05/16/2011 11:43 am ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

Dinosaurs and Fossil Fools

Dinosaurs live. I have seen them. One need not travel to Jurassic Park; a herd was sighted in Washington, DC last week. And while physically they may have evolved into human forms, the size of their brains is unnaturally small in relation to the size of their skulls. They are still vicious predators of weaker species, they have razor sharp teeth capable of gnawing through anything that gets in their way and they destroy with absolute impunity and have no regard for their surroundings.

I saw them with my own eyes and could not help but marvel at the sight unfolding before the Senate Finance Committee last week as the heads of the so-called "Big Five" oil companies paraded their arrogance once again before an array of incredulous senators, vociferously refusing to even consider placing need ahead of greed. As I stared wide-eyed at the spectacle, my wonderment quickly turned to anger and disgust at the vile and despicable pomposity which governed the actions of these creatures.

The term "dinosaur" derived from the English paleontologist Richard Owen in 1842 and in essence it means "terrible, powerful, wondrous lizard." One could not devise a more perfect definition of the fossil fools who ambled before Congress to argue for the continuation of unconscionable federal government spending (federal tax subsidies) while oil tops $100 per barrel, gasoline at the pump tops $4 per gallon and their profits top $35 billion in the first quarter of this year alone and over $900 billion over the first decade of the new millennium.

Yet the description offered by West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, whose family is quite familiar with oil, was as profoundly apt as it was disturbing. He proceeded to detail the power and influence of these pernicious profiteers and the seemingly untouchable status they currently enjoy in Congress. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, fighting for his political ife by turning his solidly conservative credentials inside out in order to appease his Tea Party constituents, characterized it quite differently, labeling the exercise as a classic dog and pony show, complete with an illustrated drawing that I have no doubt will fetch a pretty penny at an upcoming fundraiser. These conservatives just have never seen corporate welfare they did not like and will defend to the death.

First we had "too big to fail," now we have "too big to nail." The dinosaur mentality of these corporate titans was on full display on Capitol Hill and the dinosaurs may ultimately exact their revenge upon the human race unless we exhibit an appropriate mix of intestinal fortitude and intellectual prowess. In public policy, as in life itself, it is virtually impossible to come up with the right answers unless you ask the right questions. It may seem to be an exercise in semantic gymnastics but, bluntly, we are not asking the right questions. For instance, while we spend our time devising schemes to wean ourselves off of our dependency upon foreign oil, we should rather be spending our efforts on the far more important question of how to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.

Similarly, while we spend our time cleverly convincing ourselves that we must concede to the inevitability of fossil fuels to meet ever-growing energy demands, we should spend as much time figuring out how to reduce those energy demands. Leading environmental organizations seem to have fallen into this trap all too willingly as they devote considerable energies and efforts towards defending the position that natural gas development is inevitable so we need to develop the appropriate regulatory framework to lessen its adverse environmental impacts. They are absolutely right on regulation but what about the underlying issue of whether there is a "right way of doing the wrong thing," to paraphrase Dr. Tony Ingraffea, whose work at Cornell University on puncturing the myth of shale gas as a vastly superior alternative to coal is encountering criticisms from the industry and environmentalists alike.

In the past several months, there have been groundbreaking studies on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas as a replacement for coal as an energy source. The Environmental Protection Agency is involved in an exhaustive multi-year study to assess exactly what relationships exist between extraction methods and water contamination. A study released last month by scientists at Cornell University raises the specter that natural gas may indeed be worse for the climate than coal. A Duke University study last week has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination.

This week a study by the Post Carbon Institute concludes that "the notion that natural gas is a panacea that can substantially offset oil imports as a transportation fuel or replace coal-fired electricity generation in business-as-usual growth scenarios is wishful thinking at best." And the Academy-Award-nominated documentary Gasland has raised serious questions about the environmental consequences of drilling activities from Texas to New York and everywhere in between.

In our exasperation and desperation we have fallen prey to the hype and relentless propaganda that fantasizes an easy solution not to our needs but to our wants. It ignores the commonsense admonition that if it seems too good to be true, it is. The point is that it is absolutely imperative is that we start asking the right questions. If natural gas development is indeed inevitable, we must exhaustively explore the consequences before we pin our hopes on this latest miracle cure. Right now there are serious questions being raised to suggest that the folks that brought us Halliburton, BP and Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez and Prince William Sound, and fire-breathing water faucets in homes in Dimock, Penn., and elsewhere, may in fact be selling us a bill of goods.

The prudent and responsible public policy approach to this issue requires that we take a deep breath, study the pros and cons, and proceed cautiously. After all, the shale plays holding these resources are going nowhere.

If nothing else, the arrogance and greed exemplified by the oil and gas industry and its leaders should send a loud and clear message to our policymakers to move with caution and exhibit an intellectual and scientific curiosity that all too often is missing in our policy debates. Otherwise, the dinosaurs will win.