Huntington Beach Councilor Debbie Cook on peak oil (transcript)

MediaHuntington Beach Councilor Debbie Cook on peak oil

This is David room for Global Public Media, interviewing Debbie Cook, City Councilor for Huntington Beach in California, on January 31, 2006.

David Room: So tell me -what is your background in municipal politics?

Debbie Cook: Well, actually I started as an activist on some environmental issues, and then that led me to law school. After law school, I worked for five years on a local issue, trying to protect a wetland here in Huntington Beach, and then someone convinced me to run for City Council, so I've been on the City Council for 5 years; this is my second term.

DR: And you've been mayor at one point?

DC: Yes, my second year. We rotate the mayors in most cities in Orange County, so it's a kind of automatic rotation.

DR: How and when did you become aware of peak oil?

DC: Well, actually it was a staff person at the southern California Association of Governments, who I happened to have a conversation with; I have a bachelor's degree in Earth Science, and he was a former geologist, and we were talking about oil, and he happened to mention this issue, and it was something he was very much interested in, and then I forgot about it for a while until I heard a program on the radio - NPR had mentioned Matt Simmons, who wrote the book Twilight in the Desert. I bought the book and became immediately hooked, and now I am absolutely addicted to the subject and probably spend 3 to 4 hours a day absorbing as much as I can on the issue and trying to learn as much as I can.

DR: What did you take away from the Denver World Oil Conference?

DC: That was almost a life-altering experience. It was amazing how many people had come together from so many different backgrounds, you know, whether they wear suits or sandals, as people like to say. These people were really concerned and wanting to do something, but they were just riveted to their chairs, just as I was - nobody even getting up to get up to get a drink of water, not wanting to miss anything, so it was really an incredible experience. And it made me realize that here is an issue finally that many people coming from many perspectives can come together and work on making this a better world, hopefully.

DR: How are you acting upon what you learned there?

DC: Well, I went because I was interested in the subject first, but I was also interested in how I could influence other elected officials and get them up to speed on this issue. And so, just prior to going to the conference, I had gotten two agencies, one to agree to sponsor an energy conference, and one, the local transit agency - I got both of them to send a staff person to the conference, and they did, and I think both of the people who went were also very much impressed and moved by this issue, and it has then led to a conference that we will be holding on March 10th for mainly elected officials and policy people, because you know we have a lot of people who need to learn about the subject so that they can write the correct policies in order to change the way we've been planning cities and doing transportation and everything that's related to energy.

DR: What is the general level of awareness of peak oil in California politics.

DC: Well, I have found that it is very limited. Most people haven't even heard the term 'peak oil,' although I will say that lately it has become much more frequently talked about, you know, you can read in the newspaper now stories about it; however, I've still not seen a lot of people aware of the issue, and certainly not at the level of awareness that most of us have who are addicted to the subject, but recognizing that we need to do something right now - this is not something that we can continue to put off.

DR: How have you engaged your colleagues in municipal and state government?

DC: Well, I've done some interesting things. I have listened to a lot of the Webcasts that you have on your Website, as well as others that I've found on the Internet, and what I do is, the best ones, the ones I think that most people will actually listen to, I have downloaded those and recorded them onto CDs, put a label on them that makes them look professional, and I hand them out to people I meet at various conferences or meetings - people who I think will listen to them and might take action once they've listened. I am then, of course, organizing this event that we're going to have to raise the awareness of energy among elected officials, and then I get myself out there, so that I have an opportunity to meet as many people as I possibly can on the subject.

DR: What reaction and questions do you get when you are handing out these CDs?

DC: People have been very nice, and they've accepted them, and I find that most are being listened to, and the only thing I ask is that people pass them out to someone else. The way I see it is that it serves as the initial introduction into an issue, and now they will be more likely to pay attention when they hear the subject brought up again, and it lays a foundation for discussion down the road, because sometimes you have to go about these things rather slowly, and you've got to lay the ground work first - you can't just dump this issue on people, because it is overwhelming and it kind of can be scary, and people go into resistance if they are frightened into listening to a subject that they are not familiar with.

DR: Are there any particular Webcasts that you recommend or you found particularly helpful?

DC: Yes. Financial Sense did one, an interview with Matt Simmons, and the reason I thought Matt Simmons would be particularly good is that I live in a conservative county, and I needed someone that I thought they would be more likely to listen to than someone with an environmental perspective, so that one has been particularly good, and it's an interesting interview. And then also the ASPO had a number of good speakers. Roscoe Bartlett, Congressman Bartlett, was very good; and so I've passed that one out, and then the National Academy has the workshop in Washington D.C. in October, and they had a number of good speakers, including Jeremy Gilbert. Robert Hirsch - that's a message that every elected official should hear, and Matt Simmons spoke there - there were a number that were particularly good. There was one geologist who spoke (I can't quite remember his name right now - it was Roger something or other), but he was very good talking about the geology of it. It's an issue that has a lot of different layers and most people come ignorant on the subject, but they need to learn a little bit about the geology to understand it completely, because the economists come in and say, "Oh, we don't need to worry about it - there's going to be something else around the corner, and technology will take care of it," but once people have the basic understanding of the geology and the history of exploration, then they can better see through some of the Pollyanna-type messages that some of the economists like to throw out.

DR: If you were to sum up the message from the Hirsch Report for an elected official, what would you say?

DC: I would say we shouldn't spend anytime at all trying to figure out when the peak is going to happen - it is going to happen, and it doesn't matter when; it is very important that we start immediate planning, because we need a 20-year head start to even make it a somewhat soft landing. So that is something elected officials, I think, can get behind, because that's more of a positive message, but they still need to understand this is something we need to start immediately, and that there are no easy alternatives.

DR: And when they ask, who is Hirsch, what do you say, how do you frame that?

DC: Then I tell them that the Department of Energy through the National Renewable Energy Lab commissioned this group of gentlemen to put together this study on the mitigation and the risks of peak oil and how do we mitigate for that.

DR: What do you see as the responsibility of elected officials with respect to oil peak?

DC: Well, I think their responsibility first is to understand the issue and to implement policies that will actually deal with this issue, but it's also very important for them to educate the public, because we don't need a spike in oil prices to panic the public, but they need to know of the possibilities because then they have an idea of how to deal with this issue. So one of the things I did just this last week is - I had invited abut 40 or 50 Huntington-beach residents to come to City Hall for an evening showing of Dr. Albert Bartlett's presentation on arithmetic, population, and energy, and I preceded the showing of that with a talk about peak oil, and it was really interesting to see their reaction. Most people had never heard of this issue, but they were very much interested in this issue; in fact, half of them ended up ordering the DVD so they could share it with other people in their community or other groups that they participate in.

DR: That's a very positive reaction. Tell me about Huntington Beach and the people that live there, and then you can go into what you see as the most effective ways for your constituents to raise the awareness.

DC: Well, Huntington Beach is a coastal community, 27-square miles, 200,000 people; we are in the bastion of republican Orange County, but most of the people here are very much concerned about their environment and their quality of life, so they have taken a very active interest in politics; we have a very active community, so I think that there's a yearning for more participation in government and more understanding about how it works and how they can make a difference in their community.

DR: And how can constituents of a municipality, in general, most effectively raise the awareness of their elected officials?

DC: Well, you know, when you try to influence an elected official, the best way to do that is with a personal relationship, and that's the one thing that, as an activist, I wish I had known more about how all of this works, and I wouldn't have wasted so much time, you know, one of the things we think we have to do when we're on the outside is to go down to our public comments and try to tell the Council that they need to start working on an issue. And in my experience that is the worst choice - I call it the first choice and worst choice - is to go to a public comment and spout off about an issue that your audience is probably clueless about. But I think the best thing that people can do is start to form a relationship with their local elected officials. Typically, they are very accessible. Most people know my home-phone number, and I encourage people to call and contact me, and I think other elected officials do the same thing, so it's not hard to have a personal relationship with your local city counsel. And the impotance of doing that as opposed to maybe going higher up the political ladder, you know, like the senate or assembly members or whoever, is that your local-elected officials have an amazing amount of influence with some of these higher-state offices, so it's a great place to start to educate people about the subject, and then enlist your local electives in helping you get this message out, because they have an incredible amount of opportunities to interact with other agencies and other elected officials from other cities.

One of the things that happened when I was first elected that I thought was a terrific idea is one of local activists in our community (actually she lives in the city next door) - she's very much interested in environmental issues, but she saw that in 2000 there were a number of women who came from an environmental perspective who got elected - there were probably a half dozen of us or so in the county - so she decided to pull us all together and form a kind of support group where you would have some of the leaders in the environmental arena meet monthly with this group of elected officials, and it was an opportunity to socialize and talk and that sort of thing, but it not only expanded their relationship with elected officials but it allowed us elected officials to interact together, so that we're more familiar with people in other cities around us, and so that's something that people can consider doing, kind of being the impetus behind pulling together a group of electives who often need the support of other electives because they're often the only ones who understand what they're going through, and it's a great way to expand your influence.

DR: What are some ways for a constituent to make an approach with an elected official that could lead to a personal relationship?

DC: There's nothing better than setting up a meeting and talking with them. What I recommend, if you want to set up a meeting to talk about peak oil, is to actually put together a presentation that has pictures and graphs (there are so many resources on the internet that you can use to help explain this issue to an elected official) and find somebody in the community who already knows this person and has a relationship with them, and then go in and meet with this person, because you know, we set up meetings all the time, and at every council meeting we tell people if you want to meet with us, you know, set up a meeting with us - it's a much better way to dialogue than try to do it at a council meeting. What I recommend people do not do is send e-mails. E-mails just aren't a good way to communicate with someone, and there's no way to understand the emotions behind the words, and so sometimes we take things wrong, you know, if somebody sends something to us, for example, that's all capitals, it just sounds like someone screaming at you, and sometimes people use sarcasm and it's taken wrong, so it's best to avoid e-mails and letters; it's much better to make a personal contact with either a meeting or a phone call, and take someone with you who is well-respected by the elected official so that, you know, it's just more comfortable - you don't feel like somebody is going to attack you or kind of side-swipe you or something, and so if they take a presentation with them and they've got their ideas well-organized, you can walk through this issue with them sitting side by side.

DR: How do politicians think about each contact from their constituents? Isn't there some rule about the number of people that's represented by each contact?

DC: You know, I've heard those before, but I don't remember what the statistics are. I don't think about it at all, and that's why sometimes it's not very helpful when people speak at public comments, because it doesn't really equate, for me anyway, the number of people that are represented, because for me if it's an important issue and one person is bringing it up, that's all that matters - it doesn't have to be a hundred people all interested in the same thing. I know that at some of the state offices they really do count them, and I know that Congress does equate it with how many people it represents, but at the local level we don't have the resources to do that. We don't have staff; they are mostly unpaid volunteers who have full-time jobs, and so we are just trying to solve problems and answer people's questions and basically connect them with the people they need to be connected with, which brings up another issue as far as influencing - and that is that there is a whole layer of staff that you also need to educate on a subject and that's part of what I am doing now is trying to get staff people or agency people up to speed on this subject, so that's another area where people can help influence and in fact they can even request that a staff person come to a meeting when you meet with a local-elected official or whoever you're meeting with.

DR: So what do you think about demonstrations and civil disobedience?

DC: Well, you should try everything possible before you do that, because then you are really playing to the media, and most of us only take half of what they say as fact anyway, especially once you serve in office, then you start to really discount what you read, because it just doesn't jive with what you are actually experiencing. So I would much rather have an opportunity to dialogue, and even if you don't agree with somebody, if you keep that relationship positive, you can continue to have dialogue, but if you go immediately into calling names and pointing out why they are wrong and that sort of thing then you never have the opportunity to discuss and change somebody's opinion - they just immediately go into resisting whatever it is you are saying. So it takes a while sometimes to build rapport with people, but that's what it is really all about - you have to build rapport with the people you are trying to influence and sometimes that means that you have to change your style so that you can map it with the person you are trying to influence.

DR: You mentioned giving out CDs earlier, and I am wondering if you recommend any books or other reading materials to your colleagues in municipal government?

DC: Well, I do carry with me several copies of the Hirsch Report, so when I meet the right person, in fact today I met a woman from the Hewlitt foundation, and she ended up with my copy of the Hirsch Report, and then I carry the shorter version Hirsch did - he kind of did an executive summary of his report - I carry multiple copies of that and also some other things that I come across that I think are helpful about these issues, because people always come back and say, "Oh, you know, we have oil shales; we have tar sands," so I carry articles with me that describe what that really means and how little that would add to our energy needs if we were to come to rely on them. I just carry a whole library of information so that I am able to just pull something out and say here is a study you might want to review.

DR: Are there certain roles in municipal government that are more likely to get it?

DC: I think everybody is capable of understanding this issue; obviously, some people are more likely to want to believe that this is not something that they will have to deal with in their lifetime, and they are the most difficult challenges, so you keep working and eventually there comes a tipping point (for those who have read The Tipping Point), you know, there does come a point where (and you can kind of see it now happening)- I see people all the time now whose minds are being changed, and in many ways that influences a lot of other people - the fact that here's somebody who really believed that there is no problem, and now all of a sudden this tip is happening and it is not going unnoticed; in fact, tonight the President is supposedly going to speak on energy and conservation, so the message is getting out there, it is just getting out in a filtered way, and I think at times it needs to be a little bit more blunt.

DR: You mentioned that it's the responsibility of elected officials to both educate the public and also implement policies, and I'm interested in knowing, what are the most important policies that municipal leaders should consider or need to start thinking about?

DC: Well, obviously transportation right now is the biggest user of fossil fuels, so transportation planning and actually shifting money away from road building and that sort of thing and more into mass transit, because it takes so long to implement mass-transit projects, and we've just got to do it, so obviously policies there, but also policies in the green-building arena, because buildings are such a huge consumer of electricity and natural gas, so there's a lot that can be done in that area, and there it's sometimes difficult because you've got to get the builders to realize this can be a good thing; it's not going to hurt their sales,and actually it might help their sales, because the cost of owning a home is less if it is more energy efficient, and then, just serving as an example of what you can do - cities like Santa Monica that are doing all kinds of projects to be more energy efficient and doing solar and that sort of thing, so it is sometimes difficult to get cities who never thought that way to think a little differently, but they get it when it starts saving them a lot of money and their energy costs, and one of the things I was thinking about for the public who wants to get the city more involved is to do some research and find out from the city how much they are spending on energy bills, not just electricity and natural gas but fuel for vehicles (we are a full-service city here, some cities are not, they are contract cities) - find out how much money is being spent and what the implications are for the cost maybe doubling or tripling. So if you can do the research and then kind of present it as, "Oh, we can save a lot of money," that's the way a community member might help his community.

Another thing - there are a lot of cities that have a lot of committees and one that we have is an environmental committee, and if you don't have one, you can go to the city council and ask that they form a committee on energy, and it would be an opportunity to do an investigation and have conferences, and have a community event where you educate people on energy, and that's a great way to get elected officials and your staff more educated on the subject and implementing projects that would be good for the community.

DR: Given the state of current municipal budgets, how difficult would it be for cities without foresight to continue services if energy costs doubled or tripled?

DC: Well, I can only speak for California, but we have an awful time trying to meet the demand that we have, and under a scenario where you have energy costs doubling or tripling it can really cripple a cities ability just to do basic infrastructure and provide public safety because public safety is the number one expense of cities, so it's going to be really tough to address that issue, and I am not sure that we can - it will require the community to do a lot more - they are going to have to become much more involved in their community and recognize that it's going to take everyone to get us out of this problem

DR: Do you believe that municipalities need to start developing local contingency plans?

DC: They do, although when you think about the way local government is structured, lots of cities are worse off than my city because they have very limited staff. The larger cities are probably better able to come up with those kinds of plans, but there are cities in Orange County who have only 7 staff people because they are contract cities and they contract out all their services. Very, very small cities just don't have the staff to figure out contingencies, and I am not sure even the ones who have staff will even know where to start, so in some respects I think there's going to have to be a jurisdiction outside of the local government like at state or federal that takes a look at this issue to help cities deal with people, and maybe the structure of government has to change, but it will definitely change a lot of things for local government.

DR: And it sounds like the community can have a role in educating municipal government as well.

DC: Yes, I think they have to, but even more than educate, they have to support local government because we have spent a lot of years over the last several decades of bashing government and accusing government of being wasteful and all of those things, but the truth is that the people who serve government are the same people that work in corporations and every other walk of life, you know, we all come from the same gene pool and people are people and government is going to need a lot of support from the people, and hopefully it will be a positive force rather than a blaming-type culture that continues, because government really is everybody, and blaming isn't going to solve the problem - everybody is going to have to sacrifice and do their share.

DR: How do you think about the possibility of local adoption of the oil-depletion protocol?

DC: Well, I think there will probably be some resistance to that - I know there would be in my community because most local government tries to stay out of things they see as national or global type issues, because they are trying to avoid any kind of partisan divisiveness; however, I personally think it is great - if your community supports it, then it is easy for your elected officials to support it. But if your community isn't familiar with the concepts, then you're not going to get your elected officials to be the leaders, because really the community has to be the leader, not the elected officials - it's going to have to come from the ground up.

DR: One last question. What is the urgency that local government begin to prepare for oil peak?

Well, I think it is very urgent - if I didn't, I wouldn't be spending so much time on the subject, and basically I wouldn't have decided to devote the rest of my time on my council to this subject. I think it is very urgent for cities to act on this now, and do everything they can to plan and to alert the public about the issue. Obviously, people don't need to get panicked over it- actually maybe we will have a better world because of it. It's important for them to plan it; however, I am not optimistic that they're going to actually do that until prices really do double and triple.

DR: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

DC: I would just add that the two most important things in any individual are persistence and initiative, and there is so much that an individual can do and should do to become active in their community and to educate their fellow citizens on this subject, so just keep on keeping on, and show the initiative that's necessary to get this elevated to the level it needs to be.

DR: All right, thanks so much Debbie.

DC: You're welcome.

MediaHuntington Beach Councilor Debbie Cook on peak oil