Rep. Bartlett pursues lonely energy crusade
Republican has often warned about oil dependence, but is anyone listening?
By Matthew Hay Brown
Charts at the ready, notes spread out before him, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett begins another address in the House of Representatives on the dangers of America's dependence on oil.
The Western Maryland Republican has given nearly 50 such speeches at the Capitol in the past three years, most of them variations on a theme: that a coming decline in petroleum production, coupled with growing demand for energy, will have a calamitous impact on the global economy.
"The world as a whole, and our country included, has appeared to behave as if these fossil fuels were inexhaustible," the former university professor lectures. "What we'll see shortly is that - as everyone will know, if you stop and think about it - that oil is finite."
This should be Bartlett's moment. With concerns growing about the impact of the use of fossil fuels on climate change, officials warning about the national security implications of relying on foreign oil, and the price of gasoline surpassing $4 a gallon, energy has become the nation's leading domestic political issue.
The 16-year House veteran has long prepared for the debate. A research scientist and inventor - he has a doctorate in human physiology and holds patents on breathing equipment used by astronauts, pilots and firefighters - he has spent years talking about, and getting ready for, a looming crisis.
As a developer, he has been building houses with passive solar energy since the 1980s. His farmhouse in Frederick is warmed by a combination of solar energy and a wood stove; a second home in West Virginia is off the grid entirely.
He became the first member of Congress to drive a hybrid when he bought a Toyota Prius in 2000. He founded the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus five years later to promote conservation and investment in alternative energy sources.
But on this afternoon, the House chamber is virtually empty. The legislative week is over, and Congress has left town. C-SPAN will record his presentation, but few, if any, of his colleagues will ever see it.
As the discussion around rising energy costs degenerates into a partisan debate over where to drill next, Bartlett is having trouble getting a hearing.
"It is a little disappointing to see the lack of interest in Roscoe's depth of knowledge on this issue," says Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a fellow Maryland Republican. "He tries to educate the leadership on both sides, Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, they don't listen closely enough."
Bartlett is undeterred.
He refers frequently to reports commissioned by the federal government that predict dire consequences for failing to prepare for the moment when petroleum production begins to decline - a scenario known as peak oil.
The Government Accountability Office warned last year that a quick decline "would require sharp reductions in oil consumption, and the competition for increasingly scarce energy would drive up prices, possibly to unprecedented levels, causing severe economic damage. While these consequences would be felt globally, the United States, as the largest consumer of oil and one of the nations most heavily dependent on oil for transportation, may be especially vulnerable."
Bartlett believes that moment may now be arriving.
"You will never know that oil has peaked until you look back at it," he says. "This plateau [in global production] we've been on now for three years may in fact not be peaking. It may be a little plateau; there may be a pickup.
"I don't think there will be."
Bartlett is counseling "aggressive conservation," coupled with government-backed investment in renewable energy - a program he describes as requiring "the total commitment of World War II, the technology focus of putting a man on the moon and the urgency of the Manhattan Project."
The emphasis has put him out of step with many fellow Republicans. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner calls Bartlett "a tireless advocate for responsible energy policies."
But during the current debate, Boehner and other party leaders have focused not on using less or investing in alternatives, but on developing domestic oil production by opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling.
"I'm not really in sync with either side," Bartlett says. "Most of the Republicans, I can't get in their head, of course, but from what they say, I gather that they believe that the problem will go away if we drill and that we wouldn't even have the problem now if the Congress had done what they wanted to do 10 years ago and started drilling."
While his party talks about a multifaceted approach to energy, Bartlett says, members are paying only "passing lip service" to what he calls "the most urgent first step": conservation.
"I don't think the average Republican believes that there's any such thing as peak oil," he says.
It isn't the first time Bartlett, despite a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 93 out of 100, has clashed with colleagues.
When former Vice President Al Gore appeared last year on Capitol Hill, Bartlett chided colleagues skeptical of climate change, saying that "it's possible to be a conservative without appearing to be an idiot."
When Gore's successor, Vice President Dick Cheney, asked Bartlett to vote in favor of exploring ANWR, Bartlett says, he responded with a question: "If you could drill in ANWR tomorrow, what would you do the day after tomorrow?"
"I don't know that very many of my colleagues are thinking about the day after tomorrow," Bartlett says. With 10 children, 16 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, he says, "I think a lot about the day after tomorrow."
Bartlett now has relented on drilling. He has signed on as a co-sponsor of bipartisan legislation that would open the Outer Continental Shelf to exploration - because, he says, it also includes a five-year extension in tax credits for investment in alternative energy.
That move has opened him to charges of inconsistency from Jennifer Dougherty, his Democratic opponent this fall in the 6th Congressional District.
"He has flipped his position and his votes, so you really don't know what he'll do if he gets elected for a ninth term," her campaign said in a recent release.
Bartlett says there is no inconsistency.
"I have always said that I would vote for drilling when we used the revenues we got from drilling to invest in alternatives, he says. "I have not changed. Other members have changed - they've come to where I've been all along."