Peak Oil News: 03/01/2006 - 04/01/2006

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mother Earth - Fried In Oil

Your Peak Oil News editor has paused so that you may linger over these articles from Time Magazine.

As we pumped the accumulated carbon of millions of years back into the air in a few decades of the 20th/21st centuries, we not only depleted the cheap and easy energy of fossil fuel, but we turned the atmosphere into a virtual greenhouse cover. Like the greenhouse that grows tomatoes in winter, the atmospheric greenhouse traps much of the the heat of the sun inside, raising the temperature abnormally.

Peak oil is scary.

Global warming is terrifying.

These articles will remain on top for a while.

Polar Ice Caps Are Melting Faster Than Ever...

More And More Land Is Being Devastated By Drought...

Rising Waters Are Drowning Low-Lying Communities...

By Any Measure, Earth Is At ...

The Tipping Point

The climate is crashing, and global warming is to blame. Why the crisis hit so soon--and what we can do about it?

No one can say exactly what it looks like when a planet takes ill, but it probably looks a lot like Earth. Never mind what you've heard about global warming as a slow-motion emergency that would take decades to play out. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the crisis is upon us.

It certainly looked that way last week as the atmospheric bomb that was Cyclone Larry--a Category 4 storm with wind bursts that reached 125 m.p.h.--exploded through northeastern Australia. It certainly looked that way last year as curtains of fire and dust turned the skies of Indonesia orange, thanks to drought-fueled blazes sweeping the island nation. It certainly looks that way as sections of ice the size of small states calve from the disintegrating Arctic and Antarctic. And it certainly looks that way as the sodden wreckage of New Orleans continues to molder, while the waters of the Atlantic gather themselves for a new hurricane season just two months away. Disasters have always been with us and surely always will be. But when they hit this hard and come this fast--when the emergency becomes commonplace--something has gone grievously wrong. That something is global warming.

The image of Earth as organism--famously dubbed Gaia by environmentalist James Lovelock-- has probably been overworked, but that's not to say the planet can't behave like a living thing, and these days, it's a living thing fighting a fever. From heat waves to storms to floods to fires to massive glacial melts, the global climate seems to be crashing around us. Scientists have been calling this shot for decades. This is precisely what they have been warning would happen if we continued pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, trapping the heat that flows in from the sun and raising global temperatures.

Environmentalists and lawmakers spent years shouting at one another about whether the grim forecasts were true, but in the past five years or so, the serious debate has quietly ended. Global warming, even most skeptics have concluded, is the real deal, and human activity has been causing it. If there was any consolation, it was that the glacial pace of nature would give us decades or even centuries to sort out the problem.

But glaciers, it turns out, can move with surprising speed, and so can nature. What few people reckoned on was that global climate systems are booby-trapped with tipping points and feedback loops, thresholds past which the slow creep of environmental decay gives way to sudden and self-perpetuating collapse. Pump enough CO2 into the sky, and that last part per million of greenhouse gas behaves like the 212th degree Fahrenheit that turns a pot of hot water into a plume of billowing steam. Melt enough Greenland ice, and you reach the point at which you're not simply dripping meltwater into the sea but dumping whole glaciers. By one recent measure, several Greenland ice sheets have doubled their rate of slide, and just last week the journal Science published a study suggesting that by the end of the century, the world could be locked in to an eventual rise in sea levels of as much as 20 ft. Nature, it seems, has finally got a bellyful of us.

"Things are happening a lot faster than anyone predicted," says Bill Chameides, chief scientist for the advocacy group Environmental Defense and a former professor of atmospheric chemistry. "The last 12 months have been alarming." Adds Ruth Curry of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts: "The ripple through the scientific community is palpable."

And it's not just scientists who are taking notice. Even as nature crosses its tipping points, the public seems to have reached its own. For years, popular skepticism about climatological science stood in the way of addressing the problem, but the naysayers--many of whom were on the payroll of energy companies--have become an increasingly marginalized breed. In a new TIME/ ABC News/ Stanford University poll, 85% of respondents agree that global warming probably is happening. Moreover, most respondents say they want some action taken. Of those polled, 87% believe the government should either encourage or require lowering of power-plant emissions, and 85% think something should be done to get cars to use less gasoline. Even Evangelical Christians, once one of the most reliable columns in the conservative base, are demanding action, most notably in February, when 86 Christian leaders formed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, demanding that Congress regulate greenhouse gases.

A collection of new global-warming books is hitting the shelves in response to that awakening interest, followed closely by TV and theatrical documentaries. The most notable of them is An Inconvenient Truth, due out in May, a profile of former Vice President Al Gore and his climate-change work, which is generating a lot of prerelease buzz over an unlikely topic and an equally unlikely star. For all its lack of Hollywood flash, the film compensates by conveying both the hard science of global warming and Gore's particular passion.

Such public stirrings are at last getting the attention of politicians and business leaders, who may not always respond to science but have a keen nose for where votes and profits lie. State and local lawmakers have started taking action to curb emissions, and major corporations are doing the same. Wal-Mart has begun installing wind turbines on its stores to generate electricity and is talking about putting solar reflectors over its parking lots. HSBC, the world's second largest bank, has pledged to neutralize its carbon output by investing in wind farms and other green projects. Even President Bush, hardly a favorite of greens, now acknowledges climate change and boasts of the steps he is taking to fight it. Most of those steps, however, involve research and voluntary emissions controls, not exactly the laws with teeth scientists are calling for.

Is it too late to reverse the changes global warming has wrought? That's still not clear. Reducing our emissions output year to year is hard enough. Getting it low enough so that the atmosphere can heal is a multigenerational commitment. "Ecosystems are usually able to maintain themselves," says Terry Chapin, a biologist and professor of ecology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "But eventually they get pushed to the limit of tolerance."


As a tiny component of our atmosphere, carbon dioxide helped warm Earth to comfort levels we are all used to. But too much of it does an awful lot of damage. The gas represents just a few hundred parts per million (p.p.m.) in the overall air blanket, but they're powerful parts because they allow sunlight to stream in but prevent much of the heat from radiating back out. During the last ice age, the atmosphere's CO2 concentration was just 180 p.p.m., putting Earth into a deep freeze. After the glaciers retreated but before the dawn of the modern era, the total had risen to a comfortable 280 p.p.m. In just the past century and a half, we have pushed the level to 381 p.p.m., and we're feeling the effects. Of the 20 hottest years on record, 19 occurred in the 1980s or later. According to NASA scientists, 2005 was one of the hottest years in more than a century.

It's at the North and South poles that those steambath conditions are felt particularly acutely, with glaciers and ice caps crumbling to slush. Once the thaw begins, a number of mechanisms kick in to keep it going. Greenland is a vivid example. Late last year, glaciologist Eric Rignot of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Pannir Kanagaratnam, a research assistant professor at the University of Kansas, analyzed data from Canadian and European satellites and found that Greenland ice is not just melting but doing so more than twice as fast, with 53 cu. mi. draining away into the sea last year alone, compared with 22 cu. mi. in 1996. A cubic mile of water is about five times the amount Los Angeles uses in a year.

Dumping that much water into the ocean is a very dangerous thing. Icebergs don't raise sea levels when they melt because they're floating, which means they have displaced all the water they're ever going to. But ice on land, like Greenland's, is a different matter. Pour that into oceans that are already rising (because warm water expands), and you deluge shorelines. By some estimates, the entire Greenland ice sheet would be enough to raise global sea levels 23 ft., swallowing up large parts of coastal Florida and most of Bangladesh. The Antarctic holds enough ice to raise sea levels more than 215 ft.


One of the reasons the loss of the planet's ice cover is accelerating is that as the poles' bright white surface shrinks, it changes the relationship of Earth and the sun. Polar ice is so reflective that 90% of the sunlight that strikes it simply bounces back into space, taking much of its energy with it. Ocean water does just the opposite, absorbing 90% of the energy it receives. The more energy it retains, the warmer it gets, with the result that each mile of ice that melts vanishes faster than the mile that preceded it.

That is what scientists call a feedback loop, and it's a nasty one, since once you uncap the Arctic Ocean, you unleash another beast: the comparatively warm layer of water about 600 ft. deep that circulates in and out of the Atlantic. "Remove the ice," says Woods Hole's Curry, "and the water starts talking to the atmosphere, releasing its heat. This is not a good thing."

A similar feedback loop is melting permafrost, usually defined as land that has been continuously frozen for two years or more. There's a lot of earthly real estate that qualifies, and much of it has been frozen much longer than two years--since the end of the last ice age, or at least 8,000 years ago. Sealed inside that cryonic time capsule are layers of partially decayed organic matter, rich in carbon. In high-altitude regions of Alaska, Canada and Siberia, the soil is warming and decomposing, releasing gases that will turn into methane and CO2. That, in turn, could lead to more warming and permafrost thaw, says research scientist David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. And how much carbon is socked away in Arctic soils? Lawrence puts the figure at 200 gigatons to 800 gigatons. The total human carbon output is only 7 gigatons a year.

One result of all that is warmer oceans, and a result of warmer oceans can be, paradoxically, colder continents within a hotter globe. Ocean currents running between warm and cold regions serve as natural thermoregulators, distributing heat from the equator toward the poles. The Gulf Stream, carrying warmth up from the tropics, is what keeps Europe's climate relatively mild. Whenever Europe is cut off from the Gulf Stream, temperatures plummet. At the end of the last ice age, the warm current was temporarily blocked, and temperatures in Europe fell as much as 10�°F, locking the continent in glaciers.

What usually keeps the Gulf Stream running is that warm water is lighter than cold water, so it floats on the surface. As it reaches Europe and releases its heat, the current grows denser and sinks, flowing back to the south and crossing under the northbound Gulf Stream until it reaches the tropics and starts to warm again. The cycle works splendidly, provided the water remains salty enough. But if it becomes diluted by freshwater, the salt concentration drops, and the water gets lighter, idling on top and stalling the current. Last December, researchers associated with Britain's National Oceanography Center reported that one component of the system that drives the Gulf Stream has slowed about 30% since 1957. It's the increased release of Arctic and Greenland meltwater that appears to be causing the problem, introducing a gush of freshwater that's overwhelming the natural cycle. In a global-warming world, it's unlikely that any amount of cooling that resulted from this would be sufficient to support glaciers, but it could make things awfully uncomfortable.

"The big worry is that the whole climate of Europe will change," says Adrian Luckman, senior lecturer in geography at the University of Wales, Swansea. "We in the U.K. are on the same latitude as Alaska. The reason we can live here is the Gulf Stream."


As fast as global warming is transforming the oceans and the ice caps, it's having an even more immediate effect on land. People, animals and plants living in dry, mountainous regions like the western U.S. make it through summer thanks to snowpack that collects on peaks all winter and slowly melts off in warm months. Lately the early arrival of spring and the unusually blistering summers have caused the snowpack to melt too early, so that by the time it's needed, it's largely gone. Climatologist Philip Mote of the University of Washington has compared decades of snowpack levels in Washington, Oregon and California and found that they are a fraction of what they were in the 1940s, and some snowpacks have vanished entirely.

Global warming is tipping other regions of the world into drought in different ways. Higher temperatures bake moisture out of soil faster, causing dry regions that live at the margins to cross the line into full-blown crisis. Meanwhile, El Ni�±o events--the warm pooling of Pacific waters that periodically drives worldwide climate patterns and has been occurring more frequently in global-warming years--further inhibit precipitation in dry areas of Africa and East Asia. According to a recent study by NCAR, the percentage of Earth's surface suffering drought has more than doubled since the 1970s.


Hot, dry land can be murder on flora and fauna, and both are taking a bad hit. Wildfires in such regions as Indonesia, the western U.S. and even inland Alaska have been increasing as timberlands and forest floors grow more parched. The blazes create a feedback loop of their own, pouring more carbon into the atmosphere and reducing the number of trees, which inhale CO2 and release oxygen.

Those forests that don't succumb to fire die in other, slower ways. Connie Millar, a paleoecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, studies the history of vegetation in the Sierra Nevada. Over the past 100 years, she has found, the forests have shifted their tree lines as much as 100 ft. upslope, trying to escape the heat and drought of the lowlands. Such slow-motion evacuation may seem like a sensible strategy, but when you're on a mountain, you can go only so far before you run out of room. "Sometimes we say the trees are going to heaven because they're walking off the mountaintops," Millar says.

Across North America, warming-related changes are mowing down other flora too. Manzanita bushes in the West are dying back; some prickly pear cacti have lost their signature green and are instead a sickly pink; pine beetles in western Canada and the U.S. are chewing their way through tens of millions of acres of forest, thanks to warmer winters. The beetles may even breach the once insurmountable Rocky Mountain divide, opening up a path into the rich timbering lands of the American Southeast.

With habitats crashing, animals that live there are succumbing too. Environmental groups can tick off scores of species that have been determined to be at risk as a result of global warming. Last year, researchers in Costa Rica announced that two-thirds of 110 species of colorful harlequin frogs have vanished in the past 30 years, with the severity of each season's die-off following in lockstep with the severity of that year's warming.

In Alaska, salmon populations are at risk as melting permafrost pours mud into rivers, burying the gravel the fish need for spawning. Small animals such as bushy-tailed wood rats, alpine chipmunks and pi�±on mice are being chased upslope by rising temperatures, following the path of the fleeing trees. And with sea ice vanishing, polar bears--prodigious swimmers but not inexhaustible ones--are starting to turn up drowned. "There will be no polar ice by 2060," says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "Somewhere along that path, the polar bear drops out."


It is fitting, perhaps, that as the species causing all the problems, we're suffering the destruction of our habitat too, and we have experienced that loss in terrible ways. Ocean waters have warmed by a full degree Fahrenheit since 1970, and warmer water is like rocket fuel for typhoons and hurricanes. Two studies last year found that in the past 35 years the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes worldwide has doubled while the wind speed and duration of all hurricanes has jumped 50%. Since atmospheric heat is not choosy about the water it warms, tropical storms could start turning up in some decidedly nontropical places. "There's a school of thought that sea surface temperatures are warming up toward Canada," says Greg Holland, senior scientist for NCAR in Boulder. "If so, you're likely to get tropical cyclones there, but we honestly don't know."


So much for environmental collapse happening in so many places at once has at last awakened much of the world, particularly the 141 nations that have ratified the Kyoto treaty to reduce emissions--an imperfect accord, to be sure, but an accord all the same. The U.S., however, which is home to less than 5% of Earth's population but produces 25% of CO2 emissions, remains intransigent. Many environmentalists declared the Bush Administration hopeless from the start, and while that may have been premature, it's undeniable that the White House's environmental record--from the abandonment of Kyoto to the President's broken campaign pledge to control carbon output to the relaxation of emission standards--has been dismal. George W. Bush's recent rhetorical nods to America's oil addiction and his praise of such alternative fuel sources as switchgrass have yet to be followed by real initiatives.

The anger surrounding all that exploded recently when NASA researcher Jim Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a longtime leader in climate-change research, complained that he had been harassed by White House appointees as he tried to sound the global-warming alarm. "The way democracy is supposed to work, the presumption is that the public is well informed," he told TIME. "They're trying to deny the science." Up against such resistance, many environmental groups have resolved simply to wait out this Administration and hope for something better in 2009.

The Republican-dominated Congress has not been much more encouraging. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman have twice been unable to get through the Senate even mild measures to limit carbon. Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, both of New Mexico and both ranking members of the chamber's Energy Committee, have made global warming a high-profile matter. A white paper issued in February will be the subject of an investigatory Senate conference next week. A House delegation recently traveled to Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand to visit researchers studying climate change. "Of the 10 of us, only three were believers," says Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York. "Every one of the others said this opened their eyes."

Boehlert himself has long fought the environmental fight, but if the best that can be said for most lawmakers is that they are finally recognizing the global-warming problem, there's reason to wonder whether they will have the courage to reverse it. Increasingly, state and local governments are filling the void. The mayors of more than 200 cities have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging, among other things, that they will meet the Kyoto goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in their cities to 1990 levels by 2012. Nine eastern states have established the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for the purpose of developing a cap-and-trade program that would set ceilings on industrial emissions and allow companies that overperform to sell pollution credits to those that underperform-- the same smart, incentive-based strategy that got sulfur dioxide under control and reduced acid rain. And California passed the nation's toughest automobile- emissions law last summer.

"There are a whole series of things that demonstrate that people want to act and want their government to act," says Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense. Krupp and others believe that we should probably accept that it's too late to prevent CO2 concentrations from climbing to 450 p.p.m. (or 70 p.p.m. higher than where they are now). From there, however, we should be able to stabilize them and start to dial them back down.

That goal should be attainable. Curbing global warming may be an order of magnitude harder than, say, eradicating smallpox or putting a man on the moon. But is it moral not to try? We did not so much march toward the environmental precipice as drunkenly reel there, snapping at the scientific scolds who told us we had a problem.

The scolds, however, knew what they were talking about. In a solar system crowded with sister worlds that either emerged stillborn like Mercury and Venus or died in infancy like Mars, we're finally coming to appreciate the knife-blade margins within which life can thrive. For more than a century we've been monkeying with those margins. It's long past time we set them right.

With reporting by Greg Fulton/ Atlanta, Dan Cray/ Los Angeles, Rita Healy/ Denver, Eric Roston/ Washington, With reporting by David Bjerklie, Andrea Dorfman/ New York, Andrea Gerlin/ London

Feeling The Heat

Global warming is already disrupting the biological world, pushing many species to the brink of extinction and turning others into runaway pests. But the worst is yet to come.


QUIVER TREE This striking giant aloe was given its name by the San people of southern Africa, who use the tree's hollow branches as quivers for their arrows. Scientists have discovered that quiver trees are starting to die off in parts of their traditional range. The species might be in the early stages of moving southward, trying to escape rising temperatures closer to the equator.

PINON MOUSE This tiny resident of the southwestern U.S. has long eked out its living in juniper woodlands, but in California it is heading for higher, cooler altitudes in the High Sierra conifer forests. The mouse is one of several small mammals in the region that have moved their homes 1,000 to 3,000 ft. higher in elevation over the past century.

RED-BREASTED GOOSE Twenty-six bird species, including this goose, which breeds in the Arctic, are listed by the World Conservation Union as threatened by global warming. Half are seabirds whose food supplies are diminished because of climate changes. The rest are terrestrial species, including several whose coastal habitats are at risk because of rising sea levels.

AFRICAN ELEPHANT Global warming might not only shrink the elephant's range within Africa but may also wreak havoc with the animal's love life. The relative abundance--or scarcity--of food affects the social hierarchy of the herd, which in turn can determine which animals get to breed.

BUTTERFLIES Researchers have documented shifts in the ranges of many butterflies. One study looked at 35 species of nonmigratory butterflies whose ranges extended from northern Africa to northern Europe. The scientists found that two-thirds of the species had shifted their home ranges northward by 20 to 150 miles. In the U.S., researchers have closely tracked the movements of the butterfly known as Edith's checkerspot (at right, middle). Though butterflies might be sturdier than they look, scientists believe many species will not survive the impact of climate change.

KING PROTEA It is the national flower of South Africa, just one among the many spectacular members of the large family of flowering plants named after Proteus, a Greek god capable of changing his shape at will. Scientists fear that more than a third of all Proteaceae species could disappear by 2050.

MISTLETOE The limber pine dwarf mistletoe is proliferating throughout western forests in North America, thanks to heat and drought-weakened trees that act as perfect hosts for this botanical parasite. It's not unlike what happens in your body, says researcher Connie Millar of the U.S. Forest Service: "When your system is stressed, you're more vulnerable to all kinds of things that want to get you."

FROGS Amphibians have been hopping, swimming and crawling about the planet for 350 million years. But their future is hardly assured. A global assessment of the state of this entire class of vertebrates found that nearly one-third of the 5,743 known species are in serious trouble. Climate change may well be the culprit in most cases, either directly or indirectly. The home habitat of the golden toad (at right, bottom) in Costa Rica moved up the mountain until "home" disappeared entirely. More than two-thirds of the 110 species of colorful harlequin frogs in Central and South America, two shown above, have also disappeared. Scientists believe that what killed many of the harlequins and what threatens a great many other amphibian species is a disease caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Climate change seems to be making frogs more vulnerable to infection by the fungus.

What troubles scientists especially is that if we are only in the early stages of warming, all these lost and endangered animals might be just the first of many to go. One study estimates that more than a million species worldwide could be driven to extinction by the year 2050.

With reporting by with reporting by Dan Cray/ Los Angeles

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Unholy Alliance

Kevin Phillips believes the U.S. is threatened by a combination of petroleum, preachers and debt.

A review of American Theocracy : The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury, by Kevin Phillips

By Richard Lacayo

It's been decades since it made sense to call Kevin Phillips a Republican strategist. The G.O.P. he used to strategize for, the one whose electoral triumph he foretold in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, got away from him a long time ago. The party it developed into, the one in which evangelical Christians carry lots of clout and budget balancers just about none, is not for him. With best sellers like Wealth and Democracy, about the widening split between rich and poor, and American Dynasty, which treated the Bush clan as well-connected mediocrities, he shifted to the role of ever more sour apostate. Don't expect him to be invited to the next Republican Convention, although it's not hard to imagine him standing outside with a sign warning against deficit spending, war for oil and the substitution of Scripture for science.

Actually, forget the sign. He will be getting the same message to more people with American Theocracy (Viking; 462 pages). The message is, bad times ahead. Writing in the spirit of Paul Kennedy's 1989 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Phillips is a declinist, and a persuasive one. Looking back to the collapse of the Spanish, Dutch and British empires, he has come to warn about a trio of threats to the U.S. that he believes is already taking it down the road to disaster, and not slowly.

One is the increasing domination of U.S. policy by the hunger for cheap oil in a world of dwindling supplies, which has led in turn to an obsession with projecting U.S. power across the endlessly volatile Middle East. Another is the spectacle of a Republican Party seriously under the sway of Christians who believe in biblical inerrancy, a reading of Scripture that inspires them to apocalyptic obsessions with that same part of the world. Finally, there's the headlong growth of American debt of all kinds--household spending, a massive trade gap and a federal deficit that leaves American policy susceptible to the foreigners who buy the securities that keep the U.S. government afloat, and who could sink it with the decision to stop buying. His analysis sometimes depends on strained emphases, and his career record as a prognosticator is mixed, but his book is an indispensable presentation of the case against things as they are.

Phillips believes there's no mystery as to why the U.S. went to war in Iraq. The reason was oil. His thinking goes this way. Geologists disagree about how long it will take before world production peaks, but not by much. Optimists give it 30 years, pessimists say five or 10. For a while in the 1970s the U.S. got serious, sort of, about energy conservation. Then it switched paths, driving an SUV right down the new one. Iraq, which nationalized its oil fields in the '70s, offered the prospect of a state with sizable reserves. For years American oil companies had their eyes on them. Then George W. Bush came to the White House ready for any opportunity to invade. Sept. 11 provided the opening.

And when the opening came, Phillips says, Bush was ensured a cheering section from those elements of the Christian right fascinated by "end times" theology--the belief in Christ's imminent return, and the prospect of Armageddon beginning in the Middle East--popularized in brimstone best sellers like Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind novels. Phillips is convinced that many Americans underestimate the power of that idea among large parts of the electorate. For him, the G.O.P. has become the first religious party in American history, with a predictable effect on the White House policies on global AIDS, the teaching of evolution, gay marriage, global warming and environmental protection. (Who needs to take care of the world if it's coming to an end anyway?) Whatever you think about the influence of the LaHaye factor on Middle East policy, it's useful to point, as Phillips does, to polls suggesting that half of those who voted for Bush in 2004 believe in the word-for-word accuracy of the Bible.

The last part in his gloomy picture concerns the runaway growth of debt, and not just the massive increase in what you and I owe on credit cards and mortgages, although that opens the way to widespread defaults if the economy stumbles badly or real estate comes in for a hard landing. To cover its deficits in recent years, the U.S. became a huge debtor in overseas markets. That kind of borrowing, Phillips reminds us, was a prelude to the collapse of earlier empires. "There have been no heavenly interventions on behalf of past leading international debtors," he says dryly. "The United States is on its own."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

George W. Bush and Peak Oil: Beyond Incompetence

By Richard Heinberg

(Note to readers: This month’s MuseLetter was written as a chapter to be published in a forthcoming book by Project Censored titled The Case for Impeachment of Bush and Cheney, Seven Stories Press, Summer 2006. For permission to republish this essay, please contact me at

While it would be difficult to create an airtight legal case for impeaching George W. Bush based on his ignoring the very real threat posed by Peak Oil, nevertheless I believe that his actions—and inaction—in this regard constitute dereliction of duty on an unprecedented scale.

It is part of the job of leaders to foresee problems and either steer around them or prepare for them. A head of state is analogous to the captain of a ship, who is responsible not only for keeping his vessel on course but also for avoiding hazards such as storms and icebergs. Some problems are not foreseeable; others are. A ship’s captain who loses his vessel to a freak “perfect storm” may be blameless, but one who steers his passenger liner directly into a foggy ice field, having no sonar or radar, is worse than a fool: he is criminally negligent.

The argument I will make, in brief, is this:

* Peak Oil is foreseeable.
* The consequences are also foreseeable and are likely to be ruinous.
* The Bush administration has been repeatedly warned.
* Actions could be taken to reduce the impact, but the longer those actions are delayed, the worse the impact will be.
* The administration, rather than taking steps to mitigate these looming catastrophic impacts, has instead done things that can only worsen them.

Let us go through these points one by one.

Is Peak Oil Foreseeable?

Peak Oil—the point at which the rate of global production of petroleum begins its inevitable historic decline—is a subject of growing public interest. The basic concept is derived from experience: during the past century-and-a-half all older oil wells have been observed to peak and decline in output. The same has been noted with entire oilfields, and with the collective oil endowment of whole nations. Indeed, most oil-producing nations have already seen their output enter terminal decline. Few informed observers doubt that the rate of oil production for the world in total will reach a maximum at some point and then slowly wane.

The science of Peak Oil was worked out in the 1950s by veteran geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who successfully used his method to predict the U.S. peak (1970). Declassified CIA documents show that by the late 1970s the Agency was using similar methods to forecast the Soviet Union’s oil peak.1

We do not know exactly when the global peak will occur, but it will almost certainly happen within the period between now and 2035.

Considering the importance of the peaking event, the range of uncertainty regarding its timing is disturbing. If the peak were to occur within the next five years, our national economy would be unable to adjust quickly enough to avert calamity (as we will discuss below), while a peak 30 years from now would present a much greater opportunity for adaptation.

Though there is continuing controversy over the question of when the peak will happen, there is strong evidence for concluding that it may come sooner rather than later, and that the world may already have entered the peaking period. Signs of a near-term peak include the fact that global rates of oil discovery have been falling since the early 1960s—as has been confirmed by ExxonMobil. Declining discovery rates represent a well-established trend and cannot be said to be the result merely of transient factors. In 2005, according to IHS Energy Inc., a total of 4.5 billion barrels of oil were discovered in new fields, while 30 billion barrels of oil were extracted and used worldwide. Thus, currently only about one barrel of oil is being discovered for every six extracted.2

Until now, the global oil industry has been able to replace depleted reserves on a yearly basis, mostly by re-estimating the size of existing fields. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in a recent publication, “Statements on Energy,” describes the situation this way:

In the last 10–15 years, two-thirds of the increases in reserves of conventional oil have been based on increased estimates of recovery from existing fields and only one-third on discovery of new fields. In this way, a balance has been achieved between growth in reserves and production. This can’t continue. 50% of the present oil production comes from giant fields and very few such fields have been found in recent years.3

The 100 or so giant and super-giant fields that are collectively responsible for about half of current world production were all discovered in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and most are now going into decline. These days, exploration turns up only much smaller fields that deplete relatively quickly.

Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review and author of the study “Oil Field Megaprojects,” notes that “90% of known reserves are in production,” and that “as much as 70% of the world’s producing oil fields are now in decline” with decline rates averaging between four and six percent per year.4

Thus, while the US Department of Energy predicts that world oil production will increase over the next 20 years from 85 million barrels per day (Mb/d) to 120 Mb/d in order to meet anticipated demand, a growing chorus of petroleum geologists and other energy analysts warns that such levels of production will never be seen.

A French report from the Economics, Industry & Finance Ministry, “The Oil Industry 2004,” took a careful look at future supply issues, forecasting a possible peak in world production as early as 2013.5

Ford Motor Company Executive Vice President Mark Fields, in his keynote address in October, 2005 at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ “Global Leadership Conference at the Greenbrier,” noted the seven most serious challenges to his industry, one of which was that “oil production is peaking.”6 Volvo motor company has for several years acknowledged in its company literature that a global oil production peak is likely by 2015.7

Legendary petroleum geologist T. Boone Pickens, who started his career in the early 1950s as a roughneck in oilfields in Oklahoma and Texas and went on to co-found Mesa Petroleum and Petroleum Exploration, told the 11th National Clean Cities conference in May, 2005 that “Global oil [production] is 84 million barrels [a day]. I don’t believe you can get it any more than 84 million barrels. . . . I think they are on decline in the biggest oil fields in the world today and I know what it’s like once you turn the corner and start declining, it’s a treadmill that you just can’t keep up with.”8

Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Jeroen Van Der Veer has said, “My view is that ‘easy’ oil has probably passed its peak.”9

J. Robinson West, founder and chairman of PFC Energy, one of Washington’s most influential international energy consulting firms, and a former Assistant Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan Administration, predicts that the “tipping point” when global supply of oil ceases to grow could arrive in 2015.10

Veteran petroleum geologist Henry Groppe, a Houston-based independent analyst who began his career in 1945 and who is today a consultant to global corporations as well as to nations, said in 2005 that “Total crude oil production may have peaked this year, or perhaps will peak next year.”11

Matthew Simmons, founder of Simmons & Company International energy investment bank, has been perhaps the most outspoken of oil analysts and investors regarding Peak Oil. A consultant to the Cheney Energy Policy Development Group that met in secret in 2001, he is the author if Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (Wiley, 2005). Simmons has concluded, on the basis of his study of technical papers from the Society of Petroleum Engineers, that Saudi Arabian oil production is close to its maximum, and that world oil production is also therefore close to its peak.

On March 1, 2006 the New York Times published an editorial by Robert Semple, Associate Editor of the Editorial Page for the Times since 1998, in which he wrote, “The concept of peak oil has not been widely written about. But people are talking about it now. It deserves a careful look—largely because it is almost certainly correct.”12

In short, the science behind Peak Oil is well established, and, while there is some disagreement about exactly when the global peak will arrive, there can be no excuse at this stage for ignoring the problem.

Does the Administration Know About Peak Oil?

The New York Times knows about Peak Oil, but does the president? On this point the evidence is conclusive.

First of all, agencies within the government clearly understand the problem, and therefore relevant information must be readily available to the chief executive if he wishes to have it.

Explicit warnings of Peak Oil have started to turn up in official U.S. government literature. For example, a paper prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers titled “Energy Trends and Implications for U.S. Army Installations” (Sept., 2005) includes the following tidbit:

The supply of oil will remain fairly stable in the very near term, but oil prices will steadily increase as world production approaches its peak. The doubling of oil prices in the past couple of years is not an anomaly, but a picture of the future. Peak oil is at hand. . . .13

Then there is the following from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Petroleum Reserves, Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, dated March 2004:

The disparity between increasing production and declining reserves can have only one outcome: a practical supply limit will be reached and future supply to meet conventional oil demand will not be available. The question is when peak production will occur and what will be its ramifications. Whether the peak occurs sooner or later is a matter of relative urgency. . . . In spite of projections for growth of non-OPEC supply, it appears that non-OPEC and non-Former Soviet Union countries have peaked and are currently declining. The production cycle of countries . . . and the cumulative quantities produced reasonably follow Hubbert’s model. . . . The Nation must start now to respond to peaking global oil production to offset adverse economic and national security impacts.14

And then there is the 2005 Report, “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management,” commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, about which we will have more to say below.15

If none of this is specific enough (in fairness, we cannot expect George W. Bush to spend his evenings poring over obscure Army Corps of Engineers studies), we have the fact that Representative Roscoe Bartlett, Republican from Maryland’s sixth district—who has made many speeches about Peak Oil on the floor of Congress—has spent thirty minutes in private conversation with the president explaining the science of Peak Oil and seeking to convey the enormity of the problem.16

But what if Bush wasn’t able to understand what Bartlett was telling him? After all, Bartlett has a Ph.D. in physics; perhaps he was using words that were too big, or concepts too abstruse for our president to grasp.

Even if that were the case, we have evidence that Bush’s second-in-command, vice president Cheney, understands Peak Oil; given time, Cheney could surely make the concept comprehensible to his superior. In a speech in 1999 (while he was still CEO of Halliburton Corporation, the giant oil services company) to the Petroleum Institute in London, Cheney pointed out that

By some estimates there will be an average of two per cent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a three per cent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day.17

This is a fair statement of the depletion dilemma: 50 million barrels per day is almost five times the current output of Saudi Arabia.

Finally there is the fact that is that Bush and Cheney are themselves former oilmen: their inside knowledge of the industry should give them enhanced insight into the problem of Peak Oil. Some would say that these officials’ former ties to the petroleum industry imply a conflict of interest (they have been accused of giving perks to oil companies, even to Halliburton—perish the thought!). However, some of the most outspoken authorities on Peak Oil are retired petroleum geologists or engineers who have spent decades working for oil companies. Having former industry insiders in public office today could be good, if they used their technical knowledge to benefit the country by warning of the consequences of continued oil dependency. But, as we will see below, there is no evidence that the particular former oilmen currently occupying the highest offices in the land are doing any such thing—at least not genuinely or effectively.

In sum, while it is impossible to say whether Mr. Bush understands Peak Oil, no one could credibly argue that that he simply hasn’t heard about it.

How Serious Is the Threat?

Addressing this question requires some speculation: the peaking of global oil production is an event that has never occurred before. However, we need not speculate baselessly; for guidance we have a U.S. government-funded study that could hardly be more relevant—“The Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management,” prepared by Science Applications International (SAIC) for the U.S. Department of Energy, released in February 2005. The project leader for the study was Robert L. Hirsch, who has had a distinguished career in formulating energy policy. The report on the study will hereinafter be referred to as “The Hirsch Report.”

The first paragraph of the Hirsch Report’s Executive Summary states:

The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. 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. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.18

As the Hirsch Report explains in detail, due to our systemic dependence on oil for transportation, agriculture, and the production of plastics and chemicals, every sector of society will be impacted.

The Hirsch Report effectively undermines the standard free-market argument that oil depletion poses no serious problem, now or later, because as oil becomes scarcer the price will rise until demand is reduced commensurate with supply; meanwhile, higher prices will stimulate more exploration, the development of alternative fuels, and the more efficient use of remaining quantities. While it is true that rising prices will do all of these things, we have no assurance that the effects will be sufficient to avert severe, protracted economic, social, and political disruptions.

First, price increases may or may not stimulate more exploration, or do so sufficiently or productively. During the early 20th century, more exploration resulted in more oil being discovered. However, in recent decades, expanded exploration efforts have turned up fewer and fewer finds. It is difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion that there simply isn’t much oil left to discover.

Higher prices for oil will also no doubt spur new investment in alternative fuels. But the time required to produce substantial quantities of alternative fuels will be considerable, given the volume of our national transportation fuel consumption. Moreover the amount of investment required will be immense. And it would be unrealistic to expect most alternatives to fully or even substantially replace oil at any level of investment, and even with decades of effort, given practical, physical constraints to their development.

Higher prices will also no doubt spur efficiency measures, but the most productive of these will likewise require time and investment. For example, raising the fuel efficiency of the U.S. auto fleet would require years for industry retooling and more years for consumers to trade in their current vehicles for more-efficient replacements.

James Schlesinger, who served as CIA director in the Nixon administration, defense secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and energy secretary in the Carter administration, in November, 2005 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged lawmakers to begin preparing for declining oil supplies and increasing prices in the coming decades. “We are faced with the possibility of a major economic shock and the political unrest that would ensue,” he said.19

Schlesinger was far from overstating the threat. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to view Peak Oil as potentially representing the economic, social, and political impact of a hundred Katrinas. And that impact will not subside in a few days’ or years’ time: once global oil production has peaked, the energy shortfalls for transportation and agriculture will be ongoing, relentless, and cumulative.

What Should the Administration Be Doing?

Responsible and competent people who have studied the problem of Peak Oil, (including Robert Hirsch and his colleagues) agree that efforts will be needed to create alternative sources of energy, to reduce demand for oil through heightened energy efficiency, and to redesign entire systems (including both cities and the rural agricultural economy) to operate with less petroleum.

The Hirsch Report’s methodology involved the examination of three scenarios:

* Scenario I assumed that action is not initiated until peaking occurs.
* Scenario II assumed that action is initiated 10 years before peaking.
* Scenario III assumed action is initiated 20 years before peaking.

In all three scenarios, the Hirsch study assumed a “crash program” scale of effort (that is, all the resources of government and industry are marshalled to the tasks of creating supplies of alternative fuels and reducing demand through efficiency measures). The study found that, due to the time required to start efforts and the scale of mitigation required, Scenario I will result in at least 20 years of fuel shortfalls. With 10 years of preparation, a 10-year shortfall is likely. And with 20 years of advance mitigation effort, there is “the possibility” of averting fuel shortages altogether. The Report also concludes that “Early mitigation will almost certainly be less expensive than delayed mitigation.”20

In other words, if global Peak Oil is 20 years away or fewer, or we believe it might be, then we must begin immediately with a full-scale effort to address the problem.

Most Americans would understandably prefer to solve the dilemma simply by switching to alternative fuels, thus enabling them to maintain their current habits. But, as we have already noted, there are problems with that strategy.

Biofuels (ethanol, wood methanol, and biodiesel) require land area for production and are plagued by the problem of low net-energy yields. According to the calculations of Jeffrey Dukes of the University of Massachusetts, over a hundred tons of ancient plant matter are concentrated in every gallon of gasoline we use today.21 Granted, modern methods of biofuels production are more efficient than nature’s slow means of producing crude oil, but still this analysis should give us pause: trying to replace a substantial fraction of our 20 million barrels per day of national oil consumption with biofuels could potentially overwhelm an agricultural system already destroying topsoil and drawing down ancient aquifers unsustainably.

It is possible to produce liquid transportation fuels from coal and natural gas. However, natural gas is itself a problematic fuel in North America (domestic production peaked in 2001), and coal—a low-quality hydrocarbon—would present a host of environmental and practical quandaries if we tried to increase mining sufficiently to replace a significant proportion of our oil budget. In the end, coal is likewise a depleting fossil fuel: while it is often said that we have hundreds of years’ worth of the stuff, that assumes current rates of consumption and ignores variable quality; assuming dramatic increases in consumption (for oil replacement) and taking into account the fact that much coal offers a low energy yield, those centuries shrink to a very few decades.22

Which brings us to the strategies of conservation, efficiency, and curtailment. These clearly present the best opportunities, though efforts along these lines will eventually require significant changes in Americans’ habits and expectations.

Our automobiles could be made much more fuel-efficient, though this will require government leadership via higher CAFE standards. But over the long term automobiles and trucks simply aren’t good options for transportation, given their inherent energy inefficiency. Thus the nation will need a much-expanded freight and passenger rail system. Our cities, most of which have been designed for the automobile, need to be made more neighborhood-oriented and walkable, and provided with light-rail transit systems. Meanwhile agricultural production must be freed, as quickly and completely as possible, from fossil-fuel inputs. All of these efforts will require substantial investment and many years of work.

If, as the Hirsch Report tells us, the market will be incapable of shifting investment incentives quickly enough away from the old oil-based, energy-guzzling energy infrastructure and toward the new alternatives-based, super-efficient one, then government will have to lead the way through a sustained commitment of effort on a wartime scale. The estimated one to three trillion dollars consumed so far in the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, had they been spent instead on domestic energy security, would probably have represented an appropriate level and rate of funds allocation.

What Has the Administration Done?

Before examining what Bush and Cheney have done (and not done), we should in fairness note that previous administrations are far from blameless. During the Clinton–Gore years, imports of oil increased while CAFE standards languished. However, in a court of law the incompetence or even criminality of others is seldom a viable defense for one’s own culpable actions.

That said, in light of the threat and the needed effort, what has the current president actually accomplished?

First of all, the administration effectively buried the Hirsch Report. For many months it was available only on a high school web site, then on the Project Censored site; only toward the end of 2005 did it appear on a Department of Energy site. There has been no public mention whatever of the Report by any official in the Executive Branch. Thus the administration has sought not to respond to warnings of approaching crisis, but simply to muffle the warnings.

During the past six years, funding for renewable energy programs and for energy efficiency has not increased substantially. Meanwhile the administration has consistently sought to remove subsidies for the nation’s passenger rail system, Amtrak, while continuing to support immense subsidies for highways.

To be sure, Bush has occasionally spoken about the need for an energy policy, as in a speech to the nation in April 2005:

First, we must better use technology to become better conservers of energy. And secondly, we must find innovative and environmentally sensitive ways to make the most of our existing energy resources, including oil, natural gas, coal and safe, clean nuclear power. Third, we must develop promising new sources of energy, such as hydrogen, ethanol or bio-diesel. Fourth, we must help growing energy consumers overseas, like China and India, apply new technologies to use energy more efficiently and reduce global demand of fossil fuels.23

I would disagree with a few of these suggestions, but over all this is not a bad summary of what actually needs to happen. But talk is cheap, and talk that accomplishes next to nothing is, in this situation, a criminally negligent diversion and waste of time. The words just quoted were spoken in the context of the president’s promotion of an energy bill that actually did very little except to increase tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry.

In his 2006 State of the Union address, Bush said that the U.S. is “addicted to oil,” and put forward the goal of reducing oil imports from the Middle East. The next day his staff backpedaled, saying that this goal was only an “example.”24

Five years into the Bush administration, the nation is more dependent on imported oil than ever before. It is facing an impending energy crisis that a government-funded study says will be “unprecedented” in scope and consequences. And needed preparation efforts are nowhere to be seen.

* * *

Given all this, how will impeachment help? While it would be justified as a punishment for ineptitude or criminality, impeachment will not materially assist the nation to deal with Peak Oil unless current officials are replaced with ones who understand the problem and who are prepared to implement policies that radically shift America’s priorities in terms of energy, transportation, urban infrastructure, and agriculture. Looking out over the current political landscape in Washington, it is difficult to identify who those new officials might be. Nevertheless, it would help the nation to start now with a clean slate, and with a popular mandate for the new team of leaders to move rapidly to achieve energy security.


1. See discussion of this topic in my book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post Carbon World (New Society, 2004), pp. 40–41.

2. IHS discovery numbers are proprietary and costly, and so cannot be referenced directly; however this 4.5 billion-barrel figure was confirmed in personal correspondence by Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review.

3. “Statements on Oil” Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Energy Committee. (17 Oct. 2005) (accessed 17 Jan., 2006)

4. Chris Skrebowski, “Prices Set Firm, Despite Massive New Capacity,” Petroleum Review, October 2005.

5. (accessed 13 March, 2006)

6. (accessed 13 March, 2006)

(accessed 13 March, 2006)

8. Michael DesLauriers, “Famed Oil Tycoon Sounds Off on Peak Oil, Resource Investor, 23 June, 2005 (accessed 13 March, 2006)

9. Jeroen Van Der Veer, “Vision for Meeting Energy Needs Beyond Oil,” Financial Times, 24 January 2006 (accessed 13 March, 2006)

(accessed 13 March, 2006)

11. Michael DesLauriers, “Oil Forecasting Legend Discusses Peak Oil, Share Prices,” Resource Investor, 19 October, 2005 (accessed 13 March, 2006)

12. Robert B. Semple, Jr., The End of Oil, New York Times, 1 March, 2006 (accessed 13 March, 2006)

13. Adam Fenderson and Bart Anderson, “US Army: Peak Oil and the Army’s Future,” Energy Bulletin 13 March, 2006 (accessed 13 March, 2006)

14. “Strategic Significance of America’s Shale Oil Resource,” Vol. 1, “Assessment of Strategic Issues,” Office of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Petroleum Reserves, Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves, U.S. Department of Energy, March 2004 .

15. Robert L. Hirsch, et al., “The Peaking of World Oil Produciton: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management,” February 2005. (accessed 13 March, 2006)

16. “Congressman Bartlett Discusses Peak Oil with President Bush,” staff, Energy Bulletin, 29 June, 2005 (accessed 13, March, 2006)

17. (accessed 13 March, 2006)

18. Hirsch, op. cit.

(accessed 13 March, 2006)

20. Hirsch, op. cit.

21. “Price of Gas,” ScienCentral News, 28 July, 2005,
(accessed 13 March, 2006)

22. Gregson Vaux, “The Peak in US Coal Production,” From the Wilderness, 27 May, 2004 (accessed 13 March, 2006)

23. (accessed 13 March, 2006)

24. (accessed 13 March, 2006)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Editorial Notes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This article is the April 2006 edition (#168) of Richard Heinberg's MuseLetter series. For regular editions of the MuseLetter, subscribe at

Heinberg is the author of two of the most essential books in the Peak Oil canon, The Party's Over and Powerdown as well as a forthcoming small book to introduce the Depletion Protocol to a wide audience.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

GM to boost output of its large SUVs


With the new Chevrolet Tahoe selling briskly, General Motors Corp. told workers at three assembly plants that it will increase production of its family of new full-size SUVs by about 11,000 to 12,000 a year, a GM spokesman said Tuesday.

Despite high gas prices, GM expects strong demand for its new large SUVs coming to market, including the new Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon XL. They are among the company's most profitable vehicles.

GM will increase the number of large SUVs coming off the production lines at plants in Janesville, Wis., and Arlington, Texas, in June and at Silao, Mexico, in July, GM spokesman Dan Flores said.

Earlier this month, GM said it pulled ahead production of the Suburban and Yukon XL by two to three weeks.

Wall Street analysts expect the automaker to partly rebound from last year's losses of $10.6 billion with sales of large SUVs.

Chevron's Deepest Well Holds Less Oil Than Forecast


Chevron Corp.'s Knotty Head discovery, the deepest well ever drilled in the Gulf of Mexico, holds about half as much oil and natural gas as originally estimated, said Nexen Inc., a partner in the project.

The discovery, announced in December, probably holds the equivalent of 200 million to 500 million barrels of oil, less than an earlier estimate of 350 million to 1 billion, said Kevin Finn, a spokesman for Calgary-based Nexen. The estimate was lowered after a second well was drilled off the main shaft.

Additional drilling to gauge the extent of the field has been delayed because no rigs are available in the Gulf, Finn said. Chevron, Nexen, Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and BHP Billiton Ltd. each own a 25 percent stake in the project. Chevron was operator of both wells.

“The 1-billion-barrel estimate was a pre-drill estimate based on everything going exactly right,” Finn said today in a telephone interview. “That rarely occurs in an oil well. But this is still one heck of a big find.”

Shares of Chevron rose 21 cents to $56.78 at 1:43 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Woodlands, Texas- based Anadarko rose $2.01 to $98.36, and Nexen climbed C$1.20 to C$63.05 ($54.11) in Toronto. Earlier today in Australia, Melbourne-based BHP Billiton fell 14 cents to A$25.18 ($18.10).

Chevron, Exxon Mobil Corp. and other oil producers are drilling twice as deep as they ever have before to locate untapped reserves big enough to make up for shallower wells that are nearing depletion.

Knotty Head was drilled in 3,500 feet (1,067 meters) of water to a depth of 30,589 feet under the sea floor, San Ramon, California-based Chevron said in December. The field is about 170 miles southeast of New Orleans.

The oil is going, the oil is going!

Today's Paul Reveres of "peak oil" aren't waiting for Washington to save us from apocalypse. They're already planting gardens and drafting city plans for the days when oil is gone.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Matt Savinar, 27, once aspired to own a Hummer. He studied poli sci at the University of California, Davis, before going on to get his law degree at U.C. Hastings in San Francisco. He was into bodybuilding. Today, Savinar doesn't own any car, much less a Hummer, and he doesn't practice law, although he's licensed to do so. Frankly, he doesn't think that driving or the legal profession, with the exception of maybe bankruptcy law, have much of a future. Instead of buying a car, Savinar walks, takes the bus and catches rides with friends, but not because he's trying to save the world, he assures me.

Savinar doesn't drive because he's saving the money he'd spend on a used car to buy land; he's not sure exactly where yet, but somewhere with a supply of fresh water, arable soil, low population density and that's far from military bases. He's starting to get back into bodybuilding again, too, all the better to be healthy and in shape to till the earth and grow food, when the time comes. "I happen to think that we're going straight to hell, and I'm trying to figure out how to be in the least hot place of hell," he told me recently on an incongruously balmy 72 degree February afternoon in sunny Santa Rosa, Calif., at a restaurant just a few blocks from the apartment where he lives.

For a young, quick-witted, able-bodied man with an advanced degree, living in the most prosperous country in the world, Savinar has a pretty dim view of his -- and all the rest of our -- prospects. He believes that many if not most of the trappings of modern American life are endangered species and he's trying to figure out how not to become one of them. So Savinar has become a full-time prophet of "peak oil," spreading the word about how the world's oil production will soon peak and global demand will outstrip supply.

When that happens, he imagines that all the ways Americans now depend on oil will become rudely apparent, as the price of everything from filling up at the pump to fruits and vegetables in the supermarket shoots up. Cities and towns will start to struggle to provide basic services like police, firefighting, school buses, water and road repair. Office workers will lose jobs because they can't afford to commute to work from their suburban homes. Even if they could get to the office, there'll be fewer white-collar jobs, as businesses flounder under the strain of a flailing global economy. Yet suburbanites will be grateful for those big backyards to support vegetable gardens, if they can just keep their hungry neighbors from sneaking in at night and stealing their harvest. All that is before we even consider the possibility of an oil war with the likes of China, where, incidentally, so many of those cheap goods that we've come to depend on are manufactured.

But here's what really drives Savinar crazy. As our whole world is about to go hurtling, sickeningly, down the other side of peak oil, we cling to the vain hope that better fuel efficiency, more conservation and alternative energy will step in to save the day. He can't believe our ignorance. Just look at his lunch: chicken fajitas with red and green peppers, brown rice and green salad. Sound wholesome and healthy? No, Savinar reminds me, it's brought here courtesy of cheap energy.

"It's fossil fuels -- petroleum, coal, natural gas -- that have been converted into food," he says. Then, there's the wooden table he's eating it on, which was built god-knows-where and likely shipped here inexpensively courtesy of fossil fuels. Then, there's the financial system underpinning the bank loan that the owner of this restaurant likely got to open the joint, which is predicated on the idea that the economy will grow in the future, not shrink precipitously when oil prices spike. Then there's the asphalt on the four-lane of traffic outside, and the cars, trucks and, oh yes, SUVs zipping along on top of its smooth surface, as well as the concrete of the sidewalk bordering the mall across the street, where Ann Taylor and Talbots sell clothes surely imported from halfway around the world.

But Savinar isn't rollerblading while the oil burns. From his modest apartment, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, he parses the latest energy news and fulminates on his Web site, Life After the Oil Crash. "Dear Reader," he welcomes visitors to his site, "Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists and investment bankers in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global 'Peak Oil.'"

Far from being ignored or dismissed as the hyperbolic rantings of an underemployed twentysomething California attorney, his Web site (which has about 6,000 visitors a day, and which sells books, DVDs and soon solar-powered ovens) has been quoted in the U.S. House of Representatives by members of the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus, like Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett from Maryland. He's been name-checked in Fortune magazine in a recent profile of one of Bush's billionaire buddies, who claims to have read Savinar's site every day since last September, and is keeping $500 million of his fortune in cash just in case Savinar and other peak oil doomsayers, like James Howard Kunstler, are right.

Savinar has given public speeches about peak oil but he says he prefers to do his Paul Revere-ing virtually so he doesn't have to see the look in people's eyes when they get it. "This is like the worst news that people have ever heard, other than maybe a death in the family, because you're basically finding out that your entire model of the world is based on bullshit," he says. He does not relish being the bearer of bad news: "People who want the Hummer or the three-bedroom home, or they want their kid to go to college, and grow up to be an attorney or a doctor -- all that, everything that they've based their lives on -- you're telling them that that's all out the window."

Critics debate the degree of doom to attach to peak oil, but Savinar is right: Scientists don't deny it's coming. The only question is when. Some geologists say we're already on the downslope while others put the peak at around mid-century. Regardless, thousands of people of various professions aren't waiting for the exact date of the bad news to be pinned down. They've seen the polemical documentary "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream," shown at countless house parties, community centers and city halls across the country. Or, maybe they've been frightened by truly alarmist Web sites, such as Die Off, that predict billions -- yes, that's right, billions -- of deaths globally because of peak oil. Or they've read the Hirsch report, a paper commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, in which professional energy analysts found that it would take at least a decade to prepare for peak oil, yet they don't see their government exactly leaping into action.

The peak oilers believe that by the time we know for sure that peak oil has come and gone it will be much too late to prepare to live without the 21 million barrels of oil a day that the U.S. is now accustomed to consuming. They aren't leaving anything to chance, let alone to the federal government, particularly with George W. Bush at the helm. To them, real change begins at home, where they're taking matters into their own hands. They're planning and preparing, and even lobbying their local governments to envision life with less oil. Some are hopeful they can make changes now in their own communities to mitigate the impact of the oil shocks to come.

To David Fridley, a scientist who works on energy efficiency at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and who worked in the oil industry for 15 years, the increasing concern about peak oil tells us a lot about the shape of people's assumptions. "Those who come from an environmental point of view see peak oil as an opportunity to disrupt the never-ending growth of our reliance of fossil fuels," he says. "Then there are those who see our ultra-consumerist society as flawed, and peak oil is the disruption that will bring an end to that. Then there are the people who believe technology can save us, who are delving more into what solar and water power can do." It's a pretty motley crew all trying to get a bead on the future at once. What about him? Is he part of the peak-oil movement? The mustachioed, bespectacled scientist says, "The facts are too compelling not to be involved."

A posh conference room on the 33rd floor of a skyscraper in downtown San Francisco is an elegant if ironic perch from which to ponder the uncertain future of life as we know it. One entire wall of the room is made of glass, a giant window offering a sweeping nighttime view of the Bay Bridge all lit up, sparkling with the orderly lights of the post-rush hour cars and trucks streaming across the bay into San Francisco. Yet the 20 people assembled around the golden conference table for the February monthly meeting of the San Francisco Post Carbon group believe that sooner rather than later that stream of cars and trucks will falter, if not actually stop, altogether. And as the geopolitical and economic dominoes start to fall in the wake of climbing oil prices, some wonder with macabre humor how long it will be before they'll have to climb 33 flights of stairs if they want to make it to this room.

Meeting in plush digs donated by a foundation for the occasion, San Francisco Post Carbon is a kind of combination study group, support group and citizens' action committee. Among their accomplishments is having produced a slick poster that depicts the history -- and possible future -- of the oil age, which they've distributed to every member of Congress. At least the lawmakers won't be able to say that they weren't warned! This post-carbon group is one of six such groups that meet regularly in the Bay Area. But it's hardly just a California obsession. There are groups around the world affiliated with the Vancouver, B.C., Post Carbon Institute, most of them in North America.

Over red wine and a potluck dinner of hummus and salads, the peak oilers, who tonight include a computer programmer, a consultant, a teacher, a retired engineer and a recent college grad, listen intently to the first speaker: Alice Friedemann, a systems analyst for a large transportation company. She's been studying the history of agriculture in California and learning sustainable farming techniques.

"As energy gets more expensive, food will get more expensive," Friedemann says, citing a stat that's often mentioned in peak-oil circles: In our era of industrial agriculture, it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel inputs for fertilizers, pesticides, farm equipment and transportation from natural gas, oil and coal to produce one calorie of food. The fear is that the rising price of oil will drive us to rely on other fossil fuels, draining those as well, and destroying the atmosphere in the process.

Friedemann remarks that there are home-court advantages to being so close to California's fertile Central Valley. "The good news is we're near the food," she says. "But the bad news is people are likely to come here not just because of the food but because it will be too hot or cold where they live." Grapes of wrath, anyone?

Still, the prospects for growing a lot of food locally, � la the victory gardens during World War II, in these parts don't look good to her, given the built environment and population density. Even assuming "bio-intensive" farming methods, where just 4,000 square feet of land can produce enough food to feed a vegetarian diet to one person, there's nowhere near enough land in Oakland, where she lives, that's not in the shade of homes or buildings, covered in concrete, or on steep parkland with poor topsoil.

How bad does Friedemann really believe things are going to get? "I believe that we're going back to the 13th century at some point," she tells me. Her grandfather was a geologist who knew the geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who first posited the theory of peak oil, predicting the peak of U.S. production in the '70s. Having studied alternative energy for years, Friedemann says she just doesn't believe that there is anything that's going to replace oil, or even come close. "We won't appreciate what oil really did for us until we have to go back to muscle power," she says. The question that clearly both appalls and fascinates her is what happens next?

"How do you reengineer society to go backward? How do you carve up container ships and turn them into sailboats? We can't go back to steam engines burning wood because we burned all that wood when we were clearing the fields for farms," she says. And even going back to beasts of burden, using the muscle power of horses for transportation, isn't straightforward, not when horses and people are competing for local, arable land.

"On average, a horse needs six acres of pasture," she says. "So you can't use that for food if you're growing the food to feed the horses." At an upcoming meeting of the East Bay peak oil group, she'll be teaching a class on milling your own grain and cooking it. "These are skills that would be useful to have. I suspect that there'll be oil shocks and food shortages but grain is something that keeps for years and years and years. It's something that you can have at home as the grocery store shelves empty. It's going to be more Third World-like and people are going to need to cope."

At the meeting, it's time for a report on efforts to lobby the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to consider what impact peak oil might have in the city. Last year, a formal request to hold a hearing on peak oil died in committee. In the past few weeks, some of the post-carbon members have met with staffers from several supes' offices, some of whom were more sympathetic to their issue than others. "They looked at us and smiled," says Dennis Brumm, 53, a former middle manager at a produce company, now retired on disability, who devotes himself to activism. "Most of them didn't smile," chimes in Allyse Heartwell, 24, a recent college grad, drawing knowing chuckles from the rest of the group. The post-carbon group realizes that theirs is a very tough problem to get politicians excited about, given they can't in good conscience suggest an obvious way to fix it. "It's very difficult to go and say, 'We have a problem that has no real solution, and we are trying to mitigate what will happen to culture,'" says Brumm.

The group wants San Francisco to undertake a study to gauge what peak oil will mean to the city's economy, food distribution, transportation and tourism. "I want to see Golden Gate Park planted with community gardens," Heartwell tells me later. Heartwell, who studied international environmental issues in college, says that she's never been an activist but she's recently become obsessed with peak oil and reads sites like Energy Bulletin and the Oil Drum religiously. "Honestly, I don't think that it's likely that we're going to make smart choices in the next 10 or 20 years. It's hard but I personally don't see anything to be done but keeping at it," she says of the lobbying efforts. "Five years down the road, 10 years down the road, I would be kicking myself if I didn't do something, unless I'm starving, in which case, I would probably be kicking myself even more."

Some members of the group are trying to lower their personal energy consumption -- in the peak-oil vernacular, "powering down." One man has cut his gas consumption in half on his daily commute by buying a hybrid car. Several don't own cars. Some have solar panels on their homes and sensors so that the lights turn off when they leave the room. One chose to travel by train rather than plane on a trip to visit family in Texas over the holidays. But while they support the idea of taking individual action, they're aware that their own efforts are drops in the global bucket, and while they believe in setting a good example about a lower-energy lifestyle, they know just how hard it is to get anyone to listen when you're sounding this kind of alarm.

"The public doesn't understand how integrated oil is into every aspect of our lives," says Richard Katz, 55, who is fond of bringing oil industry newspaper ads to group meetings and giving a gallows-humor take on them. "The American spin on the world is that there is always some new technology or new answer that's around the corner. Standard economics says that there is always something to replace whatever is rare. But what we're talking about here -- oil -- is the product of millions and millions of years of distilled sunlight. How do you get people excited about living with less?"

Fridley of the Lawrence Lab rises out of his seat to tell us about "the myth of biofuels." He argues that the likes of ethanol, fuel drawn from crops like corn or plants like switchgrass, are not going to save the day. "Once you get past the media hype about ethanol, the reality scares you," he says. Fridley fears that in the search for cheap liquid fuel to replace oil we'll end up overmining the soil. By his calculations, the long-term potential of biofuels is low, yet it's draining federal dollars from wind and solar, about which he's more optimistic.

Finally, a documentary filmmaker working on a project called "Everybody Loves Oil" shows a preview and makes a plea for funds, while everyone passes around a glass mason jar, decorated with an apple, grapes and a pear, and filled with oil that was pumped out of a well in Bakersfield. It's a reminder that the slimy gunk that brought us together tonight is about to tear our whole world apart.

Plenty of social critics see the peak oilers as the latest horsemen of the environmental apocalypse. Take "J.D." (the only name he would give me), a 44-year-old American living in Japan who runs the blog Peak Oil Debunked. "Clearly, the radical environmentalists and primativists love peak oil," he writes in an e-mail. "It's like a dream come true for them." To the "doomers," peak oil is the "deus ex machina that will fulfill their long-cherished dream of bringing down 'growth' and modern, globalized, corporate, industrial society."

The fact is, though, the Cassandras of peak oil are not all wearing fleece and Birkenstocks, and using peak oil as a convenient reason to rekindle back-to-the-land fantasies. They are geologists and energy experts in governments, universities and think tanks. And many of them echo the core conviction of the activists: Oil-drunk America has to go on the wagon or it will soon be heading into a dauntingly thirsty future.

Experts point out that U.S. domestic oil production peaked in the early '70s. The world is expected to consume 85 million barrels of oil per day this year, with the U.S. guzzling some 21 million of that. Even Chevron admits that the era of oil that's easy to extract -- "the easy oil" -- is over. The question of when exactly global production will peak and then slide down the bell curve, with demand outstripping supply, is disputed by geologists, but some believe that it's already here and the world is already experiencing the fallout.

"The World Trade Center, the first Iraq war, the second Iraq war, high gasoline prices and enormous volatility in price," reels off Kenneth S. Deffeyes, an emeritus Princeton professor who calculates that the world passed peak last December -- Dec. 16, 2005, to be exact. "When supply and demand are closely matched, something as small as two hurricanes makes the price go wild; we saw gasoline go up almost a dollar. Political troubles in Venezuela, labor strikes in Nigeria make the oil price flap."

If Deffeyes turns out to be anywhere close to right, this is prescient news indeed. Even strategic advisors to the Bush administration's Department of Energy believe it would take a good 20 years and trillions of dollars of investment in infrastructure for the nation to avoid liquid fuel shortages, when peak passes. A 91-page report released in February 2005 by Science Applications International Corp. played out three scenarios for the Department of Energy. Titled "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management," it's come to be known as the Hirsch report, after one of its authors. Those three scenarios: Wait until the peak occurs to transition to other fuels, plan for the transition a decade in advance, plan for the transition 20 years in advance. In the first case, they predict significant fuel shortages globally and economic upheaval. Only in the third scenario do the report's writers conclude that major liquid fuel shortages could be avoided.

The report predicts that peaking will result in much higher oil prices, which will cause "protracted economic hardship in the United States and around the world." Yet it argues that impact can be mitigated if efforts are made on both the "supply and demands sides."

Deffeyes concurs. He believes that our short-term energy future would have been different, if we'd, oh, say, listened to Jimmy Carter and started preparing decades ago. "We'd be in great shape now. But we didn't. We've driven off the cliff without anyone putting their foot on the brake."

But even if Deffeyes is wrong, and peak is still 20 or 30 years off, peak oilers are skeptical that an orderly transition to alternative energies can be made. They worry that the alternatives to oil will not scale up to provide the amount of energy that we're used to consuming, and only by changing our consumption habits can we adjust. Some believe that making the transition won't just take a rough five or 10 years, but that it will mean a meaningful permanent decline in how much energy we use.

Richard Heinberg, author of "Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World," one of the peak-oil gurus, runs down a list of possible alternatives: coal to liquids, gas to liquids, ethanol, methanol, bio-diesel, not to mention getting oil from tar sands, shale oil and heavy oil from Venezuela. "Each of those alternatives has inherent constraints in supply," he says. "You can't increase the amount that you can produce to any arbitrary level by throwing money at the problem. There are practical constraints."

The fear is that even if the U.S. were throwing all the billions that we're spending on things like fighting the war in Iraq into a moon-shot-like effort to transition to alternatives, which we're obviously not doing now, despite the president's recent lip service to ethanol, we would not be able to produce the amount of energy that we now get from 21 million barrels of oil a day.

Like Fridley, Heinberg asserts that biofuels are not the answer. He notes that they appeal to environmentalists because they could be produced in a carbon-neutral way, as well as to patriotic conservatives because American farmers can help solve the problem, while lessening our dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East. "We don't have oodles and oodles of agricultural land that's not being used for growing biofuels, and the energy payoff is very low compared to what we're used to from oil," he says. "The net energy being produced is going to be very costly."

Of course, there are always techno-optimists, and in this case they are led by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, co-author of "Winning the Oil Endgame." Lovins argues that ethanol, for instance, can be produced without using cropland, but from woody, weedy plants, like switchgrass, on currently idle conservation reserve land. He quotes Sheikh Yamani, a leading figure in OPEC for 25 years, who said, "The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the Oil Age will not end because the world runs out of oil."

Lovins thinks that oil will go the way of whale oil as alternatives are perfected. Besides, he contends, nobody knows who is right about peak oil, given that 94 percent of oil reserves are held by sovereign governments that have no incentive to reveal how much recoverable oil they actually have, even if they know themselves. He says an oil shortage is far more likely to be caused by an attack on a Saudi oil processing plant, or a natural disaster demolishing a key refinery. Ultimately, Lovins says, we will get much more out of the remaining oil by tripling the efficiency of cars, trucks and planes. "The rest of the oil," he states, "can then be displaced by a combination of saved natural gas and advanced biofuels." So, pessimists, chill out.

At a gathering at Berkeley Ecology Center, there's a vision of Utopia over the door. It's a painting, in which the rays of a huge sun beam down on a dark-skinned woman on her hands and knees gardening while a yellow butterfly flutters above her hands. A child holding a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables looks directly out from the painting. Over this pastoral tableau looms the slogan "Another World Is Possible."

This is a kind of community center where visitors can buy reusable hemp coffee filters, get info on local seed swaps and learn about the best source of worms for composting. From the magazine rack, the cover lines on Permaculture magazine shout: "Prepare for Life Without Oil. Find Your Own Wild Winter Food."

At the front of the room, David Room, director of municipal response for the Post-Carbon Institute, holds up his 3-year-old daughter to a microphone, and asks her to repeat the first word she ever said: "Organic!" she proclaims, drawing appreciative laughs from the crowd of 80. Later, Aaron Lehmer, another post-carboner, asks the assembled: "How many people believe in the next couple of years that we are at the threshold of peak oil?" Half the hands in the room go up. The purpose of this meeting is to recruit volunteers and raise money for an effort called Bay Area Relocalize.

The goal is to do a citizen's assessment of West Oakland and a to-be-determined neighborhood in San Francisco to see how much of the energy and goods used there are produced locally. Likely answer: not very much. Then, to try to determine what could be produced locally if it had to be from food to energy to goods. Using Google Earth, and by walking around neighborhoods, the group wants to determine: How big are backyards? What roofs could be turned into rooftop gardens? What resources does this community have? Bethany Schroeder, a former Berkeley resident, who has relocated to Ithaca, N.Y., and speaks about a similar effort there, explains that everyone must understand Ithaca is way to the left of Berkeley. "You can't get into Ithaca and buy a house without a copy of 'The End of Suburbia' in your DVD file," she says. The Ecology Center event draws pledges of $1,100, and signs up 30 volunteers.

Room, who studied electrical engineering at Stanford as an undergrad and has a master's degree in engineering economic systems, used to do risk analysis and assessment for a consulting firm. Now he's in the nonprofit world where he believes he can help people reduce the great risks facing them from peak oil by making their local communities less dependent on the rest of the world.

"We believe that we're on a treadmill to tragedy," Room says. "We're headed for disaster but we're not there yet. We don't have time to lament about it, or to panic about it, we just need to act," he says. To him, that means each community taking steps to reduce its own vulnerability by "relocalizing." (He and others from the Post-Carbon Institute have written a forthcoming book called "Relocalize Now! Getting Ready for Climate Change and the End of Cheap Oil.")

An example of a community that's on its way is Willits, Calif., where Jason Bradford, 36, armed with a copy of "The End of Suburbia," launched a movement. Willits is a small town in Mendocino County, where just 5,100 people live within the city limits of 2.8 square miles. Yet there are about 13,500 people in the surrounding area of 322 square miles. Bradford, 36, a professional biologist, was so galvanized when he started to learn about peak oil in early 2002 that he and his wife, a doctor, moved to Willits with their twins in July 2004.

"I essentially wanted to find a small town where I could try to transform it politically and the infrastructure," Bradford says. He showed "The End of Suburbia" at the local library, at the high school cafeteria, at the charter school. He showed it for eight months, twice a month, at city council chambers. Thus was born the Willits Economic Localization Project, an effort to make the whole ZIP code as energy and food self-reliant as possible.

"We're just trying to do as much as we can as fast as we can and hope for the best," says Bradford. Citizens have already done the kind of assessment that the San Francisco post-carbon group is lobbying its government to undertake, and the Bay Area Relocalize group is just beginning. The city has put out a request for proposals asking contractors to bid to supply all its electricity with renewables. Bradford is leading an effort to convert one acre of the backyard of his children's elementary school into a farm, in hopes of bringing healthy food to the cafeteria. There are plans to put a three-acre farm next to a proposed hospital. A gleaning club is working with local orchardists to take the fruit that isn't market-worthy to food banks, and divide it among themselves.

Bradford is optimistic about finding local sources for electricity, like solar, biomass such as wood, and even hydropower from creeks in the local hills. Yet, like most of the rest of the United States, the area consumes much of its energy in transportation. "Over 50 percent of the energy consumed in the Willits area is in transportation -- oil and diesel for people's cars and trucks," Bradford says. "That's a common percentage around the country. It's very hard to replace that." And right now the ecologist says he does not see any easy, long-term solution for our car-mad consumption of oil.

South of Willits, the slightly larger city of Sebastopol, population 7,800, is also taking official government action to try to grapple with the post-peak future. Already, the city gets about a sixth of its energy from solar energy, and the majority of the members of its city council are affiliated with the Green Party. So, last October, a town-hall meeting starring "Power Down" author Heinberg, discussing peak oil and energy vulnerability, drew 200 citizens, and led to the formation of an official 11-member Citizen's Advisory Group on Energy Vulnerability.

Gas in the area is currently selling for about $2.40 a gallon but the group, which includes an economist and alternative energy experts, is now trying to imagine what will happen to city services if gas goes to $5 a gallon, $8 a gallon, $12 a gallon, as well as what if electricity went to 25 cents a kilowatt hour, 50 cents a kilowatt hour and so on. "We could see $5 a gallon gasoline within a year or two, or it could be 10 years off," says Larry Robinson, the former Green Party mayor of Sebastopol, who sits on the city council. "I want to be prepared for that, not saying: 'Oh my god, how are we going to pump water to provide for all these households.'"

The group is working on contingency plans so that the city will be able to maintain public safety, public facilities, streets, parks, water delivery and sewer services should the spikes in energy prices come. It's also exploring how the same energy increases would affect citizens, from transportation to education, food supply and even social cohesion, and it's arranging a meeting with pols from the four surrounding counties -- Marin, Napa, Lake and Mendocino -- to formulate a regional response to energy vulnerability.

"I think that a lot of people have their head in the sand about this," says Robinson. "Some believe that the market will solve the problem, and ultimately, it will, but markets aren't anticipatory. They're more reactive. If we wait for a market solution, it's going to come probably in the midst of a lot of disruption and unnecessary suffering."

But the Sebastopol City Council member also sees some silver linings in the slide down Hubbert's Peak. First, he believes that savvy local entrepreneurs will be able to create new businesses and local jobs, manufacturing shoes and clothes, when transportation costs make it prohibitively expensive to import them from halfway around the world. Beyond that, he sees peak oil as providing a kind of wholesale referendum on the American way of life.

"I think that we can adapt, but our adapting may not be so much technological, as sociological, and maybe even spiritual," Robinson says. "It really comes down to the question of the place that we see for ourselves in the world and what we need in order to live a meaningful life. For quite a while now, a meaningful life in America has meant acquisition of things and cheap energy, and we associate that with freedom. We do not see that it's really a form of dependence and slavery. So, I see the potential for a much greater level of freedom and spiritual fulfillment and social cohesion, and restoration of balance with the natural world. This is one of the great possibilities that I see on the other side of the crisis, and whether we get to that is a question of the choices that we make now."