Running on empty

Pub date January 29, 2008


The fourth floor of San Francisco’s City Hall feels remote. Dimly lit and strangely quiet, it conveys a sense of isolation from the powerful people who do their work in the lower levels of the building.

Here, in an unremarkable conference room, is where the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force is conducting its second meeting. Two of its officers are absent, and only one member of the public has turned up to participate. It is an atmosphere that belies the issue’s cataclysmic potential.

The day’s breaking news headlines of oil reaching $100 per barrel for the first time in history is perhaps a harbinger of things to come. One year earlier the price was $58 per barrel. This dramatic increase in such a short span would devastate economies around the world if it continued at anywhere close to that rate.

Chairperson Jeanne Rosenmeier, an articulate, contemplative woman, reiterates the task force’s purpose: "Our charge is to examine how the city is going to handle rising oil prices and possible shortages. That is what we have been asked to do."

The assessment seems like an understatement, perhaps suggesting that the group is merely looking for solutions to how the average citizen could function better without an automobile. Yet in a society built on oil, the consequences of such an energy crisis are likely to be far more sweeping and problematic than merely high gas prices.

While considering models for the study the task force will prepare, Rosenmeier points to Portland, Ore.’s recently completed peak oil report and talks about limiting San Francisco’s effort to outlining the range of scenarios, from small impacts to large. She’s reluctant to acknowledge the extralarge scenario — massive worldwide social unrest and full-scale anarchy in the streets of San Francisco — which she argues would be harmful to the group’s focus.

Jan Lundberg, the task force member in charge of "societal functioning," politely disagrees. Insightful and exuding a sort of deeply ingrained experience, Lundberg has a goatee and a big mane of blond hair that make him look like a Berkeley-ish version of billionaire Virgin CEO Richard Branson. The resemblance is strangely apt when you consider that Lundberg has defected from more lucrative ventures. His family’s business, the Lundberg Survey, has been one of the premier oil industry research authorities in the world for the past few decades, but today Lundberg is volunteering his time to the task force.

"You have to look honestly at what we are up against," Lundberg tells the Guardian. "Only then can you come up with intelligent responses to what is occurring. If it is a tsunami coming, then you take action for a tsunami."

It might come as news to most San Franciscans that a team of seven relatively unknown, politically appointed volunteers is hashing out the hard realities and dire implications of a potentially massive energy crisis. When the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution (with Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier absent) in April 2006 to acknowledge the looming phenomenon of the global oil supply being exceeded by demand, San Francisco was the first city in the country to do so. It was a precedent that received little attention from the media, perhaps shrugged off as just another wacky resolution steeped in San Francisco values.

For the next 10 months the task force will be preparing a study of mitigation measures to be considered by the city government for implementation into law. Much like the phenomenon of peak oil, their work will also be best assessed in hindsight. For now, some will see them as a team of Chicken Littles sketching a contingency plan for when the sky falls.

Yet if the scientific insights that compelled the Board of Supervisors to form the group prove prescient, then the report that the task force is producing may well be crucial to San Francisco’s very survival.


Oil has acquired a bad reputation in recent years, as if the resource were not a fossil fuel found in the earth’s crust but a corrupt corporate tycoon spurring international conflicts and gleefully dismantling the ozone layer. Like addicts who blame the substance rather than the habit, we have come to forget that oil is one of the best resources the planet has offered.

"Oil is amazing stuff. The 20th century was basically founded on the wonders of petroleum," explains Richard Heinberg, a professor at New College of Santa Rosa and author of several books, including The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society Publishers, 2003). "Oil is very energy dense and can be made into an amazing range of chemicals and products. Our entire way of life is soaked in petroleum," he says.

This point tends to get lost in the shuffle. It is often forgotten that more than just powering our cars, petroleum is deeply woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Adding up to a global consumption rate of about 86 million barrels per day, oil plays a starring role in agriculture, industry, infrastructure, and transportation. It heats our homes, paves our roads, and grows our food.

So what happens when the global demand for oil begins to outpace the supply? That’s the peak oil question.

"Peak oil is not theoretical. Everyone knows that oil is a nonrenewable resource," Heinberg explains, "so at some point our ability to continue increasing the supply will cease. Everyone knows that it will happen. It is just a matter of when."

Peak oil is inherently a geological concept, formulated by renowned geophysicist Marion King Hubbert. In 1956, as a researcher for Shell Oil, Hubbert presented his theory to the American Petroleum Institute, claiming that the oil output in the mainland United States would peak in the late 1960s or early ’70s. Though dismissed by his colleagues at the time, Hubbert was vindicated when US oil production peaked in 1970 and the nation became forever dependent on foreign sources of petroleum to meet its energy needs.

Hubbert had explained that the production of any petroleum reserve — a single oil well, a particular country, or even the entire planet — follows a similar bell-shaped curve (now referred to as the Hubbert curve). The logic is that as the supply is first tapped, there is a steady increase of oil output that ascends to a peak (or plateau), which represents the maximum amount of oil that will ever be produced from the designated source. As production descends the other side of the curve, the supply is not exhausted, but future yields will always be lower and more expensive to obtain.

For the past 10 years — as the price of crude oil has gone from $12 to $100 per barrel on the world market — scientists, geologists, petroleum experts, and concerned citizens have increasingly pondered the point at which the global oil supply will not only begin to wane but fail to keep up with surging demand.

Proponents of preparing for the impending peak in worldwide petroleum output often cite the steady decline of major oil field discoveries since the 1960s and the alarming number of oil-producing countries that have already hit their peaks. Considering the widespread role petroleum plays in the general day-to-day functioning of our society, an impending decline in overall global production is — to put it mildly — severely worrying.

"People assume that the other side of the peak will be an orderly transition," Lundberg tells us, "but we have no other experience to compare it to."

In 2005 the United States Department of Energy completed a study it had commissioned on the topic of worldwide petroleum depletion titled Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management. Popularly known as the Hirsch Report (for principal author Robert Hirsch), the study consulted a wide range of scientific and oil industry experts.

It painted a startling portrait: "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."

"It is one of the most important government reports of the last half century," Heinberg explains, "because it clearly indicates that this global event of peak oil is going to change everything."

Unfortunately, the Hirsch Report has been mostly ignored by Congress, the George W. Bush administration, and the DOE itself (which did not even publish the study for more than a year after its completion). However, the most troublesome aspect of the report is the fact that a sizable selection of the scientists and activists concerned with the topic believe that we’ve already hit the peak. They believe peak oil is happening right now.


"Most people in this country are energy illiterate," David Fridley says. "We can’t substitute millions of years of fossil fuels with something that we can manufacture in a factory, like biofuels. So most people don’t get this sense of anxiety about the situation we’re in."

Fridley knows a fair amount about energy. Currently a staff scientist leading the China Energy Group of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he has spent a large portion of his career working in the Asian oil industry. His deep concern over the implications of peak oil incited him to play a key role in the formation of San Francisco’s task force.

"Having spent a year just thinking about this on my own," Fridley tells us, "and everyone around me telling me I was nuts, I decided to join a local group where I could at least meet up with others and see if we might educate people rather than just talking amongst ourselves."

In 2005, Fridley met Dennis Brumm — a veteran San Francisco activist with an address book containing an A-list of the city’s prime political players — who was looking to raise the city’s awareness of the issue.

Together with local activists Jennifer Bresee and Allyse Heartwell, they set their sights on bringing the issue of peak oil before the Board of Supervisors.

"Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee is a friend of mine," Brumm explains, "so I invited him over to my house one night and had him discuss with us the personalities and quirks of the supervisors and their aides."

Having charted the terrain, Brumm’s small group soon began spending its Thursdays and Fridays for the next six months lobbying the supervisors at City Hall. When technical questions were asked, the group referred to Fridley’s decades-long experience in the industry for expert scientific analysis.

In April 2006, with backing from District 5 Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and District 1 Sup. Jake McGoldrick, the board passed Resolution Number 224, recognizing "the challenge of Peak Oil and the need for San Francisco to prepare a plan of response and preparation."

For Fridley, the resolution and the formation of the task force were matters of appropriate preparation. "We have two oil tankers come under the Golden Gate every day to fill up the local refinery tanks to produce the fuels that keep the Bay Area running," he says. "What would happen if those tankers don’t come in? Or they don’t come for a week? The city has no plan for that, but we have the ability to be better prepared."


When discussing the phenomenon of peak oil, Lundberg prefers to use the term petro collapse. It is a turn of phrase that quickly provides insight into his considerable sense of alarm for the days ahead.

"It is going to be a globally historic event," Lundberg says. "Imagine a nationwide version of [Hurricane] Katrina."

Although ominous in its predictions, Lundberg’s perspective is based on a long road of experience. While he ran the Lundberg Survey with his father in the 1970s, their widely read insider journal for the oil industry predicted the second great oil shock of the decade (in 1979). In the mid-1980s he moved on from the family business to form the Sustainable Energy Institute nonprofit in Washington DC, a move USA Today marked with the headline "Lundberg Goes Green."

As suggested by the title of the online magazine he currently edits — Culture Change — Lundberg has come to view the peak oil phenomenon as being primarily an issue of the American consumer lifestyle.

"We have this crazy way of life based on limited resources that are clearly becoming constrained," he says, "and we’re holding on to yesterday’s affluence without realizing that we have already walked off the cliff."

Chairperson Rosenmeier, one of Lundberg’s colleagues on the task force, is wary that such an explicitly bleak viewpoint may scare public attention away from the matter.

"You have to be careful with peak oil that you don’t immediately leap to ‘We’re all doomed and our economy is doomed,’<0x2009>" she says. "I think there is an intermediate phase, which is what we are being asked to address: the transition from business as usual."

An accountant by trade and a longtime Green Party activist, Rosenmeier ran for state treasurer in 2002, garnering about 350,000 votes. Setting an ambitious pace for her contribution to the report, she recently met with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to request an analysis of how oil prices are related to the orientation of San Francisco’s economy. For this reason, she appears less concerned with predictions than with producing a heavily researched and well-structured report.

"I have a very strong vision of what I want the report to look like," Rosenmeier says. "I want us to have a uniformity and a more quantitative approach. I do not want to address the disintegration of our society."

The disparity between the views of Lundberg and Rosenmeier reflects the vast spectrum of opinions on how peak oil will manifest, although the extremes go well beyond them: some call peak oil a liberal hoax, while others have converted all of their assets to gold and prepared well-stocked and well-armed bunkers where they can ride out the social and economic storm.

The Web site is now getting as many as 23,000 hits per day. Creator Matt Savinar, a graduate of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, abandoned his law career as a futile concern when compared to the implications of peak oil.

"It is pretty simple," Savinar tells us. "What do you think is going to happen when the oil-exporting countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Iran say, ‘We cannot export any more because we need to keep it for our own people’? The US will react by starting a war."

Although Savinar gravitates toward the most drastic of peak oil’s potential implications, his concerns are shared by some high-profile figures. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), who has started the small but significant Peak Oil Caucus in Congress, has quoted Savinar’s work in congressional session, while billionaire Richard Rainwater told Fortune magazine he regularly reads Savinar’s site.

Pessimistic about the prospect of mitigating the effects of peak oil, Savinar characterizes the efforts of the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force as "throwing a wet rag at a forest fire." In swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum, the vast chasm between opinions on the matter manifests more clearly. Peter Jackson, the senior director of oil industry activity for the Cambridge Energy Research Associates, recently published the results of an in-depth analysis of more than 800 oil fields worldwide, concluding that the declining output rate of established fields is about half as low as originally expected.

"I think the danger of a peak [in global oil production] in the short term is minimal," Jackson tells the Guardian. "I think there are plenty of new developments on the books of oil companies, and the prospects for growth are good."

While Jackson acknowledges that at some point in the future it will be difficult to increase production, his optimistic viewpoint of the current situation helps to flesh out the dynamics of the overall discussion. As Heinberg explains it, "The debate really is between the near-peak and the far-peak viewpoints."

Yet even as Jackson attracts the ire of near-peak proponents such as Heinberg, he still acknowledges the need for swift preparation efforts. "There is still time to think about these issues and plan for the future," Jackson says. "But the sooner we do that the better."


Toward the end of the task force’s most recent meeting, the group discusses the city’s potential options for producing its own food supply. As Lundberg points out some of the particulars for pulling up pavement to plant crops, the exchange seems like an excerpt from Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia (Bantam, 1990).

"Streets cannot be pulled up as easily as driveways or parking lots," Lundberg explains. "There is soil immediately below a concrete driveway, whereas the earth beneath a street is much farther down."

This talk of tearing up asphalt to transform the city’s urban landscape into a viable agricultural venture may seem strange, until one considers how overreliant modern agribusiness has become on cheap fossil fuels.

"About one-fifth of all the petroleum we use goes into some part of our agriculture system," explains Jason Mark, the task force member focusing on the city’s food supply. "Whether that is through transportation and shipping, tractors and farm machinery, or the making of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides — it all demands oil."

Mark notes that the average American meal travels an estimated 1,500 miles from the farm to the dinner table, a startling figure that can be partly attributed to federal policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement that have encouraged export crops rather than diversified farming for local consumption.

"There is no way that San Francisco is going to feed itself in the short term," Rosenmeier says. "Food is going to be a gigantic issue."

In a larger sense, it already is. This past December the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations urged governments to take immediate steps to mitigate "dramatic food price increases" worldwide. Meanwhile, a recent cover story in the New York Times ("A New, Global Quandry: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories," 1/19/08) cited "food riots" in more than half a dozen countries and asserted, "Soaring fuel prices have altered the equation for growing food and transporting it around the world."

In the US, the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index cited a 5.6 percent increase of national grocery store prices in 2007, echoing sizable domestic price spikes in milk, corn, and wheat supplies.

"In a situation where you have sharp increases in the price of fossil fuels, you are going to see spikes in the costs and perhaps even the availability of food," explains Jason Mark, a former employee of Global Exchange and a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz’s renowned ecological horticulture program.

Mark now splits his time between editing the environmental quarterly Earth Island Journal and comanaging Alemany Farms. In his task force research, Mark plans to focus on two key challenges: increasing food production within San Francisco and improving both production in and distribution from the farms in the Bay Area.

"The city is pretty lucky because we are surrounded by all of this incredibly productive agricultural land," Mark explains. "If you were to draw a 100-mile radius around Potrero Hill, you could still have a pretty amazing diet."

Of course, the situation is far from simplistic. Climate change has proven to be a wild card in the equation, periodically negating dependable food supplies. Most recently, the entire Australian wheat crop collapsed due to a massive drought, affecting food imports around the world.

Less noticeable, though equally problematic, is the strain that biofuels are putting on food supplies. As increases in oil prices are stimuutf8g demands for alternatives, governments must decide whether crops should be used as food or fuel.

"Increasing our production of ethanol or biodiesel means direct competition with the food supply," Heinberg says. "In other words, we may see millions of people around the world going hungry so that a small percentage of the population can continue to drive their cars."

While such factors translate into a predicament as delicate as it is complex, Mark manages to elude pessimism. "I’m not one of these apocalyptic fetishists inciting for some sort of Mad Max scenario," he explains. "[The task force] is going to come out with a document that, although cautionary in scope, will be really optimistic about how SF can exist as an oil-free city."


Amid a vast disparity of opinions from scientists and industry experts expounding both sides of the debate, the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force plans to release its final report in October.

As with the issue of climate change almost two decades ago, the task force members face a long climb toward making an impression on an American population that has shown considerable reluctance to alter its lifestyles.

And while the deliberation over the onset of peak oil is likely to see little decline among skyrocketing energy costs and increasing geopolitical hostilities, the underlying truth may already be far less complicated.

"The era of cheap oil is over," Lundberg says. "Period." *

The next meeting of the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force will be on Feb. 5 at 3 p.m. in room 421 of City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, SF. Members of the public are strongly encouraged to attend.



In the event of sudden petroleum shortages, how do the alternatives stack up?

Ethanol: The Republican choice for weaning the nation off oil is a lucrative venture for red state constituents in the Midwest. However, the drawbacks are numerous. Corn ethanol requires almost as much oil energy to produce as it is meant to replace. Furthermore, it will require 4.8 billion — yes, billion — acres of corn to match the world’s current rate of annual oil consumption.

Hydrogen fuel cells: Touted by conservatives as some kind of miracle fuel because its tailpipe by-product is simply water vapor, hydrogen is a long way from being a viable fuel for cars, if that’s even possible. It takes even more energy to produce than ethanol and can explode in collisions.

Nuclear: Expensive and unpopular, nuclear power faces numerous logistical hurdles (particularly safety and long-term waste storage) that make it infeasible in the short and middle terms.

Natural gas: A major source of current United States energy consumption (25 percent nationally), natural gas is extremely difficult to ship, making importation from far-off sources impractical. Its supplies are running low in the US, and this nonrenewable fossil fuel is likely to parallel oil in its decline.

Wind: This clean power source is being quickly developed around the world as a major generator of electricity. Currently in the US, it accounts for about 1 percent of domestic electricity production, so offsetting the loss of fossil fuel plants would require a massive commitment. Downsides include the danger to migrating birds and the fact that sometimes the wind doesn’t blow.

Solar: This is Marion King Hubbert’s choice for replacing fossil fuels. It is a renewable generator of electricity, yet the shortcomings so far have been with finding more efficient and less toxic battery technology to store it. But improving research and strong consumer demand for solar panels point to a promising future.