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Seattle "peak-oilers" prepare for a world without petroleum

Food shortages, cars abandoned, another depression. It's the stuff of nightmares — and the type of future an eclectic group of engineers, computer experts and others in Seattle believe could await us.

They're not religious zealots predicting Armageddon, nor survivalists digging bomb shelters. They believe the world is about to start running out of gas.

Literally.

Members of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness expect world production of oil and gasoline to peak soon, if it hasn't already, and hard times to follow. Similar groups are popping up around the country from Boston to Portland, despite oil-industry assertions that there's nothing to worry about.

How bad things could get depends on whom you talk to. Some peak-oilers expect car travel to largely disappear and food supplies, which depend heavily on fuel to produce and distribute, to decline.

"We're probably going to end up with some sort of die-off in the world, of people," said Rocky Willson, a Seattle Peak Oil Awareness member with an unsettling outlook.

"You can look at it like a black box," said Willson, a foosball-table seller who has taken up gardening. "The oil goes in and creates people. When the oil gets cut off, the people go away."

Other members of the group talk about a financial shock caused by soaring oil prices, followed by something approaching the Great Depression.

"I think we're looking at recession upon recession upon recession," but not a complete breakdown of civilization, said Dave Reid, an electrical engineer with a touch of a Scottish accent.

"We're not going to Mad Max," he said, referring to the post-apocalyptic movie.

Reid, who is 43, is preparing by investing in gold, installing solar panels and buying a home near the new light-rail line, which he figures would still operate. Other members of the group are making similar preparations for a low-energy future.

Plenty of industry experts say groups like the one in Seattle fret over nothing. Peak oil has been described as a liberals' version of "Left Behind," the series of books and films about what would happen if all of God's followers ascended into heaven.

Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an oil consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass., projects world oil production won't peak for at least 30 years and that even then it will hit an "undulating plateau" before declining.

"People have been prophesizing the end of the industry for 150 years," said John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute. "The [oil] reserves continue to build up."

Peak-oil groups don't buy it. They're fueled by a pile of books and government reports predicting rough times ahead.

David Goodstein, vice provost at the California Institute of Technology, starts and finishes his book "Out of Gas" saying "civilization as we know it will not survive unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels." Goodstein says nothing has changed his mind since the book was published in 2004.

U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., is so worried he started a peak-oil caucus in Congress with about a dozen members from both parties. "Every night I go to bed hoping I'm wrong, but I see no reason why I'm wrong. The world is facing a fairly imminent crisis," he said.

Big decline predicted

Peak oil refers to the point when half the world's oil supply has been pumped from the ground.

Groups worried about peak oil predict a dramatic shortfall in petroleum after the peak is reached. That's because they expect oil production to drop at the same time demand from industrialized nations, including the U.S., India and China, is increasing.

What happens next, they say, will at first be similar to the 1973 oil embargo by OPEC nations — high gasoline prices, shortages, long lines at the pump — except it will never end and will only get worse.

Much of the peak-oil debate revolves around when the peak will be reached, and whether we can switch to other forms of energy in time to avoid a prolonged crisis. Both sides cite studies that say we're either in a world of trouble, or there's nothing to worry about.

Seattle Peak Oil Awareness meets at the Phinney Neighborhood Center in North Seattle. About 50 people are involved in the group, either by attending meetings or joining the Web forum.

More than a dozen people showed up at their most recent monthly meeting, arriving by foot, bike, motorcycle and fuel-efficient cars. One guy parked his car at the bottom of a nearby hill because he didn't want to waste the gas driving up.

It's an informal gathering with no clear rules. They start off talking about a resolution they want the Seattle City Council to approve. It states, in part, that peak oil is likely to hit the city with little warning and "intervention at all levels of government will be required to avert social and economic chaos."

Many members say the group should alert the public at large and see the resolution as a way to do that. But Reid says there's an ongoing split.

"There are people who think that if you do enough work and get enough people on board then you can solve the problem," he said. "And then there's people who think we don't have time for that."

"Extremely depressing"

Reid, who moved to the U.S. from Scotland a decade ago, says it's hard to get people to understand the peak-oil issue, much less prompt them to action.

"The trouble with this is that it's an extremely depressing subject," he said. "A lot of people don't even want to know about it because it's so depressing. And when people do take it on, they just get depressed."

Members of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness went through that, he said, but decided it was better to prepare than do nothing.

The group's members are taking incremental steps to adjust their finances and their lifestyles.

They talk about how to grow, cook and store seasonal foods. Their Web site has forums about creating a seed bank, saving rainwater for gardening and building raised planting beds. There's discussion by some members of eventually buying some property that can be planted. They also discuss widening their social networks and establishing strong connections with neighbors, so they'll have people to count on if life gets tough.

Robert Nelson, a 36-year-old computer systems engineer, says he put a wood stove in his house after he learned about peak oil. He also stopped investing in the stock market and decided not to replace his pickup truck when it conked out recently. He and his wife now have one car.

Nelson expects the future will be a lot slower than our current fast-paced lifestyle, given that travel by car and plane will be a rarity. It's a waste of money, he said, to add lanes to interstates 5 and 405. "I look forward to the day when it's actually a nice biking surface," he said.

He also expects a much lower standard of living where work will be hard to come by. That's why many members are trying to get rid of debt by paying off everything except their mortgages.

Many of the lifestyle changes fit with members' environmental beliefs, they say, and they'd probably make them even if they didn't believe the world is running out of oil.

"I think peak oil is inevitable," Nelson said. "It's not escapable and it's going to happen within our lifetimes, so why not try to change our lives so we can live with those changes and be ready."

Seattle Peak Oil Awareness: www.seattleoil.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

Editorial Notes: Contributor Jerry McManus writes:
The Seattle Times is known locally as 'The Gray Lady', not just for the monolithic cement-colored building that houses her, but also for her rather conservative bias in a city dominated by eco-liberals. Refreshing to see some 'fair and balanced' reporting on peak oil in her pages, even if it does include a quote from CERA.
BA: some clarifications to the article: It is not true that "plenty of industry" experts say peak oil people "fret over nothing." Over the past year, there has been almost unanimous recognition of an upcoming energy crisis, although there is much disagreement about its nature and appropriate responses. Environmentalists, military thinkers, industry, oil companies and political parties have all started taking a closer look at energy - and the more closely they look, the more worred they become. For examples, see the Energy Bulletin archives. The idea of an upcoming peak in conventional oil production is widely accepted among analysts and in the industry. Even CERA's analysis, quoted in the article, is not that different from that of peak oil proponents. As industry analyst Chris Skrebowski concludes in his Open letter to Peter Jackson of CERA:
far from dispelling concerns about Peak Oil you have effectively confirmed that they are real and imminent.
-BA

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