Now serving his eighth term in the United States House of Representatives, Roscoe G. Bartlett is one of three scientists in the US Congress. In the 109th Congress, Dr. Bartlett served as a senior member of the Science and Technology Committee and served on the Small Business Committee as its Vice Chairman. Recently, Michael Shank, Policy Director for the 3D Security Initiative in Washington DC, interviewed US Congressman Bartlett on behalf of The Daily Star Egypt.
Shank: Can you explain for us the concept of Peak Oil?
Peak Oil is that time when, for a country or for the world, we have reached our maximum capacity for producing oil. It’s not that there won’t be any more oil, it’s just that from then on oil will be harder and harder to get and will be pumped in lesser and lesser amounts. Until finally we run down till the cost of getting the oil far exceeds any value you get from it and we then won’t get any oil. There will be a post-oil age.
Shank: As one of the leading advocates in Congress, what inspired you to get involved in raising awareness concerning the problem of Peak Oil?
It’s probably because I’m a scientist; it is obvious oil won’t last forever. I started asking myself the question probably forty years ago: when do we need to start being concerned? One year? 10 years? 100 years? 1000 years? At some point, obviously, we’re going to reach our maximum capacity to produce oil and then it’s going to be down hill after that. That is undeniable, that will happen. I just kept asking myself, when is this going to happen? And recently there’s so much evidence that we’re near that point for the world. We passed that point for our country in 1970. I think 33 of the 45 oil producing countries of the world have peaked. There was an interesting article the other day that says that Iran maybe has peaked, and that they’ll be on their downside from now on.
Shank: Is the US government recognizing the problem of Peak Oil? Are other countries?
I just came from a trip to China and they talk about post-oil in China, which was very refreshing. They recognize that there will be a post-oil age. We have about five or six thousand years of recorded history, we’ve been in the age of oil for about 100-150 years. And in another 100-150 years we will be through the age of oil. This is just going to be a blip in the long course of history. The transition from fossil fuels to renewables-and we will make that transition, there will come a time when we are steady-state renewables-that can be a very difficult transition, or it can be an easier transition if we are preparing for it. I don’t see either us or the world paying adequate attention to it. I think it’s a fairly imminent, particularly fossil fuels, crisis.
Shank: OPEC recently recognized Peak Oil.
They did. I was pleasantly surprised that OPEC admits that there will be Peak Oil.
Shank: And what do you think the significance of that is globally? Do you think other countries will listen and pay heed to what OPEC has recognized?
I hope so. I was very encouraged by what we found in China. They talk about post-oil. They have a five-point plan. It starts where it should start with conservation and it ends where it should end and that is with all of the nations getting together. They talk about diversity and they talk about trying to make it on their own so they aren’t importing. And they talk about the environment. These are the five things they talk about. And China is more cognizant than any other country I’ve talked to about the, I think fairly imminent, liquid fuels crisis that we’re going to be facing. And they talk about post-oil, I was surprised. They just start the conversation by talking about post-oil. They’re obviously will be a post-oil. For many people it’s so far in the future, let our kids and our grandkids worry about that. We’ll worry about something else today.
Shank: What do you think the impact of Peak Oil will be on the Gulf States and Egypt as they are facing, particularly Egypt, energy crises of their own?
It’s going to hurt everybody of course. Those pumping oil, they’re going to have less to pump. Of course the price will go up so that will kind of compensate for the lesser amount. It’s probably going to hurt those that are importing oil more than those that are exporting, because at least for the first part of this downturn the increased price of oil is going to compensate for the decreased supply of oil so that their revenues will stay the same. But for those who are buying oil this is going to really be tough to maintain our economies with oil at ever-increasing prices. Oil which is used 70% for transportation in our country, and that touches absolutely everything. There is nothing that we use that isn’t transported somewhere and so everything is going to go up.
Shank: What advice would you give to a country like Egypt to pre-empt a potential crisis that would come about because of peak oil, to prevent a crisis from damaging their energy and economy sectors?
If you were producing oil you’re not getting enough for it because there’s going to be a time when you have less and less oil. And today the supply and demand is such that you’re getting an inadequate price for it. The world needs to come together, because everybody has a stake, everybody’s a stakeholder in this. The countries producing oil, they’re a stakeholder, the countries consuming, they’re a stakeholder. And the longer the oil lasts us, the better everybody will be. And the only way it’s going to last longer is if we have an aggressive program of conservation, we really focus on efficiency, we develop alternatives as quickly as possible. Extending the available oil supply just helps everybody. And the world should be coming together.
In the future, I think future generations will look back and wonder how could we have done this? We have been no more responsible than the hog who found the feed room door open. We just pigged out. In spite of the fact that we know that our kids and our grandkids are going to have to run this country and this world, we now are trying to drill in ANWR [Alaska National Wildlife Refuge] and offshore and pump as quickly as possible the little bit of oil left in the world. I have a lot of trouble understanding the moral implications of that, as a father of ten and a grandfather of fifteen and a great-grandfather of two.
Shank: Is there a role for the US in partnering with Egypt and the Gulf States in preventing a Peak Oil crisis in that region?
Absolutely. I think this ought to be the number one issue. Everything else that we’re focused on today is going to fade into relative insignificance: Iraq, social security, and all these things, are going to be relatively insignificant when the world really understands that there is such a thing as Peak Oil, that there’s going to be less of that tomorrow than there is today, and the cost is going to go up.
One of the observers, Kenneth Deffeyes, says that the least bad outcome, no good outcome, I hope he’s wrong by the way, but he says the least bad outcome is a deep worldwide recession that may make the 1930s look like good times. And then he says if you don’t like that, try the four horsemen of the apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence and death. And my fear is, my fear is, that if we don’t cooperate that there will be quarreling and maybe shooting wars over the oil.
World War II.Japan entered the war largely because of the perception that we were denying them access to the oil they needed. Fortunately, Hitler had to go into Russia because he couldn’t produce enough oil from the coal. And he had to go for the oil in the Caspian Sea so he was fighting on two fronts. If it weren’t for that, if it weren’t for the role of oil in World War II we might all be speaking German, because if he didn’t have to go to that eastern front so quickly he might very well have consolidated the western front and then more easily taken on the eastern front. So oil has been a big player
in world politics for a long time. Most people have kind of ignored it but when you look back it’s been a big player.
Shank: In the 110th Congress, what are you hoping for vis-à-vis a U.S. House of Representatives resolution on Peak Oil?
I hope to get wider support for the Peak Oil resolution which was first introduced in the last Congress as H. Res. 507. It is now H. Res. 12 after being reintroduced in the 110th Congress. We’d like to see recognition that there is such a thing as Peak Oil and that we urgently need a program that I say needs the total commitment of World War II, the technology focus of putting a man on the moon and the urgency of the Manhattan project. Minus that, I think we’re in for a rough ride.