The oil man
Maryland's most conservative congressman leading charge against fuel dependency
By Alan Zibel
U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, the seven-term congressman from Western Maryland, eagerly flips through the large stack of charts and graphs mounted on white poster board.
"Oh, this is an interesting one," he says, pointing to the chart, propped up against the wall of a conference room in his district office in Frederick.
It's a presentation that Bartlett has given before on the floor of the House of Representatives -- 14 times to be exact, sometimes starting as late as 11 p.m. But that doesn't diminish the folksy 79-year-old Republican's enthusiasm for the subject: a looming crisis, he says, in the worldwide supply of oil.
Bartlett, who was elected to Congress in 1992, has been known in Maryland as a staunch social and fiscal conservative. But over the past year, he has been attracting national attention for his persistent advocacy of the theory that the world's oil production is at or approaching its maximum capacity. In doing so, he is echoing concerns among liberal environmentalists and national security-minded conservatives that the nation's reliance on foreign oil enriches hostile interests and puts the country's security at risk.
Advocates of the "peak oil" theory believe that after worldwide oil production reaches its maximum level, production levels will only decline, leaving dwindling supplies, skyrocketing prices and shortages.
Critics say this kind of doomsday scenario will not come to pass, and there will be enough new discoveries of oil to meet demand. But the concept of peak oil has been gaining attention lately, particularly after gasoline prices rose above $3 per gallon after Hurricane Katrina struck last fall.
As Bartlett sees it, a peak in worldwide oil production could have a severe impact on Americans' lives. In 20 years, he says, gasoline could easily cost $7 or $8 per gallon. To cope with that possibility, he believes Americans need to change their lifestyles to preserve existing supplies of fuel and make the transition to alternatives less painful. He calls for a nationwide focus on the issue.
"Unless we have a program that has kind of the breadth of putting a man on the moon and the intensity of the Manhattan Project (the effort to develop the first nuclear bombs), I think we're going to have a very bumpy ride," Bartlett said on a recent morning in his Frederick office. "It's going to be difficult, but there are a lot things that are difficult that are very satisfying."
Bartlett doesn't hew to common political stereotypes. He is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist who opposes high taxes, big government, gay marriage and abortion. Still, on energy issues, his profile looks more like a Sierra Club member: He and his wife, Ellen, own two Toyota Prius hybrids and a solar-powered vacation home in West Virginia.
"Our problem will be solved with massive conservation, becoming more efficient and using every alternative we can, and even then we're going to have to learn to be happy with less energy than we're using today," Bartlett said. "And that's not tough. The average European gets by on half the energy that we use in this country and you'd be hard to argue that they aren't as happy as we are."
In his view, people will have to take the train to work, or share rides -- an issue that could be a tough sell in booming places such as Frederick, where people routinely make long commutes to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. "Of all the ways we use our energy, commuting is the least defensible," Bartlett said.
In his State of the Union address last month, President Bush said the country is "addicted to oil" and highlighted the need to invest in alternative energy sources.
"I would have hoped that he would have said more," Bartlett said. "Two words were conspicuously absent, conservation and efficiency."
Re-elected in 2004 with 68 percent of the vote, Bartlett's district includes the entire western portion of the state and parts of Montgomery, Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties.
Bartlett, who is seeking an eighth term in Congress this year, and has no plans to retire anytime soon, has been an inventor, a research scientist, a teacher, businessman and a farmer. He has a Ph.D. in human physiology from the University of Maryland, College Park. As a senior member of the House Science Committee, he recently traveled to Antarctica to visit a U.S. scientific station.
The idea of sacrifice seems to come naturally to Bartlett, who was born in Kentucky and was raised in western Pennsylvania, where his father was a tenant farmer.
"One of our big problems today is that we don't have any big challenges," he said. "We really are fat and happy. I think that people need challenges. I think they rise to a challenge. I think that the American people get a lot of satisfaction out of contributing."
Del. Joseph Bartlett, one of Bartlett's 10 children, and a Republican who represents Frederick in the Maryland General Assembly, said his father has long been inclined toward conservation, turning off the light when people left the room and using a wood-burning stove in the winter.
The elder Bartlett began to speak in Congress about the peak oil issue last spring. In September, he brought a group of leading experts on the topic of peak oil to Frederick for a conference.
In October, he announced the formation of the Congressional Peak Oil caucus with a Democrat, Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico and brought leading experts to testify on the issue in December.
Udall calls Bartlett "one of the more thoughtful members of Congress" and says the two share a common interest in science.
"I think his credibility comes from his background as a scientist and a person of an open mind that's willing to follow the evidence," Udall said. The two are part of a bipartisan group of more than 60 House members who support a bill to raise fuel economy standards to an average of 33 miles per gallon by 2015.
Advocates of the peak oil theory are enthused by the attention that Bartlett has brought to the issue. Matthew Simmons, a Texas energy investment banker who has been a leading advocate of the peak oil concept, calls Bartlett a "hero" for his efforts.
"It's just fabulous to have someone with the moral authority of a Roscoe Bartlett, who's coming at this with no ax to grind," said Simmons, who has gained national attention from his book about peak oil, "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy."
Simmons believes that as a Republican and a scientist, Bartlett has more influence and credibility than other members of Congress.
With gasoline selling for around $2.30 a gallon, 40 cents higher than last year, and crude oil trading for double 2003 levels, calls to conserve energy are no longer the province of Democrats and environmental activists, who have long criticized the Bush administration as being in lockstep with energy industry interests.
"I think a lot of Republicans have come to this issue," said Rep. Albert Wynn, a Democrat from Prince George's County who has been an advocate of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. "When you hear the president talking about wind and solar in the state of the Union, you've got to believe that everybody's getting it."
Still, there are many in the energy industry who believe the sky is not, in fact, falling anytime soon.
Robert Esser, a senior consultant with Cambridge Energy Resources Associates, testified in December that a peak in oil production is not imminent. Rather, production should continue to grow for another two to four decades, after which it will reach a plateau. The growth, in Esser's view, will come from places like Canada, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
And John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, said worries about the end of oil go back 150 years, but have not come to pass -- as more oil continues to be discovered. High prices, he said, act both as an incentive to find new supplies and push down demand.
"Right now all the available facts don't support that position," Felmy said. "There are a vast amount of resources that are still to be discovered."
But Bartlett has an answer to those who accuse him of crying wolf. "I remind them in that little story the wolf did come," he said. "And he ate the sheep and the people, right?"