Peak experience

Peak experience

By Amanda Witherell

Standing on the steps of City Hall, New College professor Richard Heinberg told a crowd of San Franciscans, “The 21st century will be the decline of fossil fuels.” This renowned expert on “peak oil” then headed inside to testify at a hearing convened by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi on the issue.

Chief among the myriad troubling facts and statistics was Heinberg’s prediction that world oil production will peak around 2010 or 2011. US production peaked in the 1970s, but that barely affected the country’s skyrocketing oil consumption patterns. Even the recent dollar per gallon jump in gasoline prices has yet to significantly slow the rapid approach of the inevitable end of the age of oil.

Contrasting his research with that of global warming, Heinberg said, “Peak oil is not a theory. It’s something we’ve been observing for 30 years.”

Because of unabated rises in population and oil demand, plus escalating conflict over what little petroleum reserves remain, the United States can expect a continued increase in price and decrease in the comfort and security that 100 years of cheap petroleum have allowed.

Heinberg has researched and authored three books on the subject of peak oil and appeared in all the liberal publications that were crying out about global warming before it was the hip new worry. He was invited to the city’s July 28 Local Agency Formation Commission meeting, where he presented the scary news and urged city officials to prepare.

David Room of Energy Preparedness, an Oakland firm that consults with businesses and municipalities on how to prepare for rising oil prices and potential shortages, also addressed the committee, agreeing with Heinberg’s timeline and urging the city to think in terms of disaster preparedness.

He cited a rise in oil prices from $28 a barrel in October 2003 to $75 a barrel today, noting that this continued trajectory would bring us to $300 a barrel by peak oil time. Broken down, that’s $12 for a gallon of gasoline. He recommended the city look at how escalating oil prices or supply disruptions could affect every municipal service that depends on the General Fund and urged a deep move toward drastic localization on all fronts, from food supplies to employment and housing.

Mirkarimi said one of the first steps would be a lessening of our reliance on fossil fuels and “restructuring of our relationship with PG&E” by making Community Choice Aggregation of power — and ultimately, full public power — more of a reality and less of a theory.

Originally published August 1, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian