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How Other Cities Are Planning for Energy Descent
  - Part 7

April 2007

Fossil Fuels at Peak

How Other Cities Are Planning for Energy Descent
  - Part 7

by John Rawlins

John Rawlins has a B.S. in physics and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He retired in 1995 from the Westinghouse Hanford Co. at the Hanford site in Eastern Washington. Currently, he teaches physics and astronomy at Whatcom Community College.

Part 7

Previous articles in this series have reported on the expected impacts of the peaking of oil and natural gas supply rates at the worldwide and regional scales. Oil in particular is a strategic resource because of the difficulty of substituting other energy schemes in the transport sector. Transportation is over 90 percent dependent on refined oil products.

The most recent major oil-producing country apparently to enter decline is Saudi Arabia. Its super-giant and giant oilfields are four decades old and “mature” — jargon for “about to enter decline.” Stuart Staniford, of The Oil Drum (TOD) fame among peak oilers, recently posted results of international oil-watching agencies and showed that the Saudi oil production in 2006 was 8 percent less than that of 2005. The link to Staniford's TOD article is at:

Meanwhile, the number of drill rigs and wells in Saudi Arabia continues to skyrocket in an effort to mitigate decline of the older fields — but it’s economically and physically nearly impossible to compensate for decline of those mega-fields. Matt Simmons, author of “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy” (Wiley, 2006), summed up the importance for Saudi Arabia in the world of oil by stating that when Saudi Arabia peaks, that categorically means world oil production peaks. The world’s largest producer of oil is now Russia.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) had some experienced energy gurus prepare a report in 2005 on the subject of mitigating the effects of peak oil. The report pointed out what anyone who has ever been involved in energy policy knows all too well: the time required for development of a large, nationwide energy infrastructure (such as our transport sector, including the fuel supply) is three decades.

Therefore, if the peak is three decades hence, we would have time to implement some known options, change lifestyles gracefully and perhaps even develop some new energy options for transport. Jimmy Carter warned the nation 30 years ago about this very problem, and, after a few years of enthusiasm brought on by the oil shocks in the 1970s, we ignored him.

If the peak is two decades hence, there will be some economic dislocations. If the peak is one decade hence, the changes will be painful. One of the authors of the DOE report presents a summary at the following URL:

It appears that the peak may well be now, and we are still completely unprepared mentally or physically — thanks to mainstream media and politicians who have not been doing their job of informing us.

World production of oil has been flat at 84.5 million barrels per day for the past year and a half, and the decline in Saudi Arabia (plus likely decline in Russia in 2008) means we will have 2–3 percent less oil each year for several years, followed by even higher decline rates. Here’s another TOD reference — on recent flat world production:

A few locales around the world have begun to take notice at the government level. This article will summarize what nations, states, counties, cities and towns have been doing in the way of planning for peak oil.

Most of the adaptations to peak oil are also helpful in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming — but instead of making deliberate reductions in oil use to mitigate the future severity of global warming, we will experience reductions whether we want them or not. What governments and individuals can do is try to develop a consensus for dealing with the expected declines.

First Peak Oil Action Plan — Ireland

The first action plan I’m aware of comes from students at Kinsale Further Education College (FEC) in Kinsale, Ireland, under the expert guidance of Rob Hopkins. Hopkins had a strong permaculture background, and the students were attending a practical sustainability course at the FEC. The report title is “Kinsale 2021: An Energy Descent Action Plan — Version.1.2005” (the term EDAP entered the peak oil literature at that point).

Kinsale is a small seaside community of around 7,000 inhabitants, and is a gourmet food and jazz mecca for tourists. Issues dealt with in the report include food, education, housing, economy and livelihoods, health, tourism, transport, waste, energy generation and marine resources. The report recommended establishment of a Kinsale Sustainability Centre to monitor progress and coordinate actions.

The report also proposed a sustainable building code for the town. The first section of the report set the scenario, which is that Kinsale can expect to have at most 50 percent of the oil in 2021 that it has available today. The next section of the report articulates visions for the various issue areas — for the year 2021.

The third major report section then moved to year-by-year action items to achieve the vision for each issue area. Six months after issuance of Version 1, the town council passed a motion to support the initiative of the sustainability centre students to act as process leaders to implement their plan for the town.

The process includes continual assessment and improvement, so we should expect to see several versions over the coming years. Download a copy of the Kinsale EDAP at:

Post-Carbon Institute

Hopkins moved to Totnes in England to pursue his education, and now Totnes has developed its own EDAP. About the same time as Hopkins’ initiatives were in process, Julian Darley began promoting town and city “re-localization” through a worldwide organization called the Post-Carbon Institute (PCI), whose motto is “Reduce Consumption: Produce Locally.”

Wherever peak oil awareness was high enough, Darley and spouse Celine Rich would make a visit to help inaugurate new chapters. They were in Bellingham at its local inaugural in February 2004. At the time, Darley and Rich lived in Vancouver, B.C. They have recently moved to a U.S. hotspot of peak oil activity in San Francisco.

The main purpose of the PCI is to provide assistance to locales wishing to develop an energy descent plan, or re-localization plan. PCI now includes a separate entity known as The Re-localization Network ( and also hosts interviews with well-known peak oil activists at the Global Public Media (

Education seems to be the principal product of PCI, and it is a worldwide online network. One of Darley’s earlier efforts was to author a book about natural gas, entitled “High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis.”

Sweden is so far the only entire country to announce a goal to reduce its dependence on oil. Sweden established a task force to report on the efficacy of a goal of complete oil independence (that means all oil, not just imported oil — I think all oil in Sweden is imported) by 2020, just 13 years from now.

For U.S. citizens, a goal that aggressive must seem generally like a fantasy. However, sometime in 2007 the Swedish task force will publish a report and the world will learn whether the goal is achievable — as well as how the Swedes plan to transport themselves in an oil-free world. An online link describing the Swedish initiative is at the following URL:

Peak Oil Grassroots Activists in U.S.

In the U.S., a somewhat different process is occurring in several cities. It always begins with formation of a grassroots group whose members have awareness of peak oil (I’d guess the percentage of the U.S. population falling in this category is less than 10 percent).

This grassroots group then eventually approaches the city council members and/or their aides through a petition with several hundred signatures, and arranges some kind of information meeting or series of seminars for government and interested public. These may or may not involve outside well-known speakers on the subject, whose main function is to provide a sense of authenticity for what local residents have been reading, thinking and saying.

If the process continues, the city council would pass a resolution setting up a task force to study the topic and provide recommendations. Following a comment period with revision of the task force report, the city council can then adopt the report and direct that all branches of city government develop detailed action plans to implement the task force recommendations.

U.S. towns and cities whose city council (or equivalent) has passed a peak oil resolution include Franklin, New York; San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon; and Bloomington, Indiana. Cities in which a resolution is in some preliminary state (as of early March, 2007) include Ashland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; Dallas, Texas; Oakland, California; San Jose, California; and Seattle, Washington.

Not all efforts to influence city government have worked out well. Hamilton, Ontario, city government commissioned a report by Richard Gilbert to help with long-term planning. Gilbert prepared a peak oil report whose recommendations far exceeded anything city government expected or was willing to consider, and as far as I can tell progress there has stalled. A two-part article describing the report is at the following URLs: (part 1), (part 2).

Politicians everywhere will need considerable support to launch the kinds of changes required to deal with peak oil and climate change, given the entrenched interests that conventionally govern development within a city or county or state or nation. However, a sure result of energy decline is that we are about to enter an era of negative economic growth, or economic decline, so the real choice for government at all levels is whether

•to plan for it in a belated attempt to mitigate the pain, or

•to blunder blindly on with business as usual, thereby wasting scarce economic resources on a hopeless cause.

Portland First U.S. City to Plan for Oil Descent

As of early March 2007, the only U.S. city to have actually produced a draft of an energy descent plan is Portland, Oregon. Fortunately for everyone, it’s a wonderfully comprehensive, high-quality plan. In May 2006 the Portland City Council adopted a resolution setting up a Peak Oil Task Force (POTF) to prepare a report on impacts and recommendations for the city.

The POTF consisted of 12 citizens, who worked hard for about six months, doing research, attending meetings and writing sections of the report — on a purely volunteer basis. City employees from the Office of Sustainable Development, the Bureau of Planning, the Office of Transportation, and the Office of Emergency Management assisted in the effort as part of their city jobs.

In addition, the Oregon Department of Energy’s John Kaufmann served as a technical expert and wrote an appendix for the report. POTF members also interviewed numerous business and services leaders as part of their research process.

The POTF released a draft of their report on January 18, 2007. Following a comment period, the POTF will present their final report to City Council at their regular March 7, 2007, meeting. In a matter of just days from this writing, I expect to be able to download a final copy of their report.

Throughout this entire process, the schedule has been very aggressive, and according to the POTF members I’ve talked with, they are glad to be done with the report. Ownership of change has apparently made the transition from community activists to the city government.

Participatory governance has worked amazingly well in this one case, and I sincerely hope it pays off for other cities around the world as well — and a bit later I’ll explain why I harbor this hope for other cities in Washington and Oregon. You can download a copy of their report at the following URL:

Because Portland is at this point clearly ahead of any other U.S. city, the remainder of this article (to be continued next month) will focus on their findings and recommendations. §

Next Month: Specifics of Portland’s Energy Descent Plan

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