The proposed 25,000 acre Martis Valley Community Plan calls for the development of over 6,000 new housing units - enough development for a total urban population of around 20,000 - plus up to 600,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, and three golf courses, on 25,500 acres along California Highway 267. This stretch of grassy plain and mountain pine woods is located next to Truckee, California, and is just over a Sierra mountain ridge from beautiful Lake Tahoe. The average altitude is just over 6,000 feet. Martis Valley, which is generally warm and dry in the Summer, is usually cold and covered with snow in the winter.
The Martis Valley Community Plan is very typical of development proposals now before County and Municipal agencies throughout the United States. It assumes there will always be enough fuel to heat the planned homes and commercial space, as well as enough fuel to support the transportation needs of the community. Propane, natural gas, gasoline and diesel are the petroleum lifeline of any community. They will be especially important to the people who buy homes and businesses in Martis Valley because this is a very energy intensive development. The warm summers will prompt the demand for air conditioning. The cold winters will place a heavy burden on fuel for heat. For most of the residents, Martis Valley will be a second home and the assumption is that they will commute from 90 to 500 miles every time they want to use it.
We need to remember that any new development now going through the approval process will be expected to provide residential housing and commercial space for a period of more than 50 years. It is therefore incumbent on planners to give careful consideration to the following long term questions: What will these people use for heat? How will they cook their food? Are there adequate resources for diesel and gasoline fuels? If there are petroleum shortages, will they be able to use wood and coal for heat?
The Sierra Club objects to the Martis Valley Community Plan for the usual environmental reasons, calling the plan illegal and irresponsible. They never made their case. For what ever reason, the Sierra Club appears determined to ignore the key issue of petroleum resource depletion and the human suffering it will inevitably cause.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer came closer to the key issue. He fired off a letter to the Placer County Board of Supervisors, telling them their Martis Valley Community Plan fails to meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) which requires a ''good-faith effort at full disclosure'' of ''potential impacts of development,'' ..
The Placer County Board of Supervisors has jurisdiction over the approval process. Like most American county and municipal governments, it is not required to address - or even acknowledge - the impact of oil and natural gas depletion on the project, the environment, or the people who will live and work in the development after it has been completed. There is no mechanism for addressing petroleum resource depletion in the development approval process.
We should be wary of this omission. The development plan for Martis Valley is a really good example of obsolete public policy. In an era when we Americans should be developing a less energy intensive culture, our political leaders want us to believe there is an unlimited supply of natural gas and oil to sustain whatever lifestyle we chose.
If the Martis Valley Community Plan ignores the reality of oil and natural gas depletion, then what are the probable consequences? What desperate measures will people will take when they are freezing? What chaos will ensue when they realize that fuel shortages have actually trapped them in a cold and unforgiving environment? Are we not forgetting what happened in nearby Donner Pass?
When there is a shortage of fuel for heat and cooking, these home owners will do what man has always done - they will use wood for fuel. And then they will discover that coal works better as a fuel because it is a more efficient source of heat. The ensuing pollution will blanket Martis Valley in a thick, dirty, smog. In the winter, large areas of white snow will become a blackened mass of frozen soot.
Is that what we want?
Of course, environmentalists in Sacramento will pass a law prohibiting the use of coal. And the folks on the Air Resources Board will have a collective bureaucratic paroxysm. Unfortunately, both groups will miss the point. The people who are left in Martis Valley will resist any attempts to prevent them from using wood and coal. Half frozen fingers can still pull the trigger.
I know what you are thinking. This all sounds really, really far fetched.
OK. Don't believe me. Go ahead. Dismiss my commentary. Feign ignorance. Espouse denial. All this depletion stuff is nonsense. Right? Oil depletion is a politically incorrect subject. Considering the potential use of coal to keep people warm is political suicide. Pretend there will always be enough petroleum to meet our needs. Keep on approving energy intensive projects.
To be on the safe side, our political leaders should protect themselves from the ferocious criticism that will fall like hail when petroleum shortages inflame the electorate. Failure to prepare for the future will come back to haunt incumbents at all levels of government. Feigned ignorance will not provide any protection. Voters will ask one simple question: "Why did you let this happen to us?" Our political leaders will not be able to escape the pointed finger of accusation. Too many voices have warned that oil depletion is upon us and natural gas depletion will follow in a heart beat.
Petroleum resource depletion must be addressed in the legislative process. Energy conservation and production must become an essential element of public policy. The future of our country is at stake.
I have three concrete proposals for the Washington political establishment.
First: If we are going to save our collective butts in a timely fashion, resource depletion and energy production must be a non-partisan effort. We are not Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives or Liberals. We are Americans. If we run out of petroleum, all of us will be cold, hungry and stranded.
Second: Ask the Department of Energy (DOE) to lay it all out for us. Examine the probabilities of oil and natural gas depletion. Build on the existing DOE data base with a set of credible scenarios. Pull together a realistic assessment of our energy alternatives. Assemble a team of geologists, economists, and industry personnel at a conference in 2005 to explain the results. The first step in dealing with any complex problem is to clearly define the key issues. Then we can quantify and qualify the steps that must be answered in order to avoid economic and cultural chaos.
Third: Recognize that it will take a BIG, well managed, dedicated and focused organization to manage the ensuing program. Instead of throwing money at a bunch of nice ideas, plan on establishing a carefully crafted program of energy research, development, production and distribution. The details of this program should be a natural result of the DOE/EIA study.
Then make the right decisions. Favor no one. Promote goodwill to all.
Is that too much to ask?
It's time to put our collective pressure on the Washington political establishment. We must shift from an energy intensive culture to an energy prudent culture. Let Martis Valley be our example of bad planning. If we fail, public policy will continue to encourage an energy intensive culture - until it falls off a cliff.
Ronald R. Cooke
The Cultural Economist
Ron is the author of "Oil, Jihad and Destiny", a book which provides an assessment of world oil production, characterizes the economic devastation of oil depletion and suggests solutions to the emerging energy crisis.