Running on empty

The San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force explores life after fossil fuels — an era that may be coming sooner than most people think

The fourth floor of San Francisco's City Hall feels remote. Dimly lit and strangely quiet, it conveys a sense of isolation from the powerful people who do their work in the lower levels of the building.

Here, in an unremarkable conference room, is where the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force is conducting its second meeting. Two of its officers are absent, and only one member of the public has turned up to participate. It is an atmosphere that belies the issue's cataclysmic potential.

The day's breaking news headlines of oil reaching $100 per barrel for the first time in history is perhaps a harbinger of things to come. One year earlier the price was $58 per barrel. This dramatic increase in such a short span would devastate economies around the world if it continued at anywhere close to that rate.

Chairperson Jeanne Rosenmeier, an articulate, contemplative woman, reiterates the task force's purpose: "Our charge is to examine how the city is going to handle rising oil prices and possible shortages. That is what we have been asked to do."

The assessment seems like an understatement, perhaps suggesting that the group is merely looking for solutions to how the average citizen could function better without an automobile. Yet in a society built on oil, the consequences of such an energy crisis are likely to be far more sweeping and problematic than merely high gas prices.

While considering models for the study the task force will prepare, Rosenmeier points to Portland, Ore.'s recently completed peak oil report and talks about limiting San Francisco's effort to outlining the range of scenarios, from small impacts to large. She's reluctant to acknowledge the extralarge scenario — massive worldwide social unrest and full-scale anarchy in the streets of San Francisco — which she argues would be harmful to the group's focus.

Jan Lundberg, the task force member in charge of "societal functioning," politely disagrees. Insightful and exuding a sort of deeply ingrained experience, Lundberg has a goatee and a big mane of blond hair that make him look like a Berkeley-ish version of billionaire Virgin CEO Richard Branson. The resemblance is strangely apt when you consider that Lundberg has defected from more lucrative ventures. His family's business, the Lundberg Survey, has been one of the premier oil industry research authorities in the world for the past few decades, but today Lundberg is volunteering his time to the task force.

"You have to look honestly at what we are up against," Lundberg tells the Guardian. "Only then can you come up with intelligent responses to what is occurring. If it is a tsunami coming, then you take action for a tsunami."

It might come as news to most San Franciscans that a team of seven relatively unknown, politically appointed volunteers is hashing out the hard realities and dire implications of a potentially massive energy crisis. When the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution (with Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier absent) in April 2006 to acknowledge the looming phenomenon of the global oil supply being exceeded by demand, San Francisco was the first city in the country to do so. It was a precedent that received little attention from the media, perhaps shrugged off as just another wacky resolution steeped in San Francisco values.

For the next 10 months the task force will be preparing a study of mitigation measures to be considered by the city government for implementation into law. Much like the phenomenon of peak oil, their work will also be best assessed in hindsight.