Congressional Testimony on Energy Policy
by Prof. Al Bartlett
May 3, 2001
Invited oral testimony (limited to 5 minutes) given by A.A. Bartlett to the Subcommittee on Energy of the Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:
My name is Albert A. Bartlett.
I am Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder where I have been a member of the Faculty of the Department of Physics since 1950.
Our national energy situation is a mess!
For years we have seen recommendations from the Department of Energy that suggest that the leaders of the Department have little scientific understanding of the problems of energy.
We have seen the President of the United States sending his Secretary of Energy on bended knee to plead with OPEC leaders to increase petroleum production so as to keep our gasoline prices from rising. For a country that boasts that it is the world's only superpower, this is profoundly humiliating.
Gasoline prices are rising. California currently has an electrical energy crisis that is likely to spread. Natural gas prices are rising rapidly, which poses real economic hardship for millions of American home owners who depend on natural gas to heat their homes in the winter.
The only energy proposals we see are for short-term fixes, sometimes spread over a few years, that seem to ignore the important real-world realities of resource availability and consumer costs.
For years, scientists have warned that fossil fuels resources are finite and that long-range plans should be made. These plans must recognize that growing rates of consumption of fossil fuels will lead, predictably, to serious shortages that are now starting to appear.
For years we have heard learned opinions from non-scientists that resources are effectively infinite; that the more of a resource that we consume the greater are the reserves of that resource; and that the human intellect is our greatest resource because the human mind can harness science and technology to solve all of our resource shortages.
There seem to be two cultures; science and non-science. Each has its own Ph.D. "experts" and "think tanks." Each has its own lobbyists who argue vigorously that their path is the proper path to achieve a sustainable society. So let's compare the two recommended paths.
The centerpiece of the scientific path is conservation; hence it is appropriate to call this path the "Conservative Path." On this path the federal government is called on to provide leadership plus strong and reliable long-term support toward the achievement of the following goals. The U.S. should:
- Have an energy planning horizon that addresses the problems of sustainability through many future decades.
- Have programs for the continual and dramatic improvement of the efficiency with which we use energy in all parts of our society. Improved energy efficiency is the lowest cost energy resource we have.
- Move toward the rapid development and deployment of all manner of renewable energies throughout our entire society.
- Embark on a program of continual reduction of the annual total consumption of non-renewable energy in the U.S.
- Recognize that moving quickly to consume the remaining U.S. fossil fuel resources will only speed and enlarge our present serious U.S. dependence on the fossil fuel resources of other nations. This will leave our children vitally vulnerable to supply disruptions that they won’t be able to control.
- Finally, and most important, we must recognize that population growth in the U.S. is a major factor in driving up demand for energy. This calls for recognizing the conclusion of President Nixon's Rockefeller Commission Report (Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, 1972). The Commission concluded that it could find no benefit to the U.S. from further U.S. population growth.
In contrast, the non-scientific path suggests that resources are effectively infinite, so we can be as liberal as we please in their use and consumption. Hence this path is properly called the "Liberal Path." The proponents of the Liberal Path recommend that the U.S. should:
- Make plans only to meet immediate crises, because all crises are temporary;
- Not have government promote improvements in energy efficiency because the marketplace will provide the needed improvements.
- Not have government programs to develop renewable energies because, again, the marketplace can be counted on to take care of all of our needs.
- Let fossil fuel rates continue to increase because to do otherwise might hurt the economy.
- Dig and Drill. Consume our remaining fossil fuels as fast as possible because we "need them." Don't worry about our children. They can count on having the advanced technologies they will need to solve the problems that we are creating for them.
- Claim that population growth is a benefit rather than a problem, because more people equals more brains.
We should not be confused by the conflicting expertise that supports each of these two paths because there is a very fundamental truth:
For every Ph.D. there's an equal and opposite Ph.D.
For our U.S. energy policy, we must choose between the Conservative and the Liberal Paths. The paths are the exact opposites of each other. Each is advocated by academically credentialed experts. On what basis can we make an intelligent choice?
There is a rational way to choose. If the path we choose turns out to be the correct path, then there's no problem. The problems arise in case the path we choose turns out to be the wrong path. It follows then that we must choose the path that leaves us in the less precarious position in case the path we choose turns out to be the wrong one.
So there are two possible wrong choices that we must compare.
If we choose the Conservative Path that assumes finite resources, and our children later find that resources are really infinite, then no great long-term harm has been done.
If we choose the Liberal Path that assumes infinite resources, and our children later find that resources are really finite, then we will have left our descendants in deep trouble.
There can be no question. The Conservative Path is the prudent path to follow.
However, it is the Liberal Path that we are so eagerly taking today.
If resources turn out to be infinite, then we will be OK on the Liberal Path. But if resources turn out to be finite, then today’s choice of the Liberal Path will create enormous and critical problems for our children.
I thank you for this opportunity to share my views with you.
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