Peak Oil Conference: Friday

My friend Frank arrived in Richmond this morning to form the beginning of our small caravan to the Second U.S. Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions, as I mentioned yesterday. After some brief touring around town, a visit to Summersault, and showing off some of the great local stuff Richmond has to offer, we headed east to pick Dayna up at the airport. From there we headed to Yellow Springs, Ohio and the campus of Antioch College, where the conference is being held. You can check out some random photos from today, or read on for a summary of the opening keynote by Richard Heinberg.

Peak Oil PhotoThis will be a fairly informal account of Heinberg's talk tonight, please forgive any errors or anything that's not clear. If you want to get the straight dope from him, you can check out his books, The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies and Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World.

The introduction was by Pat Murphy, who is involved in the community service organization that put the conference together. He noted that predictions about when the availability of cheap, easily produced oil will run out vary widely - everywhere from 2010 and beyond to 2007 to later this year. One expert predicts that Thanksgiving Day of this year will be the due date - yikes. In response, he noted that we need nothing less than the equivalent of movements like those to end slavery, win recognition of civil rights for the oppressed, etc. A new paradigm, a new metaphor of creation. He talked about community solutions as those grounded in the notion that people hold relationships to each other and their environment above the importance of possessions. In general the introduction set a great tone and reaffirmed my hopes that I mentioned yesterday that I was participating in a coming together of folks interested in positive local solutions to very serious global problems.

Heinberg took the stage and was clearly excited to be there. He travels around the country and the world talking to groups small and large about peak oil and what it means for their organizations and communities. I think he must have been energized to be talking to a group of people who, on the whole, probably didn't need to be convinced that peak oil is an issue *worth* talking about, and were ready to get focused on exploring it further and talking about solutions.

He did talk some about the background of peak oil and how we got here. "Imagine pushing your car for 20 miles. You can use ropes and pulleys, but no motors, no electricity. That's the hard work that we pay $3 a gallon for." The appeal of replacing labor with machinery that could be run by cheap oil was what transformed American culture and spurred on the Industrial Revolution. In the energy crisis of the 70s, we learned to conserve resources, speed limits were lowered, people made sacrifices. According to Heinberg, in the Reagan years, the U.S. worked out a deal with the Middle East oil producers so they would flood the market with oil and destroy the Soviet economy as a part of a cold war strategy. It worked - the downside of this is that oil became so readily available again and we forgot how to conserve it - the demand ever increasing.

He talked about Chevron's recent campaign acknowledging peak oil and asking us to "join them" in addressing this issue - see appropriately named website Heinberg speculated that their motivation for this action was primarily public relations - that when things start to get bad related to the availability of oil and the related environmental impact, they'll be able to say that they've been "working on it" for a while now. Hmm.

He also talked about the importance of the Hirsch Report on peak oil, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy and paid for by taxpayers. The report concludes, "The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking." A decade - yikes! Heinberg noted that this report has been almost completely ignored by politicians and decision makers everywhere, and yet it could be used as quite an important tool in making politicians consider action on this issue.

I was struck by his use of the impact of Hurricane Katrina as a metaphor for the impact of Peak Oil: there was plenty of notice, not enough preparation, a poor response even after it happened, and responsibility for action and solutions had to be taken at the local level. Heinberg said we must mitigate the effects of peak oil by doing what those in charge of preparing for the hurricane didn't. He did talk about the impact of recent weather events on oil production, but noted that we should be careful about always looking at changes in oil production and pricing as tied to a particular recent events - these things just help us to ignore the trends, not explain them.

Heinberg proposes a protocol for addressing peak oil that could be adopted by each oil consuming/exporting/importing nation: 1) No country will produce oil above it's current depletion rate (defined as the annual production as a percentage of the estimated amount is has left to produce), and 2) each importing country shall reduce its imports to match the current world depletion rate. Only with these kinds of protocols in place, Heinberg said, do we have a hope of making the transition to a post-petroleum world without, um, armageddon. If we don't, he said, the current competition for oil will turn into conflict, and the inability for any given company or nation to budget for the future because of the volatility of energy prices will wreak havoc on everyone.

At the local level, Heinberg suggested these as community priorities in addressing peak oil, and gave various examples of each:

  • Ensure local food, water, and energy security
  • Reduce the need for transportation
  • Support your local economy
  • Foster the local manufacturing of essential goods
  • Plan for long-term emergency services

In giving some specific suggestions about community preparedness, he included these as great action points that can be taken on now:

  • Create car sharing and car co-op programs
  • Build local food networks of producers and consumers (especially like Community Supported Agriculture programs)
  • Assess local needs and vulnerabilities - form committees
  • Learn from other communities also preparing

On that last point, Heinberg said we really need to have a clearinghouse of knowledge, solutions, ideas, etc. that folks can learn from each other as they trry out these various approaches. He offered up a number of useful sites to that end, including,, (ahhh, that turns out to be an adult site, try this one instead...nothing like pointing your audience to a porn site!),, and his own He said there are lots of examples (mostly outside the U.S.) of people living in strong healthy communities with significantly lower energy consumption.

The above may make the talk sound like a lot of doom and gloom, but it really wasn't - Heinberg was one of those speakers that commands your respect because of his knowledge of the subject, but also your admiration because of his ability to present it in such a positive, hopeful tone that leaves possibility and excitement in the air. The standing ovation was impressive. He took some questions from the conference participants, and from those we could all tell that it will be a weekend full of great inquiry, intense discussion, and important knowledge sharing. I'm looking forward to it.

I've got my own questions to get answered at this event, but if you're following along and have any you want me to throw out while I'm here (or want to talk about when I return), just post a comment below.

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