Running on empty - Page 2

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

For now, some will see them as a team of Chicken Littles sketching a contingency plan for when the sky falls.

Yet if the scientific insights that compelled the Board of Supervisors to form the group prove prescient, then the report that the task force is producing may well be crucial to San Francisco's very survival.


Oil has acquired a bad reputation in recent years, as if the resource were not a fossil fuel found in the earth's crust but a corrupt corporate tycoon spurring international conflicts and gleefully dismantling the ozone layer. Like addicts who blame the substance rather than the habit, we have come to forget that oil is one of the best resources the planet has offered.

"Oil is amazing stuff. The 20th century was basically founded on the wonders of petroleum," explains Richard Heinberg, a professor at New College of Santa Rosa and author of several books, including The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society Publishers, 2003). "Oil is very energy dense and can be made into an amazing range of chemicals and products. Our entire way of life is soaked in petroleum," he says.

This point tends to get lost in the shuffle. It is often forgotten that more than just powering our cars, petroleum is deeply woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Adding up to a global consumption rate of about 86 million barrels per day, oil plays a starring role in agriculture, industry, infrastructure, and transportation. It heats our homes, paves our roads, and grows our food.

So what happens when the global demand for oil begins to outpace the supply? That's the peak oil question.

"Peak oil is not theoretical. Everyone knows that oil is a nonrenewable resource," Heinberg explains, "so at some point our ability to continue increasing the supply will cease. Everyone knows that it will happen. It is just a matter of when."

Peak oil is inherently a geological concept, formulated by renowned geophysicist Marion King Hubbert. In 1956, as a researcher for Shell Oil, Hubbert presented his theory to the American Petroleum Institute, claiming that the oil output in the mainland United States would peak in the late 1960s or early '70s. Though dismissed by his colleagues at the time, Hubbert was vindicated when US oil production peaked in 1970 and the nation became forever dependent on foreign sources of petroleum to meet its energy needs.

Hubbert had explained that the production of any petroleum reserve — a single oil well, a particular country, or even the entire planet — follows a similar bell-shaped curve (now referred to as the Hubbert curve). The logic is that as the supply is first tapped, there is a steady increase of oil output that ascends to a peak (or plateau), which represents the maximum amount of oil that will ever be produced from the designated source. As production descends the other side of the curve, the supply is not exhausted, but future yields will always be lower and more expensive to obtain.

For the past 10 years — as the price of crude oil has gone from $12 to $100 per barrel on the world market — scientists, geologists, petroleum experts, and concerned citizens have increasingly pondered the point at which the global oil supply will not only begin to wane but fail to keep up with surging demand.

Proponents of preparing for the impending peak in worldwide petroleum output often cite the steady decline of major oil field discoveries since the 1960s and the alarming number of oil-producing countries that have already hit their peaks.