Author Archive | rburkholder

More on Peak Oil

The New York Times Business Section had a long and interesting article a few weeks ago on oil consumption in the US. The Oil Uproar That Isn’t

A few interesting quotes:

The most visible element of this new equation is that relative to demand, oil is no longer in plentiful supply. The time when we could count on cheap oil and even cheaper natural gas is clearly ending. — David J. O’Reilly, CEO of Chevron.

Furthermore, Mr O’Reilly stated that it took 125 years to consume a trillion barrels of oil; the next trillion is likely to be consumed in the just 35 years.

On our dependence on foreign sources (who may not always behave according to the laws of economics…):

Crude oil imports have doubled over the last three decades and now account for nearly two-thirds of the oil Americans burn… In the same three decade period, oil demand in the US has grown by 18 percent while domestic production has continued on a slow and probably irrevocable path of decline.

The basic approach to energy policy in this country, according to the nation’s first Energy Secretary, James Schlesinger, is “only two modes–complacency and panic.”

I Play One in the Movies

While I am leery of whole celebrity-as-expert phenomena (look south in fear of the Governator!), actor Tom Hanks does a great job here presenting the simple choices that we CAN make that can make a big difference. As in many things—energy efficiency, water conservation, family amity—small actions can bring about big changes.

Read Tom Hanks’ commencement address at Vassar about the power of individual choices.

Movie Review: End of Suburbia

Going to a movie is something I rarely do — public life doesn’t leave too many nights free and frankly I’d rather spend time with the family or a good book than risk most Hollywood fare. But last Wednesday I went to a screening of End of Surburbia put on by a newly formed group of concerned citizens billing themselves as Peak Oil Portland. I’ve got to say, the film veered perilously close to being a horror flick — complete with approaching, seemingly invincible monster that will destroy life as we know it.

Given that the American lifestyle is so dependent on massive consumption of energy, any talk of reducing energy use engenders accusations from the pro-business camp of being “anti-growth” and “anti-prosperity.” The film’s thesis that the reduction in energy will be involuntary and drastic, and will cause widespread economic disruption if not collapse. No wonder some in the audience began to wail about the threat to their retirement funds and quality of life. I wonder how it will be received by those that repeat endlessly the mantra that “quality of life begins with a job” as a magic incantation against regulation and taxation?

With stars like urban critic James Kunstler and oil investor Matthew Simmons, End of Suburbia will be hard to ignore. Events like the 2003 failure of the east coast power grid and recent dramatic reduction of oil reserve forecasts by Shell Oil as well as the Saudis add evidence to the claim that we are really going to burn up all the natural gas and oil. (We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. In the real world resources are limited.)

Of course, way before that happens, world demand for energy combined with declining or more expensively extracted supplies will cause large and unending price hikes. Our country is very vulnerable to any disruption in our energy sources. We import most of our energy (80% of oil, 50% of natural gas) and consume much more per person than other industrialized nations. End of Suburbia details in excruciating detail the profligate nature of suburban development, going beyond the energy issue into a general critique of sprawl and promotion of more urban development as a partial response to the coming energy crisis. Will smart growth and new urbanism be enough? What do we do with the hundreds of square miles of suburbs if gas prices climb to $5-10 a gallon?

Kunstler’s dark vision sees the suburbs as future slums for those without the bucks to buy a place in town where they can live without a car. He goes farther to point out that today’s comfortable middle class won’t just be car-less but may not have jobs at all as today’s economy requires huge inputs of oil to operate. In this he is seconded by the capitalist Simmons. Sustainable, locally self-reliant economies will become necessary, not a utopian indulgence in the future these two foresee. The greedy myopia of Measure 37, encouraging conversion of prime farm, orchard and forestland into vacation homes and subdivisions, is exposed as suicidal when imported food will once again be made a luxury by increased costs of shipping goods around the world and it is prohibitively expensive to commute by car.

What can we do here? The good news is that much of what we are doing is helping reduce our dependence on fossil fuel: light rail, farmers markets, bike lanes, insulating houses, keeping tight urban growth boundaries, building housing in city centers. But, if the problem is as great as laid out in End of Suburbia there is much more we need to do.

Another Metro Councilor Lays Out a Vision

What do global warming, the end of “cheap oil” and the Legislature’s refusal to raise gas taxes the 12th session in a row have in common? Together they are creating the perfect storm for transportation as we know it.

Storms sink most boats but they also give rise to great surfing for those who anticipate and are prepared to ride out the waves instead of fighting them. Every community in the US is facing the same storm in one form or another. No place has enough money to build its way out of congestion, and Portland is no exception (compare congestion numbers at the Texas Transportation Institute’s website).

No place except maybe Texas has oil to meet its local needs (US production peaked in 1970’s and the world production peak is fast approaching) and burning all this fuel to accomplish errands we could do on foot, by bike or on transit is having major impacts on the survivability of our species.

How do we keep commerce flowing if the roads are clogged with commuters? When gas goes to $5 a gallon what will people living in north Clark County (where they can still buy a 1 acre lot in sprawlurbia) and commuting to Hillsboro do? Can bikes really save the world? If everyone wants to live in the city, where will they live? And just as fundamental to our sustainability, where will people of lesser means live if the well-to-do continue to bid them out of their conveniently located homes?

These are themes that I will be exploring in future contributions to this blog. Stay tuned!