Peak Moment: Post Carbon Cities (transcript)

MediaPeak Moment: Post Carbon Cities - Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty (video)

Transcribed by Brian Magee

Daniel Lerch (lead in): None of this is new. I mean, we've known since the '70s, of course, ways in which we could make municipalities more sustainable and we have any number of examples in Europe and even here in the U.S. and Canada to some degree. So it's a really more about just having the political will and just the awareness of the options...

Announcer: This is Peak Moment. We're living at a peak of human innovation, information, wealth, and health. But we're also at a peak of population and consumption, with rising temperatures and declining resources fueled by cheap oil and gas. Peak Moment Television, bringing you examples of positive responses to energy decline and climate change through local community action.

Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. My guest today is Daniel Lerch, who's the municipal project coordinator for Post Carbon Institute. Now, what is that? What's a municipal project coordinator, Daniel?

Daniel Lerch: That is a good question. Post Carbon Institute is trying to work with municipalities to help them respond to the problem of peak oil, at least what everyone calls peak oil. I was brought on to provide some experience from the city planning perspective and the perspective of just: what do cities actually need to do?; what do they need to understand?; what are the things that they need to be thinking about?—about peak oil, to have a response. So the name of the project is actually... well the name of the guide book is called Energy Vulnerability: A Guidebook for Municipalities.

JD: So, how come Energy Vulnerability? Why not Peak Oil: For Your City?

DL: Well, I think, as lot of people know, peak oil is, unfortunately, somewhat of a loaded phrase, these days. It also doesn't really explain the problem too well. We thought a lot about this, and peak oil just describes that phenomenon of the oil production getting to a certain point and then starting to go down, and that's all it describes. And that's not the problem. The problem is that production is going to hit a peak then start to go down, plus demand is going to continue going up.

JD: So there's our problem.

DL: Well, not even there.

JD: Really?

DL: Well, the real problem is the volatility that results from the market tightness that happens when you have demand going one way, supply going the other way, and suddenly oil prices—and Ken Deffeyes, one of the researchers from Princeton, talks a lot about this—suddenly oil prices just become unpredictable. And so it's not just that oil prices or gasoline prices or whatever you think about is going to go up, it's that you don't know what's going to happen.

JD: So, let me step back for just a second. How did you get involved in doing this for Post Carbon?

DL: Well, the easiest place to start with that is the work I was doing with Metro, which is the regional government here in Portland. I was a policy associate...

JD: What is Metro...

DL: Oh, sorry.

JD: ...for those of us who don't live here?

DL: That's true. Portland is the only major city in the country that actually has a regional government like Metro. It's an elected body; it's somewhat similar to Council of Governments down in California or metropolitan planning organizations. It's basically this regional body that is responsible for land use and transportation planning as well as some other things like solid waste and recycling and parks.

JD: For Portland and related cities, or how broad a region?

DL: Basically for the entire Portland metro area. So the main cities: Portland, Beaverton, Gresham, and then all the municipalities within there, and it's mandated by the state. So...

JD: So what did you do for Metro?

DL: Well, as a policy associate—Metro has a council system, so we have a council president and then councilors that are elected from different districts throughout Metro—as a policy associate I was working with all the different councilors to, basically, provide policy and issues support as was needed. One of the councilors at one point, Rex Burkholder, had heard about peak oil. He was very familiar with the issue. He had gone to this conference in Denver in September of 2005 that Mayor Hickenlooper, there, had hosted about peak oil and he came back to Portland and said, "well, this is an issue that obviously we need to do something about, because this is going to affect transportation and land use to some degree. But it's still kind of fuzzy." Remember, even back in late 2005 peak oil was still, I mean, people knew about it because James Kunstler had written...

JD: "The Long Emergency."

DL: ..."The Long Emergency," and that article had appeared in Rolling Stone, but people still weren't... everyone was still kind of feeling it out. So, he had asked me as a policy associate to look into that issue and research and find out what are the facts behind it, separate the facts from the fiction.

JD: ...Opinions and the hysteria and the conjectures...

DL: Exactly.

JD: ...because there's so many unknowns in it, yeah.

DL: Yeah, and then take that and just see if there's some way we can frame this that Metro actually has... so that we can see if Metro needs to work on it or not, and if so, what Metro needs to do. Out of that I wrote a white paper—and I worked with planning staff and other staff and officials at Metro to create this paper. And we did the research, we looked at things that Colin Campbell had written, we looked at what CERA—the folks who don't necessarily support the peak oil hypothesis—will say, that oil production is going to continue increasing and increasing. We looked at all aspects of the argument. And then we looked at ways in which oil an was important issue for municipalities and for Metro, and just all the different ways in which oil could be potentially a concern for Metro. And then just kind of did an analysis.

And at the end of the day, the white paper—and it's very short, it's only 15 pages and you can get it on the internet—it basically says, "ok, here's what's happening with oil." We have these trends in demand and supply that pretty much everyone agrees on. There's disagreement about what year exactly things are going to start changing but the basic idea is that the fundamentals of demand and supply are changing worldwide and that's a given. And oil is an issue for land use and transportation in this way and this is what Metro does and, therefore, there seems to be a case that can be made for Metro considering that this an issue and thinking about it as part of our responsibilities. To a layperson it doesn't necessarily seem ground breaking, but as a policy document it's very, very important, because it basically makes a very basic argument for why a government should be thinking about this.

JD: And should they be thinking about it—maybe this gets to what you're doing with the guide book—should they be thinking about it just in terms of the services that a municipality has to offer—services it does for its citizens? Or was Metro starting—and I should say maybe we can get to the guidebook—looking at things beyond their own immediate responsibilities?

DL: At Metro we looked just at our own responsibilities. Again: solid waste, regional long-range transportation and land use planning, that sort of thing. So maybe now's a good time to move on to the guide book.

JD: Right.

DL: So, for that research that we were doing for that white paper, I was also looking into what other metropolitan areas were doing. We looked at what Denver had done, we looked at what was happening at that time in the Bay Area, and there wasn't, actually, a whole lot to look at

JD: I can remember; this is only five/four months ago, really, and it's just barely on the radar screen for most municipalities. Is that true?

DL: Yeah. At that point, in early 2006, Denver was really the only major city that had done any sort of response or just even looking at the oil issue from an official stand point. There was some informal stuff happening. Sebastapol and Willets, of course, smaller cities in California, under, I think, 15,000 population each, they were already doing stuff. But, you can do some things in a small city that you can't do in a large city. So it was really Denver. And then while we were doing the white paper and while things started to happen here in Portland, then finally San Francisco did a resolution.

JD: A peak oil resolution.

DL: Yes. The reason why those are important is—sort of like the white paper—it's a recognition from the government body that this is an issue that we should look at. And that's, again, that doesn't seem terribly ground breaking. But it gives that elected body—it gives that government—kind of a touchstone to go back on and say, "yes, we all agreed that this was something important."

JD: There, I think that's important. It says, "this deserves to be on the map; we are not going to avoid this. Now, we may not do anything." I mean, that's what the next step is, is, now how can you respond. But at least it says, "we believe this to be true."

DL: Exactly, and that's where the guidebook then comes in. So, when I was doing this work for Metro I met with Julian Darley from Post Carbon Institute and we realized that we had some similar goals that we wanted to do, and then I was brought on to create this guidebook. And the point of the guidebook is to—it's basically targeted to municipalities of any size, the audience specifically being the elected officials and the planners and the managers and staff. And it's assuming that the people who are purchasing this book already understand that oil scarcity—oil vulnerability—is a problem, or is a potential problem, but they don't necessarily know what to do about it. No one really knows what to do about it.

JD: Because we've never been here before.

DL: Right. Even the oil crises of the '70s were different in some respects, and we can get into that later. So the point of the guidebook was, basically, to give people some sort of sense, some sort of resource to start approaching this. And we have to start in a very, very general way. The guidebook is going to be actually broad and not terribly deep in some ways. And that's because oil—and this is some of what I did with the white paper—to approach oil is basically to approach a system problem, the way that I laid it out in the paper.

JD: A system problem...

DL: Oil is... we assume that it's going to be there.

JD: Yes.

DL: There are no real substitutes for it yet. I mean, there are some, but not at the scale of what we currently use and how we currently use it. And it's also essential. It's absolutely essential to our current industrial economy.

JD: It's the water we swim in, right, because it's essential for everything we get.

DL: Yeah. That's actually... it's a good analogy. I think I might have mentioned that in the paper, even, that we assume that oil going to be there much in the same way that we assume that fresh water, drinkable water... so that aspect of oil, oil is unlike any other resource that we use in our community.

JD: That's true.

DL: That makes this an incredibly complex problem for municipalities to deal with.

JD: Yeah. I mean, it's interwoven into all aspects of our life. If you're thinking about it as a whole system, of how oil lubricates, if you will, and energizes a whole system, how does a municipality... I mean what kind of handles do you give them, what kind of questions do you give them... or way to frame what they should be thinking about?

DL: Well, that's pretty much what we're doing with the guidebook. And not much beyond that. Just that basic question. How do you frame it? How do you grab on to it? Some of the cities that have started doing things like Sebastapol and Willets, especially, for example, they started doing energy vulnerability analyses. So, at a very basic level, looking at everything that the city does and says, "okay, what are the ways in which we assume that oil is going to be here; what are the risks that we face, if something—not if the oil runs out—but what are the risks that we face that something happens, something changes about that oil input?"

JD: So et's say that there's a shortage or let's the prices go off the roof...

DL: Exactly.

JD: ...or that kind of thing.

DL: Exactly. And that's why it's about energy vulnerability and not peak oil. If it was just peak oil then we could say, we could predict, "well, prices would continue going up steadily or they'll suddenly be shortages," or something, but as vulnerability because it could be any number of different scenarios. So by looking at the ways in which the things that the city does are individually vulnerable, then we can start to create responses to that and we can start to build resilience within that system of municipal responsibilities so that whatever does happen, the whole system won't come crashing down.

So maybe a good example... I guess two examples I can give of things that a city needs to be thinking about. Kind of at the most basic level a city has fuel costs, like any business or any household. So a city needs to think about, for example, how we're going to keep our police cars fueled with gasoline. And that's going to have a different set of assumptions and different budgetary issues depending on if the price of gas is going to five bucks a gallon or 10 bucks a gallon, or two bucks a gallon; it could go down, we just don't necessarily know. It's ultimately a risk management issue since we can't assume what's going to happen when the price of this most important input into our system, we need to be thinking about ways in which we can respond if it does something different.

JD: So you're talking about resilience. I want to step for a second into—and I will get back to resilience—what are the areas of responsibility that, in the guidebook, that municipalities should be thinking about, or are responsible for? You just mentioned, say, police services, right? And perhaps fire department services...

DL: Well, actually it depends on the municipality.

JD: Well, right, I understand. But of the ones that you're at least trying to encompass.

DL: Well, what we're going to do in the guidebook is try to cover the possibilities of everything. The guidebook is for the U.S. and Canada. I'm more familiar with the U.S. system; I'm learning more about the Canadian system. But at least in the U.S., municipalities of any size can have any number of different responsibilities. Here, in the Portland area, there are small municipalities of, say, under 50,000, one of which has fire, police, water, schools—I mean, the whole nine yards. The other is what is called a contract city; they contract everything out. So those two cities, those two municipalities, are going have very different ways in which they control what happens.

JD: But even if they're contracting it out to somebody else, ultimately the city is still responsible. They have to make sure that that contractor can still deliver the services. Whatever the billing might be, the city is still going to have the ultimate responsibility, I would imagine.

DL: They are, but they are in a very different position to address those things. The city has is doing all these things in house is going to have staff, they're going to have the institutional memory of how things work. The other city may have a skeleton staff, so that the ways in which these municipalities—any municipality—is going to approach these issues is going to be different. So what we want to do is just get them a sense of, "here are all of the things you need to think about, here are some tools that other cities have used and that other, maybe, countries have used and you choose what is important to your municipality and what you need to do." So, again, anything from how do we keep gasoline in the police cars, all the way up to how would energy vulnerability effect our land use and transportation patterns 30 years down the road.

JD: Are you really trying to have people think about the far-reaching effects of this?

DL: Oh, they have to. They have to.

JD: Well, they may not choose to. I mean, that's part of the point, here, is that's real big deep planning here. Not just emergency, if you will, and not just 10 years' worth of, say, fluctuations in prices. If you if have to think 30 years out, you're going to be looking at food systems, water delivery, water treatment, sewage treatment, all of those things.

DL: In that's in some sense that's among the most important things that municipalities need to do. Municipalities are responsible making... I mean, these are ultimately large financial investments. You're investing in something whether you're lining money up from federal and state and local and other sources to build a major transportation investment, whether it's a highway or a light rail system or whatever. Or you're investing in your water system, or anything like that, you have to be thinking in a 30-year timeframe, or longer. It's not to say that municipalities need to try to do some sort of economic model to figure out what gas prices are going to be in 30 years. No one can do that. It's getting them to think more, "We don't know what it's going to be." Unlike 30 years ago, we can't assume that it's going to be relatively the same, or increase at relatively the same rate.

JD: ...just relatively increasing.

DL: Yeah. So it's kind of taking just a fundamental different approach, fundamentally different approach, to municipal management. Instead of making these assumptions we need to take this risk management approach and just build into what municipalities do, that's constant reassessment. And municipalities, especially a larger municipality, do this. They know how to do risk management. But, perhaps, not necessarily applying it to the broad swath of things that would be affected by volatility in oil.

JD: I think that's a key thing here. It's like risk management, say you have a flu pandemic, or something. But you have something here, the life blood, oil being the life blood for everything that's going on in the whole municipality. It's a different critter altogether, here. I can see the need for ongoing, long-term, looking at that risk management.

You brought the word resilience in here and I want to go back to that. Because it would seem to me that that's an important key to responses that a municipality has to make, is, okay, the prices go up. What do we have? Either backup fuels or backup systems, do we need to be thinking about photovoltaics to supplement or other means of renewables, other backup systems, more safety-catch methods and so on...

DL: Well, we're talking about this more as substituting for oil itself, and that's definitely an aspect of it, but that's just one aspect of it. What resilience is ultimately about is—and it's a term that derived from systems ecology—it's just the ability of a system to persist when there is a crisis that occurs. So in the case of the municipality, and you can and should think of this in, say, economic terms, a community that's resilient won't have economic and social breakdowns, say, if one of the major employers leaves. Or maybe a better way to put it is that a resilient community's not dependent on just one major employer. It's not a terribly hard concept to grasp. We just don't tend think of municipalities and communities in this way.

JD: Right. I mean, I can imagine things like resilience saying don't depend on just one water treatment plant, for example If you've got three but there are ways of connecting them, for example, and one goes down and it's supplied by something, its energy's supplied in a different way than that one, we have some redundancy, if you will, perhaps, that may be part of building resilience.

DL: Yeah, whether it's building additional capacity for something like that or just in the design. Because municipalities, of course, there's not a ton a money floating around. They have to be very, very conservative with their investments. So, say, if a municipality, and I think it was either Willits or Sebastapol that was looking into it, it might have been Willits, looking exactly at their water system and I think...

JD: I remember, it was Sebastapol. They were talking about realizing that they depended on electricity to pump the water up to tanks on the hill, or something like that, and use gravity... and then they realized they were vulnerable because, where does that electricity come from?

DL: Exactly, exactly.

JD: Natural gas from California, which is going to be coming more volatile.

DL: Yeah. That's a perfect example. So that's a case where, maybe, they can do some investments to make their water system more resilient, whether its having backup generators or, from a larger perspective, diversifying the ways in which they get electricity in that area. There's a municipality here in Oregon. I was talking with the city manager of that municipality when he was the city manager there about 10-15 years ago, and they were looking at their electrical distribution system and they found that it was set up as such that if one... I guess it was, coming off the main line, and they had a bit of a circuit throughout the municipality, and if any one part of that circuit went down they whole city went down. And it's a small city and this is not uncommon for smaller municipalities But there's an example of okay, well, how do we build resilience. We make some relatively minor investments in that piece of infrastructure and make it so that—upgrade it so that—the whole thing doesn't collapse if there's one single problem.

That's what resilience is ultimately about. Take that to land use and transportation, which is what most people will think of when they think about ways in which energy vulnerable could really affect how they live. A community that is not resilient would be something like a suburb that is utterly dependent on automobile traffic. If the only what that you can get what you need and get around is by getting into a car, then what happens if that option become more expensive, or doesn't become available for any number of reasons, and that could be because gasoline becomes really expensive; it could be because the streets are no longer maintained adequately, which is a growing problem among many municipalities. Just here is the Portland area about a month ago there were articles about how the rising price of oil was increasing the price of asphalt, and that's increasing street maintenance costs. I was speaking with the transportation planning division manager here about a month or two ago and he was saying they same thing, that we, here, in Portland, we're having a hard enough time keeping up with the need for street maintenance and funding that maintenance because the price is going up, let alone trying to redesign the system or add to it in some way. This is why it becomes a system.

So to get back to that suburb, that system, a community that more resilient, that would not be utterly dependent on cars. So it would be something maybe, here, in Portland, but even more like a European city. You will have multiple ways in which you can get to where you need to go. The problem, and this is why municipalities need to think in very long-term time frames is that—and everyone knows this—you can't fix a suburb, you can't make a suburb suddenly transit-oriented or pedestrian-oriented, in five years; in10 years and 20 years. Major amount of time, major investment. Enormous political process to get everyone lined up. That's why this is such... a lot of people know the Hirsch Report. He talks about—well, he and his team—talked in there about—how we need a minimum 10-year time frame to do mitigation measures of decline.

JD: Of decline, energy decline, yes.

DL: And he was calling that crash mitigation, like World War II-level mobilization to mitigate this.

JD: Everybody on board, yeah. We don't have that at this point.

DL: Yeah.

JD: And we really have no more than 15 years or 20 years which we may or may not have to do that. In our last four minutes are there other things you want to mention about the tool kit that you're building, that you're going to be making available to people? Any other aspects?

DL: Well, in the tool kit one of the key pieces will be an energy vulnerability tool. I'm sorry, an energy assessment tool, similar to what Sebastapol and Willits did, and looking at what some other municipalities have done. Basically just something that any municipality can take and look through. Okay, these are the things we need to look at so that we can think about ways that we might be vulnerable. We're going to have case studies and more looking kind of at, what we call in planning, best practices and lessons learned. And not so much looking at a specific project that a city did, but probably more along the lines that this is what, say, the city if Portland has done over the last 20 years, this is what Denver has done, or this is what Burlington, Vt. has done, or this is what Austin, Tx. has done.

Because it is a system problem, you're not going to address energy vulnerability just by doing one or two initiatives. It really has to be a system-wide effect. In Portland there's been, around the time of this resolution—the peak oil resolution that was passed a couple of months ago—there was another resolution that was passed that was mandating a certain percentage of bio fuels to be available in the city and for the city fleet. So that's another piece of a system-wide response. But what's been happening in Portland has really been more over just like the last 20-25 years related to the regional planning mechanisms that have come on board and state land use law and all these different things; investments in public transit infrastructure. So it's giving people who buy the guidebook a sense of it's this broad scheme of things that you need to be thinking about, the problem end, and here are examples of things within that that all work together to make something happen. But you're not going to solve your problems just buy bringing a bio diesel refinery to your city or increasing public transit or adopting smart growth.

JD: You're talking about fundamental changes in the way we go about organizing or cities, ourselves, really.

DL: Fundamental in some ways, but in other ways none of this is new. I mean, we've known since the '70s, of course, ways in which we could make municipalities more sustainable and we have any number of examples in Europe, and even here in the U.S. and Canada, to some degree. So it's a really more about just having the political will and just the awareness of the options to start pursuing this. But also I think it does require a very high degree of creativity among the decision makers and among the community. It's really, really important.

And I think a lot of people in the community side of things don't necessarily understand how cities work. It really has to work in tandem. And that's kind of how it worked here in Portland. You had citizen groups working with the city council to make a resolution happen, or to make initiatives happen. Elected officials won't act, for the most part, unless they fell that they have some support from the community. But at the same time the community won't keep banging its head against the wall if they don't see some reciprocation.

JD: If something doesn't move. If you don't have responsive officials there who are going to do something about that and address the issues. So, in your last few seconds, what inspires you?

DL: What inspires me?

JD: What inspires you?

DL: That's a hard one to answer in a couple of seconds, but I guess I can say "who inspires me?" The author Bill McKibben, he wrote End of Nature, and I had the opportunity, very thankfully, to interview him a couple of weeks ago. The reason I interviewed him is that he has this very interesting holistic view of sustainability.

JD: Yes, he's wonderful that way.

DL: He sees that the end of day it really is about community and building a sense of community. And I interviewed him because I wanted to find why is that important, how does one build community? So we talked a bit about that, but the basic reason why community is important is because it builds resilience. My favorite quote of his, he says, "the only way to subvert people is to have more fun than they do." And I think that really kind of encapsulates it in some degree. Building community is fun, it's enjoyable. It's by nature we want to do. As people, we want to have an enjoyable home life and community life, pursuing societal resilience in that way.

JD: I'll stop right there, that's beautiful. On to resilience and fun.

DL: Yes.

JD: Thank you.

DL: Thank you.

JD: You're watching Peak Moment, Community Responses for a Changing Energy Future. I'm Janaia Donaldson. Join us next time.

Announcer: Peak Moment Television. Presented by Yuba Gals Independent Media. Produced by Janaia Donaldson. Directed by Robyn Mallgren.

MediaPeak Moment: Post Carbon Cities - Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty (video)