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Cities Plan for World Where Oil is Scarce

July 3, 2008

If Greensboro leaders became convinced the years of cheap fuel are gone forever, what would they do?

Residents could soon find out. A citizen effort to educate the public about peak oil is making its way to City Hall. Mayor Yvonne Johnson said she expects a briefing on the issue later this month.

Knowledge of peak oil, the point at which the amount of petroleum that is economically feasible to extract and refine goes into decline — and prices go through the roof — has spurred some cities in the United States to curb their oil use. Some activists cry out for a World War II-scale mobilization that would transform the economy to run on a fraction of its fossil fuel base.

“The stark reality is that we’re looking at a world where not too long in the future, fossil fuel energy will not be around,” said David Noer, professor of business leadership at Elon University. “We’re in deeper trouble than we think.”

Now, Guilford County residents and leaders must decide how that transformation should take place and who should lead the effort: local governments or businesses.

The recent spikes in oil prices startled consumers, businesses and governments, and have sparked protests around the globe.

Darlene Garrett, a member of the Guilford County Board of Education, said she wants the district to evaluate programs that bus students outside their attendance zones and the possibility of cutting back to a four-day school week. The district’s diesel costs rose 260 percent over five years.

“I really do believe we need to have frank discussions, because I’m afraid it’s going to come to a point where we have to cut transportation,” Garrett said.

Keith Debbage, a UNCG urban planning professor, called high fuel prices “a blessing and a blight” to the region’s transportation industry. While trucking companies suffer layoffs, logistics companies — responsible for making deliveries quick and timely — are in demand, he said.

Noer said other Triad businesses fear that transportation costs will compel commuting workers to quit. Companies should explore van pooling and telecommuting to reduce turnover and Internet sales to make up for reduced foot traffic.

Businesses can’t handle these challenges alone, Noer said; state and federal lawmakers must play a role.

“Everybody is in denial except for some thinkers,” he said. “I don’t think our politicians can tell the truth because people don’t want to hear the truth.”

Some cities have seen the storm clouds gathering and begun the arduous task of severing their ties to oil.

The city of Portland, Ore., convened a peak oil task force in 2006 and committed to cutting fossil fuel use by half within 25 years. Last year, Portland’s City Council budgeted $1.4 million to open city land for community gardens, help businesses and homeowners install solar technology, support green building and motivate residents to reduce driving.

On June 12, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed a law that will help cities plan for energy scarcity and cost increases.

And a citizens group called N.C. Powerdown met this year with officials in Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

“In some ways, the wheels are still slow to turn,” said Abraham Palmer, a Carrboro resident who coordinates the three-year-old group.

Local government officials need to initiate conversations about how to respond to declining oil supplies, said Daniel Lerch, a program manager with the Post Carbon Institute in California.

The nonpartisan group helps government and grass-roots groups prepare for peak oil.

“At the end of the day, government has the capacity and the resources to step in when the market has not prepared us, for when the community has not prepared us,” Lerch said.

Not everyone believes government should advocate lifestyle changes.

People can decide for themselves whether they can afford oil, said Daren Bakst, a legal and regulatory policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Raleigh.

“What should North Carolina do?” Bakst asked. “Nothing. The government doesn’t need to do anything.”

Except perhaps pressure the federal government to lift restrictions on offshore drilling, Bakst added.

In mid-June, Bakst released a report for the foundation that criticizes North Carolina’s recent efforts to address global warming, including a 2007 law that requires 12.5 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources, such as solar or wind, by 2021. Bakst argues that the law, as well as a possible cap and trade program to limit carbon dioxide emissions, would drive up energy costs.

“The problems being discussed, there’s nothing new here,” said Bakst, referring to peak oil. “What are we going to do? Spend more money because some people think it will be a problem some time in the future?”

U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, a Republican whose district includes Guilford County, supports both an increase in alternative fuels use and offshore drilling.

“If we had explored over the past two decades, I believe we would be in a better position with gas prices than we are now,” Coble said.

President Bush called for an end to the federal ban on offshore drilling in June. But a 2007 federal report said drilling access to the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf regions would have an insignificant impact on domestic production or prices before 2030.

Miracle technologies, such as the hydrogen fuel cell, hold little immediate promise. The U.S. Department of Energy counted fewer than 200 hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road in 2006 after decades of expensive research.

Jason Hoyle, coordinator of the N.C. Fuel Cell Alliance, called fuel cell cars the “holy grail” of the automobile industry because they run more efficiently and don’t emit pollutants. But fuel cells primarily power buildings and electronics, such as computers.

“After years of floundering, (the industry) has finally figured out that they can think about cars, but they have to sell something,” he said.

North Carolina businesses hope to have more success with biodiesel and ethanol production. Ten percent of the liquid fuels sold in North Carolina by 2017 should come from biofuels produced from local weeds, vegetable oil waste and other feedstocks, according to one state goal.

Universities drive some of that development. The Center for Energy Research and Technology at N.C. A&T received $720,000 from the state this year to work on various energy projects, including the creation of a biofuels refinery and farm cooperative.

Harmohindar Singh, the center’s director, said he believes it will take $10 a gallon gasoline to drive conservation in the country. “Other countries are paying it,” Singh said. “Why can’t we pay?”

Singh supports special gas taxes to pay for alternative fuels use and public transit.

Debbage, of UNCG, said North Carolina also could change its tax codes to reward businesses that offer four-day work weeks, telecommuting and ride-sharing.

But Hoyle said lawmakers should beware of unintended consequences in favoring certain industries and technologies or misspending taxpayer money.

“It all goes back to ‘How much do we know?’” he said. “What do our decision makers have to work with?”

In the meantime, North Carolina officials are working to reduce their own fuel consumption.

State agencies, universities and community colleges must reduce their petroleum use by 20 percent by 2010. Those agencies cut fuel purchases by 2 million gallons, or 7.5 percent, between 2005 and 2007.

“We’ve got to get our own house in order before we have the credibility to lead other people in this direction,” said Larry Shirley, director of the state energy office.

Debbage said Greensboro should diversify its economy and encourage denser development that allows people to live and shop close to work.

“One of the problems with the Triad is that we have been sprawling for so long, that we are really paying the price,” he said.

Greensboro could follow a trend by some cities to “relocalize,” or produce more of their food, energy and products at home, Debbage said.

“That is something I think Greensboro should embrace wholeheartedly,” he said.

WANT TO GO?

–What: Presentation on peak oil by Peter Kauber of Guilford Solar Communities

–When: 10 a.m.-noon July 12

–Where: Kathleen Clay Edwards Family Branch Library, 1420 Price Park Road, Greensboro

–Cost: Free

–Information: 375-5876 or send an e-mail to pkauber@triad.rr.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

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