Your browser does not support modern web standards implemented on our site
Therefore the page you accessed might not appear as it should.
See for more information.

Whatcom Watch Bird Logo

Past Issues

Whatcom Watch Online
Portland, Oregon
First U.S. City to Plan for Oil Decline
- Part 8

May 2007

Fossil Fuels at Peak

Portland, Oregon
First U.S. City to Plan for Oil Decline
- Part 8

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 8

San Francisco was the first U.S. city to adopt a peak oil resolution setting up a task force to study the impact of peak oil. As of early March 2007, the only U.S. city to have actually produced a draft of an energy descent plan is Portland, Oregon. In April 2007, Portland released a final version of its plan following receipt of public comments. 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 to prepare a report on impacts and recommendations for the city. The map on the facing page shows U.S. cities in which peak oil resolutions have passed and in which city government is considering a peak oil resolution. Clearly, within a year, there might be about a dozen task forces and a dozen energy descent plans in the U.S. alone.

The Portland task force 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. Task force members also interviewed numerous business and services leaders as part of their research process.

The task force released a draft of their report on January 18, 2007. Following a comment period, they presented their final report to City Council at their regular March 7, 2007, meeting.

Throughout this entire process, the schedule has been very aggressive, and according to the task force 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

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 will focus on their findings and recommendations. The first section of three pages is an executive summary that indicates the very broad scope of the changes required. This summary emphasizes that natural gas is an integral part of the report, because natural gas supply in North America has already peaked and is now in decline.

Half the homes in Portland heat with gas, and gas-fired electricity provides electricity during peak load times. The summary also points out the wide range of predicted timing for peak oil (henceforth meaning peak oil plus natural gas).

Because of the weight they give to the various people and organizations making these predictions, they come down on the side of assuming peak oil will be before 2010, and they adopt a goal of reducing oil and natural gas consumption by 50 percent over the next 25 years (i.e., by 2030).

Remember, though, it’s entirely possible that nature plus economics will impose that level of reduction (or even more) anyway. So the importance of the report is not the goal for energy reduction that will happen anyway, but in the recommendations for coping with it. The target energy reduction and timeframe seem entirely appropriate to me.

The second section, an introduction, begins with a peak oil primer. From a planning perspective, one problem is determining whether to plan for a long, gradual energy descent, or for a scenario involving a sudden, large drop in imported oil — for example, as a result of a geopolitical conflagration involving major oil exporters that causes a medium-term interruption in world oil flows (hardly beyond belief, given recent history).

The Portland task force concluded that government would have very limited response capabilities in the event of a sudden, unanticipated type interruption, and opted to recommend planning for a long-term, smooth energy descent. On a personal note, this works for me except in the food category — we will start this year trying to grow as much food as our aging bodies allow.

Public Education

The next report section describes the task force process. The task force educated themselves about peak oil and natural gas and potential consequences of peaking, sought community and business input on impacts and possible responses, developed recommendations to Portland City Council that covered the entire gamut of problems I am aware of, and proposed ways of public education that they hope would make the transition a smooth one.

Four subcommittees examined peak oil from different perspectives and wrote sections for the report:

•Land Use and Transportation

•Food and Agriculture

•Public and Social Services (education, health, social services, utilities and public safety)

•Economic Change.

Members of the public also participated in task force meetings. The various subcommittees and full task force held more than 40 meetings involving about 80 stakeholders. About 40 additional citizens also participated in some way.

The next major section of the report deals with impacts and vulnerabilities to oil and gas descent. This section begins with a summary of impacts, both direct and indirect. The leadoff note concerns the planet’s carrying capacity for humans, and notes that the carrying capacity “has been dramatically increased by the use of fossil fuels.”

I’ve reported in previous articles that nobody expects any combination of alternatives can replace oil and gas at the level to which we’re now accustomed. Therefore, one easy conclusion is that oil and gas decline will fairly soon imply a reduction in our planet’s carrying capacity. This rather obvious corollary is what inspires peak oilers (such as the Portland task force) to continue the education and planning process, in addition to their own personal adaptations.

Expected particular major problems (shortages and price increases) include food production, transport, all space heating and general economic decline that results in rising unemployment and rising inflation rates, aka stagflation. The next subsections in this major chapter on impacts and vulnerabilities come from the various subcommittees and quantify and elaborate on the expected impacts.

I covered almost all of these expected impacts in previous articles in this series, so I will not elaborate further on them. The impacts will be widespread and eventually quite deep, and everyone will feel the pain — the poor more than the others, of course — and much sooner.

One interesting concluding note — the authors expect that Portland’s population may grow faster than presently forecast because of the progressive response to peak oil problems. That in turn will place added pressure on all the social systems that make Portland desirable; in climate change terms, that’s a negative feedback that is highly undesirable.

The next major report section is the recommendations, with the subtitle “Act Big, Act Now.” Big, because of the tremendous scope and size of the problem. Now, because we still have some wealth to spend on dealing with the problem before the general economic decline starts to bite hard and destroy wealth.

The report expresses particular concern for “vulnerable and marginalized populations,” i.e., the already poor. The obvious risk will be a large increase in the number of homeless people seeking shelter and services. The recommendations also align well with the Portland action plan related to global warming, which I presume echoes James Hansen’s warning to reduce fossil fuel emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Committee Recommendations

The report goes on to urge the city to continue to connect peak oil and global warming as it discusses the Portland task force recommendations with the public. In separate paragraphs I’ll outline the recommendations from the various task force subcommittees.

1. Reduce fossil fuel consumption by 50 percent over the next 25 years. The action items accompanying this recommendation include getting city bureaus to develop very specific plans and track progress, to keep decision makers informed about trends in energy markets, and to keep separate track of progress in residential and business sectors.

2. Educate citizens about peak oil and foster community and community-based solutions. As implied by the title, this recommendation is to make an all-out effort to educate all citizens, regardless of age or class, and to make maximum use of existing educational institutions (K-12 and college) for this massive effort. Peak oil and climate change would represent essential constraints whenever Portlanders plan for their future.

3. Engage business, government and community leaders to initiate planning and policy change. This recommendation urges task force leaders and other knowledgeable people to support outreach to various “important audiences” to assist in associated planning efforts. These knowledgeable experts would continue, in other words, to advise planners at all levels about whether their plans are consistent with the overarching goals of energy descent.

Business and higher education institutes should develop economic analysis that shows the impacts of rising energy costs on all long-term projects. Finally, a very interesting action item — provide leadership in educating leaders in other jurisdictions within the metropolitan (outside city limits) regions, as well as in nearby cities. This addresses the undesirable feedback of excessive in-migration to Portland! Vancouver, Wash., can expect pressure to develop its own energy descent plan.

4. Support land-use patterns that reduce transportation needs, promote walkability and provide easy access to services and transportation options. This is a large part of what Julian Darley calls re-localization. Convert the large city with its drive-anywhere system of transport to a large array of walkable communities that contain most of what residents will need. For crosstown trips, use the public transit system. Change the zoning patterns to allow mixed-use neighborhoods and to assure good access to public transit.

5. Design infrastructure to promote transportation options, facilitate efficient movement of freight and prevent stranded investments. This recommendation incurs significant near-term spending on rail systems of transport as the region tries to move goods and people with much higher fuel efficiency, which means rail and marine shipping.

Another interesting item — find paving materials and methods that require less oil-based fuel (asphalt is an oil derivative, and its price tracks that of oil). Yet another interesting idea — declining gas tax revenues means the city will have to find another, more sustainable, way of funding for transportation development. They mention a carbon tax, congestion pricing and vehicle-miles-traveled fees as options.

Finally, the city must continue to expand the light rail, streetcar and bus systems. Stranded investment refers, for example, to airport expansion when everyone expects air travel to be one of the early victims of oil decline and the associated price increases. These recommendations could prove particularly hard to implement in areas where the construction community only knows how to build and maintain roads, then gets asked to build and maintain rail systems and take roads out of service.

6. Encourage energy-efficient and renewable transportation choices. This recommendation applies to individuals and their transportation decisions. The action items are the usual blend of carrots and sticks, including “paid parking environments” aka high-priced parking fees, pedestrian and bicycle improvements, transit use incentives, flexible work hours, ride-sharing and car-sharing, small electric vehicles and so on. Of particular note is a strong stance supporting biodiesel for freight, buses and heavy equipment, with priority use for those applications.

7. Expand building energy-efficiency programs and incentives. The emphasis in this set of recommendations centers on natural gas in the space heating and electrical generation sectors. The area and state should expand existing building efficiency programs and standards in new and existing buildings. Energy efficiency improvements should accompany real estate transfer!

Utilities and the Oregon Public Utility Commission need to plan for a future of reduced natural gas supplies and should not switch to coal-fired electrical generators, which would exacerbate global warming emissions. Everyone would get assistance with weatherization improvements, as well as with installing solar energy systems (what about wind?). Critical services (fire, police, etc.) should strive for maximum energy efficiency and/or transition to renewable fuels.

8. Preserve farmland and expand local food production and processing. These recommendations closely follow the discussion in the previous article in this series. Action items include increasing farmland protection from development, preserve city land suitable for food growing, open public and private land to food growing by non-owners, expand the food processing industry, greatly expand commercial composting to increase sustainability, and start a massive education program on how to do sustainable food growing, processing, preservation and preparation.

The only item missing from their list is incentives for home dwellers to grow food instead of grass on their home lots.

9. Identify and promote sustainable business opportunities. This is such a key item that it almost seems unnecessary to mention it. Promising areas such as sustainable building design services, renewable energy and products, sustainable industrial design, repair and re-use businesses, and use of local products instead of imported items should all receive incentives to flourish.

This is re-localization in a nutshell if one includes food and mixed use zoning. This implies a need to review and change (where needed) local regulations, incentives and job retraining programs.

10. Redesign the safety net and protect vulnerable and marginalized populations. Again, this is a problem that will grow with time as stagflation raises its ugly head. One action item mentions that preventive care is more important than anything else in health care because of using a low-cost approach to avoid much higher costs of diagnosis and treatment of problems. Health-care providers specially trained in preventive care should be placed throughout the walkable communities for ease of access.

The city must also work with the utilities to make sure that marginalized people receive basic necessities to avoid burgeoning health-care issues. An interesting item is advice for service providers to expect and plan for increased substance abuse, domestic violence and other problems associated with higher unemployment. Community policing may need to increase to counter some of those problems.

Hunger relief systems, including school lunches, will need strengthening. Welfare program eligibility requirements may need revision as a larger segment of the population requires help.

11. Prepare emergency plans for sudden and severe shortages. This is the only real mention of a need to anticipate the kinds of problems associated with a sudden, big drop in oil availability that might occur for geopolitical or natural reasons. It almost seems an afterthought.

Most of these action items sound like traditional emergency planning exhortations, which include establishing fuel priorities, food planning and encouraging citizens to maintain a certain level of food supply in their homes.

A unique difference from the usual emergency plan is that a sharp, big decrease in oil supply could be long-lasting — perhaps forever — as a result of a major geopolitical upset. Stockpiling for a sudden, big, multiyear (multidecade?) decline in food is just not feasible.


Many cities and towns around the world are in the early phases of planning for energy descent. Bellingham and Whatcom County need to get in on this process, which has been made very simple if we follow the Portland model. That model is the result of considerable community input as well as courage on the part of their political leaders.

We could use their report as a template, insert our local facts and figures, make the rather minor adjustments to their recommendations to suit ourselves, and probably complete the entire process in half the time it took for Portland.

A major benefit to communities — at any level — that are successful at achieving oil independence is that all the current transport-related wealth, which now leaves the community, would remain in the community.

For a city with 50,000 cars each traveling 5,000 miles per year at 25 miles per gallon at $2.50 per gallon, that is on the order of $25 million per year, just for the fuel. The purchase cost amortized over 10 years is several times higher.

The avoided cost potential is thus on the order of $100 million per year for Whatcom County; currently that money goes from local pockets to the big, foreign (mostly) state-owned oil companies, Detroit and Japan.

It would behoove us to pressure neighboring counties to engage in similar thinking and planning, because it is not in our best self-interest to be the only survivable location in the area. One might call this pre-emptive immigration policy, with a view to limiting in-migration. While we should encourage in-migration of people with special, valuable skills, a general in-migration would only make our adaptation more difficult.

About the only big issue avoided by the Portland report — as well as by all who are working on planning for energy descent — is population control. Perhaps economic decline will assure population decline, but what if it works in reverse for a few decades?

If we are to survive through the 21st century, we must make strong moves toward sustainability, and that must by definition include major decreases in population toward the inherent, post-fossil fuel carrying capacity of the planet, whatever that number is. Right now, that discussion is not even occurring, even in most peak oil literature.

If you want to participate in lobbying our local city and county council to follow the Portland process of planning for oil and natural gas decline, e-mail me at: Include in your e-mail subject line the words “petition signature” and I will let you know when and where you can go to sign a simple petition to that effect. That is exactly where the Portland initiative began. §

Next Month:

How Bellingham and Whatcom County Can Prepare for Energy Descent.

Back to Top of Story