Peak Oil News: 02/01/2006 - 03/01/2006

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Next Conservative Energy Policy

By Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett

Last week President George W. Bush and high-level Administration officials fanned out across the country to promote the President's latest energy initiatives, which were first outlined in his State of the Union Speech. The President was half right and half wrong about oil in this prominent speech. "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world," he said. However, we can't "break this addiction through technology" alone. Two words conservatives should champion were missing from his speech: conservation and efficiency.

"Delayed gratification and self-sufficiency are traditional conservative values. That is why the next conservatism should champion policy changes to use less, not more oil through conservation and energy efficiency."
- Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett

Current U.S. energy policy and the President's Advanced Energy Initiative are too modest and overly focused on the goal of increasing domestic production of oil and alternatives to support increasing oil consumption. This is futile and self-defeating because U.S. oil production is in permanent decline and world oil production will follow - perhaps disastrously soon.

American Shell Oil scientist M. King Hubbert identified "peak oil" in the mid-1950s. He discovered oil field production follows a bell curve rising to a maximum capacity, or peak, when about half of the oil is extracted, after which production declines. U.S. oil production peaked in 1971 and has declined every year since. The U.S. has only two percent of world oil reserves. We contribute eight percent of world production. But we consume 25 percent of world oil production. We're pumping our reserves four times faster than the rest of the world. U.S. natural gas production has also peaked. The United States is now the world's largest importer of both oil and natural gas. From importing one-third of the oil we use before the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973, we now import about two-thirds of the oil we use.

Hubbert was right about the U.S. What about the world? Oil production is declining in 33 of the world's 48 largest oil-producing countries. Experts agree global peak oil is inevitable. Many predict it is imminent. Oil prices have not predicted peak production. Neither high oil prices nor technological advances have reversed production declines after peak. Despite periods of high prices and new technologies, world oil discoveries have steadily declined for 40 years.

With U.S. oil production declining, increasing oil consumption will make America more dependent upon oil imports from foreign sources such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria and Venezuela. Increasing oil consumption will increase competition and potential conflict with other energy consumers, such as China and India. Increasing oil consumption will make us less prepared and capable to overcome the inevitable challenges of global peak oil.

Peak oil will cause a crisis in transportation because there are no ready liquid fuel substitutes of comparable quality or quantity. We can't fill gas tanks with coal, wind, solar or nuclear fuel. A February 2005 report commissioned by the Department of Energy, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management, concluded that a crash program to produce liquid fuel alternatives at the maximum feasible rate must start twenty years before peak to avoid significant supply shortages. Oil prices haven't promoted those alternatives. In the Wall Street Journal on January 10, 2006, Marc Sumerlin, formerly Deputy Director of President Bush's National Economic Council, noted that investment in alternatives to oil was stymied by $20/barrel futures market prices for oil between 1986 and 2003 and fears of a repeat of the 1998 plunge down to $10/barrel.

$70/barrel oil and $3.50/gallon gas will seem cheap after global peak oil. In its September 6, 2005 report, Oil Shockwave, the National Commission on Energy Policy & Securing America's Future Energy projected that a sustained four percent global shortfall in daily oil supply would raise oil prices above $160 per barrel. Prices that high would inflict a ruinous worldwide recession.

Technology and alternatives are important. However, unless we also use less oil, we won't reduce America's oil imports. Delayed gratification and self-sufficiency are traditional conservative values. That is why the next conservatism should champion policy changes to use less, not more oil through conservation and energy efficiency. Conservatives should recognize that unless we have a national energy conservation program with the commitment, breadth and intensity of the Apollo moon mission and the Manhattan Project to create the atom bomb, our country is unlikely to achieve the goal of replacing "more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025" and even less likely to break our oil addiction.

Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican, represents the Sixth District of Maryland in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Oil expert: Output downhill from here

Energy - Author Ken Deffeyes thinks the depletion of fossil fuels could lead to a worldwide cataclysm


Few petroleum geologists qualify as celebrities. But Ken Deffeyes, a former Shell Oil geologist who is now a professor emeritus of geosciences at Princeton University, recently sold out Portland's First Congregational Church, where he came to lecture on his latest book, "Beyond Oil."

Before Princeton, Deffeyes worked as a researcher in the labs of Shell Oil and taught at the University of Minnesota and Oregon State University. At Shell, he worked with the now-famous petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert. Hubbert coined what is fast becoming a fixture in the modern lexicon -- "peak oil" -- when he predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s and decline thereafter. Widely criticized at the time, Hubbert has since been vindicated.

Building on Hubbert's hypotheses, Deffeyes recently theorized that world oil production peaked Dec. 16, 2005, and has begun its permanent decline, with economic disruptions to follow.

Deffeyes sat down with The Oregonian last week to discuss his book and the peak oil phenomenon. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

What's the basic math behind your forecast that world oil production peaked Dec. 16?

Hubbert's theory says that the ease of finding oil depends on the fraction of oil that hasn't been found yet. It's a simple hypothesis that explained U.S. oil production, where we've already gone over the peak and we're halfway down the other side. A corollary that comes out of the math is that the peak occurs when half the oil has been produced. In Chapter 3 of "Beyond Oil," I take the date these oil fields were first discovered, the first wells, and it turns out that the whole world is mature. We've found 94 percent of all the oil we're ever going to find. It's easy to extend that line down to the zero level and say that there are 2.013 trillion barrels that we're on track to discover, and we've already discovered 94 percent of that. So there's not much guesswork in that number. So I divide that number by 2 and I get just over 1 trillion barrels. Then I add up the world oil production from the beginning and figure out when we're halfway, and that's where the Dec. 16 number comes from.

Doesn't a lot depend on the level of oil reserves the Saudis are sitting on?

Matt Simmons has this wonderful book called "Twilight in the Desert." It's a very detailed analysis of the Saudi fields based on papers that the Saudi Aramco petroleum engineers have published in the Journal of Petroleum Geography. He says they're struggling to keep up.

In the supergiant oil fields in Saudi Arabia, the water content is going up. It's called the water cut, the percentage of fluid produced that's water. It was 30 percent when Simmons' book came out. There are rumors now that it's 55 percent. When it gets to 80, things are largely over.

What is the highest estimate of reserves out there?

Reserves are hard to estimate, but if we talk about discoveries, the biggest estimate comes from the U.S. Geological Survey, at just over 3 trillion barrels. If you take their number, we have another 2 trillion barrels to produce and you get a peak in the year 2036. I could give a 15 minute lecture on the flaws in the USGS survey, and I think they're beginning to back off a little bit. In order to make the USGS or things like it correct, we've got to find another Middle East plus another North Sea on top of that. I don't think there's another Middle East lurking out there.

What would drilling in the Arctic Refuge do to the estimate ?

Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in the United States, kicked in when they got the pipeline finished in 1976, and it wasn't big enough to raise us back to our 1970 level of production. It put a little shoulder on the downside of the production curve, but that was it. My guess is that in our wildest dream, ANWAR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) will prove half as big as Prudhoe Bay. I'd have to work out the number, but if that's the case, it probably postpones the world situation for two weeks.

What about offshore fields?

The only thing on the shelf, literally the continental shelf, is the South China Sea, which has been drilled around the edge and it's mostly natural gas. There could be oil out in the middle, but six different countries claim the South China Sea.

What do the oil companies say?

With the oil companies, you have to watch what they do and not what they say. What they're doing is taking in $10 billion and $20 billion a quarter in profits and handing it out as increased dividends, buybacks of their stocks, giving it to their executives. They're not drilling, they're not building new pipelines and not building new refineries. If there were good prospects out there, they'd be out there drilling like crazy.

Is there a portfolio of alternative energy that makes sense

It's those things that we have the technology and engineering ready to go right now. At the top of my shortlist are the high-efficiency diesel automobiles being marketed in Europe right now that get 100 miles to the gallon. Nuclear and wind are things we have engineered right now that are ready to roll. Wind, even in your wildest dreams, is not going to be a very big part of the answer, but every little bit helps. Nuclear, we know how to build and operate safe nuclear power plants. Coal gasification, where you react the coal with steam and a little bit of air and get a little gas, would be a win.

What about oil shale and tar sands?

Oil shale is the fuel of the future and it always will be. In the case of tar sands, they're very heavy users of natural gas right now, for heat to melt the tar and to upgrade the oil so it will travel through a pipeline in a Canadian winter. Alan Greenspan told us more than a year ago that the North American gas market was gassed out. So they're going to be natural gas limited or having to compete with other users of natural gas. There's talk about building a nuclear plant up there, and that's a good idea, but it'll take 10 years to get a plant in there.


There are both people and cows lined up for soybeans, and it's at least a factor of 2 more expensive than oil right now. Palm oil may be the closest to being the one ready to go to market right now. Ethanol from corn is close to being a tossup. You may use the same amount of energy when you burn the ethanol as goes into the fertilizers, the tractors, the trucks to haul it around. In Brazil, they're doing well with sugar cane.

Where is the economic impact of peak oil going to be felt acutely and when?

Geologists like to look back in time, and I'm not that good at futurology. I borrow the analogy of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence and death. Famine because particularly fertilizer is very energy intensive. The green revolution was based on better seed varieties, heavy use of mineral fertilizers, pesticides. Well, pesticides are all petrochemicals, so fertilizer is going to get much more expensive cause they use a lot of energy.

So famine and pestilence really are threats down the line. And if you look up Amos Nur's Web site at Stanford, he thinks the first Gulf War, the Trade Center attacks and the second Gulf War are the first three skirmishes in the oil war.

Do you envision problems gradually getting worse, or some sudden shock?

What I've heard from a lot of people is that it will take something terrible to get people's attention. You mean the World Trade Center wasn't big enough? The Iranian situation, that could trigger it. The hurricanes nearly triggered it. Really abnormally cold winters in the northeastern U.S. and Europe could trigger it. If we got a civil war in Saudi Arabia, you could kiss your lifestyle goodbye. The public will probably say after the fact that XYZ triggered it. That's the naming rights phenomenon, and I can't say which one is going to win.

By the end of this decade, we'll be down about 5 percent from the peak production, and demand in China and India is moving up fast, and someone's going to come up short on their ambitions.

So you really believe the Four Horsemen scenario is somewhat likely?

We're not doing much about it. We could have had a soft landing if we had listened to Jimmy Carter and started 20 years ago. But in the absence of a Winston Churchill or John Kennedy, I'm not sure we're going to get in gear fast enough to avoid this. The mildest form of the disaster is a global recession worse than the Great Depression, and that's a form it could take rather than war, famine, pestilence and death.

How would you prepare for this?

What I'd like to have is farmland on volcanic rich soils so that it doesn't require fertilizer. And I need a place where there's enough rainfall. Maybe this could be in Oregon. Owning something that's relatively energy independent and supplies food for the survivors to eat would be the sweetest target.

Things to come: part 1

The Austin Chronicle


Britt Ekland was a gorgeous "Bond girl," Miss Mary Goodnight in The Man With the Golden Gun, a celebrity more than an actress, but no fool. In a recent interview, Ekland, now 62, offered an idea to be remembered if we are to endure the enormous changes that are overtaking us: "The key to life is being able to downsize without losing your dignity."

That thought will run through this series of columns, in which I'll sketch, as best I can, what we're in for (for good as well as for ill). One disclaimer, though: I'm assuming a best-case scenario for global warming; that is, climate changes proceeding at about their present rate. If those changes turn drastic, as other scenarios suggest, all bets are off.

In a column titled "$4 a Gallon" (The Austin Chronicle, April 29) I wrote, "Gas prices can only go up. Oil production is at or near peak capacity ... that means $4 a gallon by next spring [2006], and rising ... probably $10 by 2010." Three days before Hurricane Katrina hit, The New York Times (Aug. 26, p.1) reported $3 a gallon in some parts of the country. That article noted: "In two years, the national oil bill has jumped by $210 billion, or 54%." Since Katrina, $3 has become the national norm in many parts of the country. If Rita had behaved as advertised, it would be closer to $4. Katrina increased the rate of America's decline by at least a year, and Rita has confirmed out vulnerability. Heating oil was expected to rise 17% this winter before Katrina (NY Times, Sept. 8, p.C5). Expect $4 this spring, probably $5 next summer, $6 next hurricane season. Long before then, it will be obvious to all that nothing can remain the same.

People grasping at straws often argue, "Gas has been $6 a gallon in Europe for years, what's the problem?" With Europe's national health insurance, Europeans (and their businesses) aren't burdened with our incredible health costs, which are due to rise 10% next year (The Week, Sept. 23, p.8), while Medicare premiums will rise 13% (NY Times, Sept. 17, p.8). The average American family health policy is now $11,000 yearly (USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B); next year's 10% hikes raise that figure to $12,100. If we weren't shelling out so much money to insurance companies, we could absorb $6 a gallon too. (Even some conservatives are realizing that national health insurance would lift an enormous burden from large and small businesses as well as consumers.) More importantly, most Europeans don't need a car and most Americans do, because Europe is structured around cities while America is structured around suburbs. Minus the sparsely populated stretches of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, Europe is roughly half the size of the U.S., so its transport costs are half. Finally and crucially, Europe has the finest rail system in the world. We've let ours go to the dogs, though railroads are the cheapest way to carry people and cargo (more on this in future columns). Also, Europeans recognize the importance of global warming and peak oil. As Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, recently said, "Europe today is the major force for environmental innovation. European governments have encouraged their companies to invest [in] and produce clean power technologies." (NY Times, Sept. 21, p.25) Europe has big problems too, but has positioned itself intelligently for the 21st century. America still clings to the 20th, and we're about to pay for that.

With its excellent rail system, Europe is far less dependent (internally) upon air travel. That is tonight's subject. More than pump prices, and perhaps more than heating-oil prices, the first drastic change for middle-class and more-or-less affluent Americans will be their inability to fly.

In the last year, the price of jet fuel has risen 50% (NY Times, Sept. 15, p.C1). The airlines have desperately tried to absorb this price hike, keeping fares low and hoping for the best. But those days will be over by Easter, if not Thanksgiving. USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B: "The airline's jet-fuel bill this year will be about $3.3 billion [a pre-Rita figure], up from $2.2 billion last year and $1.6 billion in 2003." That article notes that four of our seven largest airlines are now in Chapter 11: "51% of the USA's top 12 airlines is now operating under bankruptcy protection." The article quotes James May, CEO of the Air Transport Association: "No business model of any airline can survive with sustained jet-fuel prices of $90 to $100 a barrel." Yet those are exactly the prices predicted by many experts in the relatively near future; a major natural or manmade disruption could bring them about in a day. There is no relief in sight. This situation cannot be sustained. The average driver may be able to absorb fuel costs for a few years more, but not the average flier. Within a year – or two, or three? – affordable passenger flight will be history.

What will that mean in real life?

Airfares will skyrocket. Schedules will be pared to the bone. If you're not rich, and if your lifestyle includes hopping planes when you choose – you're grounded. As airlines fail and the surviving carriers cut back, flights will be fewer, especially to smaller cities. Some areas will lose service altogether unless the government mandates that every city of under half a million people must get, say, two flights a week. Conventions and conferences of every description will be beyond the means of any but the wealthy. The average person won't be able to jet to the wedding, sick bed, or funeral of a loved one. Even if you can scrounge the money for a ticket, there may not be a flight. Music and film festivals that can't be sustained locally will be a thing of the past (unless and until rail service is restored). Families will think twice about letting their kids apply to colleges hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Family members who live scattered all over the country will see one another rarely, if at all (again, unless and until rail service is restored). None but the rich will vacation in far-off places – and "far off" will come to mean any place beyond two tanks of gas. The gaudy entertainments that depend on flight in places like Orlando and Las Vegas will dry up and blow away. The real estate value of summer homes or winter playgrounds will fluctuate wildly; those accessible mainly by air will plunge. Flight's ancillary industries – hotels, restaurants – will hit bottom, displacing and impoverishing many hard-working people. Tourism as we know it, an industry merely decades old, will not survive. Nor will such minor luxuries as next-day delivery. Mega-airports and mega-hotels will become ghostly caverns, monuments to a failure of foresight.

What good could possibly come of this? Well, for starters, if it happens soon enough it may save many millions of lives. The Economist, Aug. 6, p.10: "[E]xperts now believe a global outbreak of pandemic flu is long overdue, and the next one could be as bad as the one in 1918 [before passenger flight], which killed somewhere between 25 and 50 million people." The Times, Sept. 22, p.12: "Just as governments around the world are stockpiling millions of doses of flu vaccine and antiviral drugs in anticipation of a potential influenza epidemic, two new surprising research papers ... have found that such treatments are far less effective than previously thought." The experts' greatest fear has been that air travel will spread the disease uncontainably before its symptoms are obvious, raising the casualty rate into the hundreds of millions. Without convenient air travel, that's unlikely.

Another benefit: 9/11 turned the U.S. into a no-fly zone for three days. There were many reports that air quality throughout the country (after just three days!) was measurably much better. Drastic curtailment of flight would not only make our environment healthier, but would probably do more to slow global warming than the full enforcement of the Kyoto Treaty, and do it quicker.

I'll explore other benefits in future columns, but briefly now: Amid this massive disruption, we will be forced to pay attention to where we are. You can't go elsewhere for culture; you must cultivate it where you are. You can't go elsewhere for beauty; you must create beauty where you live. Family life will be literally closer: a Georgia gal won't take a job in Seattle if it means she may not see her mother again for many years. With long-distance travel a rarity, communities will become more conscious of being communities. I'm no optimist, but perhaps, perhaps, many will realize that we're all in this together, and that our well-being and our neighbors' are entwined. Above all, the frantic pace of American life will slow down. Way down. That'll drive some people crazy, but others – perhaps, perhaps – will discover a truth put best, once again, by Caroline Casey: "Beauty is abundantly available to the unhurried mind." end story

Things to come: Part 2

The Austin Chronicle


Long after we've stopped expecting anything intelligent from Congress, a conservative from Maryland has turned the tables on us all. On March 14, and again on April 20, Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett gave two extraordinary speeches in the House (available on his Web site or from the Congressional Record). Bartlett tried to make his colleagues understand that the United States must change drastically to accommodate the coming scarcity of oil. His speech received scant coverage and prompted no action. Nevertheless, Congressman Bartlett represents a healthy sign: People of all political persuasions are beginning to face reality.

Bartlett summed up the problem and suggested the solution. "Oil companies have admitted that their estimates of the reserves were exaggerated." Demand for oil is outpacing supply and refining capacity. This will cripple our economy's ability to grow. "We have a debt that we cannot service. It will be essentially impossible to service that debt if our economy does not continue to grow." Government itself, then, will be severely hampered. "At $100 or $200 a barrel" other oil sources, like Canadian sand tar, may become economically viable, but that will take an enormous investment (and, a point he did not make, a great deal of time to get up and running, so scarcity in the short term will occur anyway). "We're also running out of topsoil, without which we need oil-derived fertilizer to grow food." "The green revolution" (advances in agribusiness that enable us to feed so large a population) has been "very largely the result of our intensive use of oil." A "transition to sustainability" is a matter of survival, but it "will not happen [by] applying market forces alone." (Yes, this is a Republican speaking.) Bartlett pointed out that "the hydroelectric and nuclear power industries did not arise spontaneously from market forces alone. They were the product of a purposeful partnership of public and private entities focused on the public good. This is what we have to do relative to alternatives." He proposed "a Manhattan-type project focusing on renewables." "The real challenge now is to use conservation and efficiency to reduce our demand for oil so that we have enough oil left to make the investments on alternatives and renewables [that] can take the place of oil."

Of course, Congressman Bartlett wasn't heeded last spring. It's surprising he was even given the time to make such a presentation. But next year, or the next, many will be making the same speech, in diners and flea markets as well as city councils and Congress.

"We live in a plastic world," Bartlett noted, "and all that plastic is made from oil." Look about you and notice everything made of plastic. All that's about to change. It will be evident very soon that we cannot afford to wrap our garbage and leftovers in oil. We cannot afford to package dental floss and hotdog buns and every damn thing in oil. We cannot afford an entertainment industry based on oil, with its plastic goods and packaging. We may find a way to continue affording computers made of oil, but we certainly can't put up with razors and pens and Lord-knows-what made of oil. We can no longer afford a disposable society. Idealists have been saying this for years. Realists will chime in soon. What was idealism in an era of deceptive plenty will be realism in a continuing emergency of scarcity.

The petrochemical industry, which Rep. Bartlett would dearly like to save, is doomed. When oil reaches $100 and $200 a barrel, and it will, most plastic products will rise beyond the means of most consumers. Who'll spend $25 for a box of garbage bags, or a pack of razors, when it costs $150 to pump your car? The market for many plastics will dry up.

The most crucial uses of oil and natural gas are agriculture, heating, and essential transport. As Bartlett pointed out, "We are just on the verge of not being able to feed the world. Tonight about one-fifth of the world will go to bed hungry." Whether by market forces or government edict, as the price of oil rises its prime use must be agriculture – while oil-free modes of agriculture are developed on a fast track. Americans aren't much concerned with famine in Africa, but food shortages here will get prompt attention. People across the political spectrum will be screaming for government regulation – and for smart rationing. The far right needs to eat just like anybody.

Eating habits will change. As the conservative Mr. Bartlett noted, "The time will come when you will not be able to eat the pig that ate the corn, because there is at least 10 times as much energy in the corn that the pig ate as you are going to get out of the pig by eating him. We actually do a lot [toward conservation] by living lower on the food chain." The same goes for cattle. When beef is $20 and $30 a pound – and it will be – hamburger joints will be a thing of the past; arable land and ethanol-capable grains will be far too dear to waste on cows. Sugar will be too valuable to waste on sweets. Brazil, the world's largest sugar exporter, is already using an unexpectedly large portion of its crop to produce ethanol, pushing American sugar prices to new highs (The New York Times, Sept. 28, p.C6); we'll see the day when sugar is rationed as a precious energy commodity and a bottle of Coke will be rare and expensive. With all these changes we'll be eating less and healthier. Not much meat, hardly any sugar, lots of grains and beans, plus vegetables, fruit, and fish. A Mediterranean-Mexican-Asian diet, enforced by circumstance. Not a bad thing at all, in the long run.

Oil scarcity will prove that the power of global corporations has been exaggerated both by capitalists and anti-capitalists. Not that corporations don't wield great power, but their power is, at its base, fragile. They must play so many ends against so many middles at once that even a slight drop in profits throws them into confusion, and many are not flexible enough to sustain a deep, long-term drop. Their viability depends upon cheap transport. It doesn't matter how cheaply you produce in Asia if it's expensive to get your product to an Iowa mall. Outfits like Wal-Mart face a dim future. Wal-Mart posted lower-than-expected profits in August because people were driving less. Wal-Mart is made of plastic. Walk its aisles and all you see is plastic. When the price of plastic goes through the roof, in tandem with the price of transport (80% of Wal-Mart's goods are made in China), goodbye Wal-Mart. Many major corporations will find themselves in similar straits.

The good news is that it will become not only viable but essential to manufacture locally. It will be cheaper to move raw materials by rail to be manufactured into products locally than it will be to transport finished products halfway across the world by ship and truck. Jobs will come back, though they won't be the jobs that left. Labor prices won't reach anything like their old levels, but there will be many new jobs – however, not as many as needed to replace all the jobs lost to pricey oil.

But other jobs will be created unpredictably by the new situation, for manufacturing will become not only local but personal. As Jim Kunstler writes, "The salvage of existing material is going to be a huge business. The commercial highway strips and the Big Box pods of today may be the mines of tomorrow. ... A lot of the retail of the future will consist of recycled, second-hand goods, some of it expertly refurbished. To some extent America will become Yard Sale Nation. ... There will be a lot of work for people in many levels and layers of activity: the scroungers, the fixers, the wholesalers, the brokers, the sellers." The handy neighbor who fashions this-and-that into that-and-this – an object you can use – will become a prime supplier. So will people who can sew. Not to mention local moonshiners (for rationed grain and costly shipping will, alas, deprive me of my Irish whiskey). There will be a large black market – or rather gray, since it will be everywhere and involve every possible item from batteries to bullets. The disposable society will become the scavenging society, the inventive society.

Life will be a lot less predictable and a lot more for real. The greatest art will be the art of survival. Your credit rating won't matter (you won't have one), but your word will matter a great deal. It always does in an informal economy. Careers, as we know them, will be a thing of the past, but so will boredom; most people will be in the same boat, swapping services and skills and not knowing what tomorrow may bring. Ours will be a leaky boat, in need of constant attention. It'll be intense, interesting, and often dangerous – and that's when people feel most alive. Folks will look back at how we live now and wonder at the triviality that, as a society, we allowed ourselves to settle for. If we survive, there will be many great stories to tell your grandchildren. end story

Things to come: part 3

The Austin Chronicle


This series is based on five assumptions.

One: Global climate change may be drastic, catastrophic in places, but not universally catastrophic, forcing civilization to change but allowing it to continue. Some credible experts consider that view optimistic, but apocalyptic scenarios are paralytic. For the sake of the children, and for the dignity of the human heritage, do what you can while you can – and, as they said in the wild West, be game.

Two: In the next five to ten years, oil, upon which our way of life is based, will be scarcer and much more expensive. (Google "peak oil," read articles pro and con, judge for yourself.) The U.S. Department of Energy reports that Americans "will spend 18% more on energy this year" than last (The New York Times, Sept. 9, p.C3). That article cited a report that this winter "heating oil will probably cost 31% more and natural gas will jump 24%." Now the Department of Energy has revised that gas-hike estimate to 48% (USA Today, Oct 21, p.2B). (Natural gas generates much of our electricity.) How long can this go on without serious disruption and change? Not very long.

Three: Our present systems will slide from dysfunctional to untenable. The first response of many will be to throw up their hands and wail, but after wailing does no good we may rediscover that human beings have an enormous capacity for resilience and creativity. Many who've been neither resilient nor creative will discover they can be both, coming up with new living arrangements for practically everything, on a mostly local scale – which may be surprisingly interesting. To paraphrase the last line of The Wild Bunch, it won't be like the old days but it'll do. But it will be wild, especially at first. We will have to accept again what our not-so-distant ancestors never forgot: Pain is inevitable and, ultimately, security is not a human possibility.

There is no point minimizing the suffering and danger in store for most of us. During the transition to whatever will be, big cities will have an especially rough time, and nobody will have an easy time anywhere. History isn't a spectator sport, especially when history makes a massive shift. Nobody will be on the sidelines, and everybody will be needed. As a teacher I've often felt that we contribute to our children's aimlessness and angst by failing to tell them what's most important about them: that they are needed. The human heritage is a collective responsibility, it is in all our hands, and it cannot survive unless each generation accepts responsibility for its transmission. That, too, was something our not-so-distant ancestors presumed – it was, in many ways, the very air they breathed. We may breathe that air again, when we realize we have a new world to build, a new way of life, and there's nobody to build it but us.

Of course this will go differently in different places, terribly in some, better in others, depending on a more or less haphazard distribution of resources and resourcefulness.

Which brings me to my fourth assumption: Insofar as life can be consistent and reasonably safe, it can be so only in a tenable community – whether that community is a county of farms, a town, or a neighborhood. Our society has lost cohesion to the extent that it has lost community. Even the rebel, artist, trickster, loner, or shaman can only be genuine in relation to a community. Somebody grows the food the rebel eats, somebody else transports it, somebody else sells it, while the rebel's job is to show a society where it's weak, hypocritical, or worse – as the artist's job is to prove that beauty exists no matter what. We've lost respect for these mutual functions (which in practice have always been difficult, and will remain so). To rely on hope is passive, but to believe in possibility is to be open to what's out there. There is the possibility that, given the dire necessity of remaking the world, the dynamics of true community and the dance of contrapuntal roles may assert themselves and be valued. Maybe not happily, but genuinely. I don't see how we will survive otherwise. (As a species we're adept at horror, and we'll no doubt practice horror in our new world. I'll leave that for others to predict and invent. I'm a cheerful semiapocalyptic.)

Fifth and last of my assumptions: The unexpected always happens. That is the one unalterable law of life that I know. In ways little and big, bad and good, the unexpected always happens. Given climate change and oil scarcity, we're in for the unexpected on a huger scale than most generations experience. But we who crunch the numbers and try to find pattern in the data must remember that expecting everything to collapse may be as unrealistic as expecting everything to continue as it is. There will likely be a kind of dialogue of events, continuance answering collapse, collapse answering continuance – or, to switch metaphors, history will play a raucous, discordant music of simultaneous continuance and collapse, and we will hear (and perform!) chords of events, melodies of experience, unheard and unimagined by any of us.

I see the future as movement in two directions at once, not backward and forward but sort of up and down – which is, after all, the way one walks. Lifting the foot up, putting it down.

Down: To our children and grandchildren, many ways of the 19th and early 20th centuries will be more familiar than those of the late 20th and the present. The bicycle in the city and the horse and wagon in the country may become common modes of transportation; journeys between continents may again be by ship; homemade clothing, glass containers, mechanical metal appliances built to last instead of electronic plastic appliances built not to, local doctors not making much money but making house calls, people trading services, enduring summer heat and winter cold, and life a largely local affair – that may be a best-case scenario, but it's possible.

Up: The Chinese are serious about space travel, and they're the only ones with the money to do it. (They're sitting on such a money stash that oil scarcity will hit them more gradually than us. They're in a position to do what GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett suggests we do: "Use oil [now] to make the investments on the alternatives and renewables ... that can take the place of oil.")

There are many "up-down" possibilities, but let's focus on trains. With oil rationed to agriculture, essential services, and (inevitably) the military, and with personal long-distance driving and passenger flight no longer feasible – then, if the United States is to remain a continental entity (and it may not), the only answer is trains. Before 1945, an American could get on a train in, say, Clarendon, Texas, or Embudo, N.M., or Red Cloud, Neb., and go anywhere on the continent. Trains can run on anything: wood, coal, electricity, or, more productively, fuels derived from corn and sugar. There are many good arguments why grain and bio-mass fuels aren't practical for personal (automotive) transportation on a mass scale; but they're imminently practical for trains. We will need a crash program to rebuild our rail system with engines that run on grain-derived fuel. Last year we spent $455 billion on our military [60 Minutes, Oct. 2], more than the rest of the world combined. The U.S. can try to remain the military superpower (it will fail), leaving the rest of our society in shambles; or the U.S. can spend $200-300 billion of that money on rail (local and national) to retain its coherence as a society. Obviously, we don't have the leadership to make that choice now. But as things start to fall apart, and people are desperate for leaders who can handle the real world, such leaders might show up.

In fact, possibilities for rail are astounding. Seventy years ago, Germans invented a train technology called Maglev. Now Shanghai has the first Maglev train, on a short run – it works. Google up "Maglev," read a few articles. "Mag" stands for magnetic, "lev" stands for levitation. Magnets literally levitate the trains and, in a way that I don't understand, propel them. Maglev trains use no fuel. Emit no pollutants. They cost a lot to build but have no moving parts and thus are cheap to maintain. They are almost noiseless. They vibrate (according to the site) "just below the human threshold of perception." And they can go more than 300 miles an hour. In other words, over land Maglev is a viable alternative to flight. "Down," we're back to trains; "up," there's grain-fuel and Maglev.

Up and down – it's a way of walking into the future. We'll need to find many up-and-down ways. The transition is going to hurt like hell. The planet may be tired of us. But if it's not, we'd do well not to underestimate ourselves. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz saw more horror than most ever see, yet he described humanity like this: "They are so persistent, that give them a few stones/and edible roots, and they will build the world."

Things to come: part 4 and last

The Austin Chronicle


Just when I fear I've dwelt on these subjects too long ... just when I'm hoping I've exaggerated to myself and to you about the crisis I see before us ... just when I wish hardest that I'm wrong ... here comes George H.W. Bush's speechwriter, conservative Republican Peggy Noonan, writing in the oh-so-conservative Wall Street Journal (Oct. 27) how she fears that "the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. ... [I]n some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't be fixed anytime soon ... and tough history is coming."

When Peggy Noonan sounds like me (or vice versa), it's evident there are thinkers from all political perspectives looking at more or less the same facts and coming to more or less the same conclusions. (In earlier columns I've cited former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and conservative GOP Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.) What we wish to do about it may be different – though often, as in the case of Rep. Bartlett, not very different – but the fundamental analysis is neither "left" nor "right." It just is. I'm sure Noonan, Volcker, and Bartlett are as hungry as I am for facts that will change our minds about what James Howard Kunstler calls "the long emergency." Such facts have not been forthcoming.

On the contrary, scanning the papers every day I find evidence enough for my thesis to fill many columns – usually in short articles crammed into the middle of the business section and not covered at all on broadcast news. But it's enough to observe how many feel comforted that gas prices have temporarily dipped to the levels of late August – though in late August everybody thought gas prices were outrageous. What was outrageous in August is comforting in November. That's the behavior of people attempting to acclimate to an ongoing, growing crisis. An emergency that isn't going away.

The defining feature of that emergency, at present, is: We are on our own.

Right now, and for at least the next three years of this administration, the United States of America is not being governed. Not really. Emotional push-button issues and ideological obsessions constitute almost the whole of the federal agenda. No attention is being paid to what is necessary. Neither the White House nor Congress gives more than lip service to issues upon which our future depends. Energy, transport, global warming, education, health care, subsidies, scientific research, sustainable agriculture, infrastructure upkeep and modernization, state-of-the-art communication, manufacturing capacity – at the federal level you will find almost nothing concrete, nothing useful, nothing that addresses root problems. It is government by, for, and of the lobbyists, as even Peggy Noonan admits. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, and Iraq every day confirms, that the powers-that-be are dysfunctional. We are on our own.

A most important fact of our situation was shoved back to page 5 of The New York Times' business section on Oct. 1: "Since the end of 2000 ... federal debt is up by $1.l trillion. American investors, as a group, have lent not one penny of that." Almost all that money has been lent by foreign entities. This means that the USA no longer owns itself. Not only are we on our own, but as a nation, we are owned. When the emergency heightens and we are more helpless, foreign investment will dry up. Our government will have far less money. One can always depend on governmental stupidity: All available monies will pour into the military first, nothing second, everything else third. Education, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other programs upon which many depend will be crippled or let go. Not in rhetoric, but in practice. For most things, federal regulation and enforcement will exist only on paper. That will be good and bad. As we-the-people realize that many laws and regulations can no longer be enforced (because there's no money, therefore no manpower, for enforcement) we will dutifully fill out the paperwork and cleverly (or not) make arrangements of our own. On a local level, America will become the Ad-Hoc Nation. The Improvised Nation. Where we-the-people are resourceful that will work very well – better than now. In other places, not so well. Elsewhere, it will be a disaster. It will all come back to the fact that we're on our own.

Take education as an example. Public schools will realize that all those federal- and state-mandated regulations and standards don't mean a damn anymore. There will be no money to pay the monitors, record-keepers, chastisers – there will be no one to answer to, except on paper. As the economy tanks, private school enrollments will plummet. Private schools that exist just for the money will largely disappear; private schools that exist because of their passionate dedication to a vision of child development will see their enrollment shrink by half, but those schools will hang on because passion always hangs on. Parents who no longer are affluent, but are highly educated, will again send their children to public schools; they'll have no choice. The involvement of those parents will elevate certain public schools, once teachers and administrators realize that federal and state governments can no longer look over their shoulders. This will develop differently in different places. Districts that want creationism will get it – and will send incompetent children into a world that will eat them alive. Districts that want intelligence will get that. Being on our own will have its costs and rewards. Who we are, and how we are, will matter – much more than now, when we're all having to play by rules that people of all political beliefs agree are crazy.

In many cases the first will be last and the last will be first. Undocumented immigrants waiting for work outside Home Depot may be much more useful, and fare much better, than the affluent middle managers who now hire them cheap. The undocumented, after all, have proven themselves capable of an epic, dangerous, demanding journey, and they wouldn't be standing at Home Depot if they hadn't demonstrated pioneerlike endurance and resourcefulness. They're far more inured to emergency than most and have developed survival skills that middle managers, intellectuals, and service workers generally lack. The cheap laborer you hire today may tomorrow be your teacher and coveted ally – if you can speak his language.

Occupations now thought humble will regain their old status and be much in demand. With oil and gas too precious for items like plastic razors, men may again be shaved regularly by their barbers, and the barbershop will again become a center of community (as it was in this country for more than a century). With grains a priority for food and fuel, and transport prohibitively expensive, the price of beef will be too high to sustain the cattle and leather industries, plastic will be too dear for footwear, and cobblers (shoemakers) will have their hands full keeping old footwear serviceable and making the old into the new – and they'll have ready apprentices. The same goes for local dressmakers, seamstresses, and tailors – in a nondisposable society, without the money for new fashions every season, these and many other practical pursuits will thrive. So will tinkers and mechanics – anyone with the skill to keep appliances going long past their shelf life, and anyone who knows how to build handy items from scrap. Services will be traded as often as purchased. Local actors, dancers, musicians, and storytellers may again become crucial to communities that can no longer depend on force-fed media. When you're on your own, life becomes more immediate and personal. More face-to-face. More real.

Look ... I'd like my cozy, convenient writer's life to continue as uncharacteristically tranquil as it's been lately, writing my novels and poems and columns, downsizing as gracefully as I'm able, living with a truly delectable slowness, testifying to the truth of Caroline Casey's sentence "Beauty is abundantly available to the unhurried mind." But I look at the facts as I understand them and can come to no conclusion but that these too-convenient days are numbered, and I'd best enjoy the present, behave alertly, and be ready for a storm, always remembering the three qualities that Henry James noted were most important in a human being: "Kindness, kindness, and kindness."

Life is about to become both slower (with more opportunities for beauty) and more urgent, governed by necessity rather than desire. The unexpected will happen – in the context of "tough history." We will be called upon to do more, and be more, than we thought ourselves capable of. So ... OK, Universe, call on me to be more and do more than I thought myself capable of!

Once upon a time, wasn't that all I asked of life? end story

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Peak oil: wolves in sheep's clothing?

By Lisa Mann

MATTHEW SIMMONS is not exactly an imposing figure. An unassuming man, his gentle voice bears the soft twang of Texan gentility. Blue eyes twinkle behind rusty cheeks as he reminisces: “I loved those peaches.”

Matt is an investment banker and energy advisor to some of the largest organizations in the world, including Chase Bank, Halliburton and the World Bank. He is a member of the Trilateral Commission and a personal friend of Dick Cheney’s. And very few people in the world know Peak Oil like Matthew Simmons.

Mr. Simmons was highly dissatisfied with the information available from the Saudis about their oil capacity; they do not allow independent auditing of their “proven reserves.” Undaunted, he painstakingly analyzed over 200 technical papers published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers and concluded that Saudi Arabia’s reserves weren’t proven at all. Today, Simmons believes that Saudi oil production will soon peak.

The “Peak” in “Peak Oil” refers to the point when oil production climaxes, after which it follows an irreversible decline. Twenty-three out of forty-four oil producing nations have already peaked, including the United States, Norway and Iran.

No new fields of any significant size are being found to replace those in decline. The last remaining “elephants”—giant, 500 million barrel-plus fields—are in Saudi Arabia. According to Simmons, “When Saudi Arabia peaks, so does the world.”

Fossil Fuel Depletion: Consequences and “Solutions”

What will Peak Oil mean for our oil addicted world? Prognostications range from a rosy, seamless conversion to alternate energies to a massive die-off akin to the Black Death, although the truth may lie somewhere in between. Our economy and food supply are so oil dependent that its depletion has the capacity to crash the stock market, squelch economic growth and render vast tracts of agricultural land fallow. The cost of trade will skyrocket, isolating economies that fail to localize. Chronic problems like hunger, unemployment and homelessness are sure to become acute.

Indeed, the stakes are very high, and decisions that are made now will determine our ability to survive in a post-carbon world. But who will make these decisions, and will “remedies” to the coming crisis be in the best interest of humanity or of a small elite?

Of all the “Peak Oilers,” Simmons is the most influential in high places. He has long played an advisory role for the Bush administration, serving on Dick Cheney’s secretive Energy Task Force.

Among the few documents released from those meetings was a map of Iraq’s known oil resources.
Simmons’ knowledge of world energy supplies coupled with his intimacy with Cheney has led some to suspect that, along with conservation and organic farming, one of his favored “mitigation strategies” may well be the occupation of Iraq.

The latest war in the Gulf may not just be a war for oil, but a war for the last oil on earth. Because war and embargo stifled Iraq’s oil production, Iraq will peak last and will be producing oil long after other nations’ wells have run dry.

Organic Peaches, “Clean Coal” and Splitting Atoms

This grim speculation was in the back of my mind as I conversed briefly with Matthew at the Global Oil Depletion conference in Spokane on October 5, 2005. He was expanding upon a comment he made during his keynote presentation about the importance- and palatability- of organic agriculture. He waxed sentimental about his mother’s canned peaches and how commercial peaches just don’t taste the same. The contrast was palpable; Simmons is down-home, like a country uncle, yet directly connected to neo-conservative war-makers and energy industry big-wigs.

While Simmons’ keynote underscored a broad need for mitigation, he left it to others to be more specific. Fellow keynote speaker Dr. Roger Bezdek, of Management Information Services, Inc. (MISI), recommended increased vehicle efficiency, but mainly focused on supply side solutions. Coal liquids and Canadian oil sands were on his menu. Bezdek answered the obvious pollution question with this quote: “It is not clear how environmental protection will fare if there is widespread joblessness, high inflation & severe recession.” Not exactly Sierra Club material.

The next presenter, Jim Ekmann, is an associate director from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. His presence shatters the notion that the Bush administration is not hip to oil depletion. His presentation included a quote from President Bush stating that “clean coal technology is critical to the future of this country.” So much for the West Virginia mountaintops.

Robert Dunbar of the Canadian Energy Research Institute pitched the Albertan tar sands as a remedy. Oil sands operations are among the most polluting in the energy industry, requiring about 3 barrels of water to extract one barrel of oil. Syncrude’s tailings pond near the pristine Athabasca River is already over 22 square kilometers, and they intend to increase production by a factor of 10.

Alan Waltar of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory made the case for nuclear energy, but used some questionable statistics to do so. He used a graph portraying nuclear as the lowest cost electricity source per kilowatt. This deceptive chart did not incorporate the massive capital, disposal, decommissioning and, of course, human costs involved in nuclear power production. He did not exactly receive a hero’s welcome.

Peak Oil Profiteers

As Peak Oil begins to surface in common discourse, we will encounter more “experts” who will offer dubious solutions that may profit them in the short run yet make us all poorer. No matter what action is taken, we will be living in a world with less available energy and weak economic systems. Could we deal with even more nuclear waste, water pollution and carbon emissions than we have now in a crippled post-carbon society?

Urban agriculture, solar and wind power, local currencies and economies, and energy efficient homes are only a few of the many sustainable options we have to deal with this coming crisis. We may choose to change our ways and learn to live sustainably, or we can pave the road to ruin with mine tailings and spent nuclear rods. The choice is ours.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

Global Public Media

In Brief: "Try to image an airplane suddenly losing its engines. It was really a crash"... A crash that put Cuba into a state of shock. There were frequent blackouts in its oil-fed electric power grid, up to 16 hours per day. The average daily caloric intake in Cuba dropped by a third... So Cubans started to grow local organic produce out of necessity, developed bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers as petrochemical substitutes, and incorporated more fruits and vegetables into their diets. Since they couldn't fuel their aging cars, they walked, biked, rode buses, and carpooled.

By Megan Quinn

Havana, Cuba -- At the Organip�nico de Alamar, a neighborhood agriculture project, a workers' collective runs a large urban farm, a produce market and a restaurant. Hand tools and human labor replace oil-driven machinery. Worm cultivation and composting create productive soil. Drip irrigation conserves water, and the diverse, multi-hued produce provides the community with a rainbow of healthy foods.

In other Havana neighborhoods, lacking enough land for such large projects, residents have installed raised garden beds on parking lots and planted vegetable gardens on their patios and rooftops.

Since the early 1990s, an urban agriculture movement has swept through Cuba, putting this capital city of 2.2 million on a path toward sustainability.

A small group of Australians assisted in this grass-roots effort, coming to this Caribbean island nation in 1993 to teach permaculture, a system based on sustainable agriculture which uses far less energy.

This need to bring agriculture into the city began with the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of more than 50 percent of Cuba's oil imports, much of its food and 85 percent of its trade economy. Transportation halted, people went hungry and the average Cuban lost 30 pounds.

"In reality, when this all began, it was a necessity. People had to start cultivating vegetables wherever they could," a tour guide told a documentary crew filming in Cuba in 2004 to record how Cuba survived on far less oil than usual.

The crew included the staff of The Community Solution, a non-profit organization in Yellow Springs, Ohio which teaches about peak oil – the time when oil production world-wide will reach an all-time high and head into an irreversible decline. Some oil analysts believe this may happen within this decade, making Cuba a role model to follow.

"We wanted to see if we could capture what it is in the Cuban people and the Cuban culture that allowed them to go through this very difficult time," said Pat Murphy, The Community Solution's executive director. "Cuba has a lot to show the world in how to deal with energy adversity."

Scarce petroleum supplies have not only transformed Cuba's agriculture. The nation has also moved toward small-scale renewable energy and developed an energy-saving mass transit system, while maintaining its government-provided health care system whose preventive, locally-based approach to medicine conserves scarce resources.

The era in Cuba following the Soviet collapse is known to Cubans as the Special Period. Cuba lost 80 percent of its export market and its imports fell by 80 percent. The Gross Domestic Product dropped by more than one third.

"Try to image an airplane suddenly losing its engines. It was really a crash," Jorge Mario, a Cuban economist, told the documentary crew. A crash that put Cuba into a state of shock. There were frequent blackouts in its oil-fed electric power grid, up to 16 hours per day. The average daily caloric intake in Cuba dropped by a third.

According to a report on Cuba from Oxfam, an international development and relief agency, "In the cities, buses stopped running, generators stopped producing electricity, factories became silent as graveyards. Obtaining enough food for the day became the primary activity for many, if not most, Cubans."

In part due to the continuing US embargo, but also because of the loss of a foreign market, Cuba couldn't obtain enough imported food. Furthermore, without a substitute for fossil-fuel based large-scale farming, agricultural production dropped drastically.

So Cubans started to grow local organic produce out of necessity, developed bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers as petrochemical substitutes, and incorporated more fruits and vegetables into their diets. Since they couldn't fuel their aging cars, they walked, biked, rode buses, and carpooled.

"There are infinite small solutions," said Roberto Sanchez from the Cuban-based Foundation for Nature and Humanity. "Crises or changes or problems can trigger many of these things which are basically adaptive. We are adapting."

A New Agricultural Revolution

Cubans are also replacing petroleum-fed machinery with oxen, and their urban agriculture reduces food transportation distances. Today an estimated 50 percent of Havana's vegetables come from inside the city, while in other Cuban towns and cities urban gardens produce from 80 percent to more than 100 percent of what they need.

In turning to gardening, individuals and neighborhood organizations took the initiative by identifying idle land in the city, cleaning it up, and planting.

When the Australian permaculturists came to Cuba they set up the first permaculture demonstration project with a $26,000 grant from the Cuban government.

Out of this grew the Foundation for Nature and Humanity's urban permaculture demonstration project and center in Havana. "With this demonstration, neighbors began to see the possibilities of what they can do on their rooftops and their patios," said Carmen L�pez, director of the urban permaculture center, as she stood on the center's rooftop amongst grape vines, potted plants, and compost bins made from tires.

Since then the movement has been spreading rapidly across Havana's barrios. So far L�pez' urban permaculture center has trained more than 400 people in the neighborhood in permaculture and distributes a monthly publication, "El Permacultor." "Not only has the community learned about permaculture," according to L�pez, "we have also learned about the community, helping people wherever there is need."

One permaculture student, Nelson Aguila, an engineer-turned-farmer, raises food for the neighborhood on his integrated rooftop farm. On just a few hundred square feet he has rabbits and hens and many large pots of plants. Running free on the floor are gerbils, which eat the waste from the rabbits, and become an important protein source themselves. "Things are changing," Sanchez said. "It's a local economy. In other places people don't know their neighbors. They don't know their names. People don't say 'hello' to each other. Not here."

Since going from petrochemical intensive agricultural production to organic farming and gardening, Cuba now uses 21 times less pesticide than before the Special Period. They have accomplished this with their large-scale production of bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers, exporting some of it to other Latin American countries.

Though the transition to organic production and animal traction was necessary, the Cubans are now seeing the advantages. "One of the good parts of the crisis was to go back to the oxen," said Miguel Coyula, a community development specialist, "Not only do they save fuel, they do not compact the soil the way the tractor does, and the legs of the oxen churn the earth."

"The Cuban agricultural, conventional, 'Green Revolution' system never was able to feed the people," Sanchez said. "It had high yields, but was oriented to plantation agriculture. We exported citrus, tobacco, sugar cane and we imported the basic things. So the system, even in the good times, never fulfilled people's basic needs."

Drawing on his permaculture knowledge, Sanchez said, "You have to follow the natural cycles, so you hire nature to work for you, not work against nature. To work against nature, you have to waste huge amounts of energy."

Energy Solutions

Because most of Cuba's electricity had been generated from imported oil, the shortages affected nearly everyone on the island. Scheduled rolling blackouts several days per week lasted for many years. Without refrigerators, food would spoil. Without electric fans, the heat was almost unbearable in a country that regularly has temperatures in the 80s and 90s.

The solutions to Cuba's energy problems were not easy. Without money, it couldn't invest in nuclear power and new conventional fossil fuel plants or even large-scale wind and solar energy systems. Instead, the country focused on reducing energy consumption and implementing small-scale renewable energy projects.

Ecosol Solar and Cuba Solar are two renewable energy organizations leading the way. They help develop markets for renewable energy, sell and install systems, perform research, publish newsletters, and do energy efficiency studies for large users.

Ecosol Solar has installed 1.2 megawatts of solar photovoltaic in both small household systems (200 watt capacity) and large systems (15-50 kilowatt capacity). In the United States 1.2 megawatts would provide electricity to about 1000 homes, but can supply power to significantly more houses in Cuba where appliances are few, conservation is the custom, and the homes are much smaller.

About 60 percent of Ecosol Solar's installations go to social programs to power homes, schools, medicals facilities, and community centers in rural Cuba. It recently installed solar photovoltaic panels to electrify 2,364 primary schools throughout rural Cuba where it was not cost effective to take the grid. In addition, it is developing compact model solar water heaters that can be assembled in the field, water pumps powered by PV panels, and solar dryers.

A visit to "Los Tumbos," a solar-powered community in the rural hills southwest of Havana demonstrates the positive impact that these strategies can have. Once without electricity, each household now has a small solar panel that powers a radio and a lamp. Larger systems provide electricity to the school, hospital, and community room, where residents gather to watch the evening news program called the "Round Table." Besides keeping the residents informed, the television room has the added benefit of bringing the community together.

"The sun was enough to maintain life on earth for millions of years," said Bruno Beres, a director of Cuba Solar. "Only when we [humans] arrived and changed the way we use energy was the sun not enough. So the problem is with our society, not with the world of energy."

Transportation - A System of Ride Sharing

Cubans also faced the problem of providing transportation on a reduced energy diet. Solutions came from ingenious Cubans, who often quote the phrase, "Necessity is the mother of invention." With little money or fuel, Cuba now moves masses of people during rush hour in Havana. In an inventive approach, virtually every form of vehicle, large and small, was used to build this mass transit system. Commuters ride in hand-made wheelbarrows, buses, other motorized transport and animal-powered vehicles.

One special Havana transit vehicle, nicknamed a "camel," is a very large metal semi-trailer, pulled by a standard semi-truck tractor, which holds 300 passengers. Bicycles and motorized two-passenger rickshaws are also prevalent in Havana, while horse drawn carts and large old panel trucks are used in the smaller towns.

Government officials in yellow garb pull over nearly empty government vehicles and trucks on Havana's streets and fill them with people needing a ride. Chevys from the 1950s cruise along with four people in front and four more in back.

A donkey cart with a taxi license nailed to the frame also travels Cuba's streets. Many trucks were converted to passenger transport by welding steps to the back so riders could get on and off with ease.

Health Care and Education - National Priorities

Even though Cuba is a poor country, with a per capita Gross Domestic Product of only $3,000 per year (putting them in the bottom third of all nations), life expectancy is the same as in the U.S., and infant mortality is below that in the U.S. The literacy rate in Cuba is 97 percent, the same as in the U.S. Cuba's education system, as well as its medical system is free.

When Cubans suffered through their version of a peak oil crisis, they maintained their free medical system, one of the major factors that helped them to survive. Cubans repeatedly emphasize how proud they are of their system.

Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, there was one doctor for every 2000 people. Now there is a doctor for every 167 people. Cuba also has an international medical school and trains doctors to work in other poor countries. Each year there are 20,000 Cuban doctors abroad doing this kind of work.

With meat scarce and fresh local vegetables in abundance since 1995, Cubans now eat a healthy, low-fat, nearly vegetarian, diet. They also have a healthier outdoor lifestyle and walking and bicycling have become much more common. "Before, Cubans didn't eat that many vegetables. Rice and beans and pork meat was the basic diet," Sanchez from the Foundation for Nature and Humanity said. "At some point necessity taught them, and now they demand [vegetables]."

Doctors and nurses live in the community where they work and usually above the clinic itself. In remote rural areas, three-story buildings are constructed with the doctor's office on the bottom floor and two apartments on the second and third floors, one for the doctor and one for the nurse.

In the cities, the doctors and nurses always live in the neighborhoods they serve. They know the families of their patients and try to treat people in their homes. "Medicine is a vocation, not a job," exclaimed a Havana doctor, demonstrating the motivation for her work. In Cuba 60 percent of the doctors are women.

Education is considered the most important social activity in Cuba. Before the revolution, there was one teacher for every 3,000 people. Today the ratio is one for every 42 people, with a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 16. Cuba has a higher percentage of professionals than most developing countries, and with 2 percent of the population of Latin America, Cuba has 11 percent of all the scientists.

In an effort to halt migration from the countryside to the city during the Special Period, higher education was spread out into the provinces, expanding learning opportunities and strengthening rural communities. Before the Special Period there were only three institutions of higher learning in Cuba. Now there are 50 colleges and universities throughout the country, seven in Havana.

The Power of Community

Throughout its travels, the documentary crew saw and experienced the resourcefulness, determination, and optimism of the Cuban people, often hearing the phrase "S�, se puede" or "Yes it can be done."

People spoke of the value of "resistir" or "resistance," showing their determination to overcome obstacles. And they have lived under a U.S. economic blockade since the early 1960s, viewed as the ultimate test of the Cuban ability to resist.

There is much to learn from Cuba's response to the loss of cheap and abundant oil. The staff of The Community Solution sees these lessons as especially important for people in developing countries, who make up 82 percent of the world's population and live more on life's edge. But developed countries are also vulnerable to shortages in energy. And with the coming onset of peak oil, all countries will have to adapt to the reality of a lower energy world.

With this new reality, the Cuban government changed its 30-year motto from "Socialism or Death" to "A Better World is Possible." Government officials allowed private entrepreneurial farmers and neighborhood organizations to use public land to grow and sell their produce. They pushed decision-making down to the grassroots level and encouraged initiatives in their neighborhoods. They created more provinces. They encouraged migration back to the farms and rural areas and reorganized their provinces to be in-line with agricultural needs.

From The Community Solution's viewpoint, Cuba did what it could to survive, despite its ideology of a centralized economy. In the face of peak oil and declining oil production, will America do what it takes to survive, in spite of its ideology of individualism and consumerism? Will Americans come together in community, as Cubans did, in the spirit of sacrifice and mutual support?

"There is climate change, the price of oil, the crisis of energy …" Beres from Cuba Solar said, listing off the challenges humanity faces. "What we must know is that the world is changing and we must change the way we see the world."

This article appeared in the special Peak Oil issue of Permaculture Activist, Spring 2006. The author, Megan Quinn, is the outreach director for The Community Solution, a program of Community Service Inc., a nonprofit organization in Yellow Springs, Ohio. For information about its soon-to-be-released documentary, "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" visit its website, e-mail her at, or call 937-767-2161.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Ready for $262 barrel oil?

Two of the world's most successful investors say oil will be in short supply in the coming months.

By Nelson Schwartz

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That's the message from two of the world's most successful investors on the topic of high oil prices. One of them, Hermitage Capital's Bill Browder, has outlined six scenarios that could take oil up to a downright terrifying $262 a barrel.

The other, billionaire investor George Soros, wouldn't make any specific predictions about prices. But as a legendary commodities player, it's worth paying heed to the words of the man who once took on the Bank of England -- and won. "I'm very worried about the supply-demand balance, which is very tight," Soros says.

"U.S. power and influence has declined precipitously because of Iraq and the war on terror and that creates an incentive for anyone who wants to make trouble to go ahead and make it." As an example, Soros pointed to the regime in Iran, which is heading towards a confrontation with the West over its nuclear power program and doesn't show any signs of compromising. "Iran is on a collision course and I have a difficulty seeing how such a collision can be avoided," he says.

Another emboldened troublemaker is Russian president Vladimir Putin, Soros said, citing Putin's recent decision to briefly shut the supply of natural gas to Ukraine. The only bit of optimism Soros could offer was that the next 12 months would be most dangerous in terms of any price shocks, because beginning in 2007 he predicts new oil supplies will come online.

Hermitage's Bill Browder doesn't yet have the stature of George Soros. But his $4 billion Moscow-based Hermitage fund rose 81.5 percent last year and is up a whopping 1780 percent since its inception a decade ago. A veteran of Salomon Bros. and Boston Consulting Group, the 41-year old Browder has been especially successful because of his contrarian take; for example, he continued to invest in Russia when others fled following the Kremlin's assault on Yukos.

Doomsdays 1 through 6

To come up with some likely scenarios in the event of an international crisis, his team performed what's known as a regression analysis, extrapolating the numbers from past oil shocks and then using them to calculate what might happen when the supply from an oil-producing country was cut off in six different situations. The fall of the House of Saud seems the most far-fetched of the six possibilities, and it's the one that generates that $262 a barrel.

More realistic -- and therefore more chilling -- would be the scenario where Iran declares an oil embargo a la OPEC in 1973, which Browder thinks could cause oil to double to $131 a barrel. Other outcomes include an embargo by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez ($111 a barrel), civil war in Nigeria ($98 a barrel), unrest and violence in Algeria ($79 a barrel) and major attacks on infrastructure by the insurgency in Iraq ($88 a barrel).

Regressions analysis may be mathematical but it's an art, not a science. And some of these scenarios are quite dubious, like Venezuela shutting the spigot. (For more on Chavez and Venezuela, click here.)

Energy chiefs at the World Economic Forum in Davos downplayed the likelihood of a serious oil shortage. In a statement Friday, Shell's CEO Jeroen Van der Veer declared, "There is no reason for pessimism." OPEC Acting Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo said "OPEC will step in at any time there is a shortage in the market." But then no one in the industry, including Van der Veer, foresaw an extended run of $65 oil -- or even $55 oil -- like we've been having.

It's clear that there is very, very little wiggle room, and that most consumers, including those in the United States, have acceded so far to the new reality of $60 or even $70 oil. And as Soros points out, the White House has its hands full in Iraq and elsewhere.

Although there are long-term answers like ethanol, what's needed is a crash conservation effort in the United States. This doesn't have to be command-and-control style. Moral suasion counts for a lot, and if the president suggested staying home with family every other Sunday or otherwise cutting back on unnecessary drives, he could please the family values crowd while also changing the psychology of the oil market by showing that the U.S. government is serious about easing any potential bottlenecks.

Similarly, he could finally get the government to tighten fuel-efficiency standards and encourage both Detroit and drivers to end decades of steadily increasing gas consumption. These kinds of steps would create a little headroom until new supplies do become available or threats like Iran's current leadership or the Iraqi insurgency fade.

It's been done it before. For all the cracks about Jimmy Carter in a cardigan and his malaise speech, America did reduce its use of oil following the price shocks of the 1970s, and laid the groundwork for low energy prices in the 1980s and 1990s. But it would require spending political capital, and offending traditional White House allies, and that's something this president doesn't seem to want to do.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Hirsch Report�One Year Later

Falls Church News-Press

By Tom Whipple

You can’t delve very deeply into the world of peak oil without encountering a reference to the “Hirsch Report.” This report, which is imposingly titled Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management was published in February 2005 by SAIC under a contract with the US Department of Energy. The cumbersome title immediately led to the document becoming popularly known as the “Hirsch Report” in honor of its principal author Robert L. Hirsch.

Google “Hirsch Report” today and you will get over 20,000 hits. A quick review of the first thousand or so shows they mostly are referencing the peak oil study.

The Hirsch report is significant for three reasons.

1. It was sponsored and paid for by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, an arm of the US Government and prepared by highly qualified and respected researchers.
2. The report came to the devastating conclusion that the country and the world will face unprecedented economic, social, and political problems
3. The mainstream media and our country’s leaders have ignored it.

If there is a weakness in the report, it is the failure to grapple with the “when” of peak oil. After acknowledging the peak is inevitable, Hirsch and his associates list the many reasons it is difficult to project even a rough year for the peaking. They go on to say, “The bottom line is that no one knows with certainty when world oil production will reach a peak” and list 12 estimates ranging from 2006 to “no visible peak.”

It is the lack of a “when” keeping the report and its significance relegated to peak oil blogs and out of the New York Times or the 6 o’clock news.

However, given that the year of peak oil is really the major part of the controversy surrounding the concept, it is likely the formulation used in the report is the only one acceptable to DOE. They paid for the work and, of course, would have had trouble releasing conclusions in conflict with their own projections.

The report reaches ten major conclusions:

* World oil peaking is going to happen
* Oil peaking could cost the US economy dearly
* Oil peaking presents a unique challenge
* The problem is liquid fuels
* Mitigation efforts will require substantial time
* Both supply and demand will require attention
* It is a matter of risk management
* Government intervention will be required
* Economic upheaval is not inevitable

10. More information is needed.

On re-reading the report, I was struck by a section entitled “Wildcards” in which the authors list some developments which might make the peaking of world oil supplies more bearable, and some that are bound to exacerbate the situation.

On the upside are listed possibilities such as peak oil not coming for many decades, or that Middle East reserves might turn out to be much bigger than estimated, or that even a great scientific breakthrough will reduce the need for so much oil before it peaks. Unfortunately none of the items on the list looks very likely in the foreseeable future.

Now on the downside, here are some of the developments the Hirsch report sees as making life in a post peak oil world much worse:

* World oil production peaking is occurring now or soon.
* Middle East reserves are much less than stated.
* Terrorism increases and concentrates on damaging oil facilities.
* Political instability in major oil producers results in unexpected sustained oil shortages.
* Large sustained Middle East political instability hinders oil production.

To my mind, the downside list is starting to sound a lot like what has been happening for the last year and appears likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

If you have been following what I have been saying about peak oil for the last year or so, I recommend that you download your free copy of the Hirsch report. You can find all 91 pages in PDF at:
Or if you believe the 12-page version is enough try:

One day this report will be recognized as one of the most prescient the US government issued on life in the 21st century.

The Earth�s Half Empty Oil Tank

EV World Blogs

By John Gilkison

The Simons article on Peak Oil saying we had crossed the peak on December 16, 2005 set off a train of ideas which I thought deserved a blog. Simmons quotes a little over 2 trillion barrels as the total amount of oil available to mankind and said we had consumed just a little over one trillion barrels of oil by the end of 2005.

Crossing the threshold of Peak Oil is a little analogous to crossing the event horizon of a Black Hole in space, in that there is nothing to tell you that you have done it. Once you have crossed the invisible line it is however a irrevokable event. More to the point with numbers like this, it is often hard to get a good visual appreciation of just how much oil we are talking about. While a couple trillion barrels of oil may seem like a lot of oil, (and it is for any of us personally) just how big is it as compared to the Earth lets say?

I will leave it up to the reader to check my methods, I will just tell you what I did. A barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, a US Gallon has a volume of 231 cubic inches. So a barrel of oil constitutes roughly 9,702 cubic inches, or 5.6145 cubic feet, if you divide by 1,728. This last figure in cubic feet must be multiplied by 2 trillion barrels to yield our total volume.

The cubic foot is a little unwieldy for our purposes, so converted this to cubic miles, and ended up with a little over 76 cubic miles of oil. Still without a visual clue, I organized this rather large amorphous concept, into a sphere. The formula for figuring the volume of a sphere is 4/3 times pi cubed. This resulted in a sphere with a radius of 2.63 miles, or a diameter of 5.26 miles.

Now we are getting somewhere, just imagine a large spherical oil tank almost as tall as the tallest mountain on Earth and you got it. As a people living on a finite planet, we have consumed since the year 1859 half of the oil in this tank.

How big is this oil tank as compared to the Earth visually? Astronomers like to model distances, so lets do a little astronomical modeling. Lets make one millimeter equal one mile, giving us a tiny sphere five and one quarter millimeters in diameter. This is about the size of a heathy pea, if you want a good green visual. At this scale the 7,960 mile diameter of the earth ends up being a scale Earth a little over twenty six feet across.

Suddenly our pea size oil tank for all of humanity doesn’t look so large after all. In fact in comparison to the Earth it appears frighteningly small. We are talking about a primary resource humanity has been relying upon to power most of it transportation needs, and to shape the modern world. This is the starter battery Buckminister Fuller spoke of, that was only sufficient to get humanity started.

As small as this is as compared to the Earth, a Asteroid this size striking the Earth at over twenty four thousand miles per hour would wipe out life on this planet as we know it. It would be the Doomsday Asteroid the science shows on television refer to. It would be traveling only a little over it’s own diameter every second. It would pass through our atmosphere in around two seconds, and convert most of it’s mass to energy in a little more then one second. This energy would be far greater then the energy content of all the nuclear bombs in all the military arsenals on earth.

Burning even this pittance of stored fossil carbon plus some coal so far, has warmed the Earth over one degree Fahrenheit of Global Warming, and now it looks like we have reached tipping points, that are causing our climate change to accelerate faster the even the scientist had predicted. Considering we live on a syntropic energy importing loci called the Earth and that we are bathed in a daily energy income that dwarfs the energy content of this pea sized oil tank of the Earth, you would think it was time for humanity to move on to utilizing the so called renewable energy resources that really are inexhaustible, solar, wind, tidal, water.

One final analogy on apparent sizes for the amateur astronomers out there in evworld.. Both the Sun and the Moon have an apparent angular size of approximately one half of a degree (or thirty minutes of arc) in our skies. By a wonderful happenstance the Moon which is about four hundred times smaller then the Sun, is also four hundred times closer, so we get treated to total eclipses of the Sun when the Moon is New and at a nodal point.

Our oil tank sphere (painted white of course) would appear to subtend one half a degree in our skies also, if it were in a orbit 578 miles high above the Earth. Our new orbiting artificial Moon would be interestingly enough 413 times closer then the real Moon. Now wouldn’t that be a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, figuratively speaking of course! Or am I?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Won't Get Fueled Again

Salt Lake City Weekly

By Cecil Adams

It’s not often that I stumble into anything on the Net that scares me, but this does. A large number of sites declare that we’re about to hit, or have hit, peak oil production and that our civilization is essentially on the clock and poised to implode in the next 40 to 60 years. Are these accurate assessments, or are they taking the worst-case scenario to extremes? —Scott Lumley, via e-mail

Sit down, Scott. What you’re describing isn’t the worst case; arguably it’s the best case. While it’s not clear when oil production will peak, or whether the peak is already past, no one doubts oil production is bound to decline—the only questions are how soon and how fast. Opinions vary (boy, do they), but my feeling is, 40 to 60 years? We should be so lucky.

Background: The concept most associated with looming oil shortages is that of the “Hubbert curve,” named after the late geophysicist M. King Hubbert. In a prescient 1956 paper, Hubbert drew on more than a century’s worth of data to suggest that fossil fuel production followed a characteristic bell-shaped curve, ramping up sharply in the early going, peaking once practical limits were reached, then declining. If you could accurately estimate fossil-fuel reserves, Hubbert argued, you could predict when peak oil production would occur. Compiling such an estimate for U.S. oil reserves, Hubbert projected that U.S. oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970. In the event, it peaked in 1971.

Hubbert estimated world oil production would peak in 2000. It didn’t, but that hardly invalidates his theory. World oil-reserve estimates are inherently fuzzier than those for the United States; the oil shortages of the 1970s and resulting conservation may have briefly postponed the inevitable; and anyway it’s only 2006 now. Some think that, if we haven’t passed the peak already, we’re pretty damned close—and I mean by the end of this decade. Optimists say 2020 or later, but the exact date isn’t important. The point is, the extraordinary growth of the industrialized nations since 1900 has been disproportionately fueled by a nonrenewable resource that’s now roughly one-half to one-quarter gone and that will cease to be a commercially practical energy source within the lifetime of many already born.

You’re thinking: We stand at the abyss. Not necessarily. Fact is, the United States has been here before and we got through it OK. During the 19th century the chief U.S. fuel source was wood extracted from the country’s vast forests, which were logged off at a rate that takes one’s breath away even now. As early as the Civil War conservationists warned of a coming “timber famine.” The crisis never materialized. Total United States wood consumption peaked in 1907 and declined steadily thereafter, yet the economy hummed on. What replaced wood? Why, fossil fuels, mainly coal. (Coal, incidentally, remains relatively plentiful—Hubbert thought peak production might occur in 2150.)

But Cecil, you object, how is this thought supposed to be comforting? Today we don’t have any comparable alternative fuel waiting in the wings. I can only reply: Sure we do. What’s more, it was waiting in Hubbert’s day. The title of his 1956 paper was “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” His purpose in writing had been to point out that, in contrast to oil, the U.S. had sufficient reserves of fissionable fuels, chiefly uranium, to last hundreds and likely thousands of years.

We all know what happened to the nuclear-power industry. Yet Hubbert’s argument has lost none of its force: The uranium in little more than three square miles of Chattanooga shale contains as much energy as all the U.S. oil reserves known in his day. What’s more, his theory offers promise that the shift from oil to something else needn’t be the catastrophe some fear. The curve is, after all, a curve. Oil production won’t suddenly stop; it’ll drift downward as oil fields dry up. Once we’ve shifted from a buyer’s to a seller’s market, of course, the cost of petroleum will spike, making today’s gas prices look cheap. That won’t be pleasant; one recalls the sour ’70s. But it will promote, in a way that no amount of hand-wringing up to this point has done, a search for less costly alternatives. Petroleum sources heretofore considered marginal or uneconomic, such as oil shale and oil sands, will look a lot better. But even they won’t last long. The pessimists think we’ve got a trillion barrels of oil left, the optimists three trillion. At present consumption rates, the world will burn through three trillion barrels in 105 years—70 years if consumption increases 50 percent as predicted. After that, we’re left with wind, solar, biofuels—and, yes, nukes. To be sure, people fear nukes and will resist till the last. But they’ll come around when it becomes clear, as it will, that the alternative is to freeze in the dark.

My Name Is Randy, And I'm Addicted To Oil

Willamette Week

It's the end of the world as he knows it and Randy White feels fine (sort of).

BY Ian Demsky

Randy White was a few minutes late to his Wednesday-night meeting in the basement cafeteria of the St. Francis church in Southeast Portland.

He dragged a seat up to the 40 or so addicts who sat in a circle of folding chairs on the Smurf-blue linoleum.

Over the past year or so, White, 29, has gotten serious about throwing off the trappings of his old lifestyle, the habits that drove him to use more and more of the stuff, but it hasn't been easy.

By his own admission, White is still hopelessly hooked. It's hard, he confides, when almost everyone you know—even your wife—is strung out, too.

Randy White is addicted to oil.

Then again, he would say, so are the rest of us. At least he's trying to do something about it.

"I'm the guy waving his arms saying, 'Hey, wake up! This is important!'" White says.

The meeting was the weekly gathering of a group called Portland Peak Oil, a ragtag assembly of greenies, neighborhood-association activists and business professionals who agree with George W. Bush on one thing—that "America is addicted to oil."

Anyone with half a brain knows it would behoove us to be less reliant on foreign oil. But Peak Oil proponents see an 800-pound gorilla barreling down on our laissez-faire energy attitudes.

The way Darwin believed we descended from monkeys and Joan of Arc that she was on a mission from God, White and his buddies think the age of affordable energy is rapidly nearing its end. Even voices from the other side of the petroleum divide are starting to back them up: Last year, Chevron CEO David O'Reilly announced, "The era of easy oil is over."

So what is White doing about it? He's transformed his own life while carrying the Peak Oil message to the masses. Along the way, his obsession has drawn skepticism from friends and loving tolerance from his conservative family. In fact, depending on how cynical you are, he's either a walking example of the futility of individual action or a model of the kind of behavior that should make the rest of us a wee bit ashamed.

Or maybe both.

Peakers think we've already tapped about half the oil the world will ever have to offer and that production will soon begin a long, irremediable decline. Meanwhile, global demand is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next 20 years, according to federal Energy Information Administration projections. This rift between supply and demand will send prices through the roof. And not just the price of filling up your car but the cost of almost everything, because of how much we rely on fossil fuels for building, manufacturing and shipping virtually every modern convenience.

The American way of life that Dick Cheney once called "non-negotiable," with its air-conditioned Hummers, suburban sprawl and Caesar salads trucked 3,000 miles, is in for a serious blow, Peak Oil proponents say.

Nobody's arguing that oil will last forever, but there is wide disagreement about when the peak might arrive and how market forces, new drilling technologies and alternative fuels will be able to help.

Portland Peak Oil started off as a casual group that met on the Internet and gathered over pizza. Little more than a year later, it has grown to have an active website ( with discussion threads, links to recent energy news and other resources. Its popularity pushed it to seek out the space at St. Francis, where 30 to 100 people attend the weekly meetings. Portland Peak Oil's February calendar has 17 events on it, including documentary screenings, "powerdown circles" to help people deal with emotional realities of this possible future, and organic-gardening classes.

And Portland isn't alone. Similar groups are popping up across the country.

White attends many of these events, but he is about more than talk.

Three years ago, White was a $90,000-a-year geek who sold software that helped Fortune 500 companies and government agencies keep track of hazardous chemicals.

In 2003, he moved to Portland from Anchorage, Alaska, with a plan to do computer consulting and play music.

A military brat who'd bopped all over the country, White stayed abreast of progressive politics. His band, Railer, toured in support of a federal bill that would increase accountability in electronic voting, and he once protested outside The Oregonian for not publishing the Downing Street Memo. But he was hardly a radical. He spent his spare time writing songs, playing Risk and drinking beer into the wee hours of many a weekend morning.

In other words, a fairly typical young Portlander.

That all ended in late 2004 when a friend handed him a DVD titled The End of Suburbia.

He went home that night and watched it on his jumbo JVC flat screen. The next 78 minutes changed his life, he says.

"It was like I had a 5,000-piece puzzle and it was the first time I got to see what the whole picture looked like," he says. "And it was a scary, scary picture."

The End of Suburbia is a documentary that wows not with production values but with serious (and seriously researched) interviews with some of the biggest names currently sounding the Peak Oil alarm: James Howard Kunstler, Michael Klare, Richard Heinberg, Matthew Simmons and Michael C. Ruppert.

Together they trace America's increasing dependence on oil and present the case that the peak is real and will dramatically reshape America as we know it. Kunstler goes so far as to suggest the suburbs will become the new slums when most people will no longer be able to afford to live 50 miles from where they work.

"It was the first time," says White, "I realized the future was going to a look a lot more like Mad Max than I, Robot."

It was also the first time he realized he might not always be able to just go to the supermarket and have food waiting for him. Oil became the card that could bring the whole house down.

"I've never been one to roll over and just accept defeat without fighting to the end," he says. "So I started thinking, 'What can I do to help society prepare for this?'"

Almost immediately, White started making changes in his lifestyle.

He installed a wood-burning stove and new insulation in the 1,400 square-foot Southeast Portland home he shares with his wife, Michelle, and their two rescued cats. Around the yard he planted apple and cherry trees, lemongrass and strawberries. He started a compost heap and a small vegetable garden.

And he sold his 1998 Volkswagen Jetta and bought a Twist N' Go Milano scooter that gets 70 miles per gallon, effectively cutting the family's emissions in half.

He rides the scooter to work when he's not carpooling with Michelle, an OHSU nursing student. It sucks, he admits, during Portland's rainy winters. "Man, I loved that Jetta," he reminisces.

On a bookshelf in his dining room, White keeps five copies of a post-apocalyptic guidebook called When Technology Fails. The four extra copies are for barter in the event of a systemwide meltdown, White says. He's also stockpiling knowledge on vegetarian cooking, basic home repair, sustainable agriculture and cooperative communities.

And White has been slowly eliminating meat from his diet.

"I've been a meat-eater my whole life," he says. "But in preparing for Peak Oil I've realized that by eating beef I'm contributing to the deforestation of the South American rainforests." So far he's been unable to completely cut himself off, but he has "greatly reduced" his intake, he says, to the equivalent of a steak every two weeks.

But that wasn't enough. White quit his computer consulting gig last spring and got a job selling ads for a radio station. Not just any radio station, but KPOJ, Portland's liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh and Lars Larson. "I picked KPOJ because I started listening and heard the truth coming out over the airwaves," he says.

He tries to sell ads to local companies with environmentally sustainable business practices, but he admits it isn't always possible. His environmental attitudes and his job keeping the station on the air can be at odds sometimes.

"I'm trained to convince people to buy goods and services they don't really need," he says. "And it's like, 'Hey, by the way, thanks for helping to destroy the planet.' "

He says he currently earns a third of what he did before.

White has also found a creative outlet for his environmental passion in his music. As the singer for Railer, White goes by the name Randall Scott. ("Randy White sounded boring," he says. "I sound like the guy who used to play football for the Dallas Cowboys, not a wannabe rock star.")

A recent Railer song titled "Basic Allowance" samples a Jimmy Carter speech in which he calls America's reliance on foreign oil a "clear and present danger to our nation." White's lyrics refrain: "We're getting closer to one day/ one day left to find the energy to/ walk away from the things we make."

Not everyone in White's life is on board with his new anti-oil outlook.

Railer's bassist, Zev D-Clind, thinks White's passions are misplaced and not very likely to lead to much actual change.

"I just told him, 'You're wasting your time,'" D-Clind says. "You can bitch and moan all you want, but I'm here to rock. We should be playing music, not whining."

Both say it hasn't hurt the band, but White says it may have caused their friendship to cool a bit.

"That's the type of apathy that I really can't stand," White says.

The time and energy Peak Oil now takes up in White's life is time he could be spending with his wife.

"I just need to remember to stop and remember to enjoy life a lot more," he says. "This can be consuming. She definitely has to tell me, 'Stop, just stop. I get it. I understand. I'm not going to do anything about it. You go do something about it.'

"I'm still in my 20s," he says. "I need to remember that this needs to be a fun and romantic time, too."

Michelle was less hard on Randy than he was on himself.

She says she understands the severity of the Peak Oil issue, but lets Randy do the fretting for both of them.

"I have enough things to keep me busy without worrying about what may happen if the world falls apart," Michelle says. "I give him a hard time about it sometimes, but I don't think he's crazy or anything."

Yet she's also the first to admit her husband can get a bit carried away.

"He'll let the weight of the world overtake him," she says. "He was a software consultant when I met him. Now he's a total activist guy."

When Randy gets depressed or consumed or starts on another rant, both agree she helps him take a step back.

"So, what are you going to do about it?" is her usual refrain.

And the changes around the house haven't gone too far. Yet, she adds.

"I don't see it as him preparing for the apocalypse, per se," Michelle says. "I see it as a motivation to become more self-sufficient in general, which is admirable for anyone to try to do."

Randy's conservative-leaning family in Alaska sometimes joke about whether he's really related to the rest of the clan, his mom, Diane, says.

"If he starts talking about [Peak Oil] a little too much, we tell him to stop obsessing and relax," she says. "'Don't work yourself up into a lather,' we tell him. His brother lets it go in one ear and out the other."

Still, White's parents have installed a wood stove and started carpooling to work more at Randy's urging.

"He's changed our attitudes a little bit," his mom says. "But for us, everything we do is in moderation. When Randy's interested in something, he never does it less than 100 percent."

Even going to work for liberal KPOJ had its drawbacks, since it's owned by radio and outdoor advertising behemoth Clear Channel, which is often held up by lefties as the prime example of what's wrong with media consolidation. Clear Channel is also known for its generous support of Republican political campaigns.

"If lining the pockets of a big media company is part of me doing what it takes to help people get the awareness they need, then it's worth it to me," White says.

There is a certain futility to White's efforts.

The wood stove cuts down on energy bills, but puts more carbon dioxide into the air and requires a steady supply of wood.

"If everyone in America did that, we'd run out of trees pretty quick," he concedes.

His garden consists of a small plot where a few spindly stalks of winter broccoli push up next to a patch of greens chewed to shreds by slugs.

"If I had to live off what I could grow here," he says, "it would last me exactly one meal. I don't know anything about farming."

If White were a junkie instead of an oil addict, it would be easy to see kicking the habit as a total success. But even if he got everyone he knew to live on a commune and wear homemade hemp clothing, the global oil market wouldn't miss them. It could even be argued that White could make more of a difference renting a couple of Hummers and driving around with his friends gathering signatures to put a penny tax on any product made from, made with or transported to market using oil.

That's where Portland Peak Oil comes in—theoretically. The group is getting the word out that the problem even exists, getting local politicians involved (and marshaling the grassroots to pressure them), and serving as a clearinghouse for conservation and sustainability information.

The group's recommendations for individuals are fairly generic: buy local food, boycott non-sustainable businesses, get to know your neighbors, build a library of basic survival knowledge, change spending habits, consider alternative energy sources like solar. Bus and bike whenever you can, and combine your car errands into one trip.

Most of their ideas mesh nicely with Portland's already green vibe.

Group members have also started gathering signatures on a petition to ask local leaders to look into the issue and, yes, form Portland's default position: a taskforce.

For many people, the idea of another local taskforce elicits a groan.

But Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, who served on the governor's Global Warming Advisory Taskforce, has already drafted a letter asking Ted Kulongoski to address the Peak Oil issue in the same way as global warming.

"A credible, widely supported analysis of this challenge would help immensely in the public discussion of our region's future, as well as providing a factual foundation for our land-use and transportation modeling," Burkholder writes.

"We're in the midst of a 50-year land-use plan and a 20-year transportation plan. It's only prudent we look at issues like this one," he told WW.

Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office is also supportive—as long as a taskforce would come back with concrete recommendations.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) says the calamitous scenarios painted by the Peak Oil crowd are "not beyond the scope of probability. Let's just say they're only near-fetched."

Peak Oil "is a way to tie the green consciousness together," Blumenauer told WW. "Cycling, land use, energy efficiency, mass transit—a lot of what our community prides itself on already. [Portland] is in a pretty good position for when the inevitable happens."

There's another, more personal motive behind White's efforts: the death last year of his older brother Christopher.

A career Air Force noncommissioned officer who served in various hot zones, Christopher committed suicide. But in Randy's eyes, his brother should be counted among the other casualties in the nation's fight to control strategic territory and resources in the Middle East—and is another reason to wean us from the oil mainline.

"I love my country, too. The people with the yellow 'Support Our Troops' magnets on their SUVs, they're the ones that really need to stop and think," White says. "They need to follow the path back to where we are now. Every drop of blood that's spilled over there comes back to them."

Some Peakers are more worried about mounting global destabilization and fighting over the remaining oil resources than the decline of oil itself.

In the end, White admits that if worse came to worse tomorrow and the gas pumps shut off, despite his best efforts, he'd probably be one of the pins knocked over.

"I still don't really know how to help myself when it really comes down to it. What would you do? I mean, what would you do?"

Digging Deeper

"Americans threw away their communities in order to save a few dollars on hair dryers and plastic food storage tubs, never stopping to reflect on what they were destroying." —James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency

"As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented." —energy analyst Robert Hirsch, February 2005 report for U.S. Department of Energy

"The United States—and the world—cannot afford to leave the Age of Oil before realistic substitutes are fully in place. It is important to remember that man left the Stone Age not because he ran out of stones—and we will not leave the Age of Oil because we will run out." —Red Cavaney, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, "Global Oil Production About to Peak? A Recurring Myth" in World Watch magazine

"The most intriguing thing about this raging debate over whether oil production will soon peak—and put an end to the go-go days of the petroleum age—is that it's occurring at all." —Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute, "Over the Peak" in World Watch magazine

"We have only a dwindling amount of time to build lifeboats—that is, the needed alternative infrastructure. It has been clear for at least 30 years what characteristics this should have—organic, small-scale, local, convivial, cooperative, slower paced, human-oriented rather than machine-oriented, agrarian, diverse, democratic, culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable." —author and lecturer Richard Heinberg, closing address for a Peak Oil conference in 2004