production capacity than was left to offset the damage. We do not yet know the full implications of this situation.
Simmons calls for the nation to go immediately onto an "energy war" footing, where productive capacity and the ingenuity of the country is mobilized to deal with the crisis.
Heinberg now believes peak oil may look more like a bumpy plateau with much volatility in prices and production with events such a hurricanes, wars, demand destruction, and political moves alternately cutting and stimulating additional production. As do the other panelists, he foresees major problems in the global economy, transportation, food production, and resource wars. He emphasized the impact on localities, as people struggle to get to work, feed themselves and heat their homes.
The next panel discussed ways to save energy in transportation, buildings and industry. The dominant theme was that our current machinery and practices are highly wasteful and that we have the existing technology to live on only a small fraction of our current consumption, such as 100-mpg cars and buildings that get by nicely on 20 percent of current energy consumption.
The key point made during the panel discussions was that the nation's goal has got to be movement towards 100 percent renewable energy: water, solar, wind, waves, biomass etc. As the US currently gets only seven percent of its energy from these sources, the idea of nearly all energy coming from renewables is often derided as an impossible dream. The point the panel made is that within a few decades, we will have no other choice.
One interesting note came during the questioning, when a member of the audience asked Congressman Bartlett about his meeting on peak oil with President Bush. Did the President understand?
Bartlett responded "Yes, the President understands" but it is the age-old problem of the urgent vs. the important. Apparently, the President believed that as of this summer he had more pressing issues to deal with than the possibility the world's oil supply would one day start to decline.
On Monday, however, the President issued a call for Americans to conserve gas by driving less and directed all federal agencies to cut gasoline consumption. This is a major change in the administration's position for many years has emphasizing production of additional oil over conservation and alternative energy.
It is beginning to sound as if the President knows the hurricane damage to offshore production is far more serious than has been generally reported, and that it may be a while before all the Gulf refineries are back in production. If this is indeed the case, higher prices and gas lines (rationing by inconvenience) are not far ahead.