National Commentary

Joe Barton & the Coming of Peak Oil

The highlight of last week’s Congressional interrogation of BP’s CEO came when Congressman Joe Barton(R) of Texas broke ranks with his fellow Representatives and apologized to the BP Chairman for President Obama’s “shakedown” of BP for $20 billion in reparations for the damage done by losing control of its oil well and devastating the Gulf.

The apology was obviously not a good move for it seems that most Americans did indeed want ironclad assurances that BP was going to pay for the damage it caused. Within hours the Congressman was forced to recant his words at the behest of his party leaders. Even BP seems glad to get out of all the headaches of being in the damage adjudication business and be able to turn the whole mess over to a third party.

Representative Barton of course is not alone in his thinking. He is in fact right in the middle of conservative Republican beliefs on the proper role of government. A day before the Barton apology, the Republican Study Group, made up of 115 conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives, put out a statement saying the President was wrong in his efforts to pressure BP and to set up a mechanism to insure that BP will pay promptly for the damage it has caused. They even used the “shakedown” word.

Underlying this statement is the great rift between conservative and more moderate thinking as to the proper role of government in the U.S. today. The conservative position, which is deeply imbedded in its ideology, is that government should collect as little money as possible, stay out of the life of the country as much as possible, and above all should regulate or interfere with “business”, usually referred to as “free enterprise,” as little as possible.

In the case of the great Gulf oil spill, conservatives believe that the government should only have intervened when the Gulf problem grew to levels that BP could not handle alone, but then Washington should have quickly amassed such resources that the leak from BP’s well would have been stopped quickly so that oil would never have reached the beaches. That Washington decreed a drilling moratorium was complete anathema to conservative beliefs. First the government had no business regulating oil drilling very much, but to stop further deepwater drilling while considering new and harsher regulations is unthinkable. The first business of government is to foster faster economic growth and more jobs, not to hinder it.

That Washington decreed a drilling moratorium was complete anathema to conservative beliefs.

The Barton incident, however, is instructive for it raises questions about the role of government and the force of political ideology in what soon will be an era of oil depletion and increasing economic hardship. Unlike most of the world, America has had 150 years of good times. Since the end of the Civil War, or if you prefer the War Between the States, no armies have crashed through our cities and except for the 1930s, which are remembered by only a few senior citizens, there has been relatively steady economic growth.

As generations went by, the distinction between resources that were vital for our way of life that come from nature, such as the sun, rain, moderate temperatures and breathable air, and those that were provided by our social organization and technology, such as electricity, running water, sewers, grocery stores, and gasoline, became increasingly blurred. Thus, for most, the neighborhood gas station providing unlimited cheap gas would and should always be there just as the sun will rise every day.

The degree to which government enables and facilitates the services that are vital to civilization is lost to many who have come to believe governments only collect taxes and waste money on dubious social projects. In the last few years, Washington’s efforts to deal with the credit crisis, housing crisis, and the bankruptcy of the automobile industry, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has only served to sharpen the ideological differences.

Under the “no new taxes” banner, conservatives in recent years have been content to watch the rapid erosion of state and local government services as withering revenues and inability to print or borrow money has forced unprecedented cutbacks. The ideology behind all this is that the economic growth that has been with us as long as anybody can remember will return soon and all will be well. Missing from this scenario of course is that for the last 150 years economic growth and the consumption of increasing amounts of oil have been inextricably linked. Take away steadily increasing oil supplies and the bedrock of conservative economic theory becomes a fantasy.

So far the erosion of government spending has not had a significant impact on political ideology. The problem will come when gasoline becomes unaffordable at current rates of use and many or most are forced to cut back, doing severe damage to our motorized society. At first there will be strident calls to deregulate, forget the environment and produce as much oil as possible. It may take a few years before a critical mass come to the realization amidst a stagnating economy and burgeoning social problems that more drilling is not going to work. Then the real debate can begin on how to keep civilization functioning with decreasing supplies of fossil fuels.


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.