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The peak oil crisis: a memorandum for the board

Memorandum for: The Chairman, Arlington County Board
Subject: Energy Task Force

First, let me congratulate you on your proposal to make a major effort during the coming year to slow the county's contribution to the world's emissions. Front-page coverage in the Washington Post insured the story was repeated around the country and indeed around the world.

I was particularly pleased to note that part of your proposal was to establish a citizen Energy Transition Task Force to advise the county regarding policies and actions that might aid the transition to a world in which substantially less fossil fuel will be used. The term "energy transition" is a good one for it encompasses those policies and actions that are desirable to slow global warming as well as to prepare for the inevitable arrival of oil depletion.

In researching what other cities have been doing about planning for oil depletion, I came across a preliminary report from the City of Portland (OR) peak oil task force that is worth looking at. Portland established its task force last May and so under the doctrine of "not reinventing the wheel," it is well worth noting some of the insights they have developed during seven months of deliberations.

Every locality in the world will face a different set of problems as it confronts oil depletion. Each will have particular assets that can be mobilized to mitigate the impact of peak oil and each will have liabilities that will make things more difficult. Obviously small rural towns surrounded by oceans of food production are going to be a different position than the residents of Manhattan. Arlington, which sits smack in the middle of a metropolis of 5 million inhabitants divided into 20 or 30 jurisdictions, must think through its own problems and solutions. Nevertheless, it seems that the Portland approach contains some good ideas.

Rather than launching into lists of recommendations, the Portland task force looked at the problem —and it is indeed a large one— and decided to break their efforts into four pieces with a sub-group concentrating on each one.

Portland decided to approach the problem of energy scarcity in four broad categories:

  1. Land Use and Transportation
  2. The Economy
  3. Public and Social Services
  4. Food

If you think about it a bit, as Portland obviously did, this is not a bad general approach to the problem. Even the initial thoughts of the Portland task force are too numerous to discuss here, but a couple of their general observations are worth noting.

Oil depletion will not take place in a local vacuum. All levels of government and all international organizations will be involved. However, as with so many other things, the buck stops with the local governments which actually provide most of the services that will be needed to sustain society.

In the Washington area we have three "states" and dozens of local governments. Coordinating all this will be a priority; otherwise the better service providers are likely to be overrun by people from less competent or less wealthy jurisdictions.

Social service resources are already stretched very thin. Scarce oil will result in a major increase in demand for these services. As a last resort, the problem will fall to the police and rescue services who will be inundated with "emergencies" unless other provisions are made.

Another interesting insight from Portland is that some sectors of our civilization will be impacted only gradually by scarce oil while others —most likely transportation— could be hit in a sudden, catastrophic fashion that would result in major disruptions.

Returning to Portland's four categories, it is interesting that land use and transportation were seen as parts of the same problem. Major changes in land use polices are unlikely to be required inside the Beltway in the foreseeable future. In the longer run, however, we are all going to be living much more densely in smaller multi-family spaces that we can afford to heat.

Transportation after the peak will be pretty much the same everywhere— public transit, walkable destinations, and highly efficient personal vehicles. If you are banking on getting one of the new GM electric cars, don't hold your breath. We have 225 million vehicles to replace in America and the waiting line is likely to be measured in decades.

Analysis of our local economy is too much for this venue. Scarce oil will lead to winners and losers. Discretionary spending —travel, restaurants, entertainment— is likely to contract, while the federal governmental activities which dominate so much of Arlington's economy are likely to go on growing for a while. Unless new arrangements are made, low-paid employees in the service sector that commute long distances by car are likely to be early casualties.

Public and social services are likely to be faced with manifold problems as oil becomes scarce and expensive. Areas to explore would be public health, schools, social services, medical and health care, housing, utilities, police and fire services. All of these areas are likely to come under severe stress and reduced resources as governments readjust priorities and try to cope with rapidly rising prices for nearly everything. Obviously, the poor, elderly, and immigrant communities are going to be facing the worst problems, at least in the short term.

Food shortages and much higher prices may be much closer than we think. For the last few years, the world has been eating more food than it has produced. Given the continuation of global warming-induced droughts, this situation is going to continue to become more serious. The current craze for turning corn into motor fuel is likely to bring much higher food prices in the next few years. It is unlikely our supermarkets are going to close down anytime soon, but the variety and price of available foods are likely to change markedly. As usual, low-income households will be impacted first, but at some point there may be pressure on many households to grow and process their own food.

There is still no definitive estimate as to when the "troubles" will begin. Geopolitical developments could bring a marked reduction in our oil imports at any time. The next hurricane season is only six months away. Some think geologic depletion and production problems will impact our ability to import oil later this year, while others believe this will not occur for another three or four years.

Given the time necessary to prepare for the coming disruptions, all this is getting mighty close.

Editorial Notes: More information about the Portland Peak Oil Task Force: Portland establishes task force on peak oil Portland prepares peak oil briefing book I haven't been able to find an online version of the article mentioned by Whipple about the Arlington Energy Task Force that appeared in the Washington Post. -BA

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