When science converges with politics, anything can happen. For that reason, congressional hearings on the peak-oil question are cause for worry.
The issue deserves attention, of course. The possibility that oil production might soon reach its natural limit is no small matter.
In fact, the peak-oil issue has been receiving serious attention from serious people for a number of years. The debate has elicited broad and deep disagreement. Serious questions with major ramifications for humankind usually do.
It was inevitable, therefore, that Congress would feel obliged to take up the issue.
Last year, Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) and Tom Udall (D-NM) started the House Peak Oil Caucus, which now has six other members. On Dec. 7, a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the subject (OGJ Online, Dec. 7, 2005).
While congressional attention to an important energy issue is welcome, peak oil isn't ready for prime-time politics. It's an open question about a complex subject. The answer will not be found in a congressional hearing. In fact, raising the question presupposes the answer.
Statements by Bartlett and Udall make clear that both are peak-oil pessimists. There is nothing wrong with that. The pessimistic view might well be right.
There would be much wrong, however, if Congress embraced the most fretful side of an unsettled scientific question, worked itself into a panic, and rushed into law a series of energy mistakes. That's what usually happens with legislation motivated by alarm. Whole industries dedicated to economically hopeless energy forms yearn to be given life through the unholy consortium of exaggerated problems and activist politics.
The discussion needs to happen, though. The world needs the clearest view attainable of how much longer the Petroleum Age will last. Or should that be Petroleum and Gas Age?
Whatever, it's the quality of the debate that matters. And that's a function of the extent to which discussion accommodates the proposition that, whether oil production peaks next year or next century, the most constructive thing Congress can do in response may be nothing, absolutely nothing.
(Online Dec. 9, 2005; author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)