Written by Tom Whipple
Thursday, 15 March 2007

Last week Portland, Oregon became the first governmental body in the US to not only acknowledge that imminent peak oil is a reality, but also to publish a plan as to what the city should be doing to cope. Breaking new ground has both its perils and its rewards. The peril is that you have no guidelines to the road ahead. The advantage is that there is no standard of comparison so your efforts instantly become the textbook to mitigating the effects of peak oil at the local level.

As someone who is familiar with the literature and follows the peak oil story on a daily basis, I can report that the folks on the Portland Peak Oil Task Force have produced a succinct, outstanding report that should be read by every local official everywhere. While there will naturally be many local variations, Portland’s approach to the problem contains much that seems universally applicable.

The tone of the Portland report is one of moderation. Although it deals with the most serious issue the world has had to face since the world wars and threats of nuclear holocaust a generation or two ago, the report’s 85 pages methodically makes the way through the peak oil story and what needs to be done. In a matter-of-fact way, the report deals with numerous issues likely to ensue from peak oil and offers many new insights as to what is likely to happen and what we as a civilization should be doing to transition away from fossil fuels and feedstocks.

Portland clearly benefited from the expertise of the many people who served on the task force and its four expanded subcommittees. This process allowed the task force to break down a large and unwieldy problem into more manageable topics (land use and transportation, food and agriculture, public and social services, and economic change) to come up with some new insights and good recommendations for each.

The report’s authors grasp the point that whether oil depletion impacts our civilization this year, in three years, ten years or 20 years makes little difference as the changes required will be so massive that we need to start working on the problem immediately. The authors give short shrift to those who claim we will be saved by alternatives and new technologies by making the point that there is nothing on the horizon that can cheaply, quickly and efficiently replace oil and natural gas. They warn against rapid drops in oil prices as we saw last year as nothing more than the volatility we can expect as we approach peak oil.

In assessing the impact of peak oil, the report starts with the most fundamental of issues: the human carrying capacity of the planet which has been dramatically increased in the last 100 years by the widespread use of fossil fuels.

Drawing on the historical experiences of the 1973 Arab oil embargo which cut world oil production by six or seven percent, the report notes the harm done to US economic growth, productivity and rate of inflation. This discussion leads into three possible scenarios for peak oil’s impact on the world.

In the best scenario, oil availability drains away slowly so that 20 years from the beginning of oil depletion, 50 percent of current consumption is still available. Under such a scenario prices would be volatile with demand dropping in response to spikes and increasing as prices recede.

A second scenario would be sudden disruptions in supplies which could last for months or years leaving the advanced economies in a state of emergency for long periods. Society could cope but with much more disruption.

The final scenario is social disintegration. The economic impact of peak oil simply becomes so great that multiple global systems, financial, currency or trade fail. Governments are forced to concentrate on basic human needs and are overwhelmed. The Portland study concentrates on the long-term transition scenario as a situation that if properly handled has the potential to deal with shocks and prevent social deterioration.

The specific impacts on various aspects of Portland’s economy and social fabric are too numerous to list much less discuss. The basic recommendation is nothing earthshaking— cut absolute use of oil and natural gas in half over the next 25 years. The faster this happens, the smaller Portland’s or anybody else’s vulnerability to shrinking supplies of oil and natural gas will be.

Fifty percent is a challenging number for population growth and is likely to continue, and some services – police, medical, fire, garbage, sewage, clean water – are so vital to modern civilization that more modest reductions in their energy consumption are likely to be feasible. Thus the impact of an absolute 50 percent reduction in oil and natural gas consumption is likely to be closer to two-thirds or more for the average citizen.

The recommendations as to how to achieve such a reduction, even over two decades, are pretty straight forward: mass transit, better land use, walkable communities, far more efficient vehicles, freight moving from planes and trucks to rail and water, building standards improve, and above all, education.

There are other features of the report, such as emphasis on joint planning and coordination with surrounding and other levels of government.

Again, for the first cut at describing what is likely to be one of the major paradigm shifts of the 21st century, the folks in Portland have done an excellent job. Much of what they say is applicable everywhere so their report might turn out to be an instant classic. Should you be interested in just how we might all get through the years ahead, a pdf of the report is available online at: www.portlandonline.com/shared/cfm/image.cfm?id=145732.