Volume 42 Number 18

January 31 – February 5, 2008

  • No categories

Polite message from the surveillance state


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Say what you want about Google being an evil corporate overlord that steals all of your private data, turns it into info-mulch, and then injects it into the technoslaves to keep them drugged and helpless. There are still some good things about the company. For example, Google’s IM program, Google Talk, sends you a warning message alerting you when the person on the other end of your chat is recording your chat session.

Just the other day I was chatting with somebody about something slightly personal and noticed that she’d suddenly turned on Record for our chat. I knew everything I was saying was being logged and filed in her Gmail. In this case I wasn’t too concerned. For one thing, I wasn’t saying anything I’d regret seeing in print. I’m used to the idea that anything I say on chat might be recorded and logged.

What was different about this experience was that Google warned me first — told me point-blank that I was basically under surveillance from the Google server, which would automatically log and save that conversation. I appreciated that. It meant I could opt out of the conversation and preserve my privacy. It also meant that other people using Gtalk, who might not have had the expectation that all of their chat sessions might be recorded, would be enlightened.

It also reminded me forcefully that Google is a far more polite and privacy-concerned evil overlord than the United States government.

Right now members of Congress are trying to pass a law that would grant immunity to large telcos like AT&T that have been spying on their customers’ private phone conversations and passing along what they’ve learned to the National Security Agency. The law, called the Protect America Act, would allow telephone and Internet providers to hand over all private data on their networks to the government — without notifying their customers and without any court supervision of what amounts to mass wiretapping.

Last year the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued AT&T for vioutf8g the Fourth Amendment when a whistle-blower at AT&T revealed that the company was handing over private information to the NSA without warrants. That case has been working its way through the courts, and making some headway; in fact, it was starting to look like AT&T would be forced to pay damages to its customers for vioutf8g their rights. But the Protect America Act would stop this court case in its tracks by granting retroactive immunity to AT&T and any other company that spied on people for the NSA without warrants.

The whole situation is insane. First, it’s outrageous that telcos would illegally hand over their private customer data to the government. And second, it’s even more outrageous that when its scheme was discovered, the government tried to pass a law making it retroactively legal for AT&T to have broken one of the most fundamental of our civil rights: protection of our private data from the government.

Imagine what would happen if the phone and Internet systems in our country had the same warnings on them that Gtalk has. Every time you picked up the phone to make a call or logged on to the Internet, you’d get a helpful little message: "Warning: the government is recording everything that you are saying and doing right now." Holy crap.

The good news is that it’s not too late. The Protect America Act must pass both houses of Congress to become law, so you can still alert your local congress critters in the House that you don’t want retroactive immunity for telcos that are logging your private conversations for the NSA. Find out more at stopthespying.org.

And remember, everything you say and do is being logged. This polite message has been brought to you by the surveillance state.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who yells "Fuck you!" into her phone as often as she can — you know, just to let the NSA know how she really feels.<

Who wants change?


› steve@sfbg.com

On the rainy afternoon of Jan. 8, Mayor Gavin Newsom strode through the familiar Delancey Street Foundation complex’s main courtyard — a bodyguard holding his umbrella over him — and entered a conference room filled with local political luminaries just as the taiko drummers finished their performance.

A few hours earlier Newsom had taken the oath of office and given his second-term inaugural address during a lavish ceremony at City Hall, where he told the crowd, "Here in San Francisco our point of reference is often our minor political disagreements." But now he joined his fiancée, Jennifer Siebel, in the front row of a relatively spare ceremony to watch District Attorney Kamala Harris take her oath of office.

Although Newsom and Harris are more like political rivals than allies, their speeches sounded similar themes — accountability, unity, addressing systemic problems with common sense governance — and were liberal by national standards but safely centrist by San Francisco’s metric.

Yet these two top politicians, like many others in the Bay Area, have cast their lots with two very different national political movements, as the well-connected crowd was subtly reminded when Sen. Dianne Feinstein prepared to administer Harris’s oath of office.

The choice of Feinstein already seemed notable to those who remembered when she publicly chastised Harris for refusing to seek the death penalty for a cop killer in 2004. It was the old, white, establishment stalwart hectoring a rising black star from a new generation for a gutsy decision to stick with her professed progressive values.

But Feinstein now spoke admiringly of how women run the District Attorney’s Office and Police, Fire, and other departments. "San Francisco today is in the hands of women. Who would have thought?" the former mayor said, extending her hopeful assessment to mention that "a woman is likely to be our nominee for president of the United States."

There were murmurs from Harris’s corner and an awkwardness that hung thick in the air. This was because unlike Feinstein, Newsom, and most of the powerful establishment Democrats in San Francisco, who have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Harris was an early and high-profile supporter of Barack Obama.

That difference seems especially significant to San Francisco progressives and others who are wary of another Clinton returning to the White House and excited about the upstart candidacy of a younger black man who got into politics pounding the streets of Chicago as a community organizer.

Political endorsements are often like ideological tea leaves. Sometimes support stems from a personal relationship with the candidate, but usually it signals more of a philosophical affinity, a desire to either take a chance with something new or stick with a known quantity, which seems to be the case with this presidential primary election.

"It boils down to this: are you part of the Willie Brown, John Burton political machine, in which case you’re with Hillary, or are you part of the free-thinking folks who really want to see change?" Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin — who considers himself part of the latter group and has endorsed Obama — said to the Guardian.

Peskin noted that all of the elected officials in San Francisco who got their jobs through a Newsom appointment — Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Michela Alioto-Pier, Assessor Phil Ting, and Treasurer José Cisneros — have endorsed Clinton, whose campaign has been notorious locally for pressuring top Democrats to get on board.

"We are the campaign of inspiration, not obligation," said Debbie Mesloh, a former Harris spokesperson now on loan to the Obama campaign. "I think people are really tired of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton."

But Elsbernd — like many other Clinton endorsers — played down the differences between the top two candidates and doesn’t see much symbolism in the endorsements, although he does acknowledge that those who prefer to work within the system tend to support Clinton, while those "who are always pushing the system to go further" seem to be backing Obama, or John Edwards in some cases.

"If Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton were on the Board of Supervisors, they’d probably be to the right of me," said Elsbernd, whom most observers consider the board’s most conservative member, later adding, "Whoever wins the nomination, San Francisco will be heavily supportive of [him or her]."

But Sup. Chris Daly — who, like Peskin and many others, backed Edwards four years ago and supports Obama this time — thinks an Obama victory would be hugely important both locally and nationally in terms of opening up the Democratic Party and the country to new ideas.

"Hillary Clinton clearly represents the establishment, closely aligned to the [Democratic Leadership Council], and Obama represents a change from that. If Obama wins, it would send a serious wave of change through the Democratic Party and open up opportunities for progressives," Daly told us.

He also said progressive Democrats are "like the redheaded stepchildren of the party," consistently marginalized by leaders like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Feinstein, and Newsom. Daly said he liked the policies and messages of Edwards and Dennis Kucinich but identifies with Obama’s roots as a community organizer and feels he’s the best hope for change. Daly said an Obama victory would "mainstream activist politics, which is what I practice."

Many Clinton supporters aren’t afraid of the establishment label, which progressives often use as an epithet and indicator of a brand of politics mired in status quo constructs.

"To me, that’s one of her strengths. She knows how government works and will be ready to lead on day one, and if that’s called establishment, that’s OK with me," said Laura Spanjian, a vocal Clinton campaigner and elected member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee.

There are some mainstream candidates who have bucked the norm. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is definitely to Feinstein’s left, and Pelosi have decided not to endorse any of the Democratic primary candidates. And Sup. Bevan Dufty, who is often a Newsom ally, has endorsed Obama.

"I truly feel he is unique among the candidates as far as being able to repair our relationship with the rest of the world," said Dufty, who said he identifies with African American politics, having been raised by a civil rights activist and later working for groundbreaking Congressperson and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and former mayor Willie Brown. "I think Obama is much better situated to bring about a new dynamic."

Eric Jaye, owner of Storefront Political Media and the top consultant to Newsom’s two successful mayoral campaigns, told us, "There’s no doubt that prominent endorsers, like Kamala Harris for Barack Obama or Gavin Newsom for Hillary Clinton, stake some political capital in their endorsements. But I don’t think it matters that much."

In fact, rather than altering local political dynamics or the careers of aspiring politicians, Jaye said, the split endorsements of local officials is positive: "We’ve hedged our bets, so whoever wins is going to love San Francisco and our top leaders."

Running on empty


› news@sfbg.com

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 LifeAfterTheOilCrash.net 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.

The way to honor Matthew Shepard


OPINION Nearly 10 years ago Matthew Shepard was crucified on a fence in Wyoming because he was gay. Recently a bill bearing his name failed to pass the United States Senate.

S 1105, the Matthew Shepard Act, would "provide Federal assistance to States, local jurisdictions, and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes." Its supporters are still pushing for its passage, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wants to see it approved early this year. Here is why Congress should not bother:

Nearly 1,500 hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation were reported in the United States in 2006. To reduce that number we do not need a bill that would give the local sheriff a cash grant after some kid decides to crucify another kid because he likes to kiss boys. We need education.

Our school system is structured with the implication of heterosexuality. Any information that be construed as other than strictly heterosexual is rarely taught. James Baldwin is widely read in schools for his writings on the difficulties of living in a racist world. His writings on the difficulties of living in a homophobic world, however, are largely ignored. "The Fire Next Time," an essay on how to "end the racial nightmare" that blacks endure, is more widely read than Giovanni’s Room, which begins with the gay lover of the main male character about to be guillotined.

Most students know Alexander the Great as one of the most important generals of history, conquering most of the known world by the time of his death at 33. Some know of his three wives. Few know of Hephaistion, his lifelong companion, with whom it is widely acknowledged he had a sexual relationship. Through such selective edits of history, students learn (falsely) that heterosexuality is the norm and has been throughout time.

With this background, is it any wonder that hate crimes based on sexual orientation accounted for more than 15 percent of all hate crimes reported in the US in 2006?

These statistics will not be affected by reactionary laws. The Matthew Shepard Act will not change them. It will not allow him to celebrate another birthday. Nor will it help to ensure that no more children are robbed of their birthdays. The best it can hope for is to make sure their persecutors spend their birthdays in jail.

We expect schools to teach our children about history, math, and English and, by extension, about society. When they learn about Alexander but not Hephaistion, about "The Fire Next Time" but not Giovanni’s Room, about the Seneca Falls Convention but not Stonewall, they come to understand that heterosexuality is expected, that it is normal. And few children wish to be abnormal.

What we need in our schools is a curriculum that acknowledges the different sexualities and perceptions of sexuality that have existed in history. Tell the students about Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Alexander the Great’s Hephaistion. From there, why don’t we let the students decide for themselves what is "normal"?

Matthew Shepherd’s attackers are serving consecutive life sentences in prison. S 1105 might send more people to prison with them. But it cannot prevent them from committing the crimes. Education might. And wouldn’t that be a better legacy to leave Shepard?

Christina Luu

Christina Luu is a student in the Economics Department at Stanford University. She is also a fellow of the Roosevelt Institution’s Center on Education, the nation’s first student-run think tank. She plans to graduate in spring 2010.

Setting standards


› amanda@sfbg.com

Toilet paper. First aid kits. Drinking water. These are just a few of the essential supplies one might expect to find in high-traffic facilities owned or paid for by the city that serve more than a thousand people per night.

But San Francisco’s homeless shelters, which have been around for about 25 years, have repeatedly fallen short of meeting basic standards or even living up to the policies outlined in their city contracts.

Since 2004, regularly scheduled and surprise spot checks conducted by the 13-member Shelter Monitoring Committee have turned up a range of deplorable and deteriorating conditions in regard to cleanliness, nutrition, and humane treatment of residents — from bloody shower curtains and broken toilet seats to clogged drains and kitchen counters cluttered with dirty dishes. A survey of health and hygiene conditions — from functional sinks to the posting of proper hand-washing techniques — found that only 6 of 19 facilities met basic requirements.

"The Shelter Monitoring Committee makes reports to the Rules Committee, and their reports about conditions in the shelters were very, very disturbing," Sup. Tom Ammiano told the Guardian.

To fix that, Ammiano and a cadre of city staff, homeless-rights advocates, and Shelter Monitoring Committee members are drafting legislation that would require shelters to meet basic standards of care, force compliance through $2,500 fines, and formalize a swifter complaint process.

The Health Services Agency last year had $69 million to spend on housing and the homeless, a portion of which funds nine year-round single adult shelters and four family shelters, as well as four resource centers where homeless people may not find a bed but should be able to access other services, like showers, laundry, phones, and the shelter reservation system.

The management of the facilities is contracted out by the HSA to different nonprofit organizations, including some well-known national groups like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Episcopal Community Services. The Department of Public Health also handles two of the contracts.

Those contracts stipulate a number of policies, including providing clients with access to electricity for cell phone charging, a guaranteed eight hours of sleep per night, toiletries and feminine hygiene products, first aid supplies, and Spanish translations of printed materials; and a mandate to treat all clients with "dignity and respect."

That doesn’t always happen, and the monitoring committee isn’t the only watchdog saying so.

The Coalition on Homelessness has been fielding complaints from shelter residents for more than 20 years. A recent increase prompted it to investigate deeper. In May 2007 the group published Shelter Shock, a report based on surveys of 215 shelter residents. The findings: 55 percent of people reported some kind of physical, sexual, or verbal abuse. One-third had no access to information in their native language. Thirty-five percent had nothing to eat.

"The Mayor has actually pointed to these problems as reasons to close the shelters," the report states. "Responsible bodies — the Board of Supervisors and the HSA — have failed to take corrective action. There has been a silence around shelters, giving the impression that shelter residents have been forgotten by the administration and the public at large."

Mayor Gavin Newsom, in his Jan. 8 inaugural speech, identified chronic homelessness and panhandling as high priorities of his second term and promised he’d be "redesigning our city shelter system so that they are no longer just refuges of last resort but spaces where homeless San Franciscans can find job training, drug treatment, and encouragement they need to exit homelessness. We’re getting out of the shelter business." At no point did he mention implementing shelter health and safety standards.

James Leonard, a member of the Shelter Monitoring Committee who has spent the past 18 months homeless in San Francisco and San Diego, won’t stay in the shelters anymore. All of his possessions were stolen three times. He missed several job interviews because he couldn’t charge his cell phone. Frustrated, he hit the streets again. The Homeless Outreach Team found him, officially dubbed him "shelter challenged," and gave him a stabilization bed, which he hopes will eventually transition into a lease in a single-room-occupancy hotel.

He told us the lack of standards contributes to the problem of chronic homelessness because more people would stay in the shelters, off the street, if they were safe and treatment were consistent from facility to facility.

"People keep looking at what’s wrong with those homeless people and keep skipping over what’s wrong with those shelters and some of those staff members," he said. "It’s a system set up to fail unless it has standards."

The issues extend beyond each shelter’s four walls. It’s a matter of public health for all San Franciscans. "Even if the shelters exist for a minute, they have to be healthy and humane," said Dr. Deborah Borne, medical director of homeless programs at the HSA’s Tom Waddell Health Center. "Because if they aren’t, they’re a danger to themselves and to others."

She cited the example of sitting on a Muni bus beside someone whose bag may be carrying bedbugs. "Everyone in San Francisco is affected by the fact that we have health issues in the shelters."

Borne moved from New York to San Francisco about a year and a half ago. On her fourth day on the job at Tom Waddell, a resident died at Next Door, which houses about 250 people per night and is one of the city’s largest shelters. She said the death was not the fault of any specific department, agency, or person, but it could have been avoided if some basic health and hygiene practices were standard for shelter staff and residents.

She brought together several key people, secured $300,000 in funding through HSA director Trent Rhorer, and launched the Shelter Health Initiative, a pilot project that included some of the standards that are part of Ammiano’s legislation specifically targeting health and hygiene.

Next Door and Hamilton Family Center participated, were surveyed on needs, and received adequate supplies of things like soap, hand towels, sanitizer, and gloves. "Up to the date of the training, they still didn’t have available the basic equipment required to protect themselves," said Jill Jarvie, a public health nurse from Tom Waddell who ran the pilot program.

It’s not enough to have cases of rubber gloves and hand sanitizer. They have to be used, and used properly. "Something like a cold virus can stay alive for a couple of days," Jarvie said. Close conditions in shelters compound the risk. "When you’re working in a place that sees 300 people a day, how you wash your hands can really make a difference," she added.

Thorough hand-washing techniques and procedures for cleaning up bodily fluids taught to staff trickle down to residents, and so far, it’s working. According to Jarvie, Next Door has reported a decrease in illnesses. "It’s been exciting to see we can actually do this," she said. The price of the pilot was about $15,000, a cost that would fall over time through bulk purchasing of supplies and as training becomes more standardized. Soon public health officials will be launching another phase, focused on bedbugs and scabies.

An initial budget analyst’s report, based on information provided by the HSA, predicted a $6.2 million price tag to fully implement standards throughout the city’s shelter system. Many say it’s an overinflated estimate based on assumptions that need more vetting.

"We were all stunned by the budget analyst’s report," said Quintin Mecke, secretary of the Shelter Monitoring Committee and head of its subsidiary work group on the legislation. "When you look at some of the assumptions, they’re just not true." For example, the HSA interpreted security to mean staffing all the shelters with full-time guards, when other mitigations like locks and staff training could be implemented instead.

Mecke and the work group believe that although there will be hard costs associated with the legislation, many are onetime and others are simply the price of complying with what’s supposed to exist already. Ammiano’s aide Zach Tuller said, "We expect the cost to come in under half a million because HSA claims so many of the services are already being provided. We’re looking to prevent slippage."

Dave Curto, head of contract compliance for the HSA, said the department agreed with some of the legislation and was still talking through specifics. He confirmed that policies do exist and shelters are provided with training manuals to enforce them.

"I think they are happening," he said of the HSA policies. "That’s why we’re a little confused."

A list of those policies is included in the budget analyst’s report, which Mecke said sent a conflicting message. "It creates the impression that things in the shelter system are other than what we found," he told a recent meeting of the standard of care work group, which is redrafting some of the legislation in preparation for a February hearing of the Budget and Finance Committee. "We want to be very clear at the Board of Supervisors that they don’t come away with the impression that these things exist, because they don’t."

Ammiano said this is a necessary first step toward making the shelters more humane, at a time when many assume they already are.

"I think one of the most annoying things that I read was C.W. Nevius [in the San Francisco Chronicle] taking this rather orchestrated Disneyland tour with Trent Rhorer and saying how wonderful the shelters were and then blaming the homeless for not wanting to be in them," Ammiano said. "But obviously C.W. Nevius and Trent Rhorer have something to wipe their ass with."

Bring back the car tax


EDITORIAL Assemblymember Mark Leno has shared with us some numbers from the legislature’s budget office, and they’re pretty compelling. Of the $14.5 billion shortfall the governor says we’ll see in the next 18 months, a full $9.36 billion — 65 percent — comes from exactly one source. That’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political decision to get rid of the state’s motor vehicle license fee. He calls it the car tax.

It’s crazy: for years the people of California paid the fee, which used to be 2 percent of the car’s value, to register their cars. It’s not a perfect tax, but it’s not a terrible one — people with expensive cars pay more — and it brought in a huge amount of money. When Schwarzenegger ran for office he promised to get rid of it, and that’s one of the first things he did after he was elected — but he never explained how the state was going to cover the cost.

California hasn’t been overspending on education and parks. It hasn’t been wasting huge amounts of money on social services or sending too much to cities. The state was already living on a rather modest budget. And then along came the recession, the huge interest payments ($2 billion) on the governor’s recent bail-out bonds, and the elimination of the vehicle license fee, and suddenly, there’s a massive budget shortfall.

The legislature’s pretty hamstrung here: Leno and some others will try, and try mightily, to bring in some new money, but it takes two-thirds of the State Assembly and the State Senate to pass a budget, and the Republicans, who have sworn on Ronald Reagan’s grave never to raise taxes, control more than a third of each house. And everyone, even the liberal Democrats, agrees that if you take a poll, the vast majority of Californians will oppose reinstating the dreaded "car tax."

But if you asked the question right — "Would you pay $200 per year to save public education, parks, and health services in California?" — you might get a better answer. This needs to be a massive, statewide campaign and education program — because unless we can turn around sentiment on the vehicle license fee, the next few years are going to be very, very ugly

Editor’s Notes


When the political consultants get their focus groups and test the slogans that will guide political policy in California, the one that comes out near the top all the time is "living within our means." That’s why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used the line (as many of his predecessors have done) to try to make his brutal, bloody budget cuts sound eminently reasonable. The hardworking taxpayers of this state have to live within their means, right? They can’t spend more money than they have. So when the state comes up short, the governor and the legislature just have to do what’s necessary to make payment due balance with accounts received.

But it’s a misleading metaphor.

Imagine you’re working at a full-time job, just barely managing to cover the bills, and all of a sudden, through no fault of your own, your boss decides to cut your pay by 15 percent. Life wasn’t exactly easy before; now it really sucks. Now the essentials are at risk — you can’t pay the rent and put food on the table and buy clothes for your kids without going into debt. And sure, you can borrow for a while and run up the credit cards, but it won’t work in the long term and will wind up costing you a lot more.

And your boss smiles and tells you to live within your means.

This is what’s happened to California. The people who operate the public services (schools, parks, hospitals, etc.) that we all depend on just saw their income cut radically. The state already tried borrowing, but the interest alone is going to cost $2 billion this year; California, like so many Californians, is having trouble with its debt load.

So what would your typical breadwinner try to do? Well, he or she would complain about the pay cut and fight to get that money back, look for another job, possibly moonlight…. In other words, those hardworking taxpayers would try hard to find a revenue-side solution. For the state, that means raising taxes. Focus-group that one, Mr. Governor.

Newsom’s fixers


EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom is acting more and more like his predecessor, Willie Brown. It’s an alarming trend, and Newsom needs to take some steps right away to assure the public that he’s not letting political fixers run the city.

We’ve been seeing signs that Newsom is becoming more of an imperial mayor for months, ever since he launched his new administration with a demand that all of the department heads and commissioners resign. The idea, he said, was to bring a fresh start and new ideas to his second term — but he never explained exactly what those new ideas were or why the current city officials weren’t living up to them. And it was clear that some of his moves were motivated by nothing but politics: ousting Susan Leal as head of the Public Utilities Commission had nothing to do with her job performance and everything to do with the fact that she had been willing to challenge Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s power monopoly.

The shenanigans continue. As Sarah Phelan reported on sfbg.com last week, Newsom just attempted a coup at the Planning Commission, moving behind the scenes to oust Christina Olague, a progressive appointed by the supervisors, from her post as vice president. Newsom and his crew wanted to install his loyalists, Sue Lee and Mike Antonini, as president and vice president of the panel.

That move, sources told us, was orchestrated through Dean Macris, the former planning director who needs to get the hell out of that department. Macris still has his fingers firmly planted in the planning pie; he maintains an office in the department as a "liaison to the mayor."

The mayor has also managed to pad his own office’s budget while cutting key city services — and has, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported Jan. 25, used funny accounting to divert money from Muni to the Mayor’s Office payroll. And he continues to use the San Francisco International Airport as a place to put highly paid employees who have, at best, unclear job descriptions.

This is the sort of thing that led to Brown’s downfall: the voters, infuriated by backroom deals, voted nearly all of Brown’s allies out of office in 2000 and elected a Board of Supervisors that had a mandate to block the mayor’s worst initiatives.

Newsom has always insisted he’s a different type of politician than his predecessor and onetime mentor, and his future political career will depend on his ability to make that image stick. Brown’s reputation for corruption was the main reason he never had any hope of seeking or winning a statewide office.

If Newsom wants to avoid that fate, he can start with a few significant changes:

<\!s>Knock off the secrecy and sleaze. If Newsom has a reason to replace a department head or commissioner — and there are good reasons to fire a bunch of them — he needs to make that public. If someone isn’t carrying out his policies, fine: explain what the policies are and where he and the official in question part ways. Don’t pull out the knives and do the dirty work of PG&E and the developers behind closed doors.

<\!s>Be open about the jobs and the money. If the mayor really believes he needs a bunch of new $150,000-per-year aides, fine: take that money out of the General Fund and tell the public where it’s coming from. Budgets are displays of political priorities, especially in tight years, and the voters have a right to know what the mayor cares about most.

<\!s>Keep the operatives out of City Hall. Brown had lobbyists and consultants cutting deals in room 200 almost every day. Newsom needs to make it clear that campaign advisors aren’t making policy or personnel decisions.

We have four more years of Newsom to go, and if he keeps up this kind of crap, he’s going to find himself fighting the board — and the voters — at every step.




Sex Poll 2008