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Selling the world on a less dependent lifestyle

Herman Hughes drives his C.N. Brown tanker truck 300 to 350 miles a day, stopping three times, in separate trips, to unload his 8,000-gallon load of gasoline at service stations around the state.

By the end of the week, Hughes' single tanker has pumped another 120,000 gallons of petroleum into the energy stream of America. In one year, that amounts to 6.2 million gallons -- a scenario the Maine Oil Dealers Association said is typical.

Multiply that by all the tanker trucks making deliveries in each of the 50 states.

That consumption is beginning to make some people nervous -- but not Hughes.

"I don't think we are going to run out," the 42-year-old Hughes said as he filled the underground tanks at the Truckers International station in Fairfield on a bitter cold January day.

"I think we have enough reserves here. We just aren't drilling because of the environmentalists. We are using everybody else's supply."

Others think differently. A fringe community has formed that believes the well will run dry, and they are talking years, not centuries.

About 5 miles from Truckers International, a local contingent of this fringe community meets once a month at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Waterville.

Members of the Peak Oil Group subscribe to the prediction made by the late M. King Hubbert, a geologist with Shell Oil Co., that oil production will reach its worldwide peak as soon as this year -- hence the term "Hubbert's Peak."

There's not an SUV to be found among the 10 in the group.

Dick Thomas traded in his Cadillac for a Toyota Prius. Iver Lofving swapped his 4-wheel-drive Toyota T100 truck for a smaller 2-wheel drive Ford Ranger.

For most people, the move would be about saving money at the gas station.

But for Thomas and Lofving, the objective is to save gas.

Both men -- Thomas a Waterville resident, Lofving from Skowhegan -- are convinced that world oil production will soon be on a downward slope and that an energy catastrophe is inevitable unless action is taken soon.

Given that demand for petroleum increases exponentially each year, Hubbert argued that the world would virtually be out of oil by 2040.

"We can't expand infinitely in a finite world," Lofving said.

The Peak Oil group formed last fall.

They have adopted a bible of sorts, a book by a North Waterford engineer named John Howe called "The End of Fossil Energy."

The subtitle of the self-published book is "A Plan for Sustainability."

Those in the Peak Oil group are hard to dismiss as crackpots. They are well-educated people with curious minds who read extensively and care deeply about the world their children will inherit.

Thomas is a psychologist, Lofving a high school teacher. Another member, Leonard Reich of Belgrade, is a professor at Colby College who teaches a history course about oil.

Thomas said the group will work on two fronts.

On a personal level, each is committed to a transition to a less energy-dependent lifestyle, but they also have a greater purpose: They are determined to wake the rest of the world to the looming crisis.

"We want to increase public awareness about the issue," Thomas said. "Our thought is that I don't think we can count on politicians to do very much."

Thomas said each member of the group has downsized the car he or she had been driving.

In Lofving's case, the downsizing extended to his wife, who went from a Subaru Outback to a Toyota Echo -- the Echo is Toyota's most fuel-efficient traditional car.

Lofving said the vehicle changes enabled them to increase their family fuel efficiency by about 25 miles per gallon.

The Lofvings are not limiting their conservation plan to transportation. They also have picked up two solar panels that they plan to install on their house this spring.

Lofving said those panels will be used to provide hot water for the household.

A harder task, members agree, is the effort to make others understand the coming crisis and convince them to join the initiative. And yet this is the most vital objective. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a society to preserve a finite natural resource.

A common complaint in the Peak Oil movement is that the mainstream media has largely ignored the broader issue of the world's ever increasing energy consumption.

Without that media attention, they argue, creating an awareness of the problem is impossible and that awareness is critical to mobilize people to the cause.

That cause essentially is about buying time. The plan for sustainability that Howe describes in his book calls for people to reduce their energy consumption by 5 percent a year, a plan that he estimates would save the equivalent of 200 billion barrels of oil over a 35-year period -- each barrel holds 42 gallons of oil.

"We want to focus more on the solution than we do the problem," Lofving said, "though at first we have to make people aware of the problem."

But that solution amounts to convincing people to adopt an entirely different paradigm when it comes to energy consumption. In the United States in particular, that will be a hard sell.

In his history class, Reich tells the story of America's evolution into the land of muscle cars and SUVs. Abundant energy fueled America's rise to industrial powerhouse and international superpower.

In Europe, energy has always been a national security issue, Reich said. Not so in the United States. Americans, Reich said, have always viewed cheap energy as an entitlement, as a way of life.

Under Howe's 5 percent solution, people would have to reduce their energy consumption dramatically.

They would have to switch to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles and drive less as well. Airline travel would also have to be cut in half immediately.

Say goodbye, moreover, to NASCAR and any other sport that involves the use of the internal combustion engine. The Tour de France, on the other hand, could continue.

No more Rose Bowl games with 100,000 spectators in the stands either. Too much gas is consumed getting those fans to the stadium, Howe argues. Instead people will have to rely on their television to cheer on their favorite team unless they can walk or bike to the stadium.

For the household, one multipurpose electric utility vehicle, or EUV, would take the place of the SUV. Showers would have to be rationed strictly -- hot water takes energy -- and families would have to get used to cooler houses and reducing their living space to a central core during winter months.

The washing machine could remain, but get used to hanging clothes year-round, and forget about motorized toys such as snowmobiles, ATVs and motorboats.

Kitchens would have one high-efficiency full-size refrigerator, two small cooking burners and one well-insulated oven and perhaps a toaster.

The goal would be to limit kilowatt hours to 400 per month, with all that energy generated by 40 square meters -- a typical roof side -- of electricity-generating panels.

Lofving admits that selling people on such a lifestyle change won't be easy, but there is a strategy.

"No. 1, it is good for the environment," he said. "No. 2, it is good for the wallet."

And the third variable, Lofving said, is the most intangible of the bunch, but one that could be just as influential as the other two.

"There is a big cool factor here," he said of adopting the energy conservation lifestyle, "whether putting solar panels on the roof or whatever."

An electric car in the driveway, solar panels on the roof, a clothes line in the back yard and a bicycle for every family member. Could this be the definition of cool in the 21st century?

The Peak Oil group hopes so.

Editorial Notes: The book mentioned in the article, The End of Fossil Energy by John Howe, is available from McIntire Publishing and Post Carbon Institute. A few hours later... Just found more PO articles appearing in Maine papers by the indefatigable reporter Colin Hickey: * One man practices what he preaches (about John Howe, author of The End of Fossil Energy) * Colby course gives historical perpective of U.S. dependence * Energy industry: Oil crisis years away -BA

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