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 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.


7 responses to “Peak Oil Conference in Denver”

  1. Glad you’re an optimist. Our society is one based on innovation (as long as we have a good education system in place) and for that reason I don’t buy the pessimists’ theory. Although I have been accused on my own blog by commenters of over reacting about peak-oil. What I’ve said is, if we don’t do anything, then we’ll have serious problems. For example if we allow our land use planning to fall by the wayside, we’ll have big problems in respect to food sources. Because I was vehemently opposed to Measure 37, I tied it in with the peak-oil theory and how they relate to one another.

    Thanks for your great post on this.

  2. Speaking of the coming industrial retrofits of our gasoline culture to an electric culture. If there was one tax incentive for one industry I would support, it would be for the Asian companies that are spending the R&D on battery technology to be encouraged to make Portland their port of call for assembly of North American electic vehicles.

    If an American company had their heads on straight I would offer the incentives to them but none of them spent the money on battery technology in the last twenty years like the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese companies have. US car companies only worry about the quarterly results (sad but true).

    Ray Whitford

  3. One thing about High Speed Rail, is that the top speed of Diesel-Hauled rolling stock is around 110-125MPH, while the top speed of Electric-Hauled rolling stock is even higher.

    Also, let’s put the Columbia River to good use. If it is true that Hydrogen can be produced by Electolyzing water, to get the H2 out o fit, let’s use the base-load power of the BPA provided by the Dams to make that H2. The same with our fast-growing wind-power, and perhaps that one plant at Hanford that did go online(WPPSS fiasco).

    Fuel Cells are still at least a decade from taking off. The few buses using them are prototypes. There is a way to reduce emissions. Electric Trolleybuses could be the way to do that. Up here we have Metro doing a modest increase in the fleet. They inherited 50 in 1973, they bought a few back from Museums, to handle the ridership rush created by the Arab Oil Embargo. They bought 109 to replace those and expand service, then another 45 articulated trolley buses, the 40ft buses came due for replacement in 2002, replaced by 100 new ones using refurbished motors. The 45 articulateds are being replaced by 60 re-treaded tunnel buses that are now out of a job. Diesel Engiens are being scrapped, and the electric motors downgraded to the surface voltage. Hopefully by 2009, Seattle will be closer to playing catch-up with Portland a few other cities on the west coast with Light Rail.

    Also, one problem with High Speed Rail, is that no US Builder is left, we would have to buy them from former builders, because thanks to the airlines and automobile builders, Pullman-Standard, Budd, and St. Louis Car went out of buisness, and American Car and Foundary quit producing passenger cars. At least Colorado Railcar has an efficient Diesel-Multiple Unit ready for production.

  4. Ray,

    thanks for the nice comments. Keep tuned for further work on this here in Portland.

    on electrification: check out this post on cascadiascorecard

    the big question about electrification is not battery technology which is changing fast, but on where the power would come from to charge the batteries. The sheer amount of energy we currently use to move our bodies alone is staggering. Most electricity is produced from fossil fuels. Even Oregon gets 50% of its electricity from coal burning. Coal is also limited and is a major greenhouse gas source. While solar and wind may contribute a lot more in the future, do we really want to spend such a valuable resource (which we will need to heat and light our homes and businesses, run industry and our light rail and high speed trains) for movements that we could significantly reduce through better urban design?

  5. Your right and I am right with you on your point that our energy usage for transportation will need to be justified against the available power sources. One thing that can’t be overlooked is that, if “peak oil” dawned tomorrow, having enough diesel fuel to move food from the farms to the stores should be a national priority.

    Our best policy will be and is our planning and land usage decisions. I am just amazed and thankful (to God and forward thinking citizens) that having farmland nearby versus hundreds of miles gives Portland a chance.

    You are right, choices will be our legacy.

    I truly hope that Oregon and Washington will agree on having high speed and light rail designed into the Columbia River Crossing (I know you are on the panel and your committee has a big choice and a legacy) since, as I have said at two meetings, that spending the money now on the intergration of high speed rail into that crossing will save us time and money down the road.

    Your comment about the possibility that with Peak Oil being a very possible future (the Saudis say 2015) could make the need for more lanes just wasted money. Well, if that is the case, then my main concern (cost) about the High Speed Rail corridor through North Portland “could” use some of the current I5 Corridor. I, like others are pushing for a eastside transit center/rail hub near the Rose Quarter and the OCC.

    I think your team (CRC) needs to plan for “all” contingencies from an expandable deck for more than six lanes; light rail capacity for when Clark County wakes up to higher density and protection of farmland; high speed rail capacity for when Oregon decides that being able to travel North is important (and Washington decides that going South is important) and the price of fuel (jet, gas, and diesel) is so high that no one is going to be able to travel by private transportation over long distances.

    Oregon might even need to plan for two main high speed lines and shorter spurs to Bend, Astoria, Coos Bay, and other primary transportation hubs. Oregon really does need to spend a higher percentage on our rail system. Plus local bus services for the small town could be their only way to get into a city. Everyone is going to be affected.

    Lets hope we can do this.


  6. Up here, we just defeated a Sammamish Republican who had once advocated destroying the beuatiful area he lived in with building the I-605 Freeway East of I-405, and was backed by a Bellevue developer and mall owner who has advocated an 8-lane replacement span for the Albert Dean Rosellini Bridge(named after the Gov. who built it) on State Route 520, which would require adding more lanes to I5 in Downtown Seattle, which is maxed out of right of way potential, and would cost $25 Billion to add 2 lanes each way throughout most of Seattle! David Irons has been one to attack Light Rail, even though his home is not in the Sound Transit District, pushed for more roads. Thank the Monorail Authority, had their proposal not been on the same ballot, Seattle Voters(mostly Democrat) would not have showed up at the polls to defeat David Irons, votes are still being tallied, and the pro-Sprawl Republican is losing by nearly 20%. This guy was possibly in the pocket of a guy that has an ego to build more roads so he can build more malls, even if the roads are going to be a waste of resources in 10 years. All three candidates for King County Executive were for keeping the gas tax in place.

    I read on the Green Car Congress website recently that Kuwait’s largest oilfield, the Burgan field, which is the world’s second largest oilfield, has reached Peak Production.

  7. Wow!!! Big news that the US Corporate News teams will not mention to the US public. I knew about the Saudi oil fields being pumped with water to keep their production up but had not heard anything about this Kuwait oil field going past peak production.

    This is the last paragraph from the article:

    “The natural world has an uncanny ability to hit back at the arrogance of man, and perhaps a reassessment of
    reality at this point is called for, rather than a reliance on oil statistics that may owe more to political maneuvering
    than geological facts.”
    Find this article at:

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