After the peak

Pub date October 6, 2009
WriterMelanie Ruiz

To prepare for the inevitable decline in fossil fuel production, San Francisco’s Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force (see "Running on Empty," 1/30/08) has concluded the city needs to rapidly implement the community choice aggregation and its related renewable energy projects, beef up "buy local" programs, convert unused land (including some park and golf course property) into public food gardens, and consider implementing city carbon, gas, vehicle, and fast food taxes.

The task force presented its findings, contained in a 125-page report, to the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee on Sept. 24. It notes the city’s weak current position with respect to the economy, food security, and transportation, yet it remains to be seen how the Board of Supervisors will answer the task force’s call. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi says he will look for ways to initiate some of the short- and long-term recommendations "to legitimize its most salient parts."

San Francisco is the largest U.S. city to produce a sweeping report on the potential impacts of peak oil, a term that refers to the point of maximum oil production, after which extracting dwindling supplies gets steadily more difficult and expensive. Although there isn’t consensus on when the peak will come, the task force’s message is clear: action must be taken now. "The transition cannot be done quickly; the city faces a limited window of opportunity to begin, after which adaptation will become enormously difficult, painful, and expensive," concludes the report. Without sufficient preparation, dwindling supplies of oil and fossil fuel could have dire impacts on San Francisco’s economy, food supply, and security.

Many actions recommended by the task force focus on developing local sustainability. For example, disaster planning needs to cover peak oil phenomena. If delivery of food is delayed or reduced due to fuel shortage, food prices could soar, creating a great need for local options, particularly for low-income families. So the report recommends maximizing the amount of time San Francisco can sustain itself locally.

Specifically, implementing an aggressive "Buy Local First" program that prompts public institutions to purchase regionally produced food when possible would encourage more local food production. A fast food tax could further support this goal. Other recommendations include establishing food production education programs and conducting a comprehensive evaluation of which public lands could be converted to food production. Although the Bay Area is capable of producing enough food to sustain itself, food currently being produced is not diverse enough, and much of it is exported.

The report also warns of the social unrest that could result from improper preparation. San Francisco’s economy depends heavily on travel and visitors, with about 18 percent of city revenue coming from tourism. Escautf8g energy costs and its myriad impacts could send the economy into a prolonged downward spiral.

"With food becoming increasingly expensive, travel and the distribution of goods significantly affected, and unemployment climbing, economically vulnerable populations — including a high percentage of people of color — could experience increasing malnutrition, and some may not be able to maintain health without government intervention," the report reads.

Such future scenarios should affect today’s decisions in all realms, including transportation. Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable Cities and an elected BART board member, said at the Sept. 24 hearing that it doesn’t make sense to fund highway expansions when future resources might not be able to support even the current number of automobiles on the roads.

In fact, he said, there is a cultural shift already underway in which people want to move away from the car-dependant suburbs and into more pedestrian-friendly urban areas, although policymakers haven’t caught up with this trend yet. While BART and Muni fight uphill battles to expand public transit service with dwindling resources, Radulovich pointed out that the Bay Area Metropolitan Transport Commission (MTC) is proposing to direct $6.4 billion toward highway expansion, despite a decline in vehicle miles traveled. Livable Cities coauthored a resolution, recently approved by the Board of Supervisors, urging the MTC to redirect these funds toward improving transit.

As oil becomes scarcer, the need to create and improve communities where people can safely get around by foot or bicycle will be paramount. Ben Lowe, a task force member specializing in transportation security, noted how important it is to look for regional solutions that go beyond individual cities. There is no magic single solution, but dealing with limited-supply and cost-prohibitive oil requires numerous small solutions as we make this transition.

The main obstacle, as Mirkarimi sees it, is that the sense of urgency is not there. Public officials need to educate the public and "to find something, key pieces of legislation, to rally around," he said. He plans to look into formal ways to keep the seven task force members involved in this process, for example, by matching them with policy experts who can facilitate creation of pertinent legislation.

The task force’s mantra for dealing with forthcoming shortages in oil is to integrate peak oil consideration into government planning and all the decisions made by the mayor and Board of Supervisors. Mirkarimi warns that it would be myopic for San Franciscans not to deliberate on the dangers and opportunities outlined in this report.

Read the report at