Who's Afraid of Peak Oil? A local look at a global scare   
By Frank Tankard. Tue, Apr 8, 2008

The world’s runnin’ out of oil.

While such a problem can seem too big and tangled to deal with on a local scale, Tim Hjersted, director of the Films for Action project, wants city leaders to take a serious look.

A 2005 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy estimates oil production will likely begin its gradual, terminal decline within 20 years. Meanwhile, by the year 2025, the report states, worldwide oil demand will rise by 50 percent.

What’s needed to prepare for the oil peak before it happens is at least a decade of intense effort on a “crash course” level, the report says, before oil shortages occur and prices skyrocket. “The world has never confronted a problem like this, and the failure to act on a timely basis could have debilitating impacts on the world economy,” the report says.

Hjersted has been lobbying the city for a year to create a 12-person task force to study the local implications of the possible crisis and come up with specific local solutions. “Its importance isn’t quite understood by a lot of people,” he says.

He says the city could model its peak oil task force on one commissioned by Portland, Ore. Portland last year adopted the suggestions outlined in the task force’s 83-page report.

With the average American dinner traveling 1,500 miles to your plate by some estimates, and the abundance of oil in everyday products, the Portland report predicts that peak oil will force a major reimagining of the American way of life.

Of three scenarios the task force considered, the most dire paints this picture: “Unemployment, hunger, crime and violence are rampant, with socially catastrophic competition for scarce resources, including food, shelter and energy.”

This “Mad Max” scenario—the vision of peak oil often conjured up and dismissed as crazy talk akin to UFO sightings—is just one of many.

What’s not as disputed are the facts that, with no perfect replacement for oil in sight, ethanol and other biofuels included—“While biofuels hold some promise, they are unlikely to replace more than a small share of the petroleum-based liquid fuels currently used,” the Portland report states—people will be driving and flying less, meaning businesses, residential areas, the products we buy and the food we eat will all have to be grouped closer together.

While individuals are constantly being urged to lessen dependence on oil and also help the environment by driving less, buying compact fluorescent lights and things like that, Hjersted says the city needs to consider its role as well in planning a more walkable city and saving prime farmland in and around city limits.

“It is a grassroots effort that starts with the community, and we do hope to get the city on board because there are certain things that businesses and private citizens can’t do, which is approve what gets developed where and how things get developed,” he says.

Last month, Hjersted and others met with the Sustainability Advisory Board, which advises the City Commission on environmental issues. The board is recommending that the commission convene a study session to discuss the issue and decide whether to create a peak oil task force.

Mayor Mike Dever says he’s supportive of the idea, although he’d like to hold off on starting a task force until the recently created Mayor’s Task Force on Climate Protection completes its study on some overlapping issues. “It’s a true issue that we need to worry about now,” he says.

But Dever says that there’s only so much the city can do to control new development, and that in many ways it’s up to private citizens to rethink how the city grows. “I think that’s a laudable goal,” he says. “I think, in America, we have people who own private land and they have the right to do pretty much what they want, as long as it conforms with the rules.”

Daniel Poull, chairman of the Sustainability Advisory Board, says local government has plenty of leverage at its disposal, if it really decides to get serious.

“The city can say, ‘Hey, that’s fine, you develop your piece of property. It’s your property. We don’t have any say over it. But we are not beholden to run miles of storm sewer mains and water out to your property either,’” he says. “That’s the way that that gets handled. So you can’t just say, ‘Well, private property, the owners can do whatever they want.’ Yeah, they do whatever they want, but they also want city services.”

Convincing people of the need to rethink city planning and grow food locally because of something as hazy and unpredictable as an impending peak oil crisis could be difficult, Dever says, but it’s an important issue to look at.

“Tim’s idea makes sense if people can get past the concept that we’ll have to grow in a non-uniform fashion physically,” he says. “It won’t be a perfect growth pattern of stretching from A to B to C. We might have to skip B and go to C because B is where the prime farmland is.

“I like the idea. I think one of the benefits of living where we live is we could grow a lot of our own foods ourselves. We’re not so reliant on truck transport. If you want to pay extra, you can go to The Merc or the farmers’ market most times of the year and get most of what you need. That’s fantastic, and I would like to leverage that for the people who live here.”