Think globally, act locally, speaker urges
Global issues, such as the price of a barrel of oil, have significant impact at the local level, Lerch observed. He pointed out, for example, that annual street maintenance depends on the price of asphalt, which depends in turn on the price of oil.
There are no state or federal departments dedicated to making sure cities weather the growing energy crisis, he said. It’s up to each city, and by extension, each of its residents, to be aware of global trends and help their communities adapt. When they fail to do so, the consequences can be drastic.
When Hurricane Katrina shut off a major oil pipeline in 2005, Lerch said, numerous cities in North Carolina found themselves unable to obtain sufficient fuel to keep emergency vehicles on the road. When they asked the state to release fuel from its strategic reserve, they were told that only state vehicles were eligible.
Lerch is a member of the Post Carbon Institute, based in Santa Rosa, Calif., a think tank focused on educating local governments and people about sustainability and stability in a period of major economic, social and environmental crisis.
He has written a four-volume Community Resilience Guide, is the lead editor for institute publications and the author of “Post Carbon Cities.”
There is, Lerch noted, no disagreement among experts, the government or the oil industry on the fact that oil supplies are leveling off at a time when demand is rising ever higher.
“Oil is the lifeblood of the global economy,” he said. As countries in the East and Middle East continue to develop and aspire to Western lifestyles, their own demand for oil is increasing, leaving less for export.
Extraction has also increased rapidly.
“Twenty-five percent of all the oil produced in human history has been produced in the life of a 10-year-old today,” Lerch said. “Fifty-five percent in 25 years.” He said the United States is currently consuming 230 barrels of oil each second.
The problem, he said, is that this rapid extraction, and even more accelerated use, is depleting deposits around the world. While there is still oil in the ground, it is located in increasingly hard-to-reach areas — in extremely deep ocean beds, for example, or in shale and tar sand.
Because many transportation planning projects take years, Lerch said, this poses challenging budgeting issues for local jurisdictions.
“How do you plan for a Newberg-Dundee bypass, or a Columbia River crossing, or light rail, for that matter, with no firm prices?” he asked. “The volatility of oil prices is a huge problem.”
While many people hold out hope that some alternative fuel will be found to take oil’s place, Lerch said they fail to take into account several factors, including the fact that no such alternative is currently available, or even within a decade of development. Even if one were, he said, the infrastructure of the entire developed world is designed to operate on oil, and it cannot easily or quickly be transformed to something else.
Futhermore, he said, no other fuel offers the versatility of oil.
“From a barrel of oil, you can produce airplane fuel, diesel... gasoline, pesticides, fertilizers, plastics and asphalt,” Lerch said. “You don’t get that kind of versatility out of biofuel, to give one example.
“Human history is full of human ingenuity overcoming technical challenges,” Lerch said. But this time, he said, it’s different.
“We’re using oil on a scale the world has never seen,” he said, and the massive impacts of climate change are compounding the problem.” For example, he mentioned how acidification of the oceans is making it difficult for plankton to form their shells.
“That affects the entire global food chain,” Lerch said. “These are challenges that cannot be overcome by technology.”
In addition, he said, “The problems are increasing exponentially,” because of the massive human population.
The modern world, he said, is built to run on fossil fuels, “and not just fossil fuels, but cheap fossil fuels.”
People have assumed such fuels would continue to be cheap, Lerch said, and based many of their life decisions on that assumption – such as living across the country from their loved ones, believing that it would be possible to visit at any time.
But the U.S. government’s own predictions of oil demand and supply expose an enormous, and increasing, gap between supply and demand, Lerch said, because the easiest-to-extract, most readily available oil deposits have already been found and mined.
“This is basic petroleum geology,” he said. “It’s common sense.”
In 1920, he said, it took about one barrel’s worth of oil energy to extract 100 barrels of oil from the ground.
Today, the ratio is one-to-30 in the better scenarios and one-to-five in the more difficult.
And despite all the hype, he said: “Ethanol is one of the worst. It’s a total bust. You get a one-to-one ratio.”
The massive complexity of the problem, and the certainty that oil prices will continue to be highly volatile, he said, leaves cities and counties with little choice but to start planning now for how to lower demand for oil, and transition away from their dependence on fossil fuels.
The impacts, of everything from higher food prices to less road maintenance, are felt first by society’s most vulnerable people, those struggling to feed their families, Lerch said. “It doesn’t get up to Salem or Washington, until much, much later. …
“At the end of the day, this is not rocket science. … It is about building resilience. It is about being ready to respond to the challenges of the 21st century.”
For more information, visit the Post Carbon Institute’s website at www.postcarbon.org.