Representative Joe Barton is feeling very good about himself right now. He's convinced that he "baffled" a Nobel Laureate with a "basic question." During a congressional hearing earlier today, he asked Energy Secretary Stephen Chu how the oil got to Alaska. Here's the YouTube clip of the exchange. For your convenience, I've done a quick transcript.
Barton: Dr. Chu, I don't wanna leave you out, you're our... you're our scientist. I have one simple question for you in the last six seconds. How did all the oil and gas get to Alaska and under the Arctic Ocean?
Chu: [Nervous-sounding laughter] This is... this is a complicated story, but, but oil and gas is the result of hundreds of millions of years of geology, and in that time also the plates have moved around, and so it's the combination of where the sources of the oil and gas are...
Barton (interrupting): Well, I mean, isn't it obvious that at one time it was a lot warmer in Alaska and on the north pole? It wasn't a big pipeline that we created in Texas and shipped it up there and put it underground so we could now pump it out and ship it back.
Chu: No. There are... there's continental plates that have been drifting around throughout the geological ages...
Barton (interrupting): So it just drifted up there?
Chu: That's certainly what happened. And so it's the result of things like that.
Here's what Rep Barton took from that exchange, as eloquently expressed in his two Tweets:
Participating n climate change hearing. I asked energy secretary where oil in alaska came from. answer puzzles-from continental plate shift
I'm have no way of knowing for sure what the poor Energy Secretary took from the exchange, but I can make a few guesses. I suspect that the laughter was coming from hearing yet another person disprove the old classroom saying that there's no such thing as a stupid question. He moved from there to attempting to provide the sort of explanation that he'd give an adult, then after the first interruption he clearly shifted mental gears, and downgraded to the 6th grade level explanation.
Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.
So let me try.
Yes, Representative Barton, you are correct in thinking that the presence of oil and gas indicates that Alaska was warmer when the fossils were deposited. What Secretary Chu was trying to point out to you is that this is not because the North Pole had tropical temperatures back then. It's because Alaska was a lot closer to the equator back then.
By the way, that's pretty close to the explanation my 6th grader gave me when I asked her that question at dinner.