Peak Oil Conference in Denver

The first national conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA was held this weekend in Denver. I went for two reasons: first, this conference was sponsored by Denver Mayor Hickenlooper and included as attendees bankers, oil and gas company executives, as well as other elected officials; and, second, it included specific discussion of potential municipal responses to the challenge of peak oil.
The first national conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA was held this weekend in Denver. I went for two reasons: first, this conference was sponsored by Denver Mayor Hickenlooper and included as attendees bankers, oil and gas company executives, as well as other elected officials; and, second, it included specific discussion of potential municipal responses to the challenge of peak oil.

Peak oil simply describes the point in time when oil production starts to decline. In the US, this happened in the mid seventies. There is debate whether this has happened or when it will happen globally but all agree that this will occur within the next 30 or so years at the latest. Does this mean oil will disappear? No. It does mean that oil (and natural gas, too) will become more and more expensive. It is clear that in a country that consumes 25% of the world’s oil (with 5% of the population), there will be major shocks to our economy and major changes needed in how we move, where we get our food and other goods from and in how our cities need to be designed.

Along with the expected presentations from academics and analysts of the oil and gas fields like Matt Simmons a surprise was Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), a self-described conservative (“but not an idiot”) farmer with a PhD in physiology. Rep. Bartlett presented a strong, science-based argument that any resource subject to exponential growth in demand will run out. He called for an “Apollo-like” effort to understand the issue, educate the public and take action to “land” society with enough fuel remaining to avoid a crash. He compares our society to people who have inherited a fortune from their parents and are busy spending the capital to enjoy the high life. Unfortunately, the bills are coming due and the bank is about empty.

Perhaps the best summary of the issue is was given by Roger Bezdek, lead researcher for the latest US Government report on this issue who characterized this as an imminent and permanent shortage of liquid fuels. This report looks at other potential sources such as oil sands, bio-fuels, liquid natural gas and concludes that whatever we can wring out of these new sources will be too little, too late and in the end just as non-renewable as oil.

We rely so much on this high density, lightweight, easily transportable energy source. The US uses 2/3 of its oil for transportation. Of course, we will never “run out of oil”, but we will run out of cheap oil. Will it really matter that there is gasoline in the pumps if it costs $10 a gallon?

The two questions I had were: “Is this real?” Answer: “All too real.” And “What should I as an elected official responsible for long-term health of this community be doing to prepare for this?”

The pessimists–or maybe utopians–called for a back-to-the-land movement where we all become farmers or artisans, abandon the city and somehow remove 5 billion people from the earth. They may be right. But will their message be able to move the majority to support substantial policy changes or result in survivalist or fatalist reaction? (attitudes I’ve witnessed at Portland’s own Peak Oil gatherings.

The optimists–or fools as the case may be, counting myself—are searching for community responses that reflect shared values of Americans, who are overwhelmingly urban and integrated into the modern, specialized economy. I shared strategies that have had success in Portland in providing alternatives to driving and reducing how much people drive (Vehicle miles traveled per capita have actually fallen, greenhouse gas emissions are at 1990 levels, transit use is rising faster than car use, etc). Some of these strategies include: Jobs and services near housing, preservation of farmland near cities with urban Growth boundaries, concentrating development in walkable centers, light rail transit (energy intensive but not liquid fuel dependent), sidewalks and bike lanes, wireless networks. While not enough—after all, with population growth, total miles traveled are still increasing—they do point the way, in a way that may be more acceptable to citizens and therefore more likely to be adopted. Other interesting initiatives include switching industrial and residential heat production to other energy sources, petroleum audits of everything from garbage bags to firefighter suits to garbage truck propulsion to energy awareness curriculums for schoolchildren. Portland is once again seen as leading the pack. Unsettling given the scale of the problem.

What does a Permanent Liquid Fuel Shortage mean for transportation? Is it wise to build new freeways when they may not be useful in a few short years? Do we put $1 billion into new Columbia River Crossing (again, a light rail connection would make sense)? Do we deepen the Columbia River Channel when the cost of shipping goods from Asia overcomes the cost advantage of cheap labor? Why worry about a Truck Freight Master Plan in Portland?

This spring, the Illahee Institute’s environmental issue lecture series will focus on oil and water. I will be working with them to create a community discussion of the looming energy shortage and am looking for your participation Illahee.org. Metro is about to begin broad community engagement on the region’s long range physical form (an update of the 50-year vision incorporated in the 2040 Plan and the transportation system to serve that form (a major update of the 20-year Regional Transportation Plan).

Energy consumption and potential disruptions in supply and price must be addressed in both.

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