California must wake up to looming fuel crisis

by on July 24, 2008 · 0 comments

in California, Economy, Energy, Environment

By Erica Etelson / San Francisco Chronicle / July 20, 2008
I lived in Berkeley for sixteen years before getting around to stashing my five gallons of water and twenty cans of fruit cocktail. I’m as ready as can be for the big earthquake we’re all waiting for. But what I’m not prepared for-what no Californian save the odd self-reliant homesteader is prepared for, is the other Big One-peak oil.

Like it or not, oil fuels the engines of industrialized economies. In California, we burn through nearly 20 billion gallons of the stuff each year just driving around. Then there’s the oil we use to grow and transport food and pump water, the oil that fuels planes, trains and cargo ships, and the oil that is embedded in every computer, every inch of asphalt and every bit of plastic. Oil is everywhere; so imagine my surprise when I learned last year that it is running out–and that the federal government is doing nothing to prepare for this eventuality.

Speculation regarding the human impact of oil shortages runs the gamut from a deep recession to a second Great Depression to widespread famine and social disintegration. As an urban dweller with two kids, a forty-square foot yard and little ability to keep houseplants alive, much less grow my own food, words like “famine” and websites like “” tend to send waves of panic crashing against my brain stem.

So began my peak oil odyssey in search of an answer to one simple but gargantuan quandary: Is California prepared for peak oil?

Going going gone

There is no consensus among geologists as to how much oil is left in the ground and how much of it can be brought to the surface; on the contrary, energy market forecasters are embroiled in a bare-knuckles debate over who’s right and who’s crazy. On one side are those who say that we will never produce more oil than we do right now and should expect supplies to start dwindling rapidly by 2015 at the latest, at which point we are in deep trouble. Shell Oil recently joined their ranks: In January, its CEO called on the government to initiate a man-on-the-moon intensity project to prepare for the supply-demand gap Shell sees coming after 2015. The alternative, he warned, would be a cutthroat scramble for each country to secure limited oil and gas supplies for itself.

Not to worry, say peak oil skeptics at Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA)-we have plenty of time to come up with alternative fuels before demand outstrips supply, a tipping point they don’t see occurring before 2030. They accuse proponents of peak oil of being ill-informed alarmists, though they agree that the sooner we make the switch the better.

The so-called alarmists, namely the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), counter that CERA analysts must be on “petroleum Prozac” to be capable of spinning bleak facts about rapidly declining oil fields into Pollyanish reassurances. ASPO co-founder Steve Andrews argues CERA’s track record is poor-for example, it predicted $60 a barrel oil prices for the beginning of 2008, only to see the price hover in the $90s before zooming to $143 in June.

One point of agreement: Global demand for oil is rising at the rate of one to two percent a year. With Americans devouring twenty million barrels a day and industrializing nations like China rapidly catching up, there is no doubt that, at some point soon, demand will outstrip supply. Even if Congress allows drilling offshore and in ANWR, the amount that could be produced in these areas wouldn’t come close to filling the supply-demand gap. Sixty percent of voters reeling from pump price shock are in favor of offshore drilling, a desperate measure Lake Superior State University professor Robert Blanchard likens to “burning the furniture to keep the house warm in mid-January.”

As the third largest refiner of crude oil in the United States and home to 206 oil fields, California has more petrol than most states; but we’re also the third largest consumer of transportation fuels in the world, just behind the United States and China, and we import 45% of it from abroad.

Petroleum isn’t the only fossil fuel that is approaching retirement. Domestic production of natural gas, which provides 42% of California’s electricity, has been flat since 1990. California imports 86% of its natural gas from other states and Canada. With more states turning to natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal, the California Energy Commission warns that demand is rising faster than producers can keep pace and that a shortage by the year 2017, along with a doubling of prices, is likely.

Energy forecasting is a tricky business. We already feel the effects of a tight oil and gas market when we fill up our tanks and pay our PG&E bills. But it’s hard to predict when exactly the supply crunch will really start mangling the economy. I propose heeding the advice of a team of risk management analysts who wrote a 2005 report on peak oil for the U.S. Department of Energy (the “Hirsch Report”) warning of “extremely damaging” economic impacts if we do not have a Plan B in place ten to twenty years before the peak. The Hirsch Report concluded that, because the timing of the peak is uncertain, the only way to avoid major economic upheaval is to undertake a “crash mobilization” as soon as possible.

Since authoring the report, Robert Hirsch has gone on to state his opinion more starkly: In an interview with Global Public Media in November, 2005, he said, “The more you think about and the more you look at the numbers, the more uneasy any observer gets…The risks to our economies and our civilization are enormous…This is an incredibly difficult and incredibly severe problem.” Hirsch’s message is clear: Peak oil will happen soon enough that we should be worried, very worried, about how the end of easy oil will impact life as we know it.

Feast or famine

The biggest oil and gas guzzler in the Golden State may surprise you-it’s the food we eat. California’s eleven million acres of cropland produce more food than any other state-half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts originate here, as do one out of every five glasses of milk. But the $32 billion a year agricultural industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, a fact that is just beginning to weigh on the minds of thrifty farmers alarmed by recent spikes in the price of petroleum-based pesticides, fertilizers and diesel fuel. In a recent issue of Ag Alert, the state Farm Bureau’s weekly newsletter, farmers bemoaned record high prices for diesel and said they are looking to shift to crops that require less tillage. The article quoted several growers who claim to have done just about everything they can to reduce their energy inputs.

They ought to talk to Russ Lester, an organic walnut farmer in Winters who has committed to becoming energy self-sufficient by 2012. Lester gasifies his 820,000 pounds of walnut shells in the futuristic-sounding “BioMax 50” machine, which converts this agricultural waste into $40,000 worth of electricity.

With enough BioMaxes, California could, theoretically, grow enough food to feed itself-if it stopped exporting its products all over the map, transitioned entirely to organics (currently a mere five percent of our harvest), converted its cow manure into bio-gas and stopped allowing sub-divisions to be built on prime farmland. Those are big ifs and they’re not even the biggest problem–how to get the food from the Central Valley to the distant population centers.

Russel Efird, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, is concerned about the skyrocketing costs of pesticides and fertilizers and fears that a shortage of any single input that lasts for longer than a week could devastate crops. He’s also worried about transport. “If I can’t get my harvest shipped to Los Angeles, it rots,” Efird notes. Nonetheless, he scoffs at the notion that California would ever move toward a self-reliant agricultural system. Consumers want their year-round fresh produce, he says. And some states, like Nevada, are almost entirely dependent on California for food–we can’t just cut them off.

Despite the threat to our food supply, the issue of peak oil and gas is not on the radar screen of most agricultural policy analysts in Sacramento. My inquiries to the Department of Food and Agriculture, the Senate Agriculture Committee, the Assembly Agriculture Committee, and the Future of Farming Select Committee yielded variations on the standard response of “huh?”. Nor did the Western Growers Association have anything to say on the subject.

Just when I was beginning to wonder if Sacramento existed in a parallel universe not subject to geological realities, I came into contact with Steve Schaffer, director of the Office of Agriculture and Environmental Stewardship of the Department of Food and Agriculture. Schaffer is my kind of bureaucrat: When I mention a statistic I read in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Schaffer whisks his copy off the shelf, looks up the citation and reads the entire page, with feeling.

Schaffer agrees that peak oil is a critical issue and dredges up an old (but still valid) study showing that the agricultural sector gobbles five percent of all oil, natural gas and electricity. And that’s just the energy needed to grow the food and ship it to first-line processors; it doesn’t count the many miles that food will still travel to packagers, distributors, supermarkets and, finally, to homes, a journey that averages 1500 miles. When you add up all those detours, you’re looking at an industry that Cornell professor David Pimentel estimates requires 400 gallons of gas to feed just one of us for a year.

I did a little calculation using Pimental’s 400 gallon figure: How much would we Californians, who drive our 20 mpg-vehicles an average 11,000 miles a year, have to reduce our driving in order to free up enough oil to keep us fed? Answer: Three-quarters. Got bike?

In a pinch, the State of California has the authority to seize control of in-state petroleum stocks and allocate them for emergency services and agricultural production. That makes me feel a little better. But ultimately, the state cannot allocate what it does not have. Meanwhile, the federal government’s 727 million barrel strategic petroleum reserve, if drawn down at the rate of a million barrels a day (which would meet a scant five percent of national demand), would last for a year and a half-barely enough time for suburbanites with big yards to get their Victory Gardens sprouting.

This year, the State Board of Food and Agriculture is embarking on a long-range sustainability planning process that will look at how to reduce farmers’ reliance on fossil fuels and bolster regional food economies. That sounds nice, but the Board is an advisory body with no regulatory authority. And with most agricultural spending for the next five years already spoken for by the 2007 Farm Bill, it is unclear where the resources for bold new initiatives will come from. (Note to self: Buy a farm).

Get weaned fast

California’s passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 puts us in the forefront of conservation programs and technological initiatives to find less carbon-producing alternatives to fossil fuels. But will it all be too little, too late? The timeframes for reducing our carbon footprint are measured in decades, not years, yet oil and gas shortages may be just around the corner. And the alternative fuels being touted as planet cooling elixirs will not be ready for wide-scale commercial development soon enough, if at all, given the hefty land and water requirements for growing bio-fuel feedstock.

According to Steve Schaffer, an acre of oil seed crops will produce between 60 and 120 gallons of biofuel. Algae does a lot better: 1000 to 1500 gallons per acre of everyone’s favorite green slime. Still, no matter what the feedstock, it takes an awful lot of energy to grow and distill it; this energy-in, energy-out tradeoff is a dilemma that can only be minimized, not overcome, according to an unfortunate little principle known as the first law of thermodynamics which, to make a long story short, says that you don’t get something for nothing.

Still, Schaffer is optimistic that biofuels and other high-tech innovations will come to the rescue in time. David Fridley is not. Fridley, a scientist in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of Lawrence Berkeley Labs, says our planet simply does not have enough vegetation to generate more than a small fraction of our energy needs. And he fears that that a desperate rush to maximize biofuels will result in food shortages, soil erosion and the clearing of carbon-trapping forests.

Fridley’s opinion was corroborated by a pair of studies published in the journal Science in February that concluded that growing corn for ethanol or clearing rainforests for other biofuel crops would result in even more global warming than continuing to burn gasoline.

But Fridley and other skeptics are getting drowned out by biofuel enthusiasts. California passed a law in 2005 that calls for an in increase alternative transportation fuel use to nine percent by 2012 and more in future years. Even if we meet that goal, that still means we need eighteen billion gallons of petrol a year in 2012-where will it come from?

California, like most states, has invested much less in mass transit than in its 170,000 miles of roadways. Recognition of the need for vastly improved mass transit is dawning, but the money just isn’t available, and this year’s $15 billion deficit doesn’t bode well for new transportation investments. If voters pass a $10 billion bond measure in November, we’ll be well on our way to having a high-speed rail system that connects Los Angeles, the Central Valley and the Bay Area, but not for another ten years. And the rail system is designed to carry passengers, not freight, for which we will remain dependent on diesel-fueled trains and trucks.

As for natural gas, the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard requires a 20% increase in energy production from renewable resources by 2010. But according to the Energy Commission, the state is not on target to meet this goal, meaning ongoing reliance on natural gas. And, as the Energy Commission points out in its 2007 Integrated Energy Policy Report, all of our current electricity conservation measures will eventually be erased by the growth of the population from 37 million today to 54 million by 2040. More people driving bigger vehicles to bigger homes located further from urban centers-even a Hummer-driving McMansion owner would have to admit that the trend is unsustainable, and all the compact fluorescent bulbs in the world aren’t going to alter the equation.

“Sleepwalking into the future”

Part of the reason California is moving slowly to wean itself from fossil fuels is that officials, to the extent they are even aware of the peak oil and gas dilemma, seem to think we have far more time than we actually do. The California Transportation Plan 2025 puts peak oil at mid-century and sets forth a gradual transition toward oil independence.

State planners rely on energy forecasts provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), forecasts that have, according to ASPO, proven overly optimistic time and again. “The EIA assumes that the world will supply it if we need it,” says Dave Cohen, a columnist on ASPO-USA’s website. As far as the EIA is concerned, Americans in 2030 will be guzzling 25 million barrels of oil a day, a forecast that seems quite divorced from reality.

The one very important fuel conservation measure California has tried to implement-raising fuel efficiency standards above federal standards-is still being blocked by the EPA. If the state’s lawsuit against the EPA is successful, we will save almost four billion gallons a year by 2020. That sounds like a big number, but in fact it’s only a fifth of our current petrol use. And if we’re going to stay ahead of the peak oil curve, we’ll need to wean ourselves long before 2020.

Astonishingly, oil conservation no-brainers like lowering the speed limit are non-starters politically. One senate energy committee staffer actually laughed aloud when I asked him if restoring the 55 mph speed limit was on the table. Meanwhile, the current fiscal year budget redirects $1.3 billion in dedicated transit funding to non-transit purposes. For all the increased awareness galvanized by the threat of climate change, there is still resistance to plucking the low-hanging fruit, let alone making the truly difficult changes that will eventually be forced upon us. Analysts at the Energy Commission have made clear in their reports that the only path to energy security entails high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods connected by reliable mass transit and widespread implementation of stringent building, appliance and vehicular energy efficiency standards. But few in the legislature or the governor’s mansion seem to be listening.

Think globally, buy locally

So is anyone trying to spare us a peak oil meltdown? Local peak oil task forces are springing up all over the state, studying their community’s vulnerability to energy constraints and recommending ways to soften the blow. The Oakland Oil Independence by 2020 Task Force is pushing for the city to electrify its transit system with power provided by a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) system run jointly with neighboring Berkeley and Emeryville. The CCA would purchase power independently (though it would still be transmitted to customers by PG&E) and would be tasked with ensuring that 50% of its electricity is from renewable resources by the year 2017. San Francisco and Marin counties are already moving forward with their own CCAs, and the idea is being floated in several other counties, including San Diego, Santa Barbara and Mendocino.

The Oakland task force is also recommending a “back to the future” approach to urban redesign-essentially, the transition to a network of densely populated, streetcar-interconnected neighborhoods in which people live, work and shop, thereby reducing or even eliminating the need for private vehicles. Oakland task force member Dave Room says, “Oakland residents are egregiously dependent on trucks bringing the things we need on a daily basis.” Room believes that the days of supply chains that stretch 6000 miles from Hong Kong to the Oakland Wal-Mart are numbered. That means most of the things we need-food, clothing, building materials-will have to be made right here with regionally available raw materials.

Meanwhile, across the bay, the San Francisco peak oil task force is entertaining similar notions-how to keep the economy afloat, the lights on and the food coming in once we’re on the downside of the peak oil curve. Task force chair Jeanne Rosenmeier says San Francisco is in reasonably good shape with its mass transit, most of which is already electric. She says the task force will focus on transportation, food, urban infrastructure and the economy, and will try to assess potential impacts on tourism, an industry that employs 17% of residents and generates $473 million in taxes. (Statewide, the tourism industry is the fourth largest employer and generates $5.6 billion in state and local tax revenues).

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who authored the peak oil resolution and the ordinance banning plastic bags, wants to see San Francicso working with other Bay Area municipalities and transportation authorities on a regional strategy for preparing for peak oil. Mirkarimi fears our society is “sleepwalking into the future” and that local government must lead the way in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

In addition to the official task forces in San Francisco and Oakland, activists from Los Angeles to Humboldt have formed citizen groups that are educating local leaders and residents about peak oil and promoting backyard and community gardens as a first step toward local food security. And Marin County is already in the process of implementing its “Fossil Free by ’33?” sustainability blueprint (note the telling question mark that punctuates the title).

Even the notoriously car-centric southern half of the state seems to be stirring from its slumber: In its Draft 2008 Regional Transportation Plan, the Southern California Association of Regional Governments cites “energy uncertainty” as a key driver behind its call for land use strategies that reduce the need for private vehicles and an investment of a staggering $34 billion in mass transit improvements and $18 billion for an alternative technology-based goods movement system.

“They get it,” says Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, who has made it her business to spread the gospel of peak oil to elected officials and urban planners across the nation. Cook is troubled by the disconnect between what planners know we need to do and what is feasible politically. “It’s such an incredible challenge, yet it’s so under the radar screen,” Cook says. “How could the government not be screaming from the mountaintops?”

Indeed, few in positions of authority are whimpering, much less screaming, from any mountaintops. The Hirsch Report and a similarly dire analysis in 2007 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have been ignored by all but a handful of mavericks who formed the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus. Caucus co-chair Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) says the information contained in the GAO report is “not well appreciated or well understood” and believes it will take presidential leadership to get this issue on Congress’ radar screen. For her part, Senator Diane Feinstein sent a letter to Energy Secretary Bodman in February asking him what, if anything, his agency has done in response to the GAO report. As this article goes to press, Bodman has not replied.

In any event, cities that have awakened to the reality of peak oil are not waiting around for the federal government to act. Sebastopol, a town that relies on electricity to pump water from deep wells, is converting to a solar-powered system, running its diesel fleet on bio-diesel and developing a training program to be self-reliant in the event of a natural disaster. Sebastopol residents will also soon have access to a small fleet of hybrid plug-in electric pick-up trucks, courtesy of the Post Carbon Institute’s “solar car share” initiative. Julian Darley, president of the Post Carbon Institute, hopes to roll out a national solar car share, a move he believes can help drivers conserve as much as 90% of the gas they currently use in their private vehicles.

Ninety miles north, in the town of Willits, you can’t walk two feet down the main drag without seeing a “Shop local” sign in a storefront, though most of the goods inside the store were not made anywhere near Willits. Willits is also home to the one-acre Brookside Farm, another Post Carbon Institute project that grows, with minimal energy inputs, seasonal food for local consumption. At a recent meeting of the Willits Economic Localization (WELLS) group, the talk was of wheat-as in, growing it locally-and bicycles-as in, how to ride down Highway 101, which goes straight through the center of town, without getting killed.

WELLS members anticipate a day will come when semis no longer deliver food to their Safeway. Its founder, Jason Bradford, has gone so far as to calculate the number of acres of cropland in Mendocino County and calculate whether it is enough to support the entire population. His conclusion: Barely, and only if little to no meat is consumed. Bradford points out that, with only .43 acres per person, Mendocino has slightly less arable land per capita than Rwanda, a nation whose horrific recent history can be traced to the inadequate amount of land for subsistence farmers.

In San Francisco, Jason Mark is heading up the task force’s food sub-committee. Mark’s initial take is that there is enough cropland within a hundred or so mile radius of the city to feed everyone in it, though he will be examining the issue in more depth in the months ahead. I hope he’s right. I’m pinning my hopes on the odds that this man is right and that we Californians will choose to adapt rather than starve. As the climate change scientists keep warning us, there is very little time.

Erica Etelson is a journalist and peak oil activist who lives in 6694-acre Berkeley. A shorter version of this article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 20, 2008. [Go here for the original article at SFGate.]

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