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The ripening

I have a hankering for a creamy ripe avocado but the one facing me on the kitchen counter is as hard as the seed that sits at its core. No matter what trick I apply in ripening the fruit, it resists my persistence and growing impatience.

And so it is with the ripening of ‘peak oil.” We analyze the data, we cajole, we organize conferences, we give presentations, we rant, we blog, we reanalyze, we give up and then come back for more. To some degree, our emotional state runs from full octane to running on fumes depending upon the news or events of the day. And like the avocado, we run the risk of bruising when we are probed and then passed over for the riper issue of the day.

Consider December 14, 2006. I sat excitedly at the speakers’ table for the press conference unveiling the Southern California Association of Governments’ (SCAG) 2006 State of the Region Report. Our annual “Report Card” covering the largest metropolitan planning region in the nation gets lukewarm coverage from the media depending upon competing news events such as car chases, bank heists, or big surf. My role was to highlight the inclusion of a new “Energy Section.”

The usual group of reporters, both print and broadcast was there. I had spent many hours formulating responses to anticipated questions regarding my remarks and the inclusion of this important new section acknowledging “peak oil.” For me, it represented one more effort to ripen this critical issue and capture the attention of elected officials and the public:

I am pleased to announce that this year SCAG has added a new energy section to the State of the Region Report. The energy section includes a guest essay by economist Ron Cooke and SCAG is further emphasizing the importance of the energy issue through development of a new Energy chapter in our upcoming Regional Comprehensive Plan.

California hit its peak in terms of oil production in 1985, and we’ve been importing increasing amounts of oil ever since.

Between 1985 and 2005, our state’s oil production declined by 42 percent. To fill the growing gap between declining supply and increasing demand, we increased our state’s oil imports from 50 million barrels in 1994 to more than 250 million barrels in 2005. We now depend on foreign suppliers for more than 42 percent of our oil, and that percentage continues to grow.

California is the second largest consumer of energy in the nation, and we are also one of its largest producers and refiners. We rank 4th in both crude oil reserves and crude oil production. California is the largest consumer of gasoline, and 2nd in distillate and jet fuel consumption. California has the third largest refining capacity in the nation.

We have developed our economy, and our lifestyle, on the basic assumption of unrestricted energy resources. There is growing consensus that we as a region and a state can no longer continue to consume increasing quantities of a commodity that may, or may not, be available at an affordable price.

From the perspective of local government, it is clear that we can no longer make policy decisions based on the obsolete assumption that there will always be abundant quantities of affordable fossil fuels.

As our report contributor Ron Cooke points out in his essay, the issue of energy can be boiled down to two words—oil depletion.

There is considerable difference of opinion on when global production of oil will peak and begin to decline, resulting in chronic shortages and significant volatility in energy costs. Some suggest it has already occurred and others believe it is 10 – 20 years away.

However, what can no longer be in dispute is the fact that that day will likely occur within the time frame of SCAG’s long term planning documents and we need to start taking real steps to plan for a different energy future.

The challenge for California’s policy makers and industry leaders is to manage an energy sector that is currently dependent on non-renewable resources such as oil and natural gas. Failure to initiate a comprehensive energy strategy in the present will only lead to spiraling energy prices, potential supply shortages, and an inadequate and aging energy delivery infrastructure.

We cannot isolate ourselves from world oil and natural gas markets. We cannot depend on technology to solve all of our problems. We can’t continue our unsustainable lifestyle.
Earlier this year, SCAG held an important Southern California Energy Conference. We identified steps we can take to develop sustainable energy policies and practices.

First, community, industry and local government leaders must become thoroughly familiar with the energy issues that confront us. No more sugar coating. Our leaders must educate themselves on the issue of oil depletion and all of the far-reaching implications it will have for us in terms of personal mobility, how we heat our homes, how energy impacts our entire cost structure.

Second, we need a strategic plan to identify, develop and initiate appropriate responses to the energy challenges that lie ahead. The fact that SCAG is now including an Energy Chapter in its upcoming Regional Comprehensive Plan is an important step, but that’s just the beginning.

Third, local governments must review their land use, zoning and building codes with one specific question in mind: does each code optimize the conservation of our energy resources?

Fourth, we must refocus our transportation capital expenditures from personal vehicles to public transportation systems, and support carpooling programs. It's time to get serious about interconnected light rail, railroad, local shuttle, express and mini-bus services. Let local entrepreneurs experiment with ride sharing options to complement the fixed route public transportation system.

Finally, we must evaluate our region’s response. SCAG's Regional Comprehensive Plan and local government general plans can play an important role in initiating projects and programs. We can do this by removing obstacles to energy conservation and inspire efficiency initiatives. We can create incentives for shared and public transportation, manage transportation pools, establish self-sufficient neighborhoods and foster an environment of cooperation, experimentation, and understanding.

There is much work to be done, and the key is that we need to start that effort TODAY if we are to be fully prepared as both leaders and citizens for the energy future that awaits us.

But the reporters’ questions turned to the usual fare: the “report card” grades assigned to Mobility, Housing, Income, Employment. After all, Mobility had gotten an “F”. If only we had assigned a grade to Energy. Perhaps “E” for Empty. If only gasoline were $3.50 a gallon instead of $2.50. If only I had some ethylene gas to ripen that avocado. One more squeeze. Not quite ready. There may not be guacamole tonight but eventually the fruit will relent.

Debbie Cook is Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Huntington Beach, California, President of the Orange County Division of the League of California Cities, a member of the Southern California Association of Governments Regional Council and Chair of their Energy Working Group. She can be reached at energymaven@gmail.com

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent ASPO-USA's positions; they are personal statements and observations by informed commentators.)

Editorial Notes: The report mentioned in the article is available online via State of the Region 2006 (Southern California) . The energy section is on pages 114-135. Direct link to the 4.5-MB PDF. The guest essay on peak oil, included in the report, is also available in standalone form. -BA

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