Running on empty - Page 5

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

"What do you think is going to happen when the oil-exporting countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Iran say, 'We cannot export any more because we need to keep it for our own people'? The US will react by starting a war."

Although Savinar gravitates toward the most drastic of peak oil's potential implications, his concerns are shared by some high-profile figures. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), who has started the small but significant Peak Oil Caucus in Congress, has quoted Savinar's work in congressional session, while billionaire Richard Rainwater told Fortune magazine he regularly reads Savinar's site.

Pessimistic about the prospect of mitigating the effects of peak oil, Savinar characterizes the efforts of the San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force as "throwing a wet rag at a forest fire." In swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum, the vast chasm between opinions on the matter manifests more clearly. Peter Jackson, the senior director of oil industry activity for the Cambridge Energy Research Associates, recently published the results of an in-depth analysis of more than 800 oil fields worldwide, concluding that the declining output rate of established fields is about half as low as originally expected.

"I think the danger of a peak [in global oil production] in the short term is minimal," Jackson tells the Guardian. "I think there are plenty of new developments on the books of oil companies, and the prospects for growth are good."

While Jackson acknowledges that at some point in the future it will be difficult to increase production, his optimistic viewpoint of the current situation helps to flesh out the dynamics of the overall discussion. As Heinberg explains it, "The debate really is between the near-peak and the far-peak viewpoints."

Yet even as Jackson attracts the ire of near-peak proponents such as Heinberg, he still acknowledges the need for swift preparation efforts. "There is still time to think about these issues and plan for the future," Jackson says. "But the sooner we do that the better."


Toward the end of the task force's most recent meeting, the group discusses the city's potential options for producing its own food supply. As Lundberg points out some of the particulars for pulling up pavement to plant crops, the exchange seems like an excerpt from Ernest Callenbach's novel Ecotopia (Bantam, 1990).

"Streets cannot be pulled up as easily as driveways or parking lots," Lundberg explains. "There is soil immediately below a concrete driveway, whereas the earth beneath a street is much farther down."

This talk of tearing up asphalt to transform the city's urban landscape into a viable agricultural venture may seem strange, until one considers how overreliant modern agribusiness has become on cheap fossil fuels.

"About one-fifth of all the petroleum we use goes into some part of our agriculture system," explains Jason Mark, the task force member focusing on the city's food supply. "Whether that is through transportation and shipping, tractors and farm machinery, or the making of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides — it all demands oil."

Mark notes that the average American meal travels an estimated 1,500 miles from the farm to the dinner table, a startling figure that can be partly attributed to federal policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement that have encouraged export crops rather than diversified farming for local consumption.

"There is no way that San Francisco is going to feed itself in the short term," Rosenmeier says. "Food is going to be a gigantic issue."

In a larger sense, it already is.