Descending the Oil Peak ( .PDF )
On the street
I’m one of those positive thinkers who would like to think that when it does happen, we will have wised up enough to be prepared for it.
Imagine the day when your vehicle's odometer becomes a tax meter - the more you drive, the more you pay in taxes.
When you do drive, you'll be greeted by more toll stations. And when you stop, you'll be greeted by more parking meters. Along the way you'll notice roofs with solar panels, yards with vegetable gardens, construction crews building bike paths instead of roads, and perhaps even large warehouses stuffed with massive amounts of food to deal with an energy emergency that hovers on the horizon.
Farfetched, you say.
Well, evidently you aren't in Portland, Ore., nor have you bought into the concept of Peak Oil - a supposed economic disaster-in-waiting that will make $4 a gallon gasoline look like the deal of the century.
"I think gasoline probably will hit $5 a gallon over the next year, and I've heard credible reports that it will hit $10 a gallon over the next four years," said Tim Hjersted, a Lawrence resident who has formed a local group urging city leaders to begin preparing for the day that petroleum becomes a scarce resource.
Some cities already are preparing for the day. All the above examples - taxes on individuals driving, more road tolls, additional parking meters and emergency food warehouses - are included in an approved plan by the Portland City Council to deal with what it believes is an inevitable shortage of oil.
In its simplest form, that's the easiest way to think of Peak Oil. It is a significant, worldwide shortage of oil. For the more precise types, it is the day when world oil producers aren't able to produce as much as they did the day before. In other words, it is when world oil production begins its descent.
Hjersted's group - the Lawrence Peak Oil Action Committee - wants Lawrence leaders to adopt their own Peak Oil response plan. City commissioners tentatively have agreed to receive a presentation from the group later this summer. Hjersted says if Lawrence does nothing - the preferred response of most communities - it is setting itself up for a colossal economic meltdown that could occur in as few as two to three years.
"This is really important for Lawrence to do because Lawrence is definitely a commuter-heavy city," said Hjersted, a local activist who operates an independent film Web site.
There's not much debating that $10-a-gallon gasoline will put a dent in the American way of life. Heck, $4 a gallon gasoline is denting it - $10 a gallon may turn it into a relic akin to record players and SUVs.
But there is a lot of debate about whether Peak Oil is for real or whether it is like other scares that didn't materialize. Anyone remember when computers were going to freeze up and cause widespread infrastructure failures as the calendar turned to the year 2000?
In other words, is that really Peak Oil that is knocking on the door, or is it Peak Hysteria?
Energy leaders with the U.S. government are taking a position somewhere in between. Economists with the EIA - the branch in the Department of Energy that monitors energy statistics - generally say that Peak Oil is a real phenomenon. But, they contend it is decades away, not years.
In some scenarios, the day of Peak Oil could arrive near the year 2050. In some cases it could be later than that if governments around the world decide to get more aggressive in pumping oil.
"There's still a lot of oil out there," said John Staub, an economist specializing in world oil markets for the EIA.
He said many people who believe Peak Oil has arrived or is just around the corner often are working with flawed numbers. He said a past U.S. Geological Survey report estimated there were only 2 trillion barrels of recoverable oil in the world.
That sounds like a lot, but oil experts agree it is not. With a world where China and India are now developing American-like appetites for oil, 2 trillion barrels won't last long. But Staub said the 2 trillion barrel estimate was a simplistic analysis. EIA believes there are 14 trillion to 24 trillion barrels of recoverable oil worldwide.
Those numbers don't fly with many who are concerned about Peak Oil. They're concerned those are pie-in-the-sky numbers from an administration that they believe hasn't taken the issue seriously.
"The EIA is overly optimistic," Hjersted said.
Real world sacrifices
Perceived inaction on the federal level is one reason groups like Hjersted's are urging action on the local level. And in some cases - such as in Portland - they are urging not just action but dramatic lifestyle changes.
The cornerstone of Portland's response plan is a goal for every current resident to cut his or her gasoline and natural gas usage by nearly 70 percent in the next 25 years.
Some ways Portland is proposing to do so already are being discussed in Lawrence. Shifting future neighborhood design to a more pedestrian-friendly scheme is a large part of the effort. In Lawrence, city commissioners already have been making changes to city regulations that give developers the option of building neighborhoods with small corner stores and offices that allow people to stay in their neighborhoods for services.
If Portland's plan is any indication, a Peak Oil world also would add fuel to several other frequent arguments in Lawrence. Portland's plan discourages expansion of the city's growth area because sprawl will become even more costly. That means developments on the edge of town likely would face even more opposition.
The same would hold true for development on agricultural ground. Portland's plan says protecting farmland is critical because in a Peak Oil world it will be less feasible to ship in food from thousands of miles away.
And then there are the battles over roads. For those who think completing the South Lawrence Trafficway is difficult now, it may become doubly so if the city adopts a Peak Oil mentality. In the Portland plan, it recommends any road expansion should receive extra scrutiny because of higher fuel prices.
Some Lawrence residents already are advocating for that type of thinking. Michael Almon, a Brook Creek neighborhood advocate who frequently urges the city to adopt more progressive policies, recently used the threat of Peak Oil to lobby for major changes to the city's long-range transportation plan, which is called Transportation 2030.
"It is imperative to plan for transportation options that will minimize our use of oil, and even minimize our reliance on transportation itself," Almon wrote in a letter to the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. "A better title for this plan would be Transportation Contraction 2030."
To wait or to act
So, that's where Lawrence finds itself these days.
At the EIA, Staub has some optimism that technology will end up blunting the horns of this dilemma. He said advances in technology may make pumping "unconventional" oil more feasible in the near term. That would mean billions or trillions of barrels of heavy crude in Canada, Venezuela, Nigeria and other parts of the world would become viable to pump. Plus, he said advances in alternative fuels and auto technology to improve gasoline mileage could render all of today's projections obsolete.
But betting on technology is still a bet, says Don Green. He should know. As a professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Kansas University, he's in the business of improving oil technology.
"I think we should have some expectations for new technology," Green said. "But if we just sit back and think new technology is going to take care of us, that could be a fatal mistake."
Green said he thought the safe thing to do was plan for a comprehensive energy strategy that looked beyond oil. When it comes to Peak Oil, he's like many others. He's not sure it will happen anytime soon, but he's also not sure it won't.
"Frankly, nobody really knows whether it is going to happen or not, but there are certainly a number of serious folks who believe we're pretty close to that point," Green said.