After oil

Pub date August 1, 2006
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION Every day a river of cars flows across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, bringing workers, tourists, and visitors to the city. Nearly all run on petroleum fuels. Every day a staccato procession of planes lands at SFO, bringing tourists, conventioneers, and returning residents. All fly on petroleum fuels. Every day a phalanx of trucks delivers food to grocery stores, restaurants, and corner markets. All run on petroleum fuels. Every day roads are paved, potholes are filled, roofs are tarred, machinery is lubricated, and tires are replaced. All are done with petroleum-derived products. Every day hundreds of thousands of purchases take place, every one enabled by petroleum.
What will happen when the petroleum behind all these activities costs $100 a barrel? $200 a barrel? Or more? San Francisco’s viability as a major West Coast city is based on cheap petroleum. But the century of cheap petroleum is quickly coming to an end, and an era of expensive, scarce oil is dawning. Just as US production of oil peaked in 1970, production of oil from an increasing number of other countries has peaked as well. Currently, 33 of the top 48 major oil producers in the world are in irreversible decline, among them the United Kingdom, Norway, Mexico, and Indonesia. Within a few years — and indeed some claim it has already happened — global oil production will peak, then begin a protracted decline. The consequences are unthinkable. A world — and a city — built on cheap petroleum faces the largest challenge of modern times.
Nothing exists that can seamlessly replace petroleum. For transport, ethanol and biodiesel have been touted but both require tremendously higher levels of energy inputs for production compared to petroleum, and the competition with food production is already apparent with the rising price of corn in the Midwest. For other uses — lubrication, paving, plastics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, paints, inks, solvents, detergents, rubber, and thousands more — no drop-in substitute is remotely ready. Alternate sources — such as the tar sands of Canada — produce in net only a half barrel of oil for every barrel of energy consumed. As petroleum production reaches its peak, every aspect of our lives will be profoundly impacted.
What can be done? First, it’s important to understand the phenomenon. Peak oil is not an oil company conspiracy, nor is it the result of OPEC’s actions — this is the result of a century and a half of ever-rising exploitation of a finite energy source. Second, we need to examine how we use energy in San Francisco to determine ways to either reduce consumption or find nonfossil alternatives to supply it. We need to examine our food supply — completely dependent on petroleum for planting, harvesting, processing, and transporting — along with city operations and residential, commercial, and transportation requirements to assess their vulnerability in an era of rising energy prices.
In April, San Francisco became the first major city in the United States to pass a peak-oil resolution, and on July 28 the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission held the first in a series of hearings on the issue of peak oil. Over the next year the commission will hold additional public hearings to educate and inform the citizenry of San Francisco on peak oil and will be launching a study to identify the possible responses we can take. SFBG
Ross Mirkarimi
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi represents San Francisco District 5.