Working on empty: Planning for oil's end

Two Line Description: 

 An article from the Oregonian from 2006 about the Peak Oil Taskforce and Portland Peak Oil.

 No more fuel - After a Portland group persuades the city to create a task force, scenarios of crises emerge

Monday, December 04, 2006


The prophets of gloom meet every Wednesday in a church basement to plan for the end of oil as we know it.

Seated in folding chairs under fluorescent lights, the members of Portland Peak Oil share tips about switching to propane, planting vegetable gardens and harvesting fruit and nuts from local trees in case the food supply goes south along with affordable gasoline.

Thanks to their lobbying, the city of Portland is planning, too. In fact, Portland is one of only a handful of cities confronting head-on the predictions of a looming oil shortage and ballooning gas prices.

A task force that city commissioners created in May at the urging of Portland Peak Oil is nearly finished with a report aimed at helping Portland ease its addiction to oil.

The task force is looking at three oil shortage scenarios, according to a preliminary report released last week. The primary focus is a long-term, manageable transition in which prices rise at a gradual pace. The committee also is looking at a sudden disruption that causes an emergency and a shortage that results in a societal collapse.


No one, of course, is certain about when the world's oil supply will peak or if it's happened already. Predictions have ranged from 1995 to near 2030. Some disbelievers think the whole idea is bunk. Still, the peak oil theory has picked up steam in recent years, locally and nationally, thanks to disruptions in the U.S. oil supply after Hurricane Katrina and political insecurity in the Middle East.

In Portland, advocates for conservation say the city must make changes now for a less painful transition from a car-dependent economy to a model that relies less on oil. They're not talking about Armageddon. But their vision of the future is enough to make you buy bus tickets, bake bread and can some pickles.

"Our entire cultural system, including food, is based on the assumption that we will always have inexpensive and plentiful fossil fuel," said Pam Leitch, a founding member of Portland Peak Oil.

"If the peak oil theory is correct, that assumption will no longer be valid and we'll have to change much of what we do."

Even oil companies are pushing conservation these days. John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., told the Portland City Club in October that the era of cheap energy "is coming to a close." Hofmeister, however, doesn't think global oil production is near its peak. Nor do analysts at the federal Energy Information Administration.

"When I look at our long-term forecast, total production numbers continue to go up," said Doug MacIntyre, a senior oil market analyst for the administration, which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. "We still have production increasing for more than 20 years from now."

Last year, the average number of barrels produced each day was 84.4 million. The forecast for this year: 84.8 million.

But the numbers also show that demand is roughly the same as supply, leaving peak oil believers nervous, especially as consumption spikes in developing countries such as China and India.

Officially, Portland Peak Oil isn't making predictions about worldwide oil production. But Jeremy O'Leary, a longtime member of the group, figures it might have passed.

"If not," he said, "we're really close."

The early days

Portland's peak oil movement started more than two years ago after a series of posts appeared on, a Web site aimed at introducing like-minded neighbors.

The first meetings, O'Leary said, consisted of a couple of people sitting around a table at a pizza parlor. They initially called themselves Oregon Oil Awareness but changed the name after realizing that most of the people who came to the meetings were from the metro area.

Now they meet each week in a basement cafeteria at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Southeast Portland. Attendance ranges from 10 people on slow nights to close to 200 when the group shows movies popular in the peak oil movement, such as "The End of Suburbia" and "Oil on Ice."

The meetings draw college students, retirees, a courthouse clerk and techies like O'Leary, a systems and database administrator for Xerox. Leitch helps run the Portland Permaculture Institute, which offers workshops on sustainable living.

Together, they serve as a sort of support group, bringing vegetables from their gardens and sharing strategies for surviving a massive geopolitical disruption of oil production.

At one brainstorming session, O'Leary solicited recommendations to shore up the local food supply. Someone suggested a map of local fruit trees to make harvesting easier. Somebody else proposed soil-composting stations throughout the city where residents could dump organic matter.

But in addition to planning for an oil apocalypse, the group has showed a little political muscle. Last spring, members persuaded city commissioners to create the task force, making Portland one of four cities nationally to adopt a peak oil resolution, according to, a clearinghouse for peak oil news.

Other cities include San Francisco; Bloomington, Ind.; and Franklin, N.Y. About a half-dozen others, including Ashland, are working on peak oil resolutions, according to the Web site.

In Portland, the 12-member task force started meeting this summer to determine how businesses, residents and government should respond in an oil crisis.

Helping needy families

Early next year, the committee is expected to recommend cutting fossil fuel use by 50 percent in the next 25 years, creating emergency plans for sudden and severe shortages and encouraging energy-efficient transportation, according to the preliminary report. Helping low-income families is also a priority.

The sooner the city starts preparing for a potential oil shortage, the better, said Bill Scott, the general manager of Flexcar Portland and chairman of the task force.

"We don't have to plan for oil to be unavailable tomorrow," Scott said. "We have to plan to use less of it because it's going to be more expensive."

Commissioner Dan Saltzman said last week that preparing for an oil shortage is a long-term project for the city. But he's especially interested in making sure Portland is ready for the sort of natural disaster or war that could limit the oil supply in the short term.

Many conservation advocates say Portland is already on the right track, thanks in part to the urban growth boundary and the city's extensive network of public transportation.

Still, Leitch said, there's much to be done and no guarantee that city commissioners will transform the way Portland does business.



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