New Mexico Congressman Raises Alarm on Peak Oil

Peak oil is a global problem that has to be dealt with by a global approach, whether it's 5, 10, 15 years in the future, or already upon us, Congressman Tom Udall warns.

Published: 02-Jan-2006

t congressmen, including Rep. Tom Udall, D-NM, formed a bi-partisan caucus in the House of Representatives to call attention to what they and many others believe is a looming global problem, known as Peak Oil.

Udall said the group grew out of talks he was having with a colleague, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md, when they decided to team up and see what they could accomplish.

Udall spoke by phone from a cloakroom in the House, between roll call votes at the end of the first session of congress.

"Los Alamos and Sandia and the other national laboratories have a key role and are playing it now," he said. "If we made the decision to really galvanize and commit resources, there would be a much larger role."

In testimony before the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee on Dec. 7, Udall participated in a panel organized by the caucus. In his prepared statement he emphasized the importance of taking "a bold new approach to our energy supplies," inspired by major feats of the past.

"In response to great challenges and inevitable threats, we pooled our resources and ingenuity to build an atomic bomb in just a few years and put a man on the moon in a decade," he said. "We must do this again."

Last spring, in one of those speeches on the House floor that is carried live on late-night C-SPAN, Bartlett laid out the elements of the Peak Oil scenario and planted the seed for the new caucus.

The term Peak Oil, he recalled, was coined by M. King Hubbert, a scientist who worked for Shell Oil, and who had studied trends in oil field supplies during the 1940s and 50s. Hubbert noticed that oil field supplies followed a reliable curve. When they reached their maximum volume, about half the oil had been extracted from a given field.

Applying this formula, Hubbert accurately predicted in 1956 that the U.S. would reach its Peak Oil point in 1970, according to his proponents.

With many books and articles now published on the subject, Peak Oil has become a catchphrase that encompasses a host of oil-related issues, including tight energy supplies, rising gas prices, fuel efficiency strategies, foreign oil dependency and alternative energy sources.

Energy efficiencies are making their way into the national agenda and Udall said he found pluses and minuses in the national energy policy act that was finally signed into law in early August 2005, after repeated failures.

"You could make an argument that there are a few things in there that would help us move toward a cleaner energy economy," he said. "But the largesse was about $80 billion, that went mostly to the established energy conglomerates that run our energy show now."

In a recent report on long-term energy outlook, "A View to 2030," the oil giant ExxonMobile acknowledged that North America has exceeded the half-way point of its oil supply. But the company estimates total discovered and undiscovered, conventional and unconventional oil resources at 4 trillion barrels, and contended that nearly every other region in the world retains more oil in the ground than it has produced.

The Energy Information Agency in the Department of Energy, like ExxonMobile, expressed confidence in December that the oil supplies would be adequate.

In an energy outlook projection for 2006 that looks forward to 2030, the EIA reported that it has revised last year's estimates upward by 37 percent. World prices, they said, have risen because of strong growth in developing countries and China and then, later in the year, because of "disruptions and inadequate investment to meet demand growth."

After reviewing the new landscape, EIA increased its estimate by $21 a barrel for 2030 to an average cost per barrel of $56.97.

Current oil costs are hovering around $60 per barrel, slightly above that on Thursday and slightly below on Friday for a barrel of benchmark crude for February delivery. That's about $3 more than the government's estimated price for 25 years from now.

Another expert witness at the Peak Oil hearing was Robert Esser, director of Global Oil and Gas Resources, a private research and consulting firm that provides continuing assessment of future oil supplies.

In a text of his remarks, he warned that the planet is consuming 30 billion barrels of oil a year of its finite resources.

"It is true that total annual global production has not been replaced by exploration success in recent years," he testified, but noted that exploration together with production upgrades more than compensated for oil produced during the eight years from 1995-2003.

"We still do not have an exact estimate of total reserves," he said, which makes it hard to accurately time Peak Oil. "Rather than an imminent peak, we see an undulating plateau, two to four decades away."

"A global problem has to be dealt with by a global approach, whether it's 5, 10, 15 years in the future, or already upon us," said Udall. "I see the issue as being one of political will. I don't know that we have the will today to tackle this."

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