WASHINGTON – The decline in world oil reserves is such a pressing and enormous problem that it will take a project of the same magnitude as putting a man on the moon to solve it, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., told House colleagues Wednesday.
In 1970, the United States already reached the halfway point of its oil production and has been facing diminishing supplies ever since. The rest of the world will soon approach the same "peak" or tipping point -- some experts project that will arrive as soon as 2015, but no later than 2030 -- and when it does, it will have to face numerous economic, political and social issues that come along with it.
"How and when we as individuals and government leaders will respond to global "peak oil" is what we need to address immediately," said Bartlett in his written statement before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. "I believe global 'peak oil' presents our country with a challenge as daunting as the one that faced the astronauts and staff of the Apollo 13 program. Contingency planning, training, incredible ingenuity and collaboration to solve the problem brought the Apollo 13 astronauts back home safe."
Already there's evidence of the kind of problems an oil shortage could create. Gas prices that topped $3 per gallon nationally after Hurricane Katrina damaged U.S. production capability in August caused widespread discontent and a call for a better energy policy.
"The U.S. government must lead and inspire Americans' unmatched ingenuity and creativity to end our unacceptable and unsustainable energy vulnerability and to prevent a worldwide economic tsunami from global 'peak oil,'" Bartlett said.
Bartlett said he hoped to heighten American interest for this looming worldwide problem through the passage of a House resolution he sponsored to "establish an energy project with the magnitude, creativity, and sense of urgency that was incorporated in the 'Man on the Moon' project."
His bill also calls for the United States to more efficiently use fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas, and to accelerate the transition to alternative and renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, ethanol and hydrogen.
"Almost like children who have found the cookie jar, we have shown no restraint," said Bartlett. He told the committee that the U.S. consumes 25 percent of the world's oil and pumps it out four times faster than the rest of world from its reserves, which constitute just 2 percent of the world's supply. Professor Kjell Aleklett from Sweden's Uppsala University warned the United States during the hearing to think about a future when it cannot solely rely on international oil, the source of two-thirds of the country's oil supply.
"Peak oil is a reality," he said. "Why should the United States consume twice the amount of oil than Europe does? We do just fine with half."
Exactly when the world will peak is not as important as to what actions should be done to offset it.
"Maximum and peak oil is coming," said Robert Hirsch, senior energy program advisor for Science Applications International Corp., but no one can predict exactly when.
Hirsch mentioned that if the United States waits until the peak occurs, the world will have energy problems 20 years afterwards. If the U.S. waits 10 years before the actual peak, then it will still face a decade of problems. If the U.S. does something now, however, the problem could be avoided.
"The central theme here is that there is not much time to act," said Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who also testified at the hearing. In his written statement, he echoed the bill's mission to "embark on a program of research and development with the same magnitude and sense of urgency of the Manhattan Project or putting a man on the moon."
But witness testimony was not unanimous. Robert Esser, senior consultant and director of global oil and gas resources for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, 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."
Bartlett insisted however that world peak oil is a national security risk and denied claims that it is a lot like the fabled boy who cried wolf.
"We've cried, 'Wolf. Wolf.' several times in the past," said Bartlett. "From what I remember, the wolf ate all the sheep. One day the wolf will come."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.