National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Portland Takes the Lead

The Middle East, home to a third of the world’s oil production, is coming unglued in so many ways and in so many places that it is nearly impossible to track. One would have to be a complete fool, however, not to recognize one of the manifold costs of all this chaos is going to show up on that big sign over your neighborhood gas station— shortly.

The roots of these conflicts go back two thousand years. They are not going to be settled in our lifetime or many lifetimes. There is very little any of us can do except to prepare for the consequences. As yet, with exception of Sweden, none of the major world governments have officially recognized that a decline in world oil production with potentially devastating consequences is imminent.

In the US, it is politically unthinkable for a government confronted by Iraq, Hezbollah, Iran, global warming, and numerous other woes to openly acknowledge peak oil and all that it implies. From time to time, they have dropped hints — "Energy Independence," "Advanced Energy Initiative," need to drill more, "addicted to oil"— but the administration has yet to openly acknowledge that one of the greatest crises the country has ever known is just over the horizon.

This total abrogation of responsibility by the federal government has led to a handful of local governments to start considering action on their own to prepare for what is sure to come. The furthest along is Portland, Oregon. In May, the City Council passed a resolution establishing a peak oil task force "to assess Portland’s exposure to diminishing supplies of oil and natural gas and make recommendations to address vulnerabilities."

The twelve "WHEREAS’s" in Portland’s resolution (#36407 should you want to Google it) are a thing of beauty, for they make the case for an imminent and dangerous peaking of world oil production in a succinct and convincing manner. The City’s planners have clearly done their homework well.

The charges to Portland’s peak oil task force are also worth noting:

a.    To acquire and study current and credible data and information on the issues of peak oil and natural gas production and the related economic and other societal consequences;

b.    To seek community and business input on the impacts and proposed solutions;

c.    To develop recommendations to City Council in this calendar year on strategies the City and its bureaus can take to mitigate the impacts of declining energy supplies in areas including, but not limited to: transportation, business and home energy use, water, food security, health care, communications, land use planning, and wastewater treatment; and 

d.    To propose methods of educating the public about this issue in order to create positive behavior change among businesses and residents that reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

And there, in a nutshell, is a plan. At this stage, the plan may only be to study peak oil and its local consequences, but you have to start somewhere.

At last count, there were 87,576 governments in the United States (one federal, 50 state, 38,976 general-purpose local governments, and the rest special-purpose local governments such as school boards). Thus far, only Portland seems to be planning in public for peak oil.

Last week Portland’s government released a 93-page briefing book prepared by the city to acquaint their new task force with the basis for the City Council’s concerns and to amplify on the guidance given in the resolution. The report discusses 14 areas that will be impacted by loss of cheap oil and gas and asks the task force to assess which are most relevant to Portland.

The areas of concern discussed are: Transportation, Land Use, Local Economy, Housing, Food, Public Services, Population shifts, Social Services, Health Services, Education, Electricity, Manufacturing, Retail and Communications.

In preparing this list, the City of Portland have done us all a big favor for they have moved the thinking about how to cope with the post-peak oil world forward another step. The message in the Portland report is that while we are all going to face peak oil, the effects on every one of those 87,576 governments is going to be slightly or a lot different.

Areas with sprawl will face massive commuting problems as gasoline becomes unaffordable, but in New York City, so long as the subway works, most people could care less. While feeding New York City may one day become a giant problem, rural America will continue to grow food way beyond what they consume. We are going to need 87,000 different solutions to mitigating peak oil.

As individuals, there is little most of us can do to keep oil flowing in the face of turmoil in the Middle East and nothing any of us can do in the face of peaking world production— other than to conserve.

There are however, still 87,575 governments in the US that, thus far, are doing absolutely nothing (at least in public) to prepare for peak oil. The chances are excellent that you live in one or more of them. Some day soon, each of these governments is going to have to face the consequences of peak oil. The sooner we can get governments thinking about it, they better off we, our children, and our grandchildren are going to be when that day comes.