Sacramento on empty

The world is approaching the ‘peak’ of global oil production. Will communities like ours be able to stave off a dramatic shift in our way of life, or are we destined for a painful era of change?

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Larry Dalton

Sacramento 2036: It’s a rare thing to see a car of any kind on J Street, and then it’s most likely to be an armored police vehicle. From time to time, a small convoy of these—three or four—will emerge, usually to protect against civil unrest at one of the food-distribution points. They used to be called “supermarkets,” but they didn’t look like armored warehouses then. They are fairly safe these days. Most people who don’t have money to buy food have signed on to work at a farm in exchange for food or have been court-ordered into indentured labor to pay off their debts.

The only place that can be described as “bustling” is the port, where excess crops, particularly rice, are shipped out. Incoming ships carry a few consumer goods and high-priced specialty foods—that is, anything that can’t be grown locally. A can of pineapple from Hawaii is going for $40. All the loading is done by people operating simple machinery.

Like all the food-distribution points and the warehouses, the port has a large police presence. Once oil went above $200 a barrel, food became the major expense for most households. Without oil, there were no pesticides, no fancy fertilizers, no central distribution system, and no trucks pulling up at Safeway and Albertsons. Even Wal-Mart shelves emptied in a hurry, and they were never restocked.

The police are the most functional branch of the government. There are small police barracks scattered about the city, and for simplicity’s sake, much of the force lives in dormitories there and eats from the official police kitchens. It’s good work, if you can get it. Those lucky enough to have jobs live mostly in the city now, or in the farmworker dorms that dot the Natomas Basin. State government has contracted radically. And many of the old state office buildings have become tenements for the chronically unemployed. From the heights of their high-rise condominiums, the lucky few look nervously down on the West End Projects.

The outer suburbs meanwhile have become no man’s land. Without access to light rail or other transportation, parts of the suburbs have turned into ghost towns. Young people move in groups, scavenging what they can to get by. A few garden plots have sprung up wherever workable land can be found. But protecting these gardens from scavengers is a full-time job.

The exception is the gated communities. They’re more like walled compounds these days, protected by private armies and elaborate defenses. They house the ultra-wealthy, who are rumored to be living quite well behind the walls. No one really knows for sure, but rumors abound. It’s apparent, though, that some of the rich have more gas than the government.

The above is a nightmare scenario, all right—a plot out of an apocalyptic movie.

But people like James Howard Kunstler believe that the steady depletion of oil will drastically change the way we live. They fear a sort of post-oil dark age in our future. “We’re at peak now,” says Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century and The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape. Kunstler has been writing about the lack of sustainability in the American lifestyle for a number of years.

There is growing agreement that we are nearing what is called “peak oil,” the implication being much scarcer, and much more expensive, energy in the coming decades. But there are plenty of other possible scenarios aside from the Sacramento-goes-Mad Max story presented above.

“You don’t have to go all the way; you don’t have to believe in the worst-case scenario” to worry about the impact of peak oil on the Sacramento region, said Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG). SACOG is the transportation and land-use planning organization for the whole region. And McKeever is the guy whom the mayors and city-council members and county supervisors are counting on to put together the region’s transportation plan for the next 30 years.

“I think there are sufficient studies and sufficient warnings telling us that continued reliance on cheap oil as an ongoing assumption is a dangerous idea.”

The question is: How can Sacramento best prepare for a post-oil future?

What is peak oil?

Cheap oil is both the literal and the figurative grease that runs the machine that produces the American lifestyle. Not only does cheap oil, in the form of affordable gasoline, make the suburbs work by allowing for frequent automobile trips and sprawl, but it also provides us with cheap food and a wide array of chemicals, plastics, pesticides and materials. For most Americans, what we eat, drive, wear and live in is made possible by the ready availability of oil and its products at an exceptionally low price.

If cheap oil runs out, we’re in big trouble. Even a disruption in the supply—as during the energy crisis of the 1970s or the price jumps in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—has huge repercussions.

Oil prices worldwide have almost tripled since 2001, and the current world consumption of 84 million barrels per day (up from 57 million barrels per day 30 years ago) is expected to grow, according to the International Energy Agency, at a rate of about 1.6 percent in 2006.

But why would we worry about running out of oil? The answer, according to Kunstler and many others who’ve studied oil, is in a series of mathematical equations worked out by Shell Oil engineer M. King Hubbert at mid-century. Hubbert’s equations, which showed oil production on a bell curve, predicted that American oil production would peak in the 1970s and then begin dropping along the downward edge of the curve. That assessment proved to be accurate. U.S. oil production has never again reached the levels of the late 1960s, while demand has continued to increase.

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Larry Dalton

Hubbert’s equations also predicted a peak in worldwide oil production in the early 21st century. Although experts differ, with actual dates ranging from 2003 to as late as 2035, the consensus is that Hubbert’s equations seem accurate. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a petrogeologist and former colleague of Hubbert’s at Shell, predicted world peak would occur last Thanksgiving. Even Chevron says that 33 of 48 oil-producing nations are in decline, and the company has been running advertisements that ask customers to begin thinking about how much oil has been used up and how quickly what’s left could be consumed.

Last November, the IEA reported that the world’s oil supplies should be sufficient for the next 25 years, but there were some caveats: increased investment in oil-producing countries, and additional oil discoveries. But as China and other developing nations demand a larger share of the world’s energy reserves, and as Americans continue to motor their way into suburbia, the demand for oil rises just as the ability to produce it may be entering a decline.

There are more optimistic folks who think that hydrogen, or nuclear, or coal will emerge to replace oil and gasoline. There are even some—“cornucopians,” they’re sometimes called—who think the planet will begin to produce more oil. This story is not about that debate. Here we are assuming, for the sake of argument, that energy is going to be a lot harder to come by in the near future.

Planning the post-oil city

What Kunstler is saying is that merely adopting some “smart growth” principles isn’t going to be enough to stave off a painful and dramatic shift in our lifestyle—supported for decades by cheap oil.

Consider that in Sacramento right now, there are a number of planning processes in the works, all intended to look far into the region’s future and determine the best land-use and transportation policies. Both the city of Sacramento and Sacramento County are updating their “general plans,” documents that are supposed to guide their growth for the next 10 years. The six counties and 21 cities that participate in SACOG are at work on a “Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) 2030,” which is intended to shape the region’s transportation system—from its mass transit to its neighborhood streets—over the next 25 years.

For the most part, these processes at least try to address the problems associated with that growth, like increasing traffic congestion, suburban sprawl and poor air quality.

But if you peruse the planning documents, or sit in on public workshops, the words “peak oil” never come up. It’s not that the planners believe that there will continue to be cheap oil. They just haven’t asked the question.

“They don’t talk about it because they can’t. It turns everything upside down,” said California State University, Sacramento, professor Kevin Wehr, who teaches a section on peak oil in his environmental-sociology classes. He thinks it’s too much of a challenge to business as usual to imagine an energy-poor future. “Without sufficient energy sources, the economy will stagnate, if not contract,” Wehr said.

That’s just not a polite way to talk if you are an elected official in Sacramento. Start rambling about the very underpinnings of our whole way of life being pulled out from under us, and you might alienate more than a few voters.

But there’s a growing movement to recognize peak oil as a local issue. The mayor of Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, talks about peak oil from the dais and has hosted town-hall meetings—urging citizens to think about ways the town can become self-sufficient at producing its own electricity and food. In Willits, the city government and local Chamber of Commerce have joined citizens in forming Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL), in a similar effort.

Of course, these are North Bay Area towns—hippie towns. But consider that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, himself a former petroleum geologist, recently convened a task force to study the effects of peak oil on that city.

Local governments have quite a lot of power and responsibility in the areas of transportation and land use: where people live and work and how they get back and forth. And that’s where cheap oil, or the lack of it, really hits home.

There are groups of citizens in the Sacramento area trying to get peak oil on the local agenda. A group of Sacramentans calling themselves the Sacramento Post-carbon Action Network (SPAN) are calling on Mayor Heather Fargo to form a task force looking at the question of peak oil, similar to what’s happened in Denver.

“We have all of about nine members right now,” said Denise Christine, who founded the group last October, after reading The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, a book by Richard Heinberg.

“It hit me like a two-by-four in the head,” said Christine. She admits that she isn’t sure what she wants the mayor to do about peak oil. “But I want to at least ask the question.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of local environmental groups, the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS), is starting to make noise about peak oil as it tries to shake up the Sacramento region’s transportation plan.

Can’t get there from here

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Larry Dalton

If gas prices get up to $5 a gallon or more, academics assume that people will start making different decisions. That happened to some extent even over the last year. As gas prices rose, people found ways to use at least a little less gas. With higher prices, the thinking goes, they’ll change their behavior even more. They’ll start car-pooling, riding bikes, telecommuting. But they also will begin looking to the government to provide transportation alternatives—buses and trains. The problem is that our public-transportation system isn’t ready for a major surge in demand.

“RT could handle some of it. But if there was a significant shift toward transit, no, I don’t think RT is prepared,” said SACOG’s McKeever.

In 2004, voters overwhelmingly passed Measure A, a half-cent sales tax to help fund Sacramento County’s transportation infrastructure over the next decade. The measure focused heavily on road maintenance and construction of new highways. There was no money in it to expand the region’s biggest public-transportation system, Regional Transit.

Currently, SACOG is at work on the region’s transportation blueprint, the 2030 MTP. McKeever estimates that the MTP will guide about $30 billion in transportation spending in the region over the next 25 years, mostly state and federal monies.

The plan is being built partly on another major planning initiative that SACOG finished up last year, called “the Blueprint,” which serves as a sort of guide to future development for area local governments. The Blueprint plan accepted by all of the local governments encourages more-compact growth and developing heavily along transit lines while discouraging unchecked suburban growth.

But a researcher at UC Davis, Robert Johnston, plugged the land-use patterns suggested in the Blueprint into computer modeling programs and found that without rethinking the regional transportation system, few people are likely to get out of their cars.

Johnston worked with ECOS to propose a “transit only” alternative that they want SACOG to adopt as the basis for the new MTP.

Under the ECOS alternative, all future transportation money would be spent on public transportation. It would triple the number of buses in the RT system and dedicate road lanes to “Bus Rapid Transit” lines—express buses that make few stops. It also would introduce streetcars downtown, in West Sacramento and operating out of the 65th Street light-rail station throughout the CSUS campus. Some of these ideas are already being tossed around in the early stages of the MTP process.

The ECOS plan would go even further, levying a local gasoline tax of a dollar, to both subsidize increased public transit and provide a disincentive to driving. It also would require abandoning some great suburban highway projects—projects like the Placer Parkway and the South County Connector. The money for those projects would be diverted into improved public transit.

Johnston’s modeling showed that the ECOS alternative would cut down on total vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) by about 20 percent, and 40 percent of all trips taken would be by transit, bike or walking. More importantly, he said, the number of work trips by car would plummet to just 30 percent.

“And we’re not even saying everyone has to get out of their cars. Sixty percent of people will still drive,” said Ann Kohl with ECOS. But, if peak oil is a reality, Kohl thinks the ECOS plan may be too timid.

“People said, ‘Oh, a dollar. That’s radical,’” said Kohl. That was before the summer of 2005 hit, when the price of gasoline soared to more than $3 a gallon in Sacramento. “I think our scenario is pretty modest.”

Johnston thinks the SACOG board, made up of local elected officials from all the region’s cities and counties, is extremely unlikely to adopt a “transit only” plan, or to abandon some major new highway projects. The problem, said Johnston, is that the new roads like the proposed South County Connector will exacerbate sprawl and drain money from the kinds of transportation alternatives that will be in high demand down the road.

“But, when the music stops, and we’re out of oil, aren’t you going to wish we’d spent it all on transit?” Johnston asked.

McKeever said that his staff is taking the ECOS position seriously and that peak oil will be part of the MTP discussion. “I’ve volunteered to write the issue paper on peak oil myself,” McKeever said.

The end of suburbia or the rebirth of the town?

In the movie The End of Suburbia, the producers foretold, well, the end of suburbia, with a sort of glee. The SUV, the monotonous suburbs, the Wal-Mart—all were cast aside like trash. Could this really just be an elaborate revenge fantasy, wrought by people who’ve got a cultural beef with the suburbs?

“I think there is some glee,” said Rob Thayer, a professor emeritus of landscape architecture at UC Davis. “It’s a world out of balance. And there has to be some re-equilibration.”

Rob Thayer predicts more people will be involved in farm work, and we’ll have to produce the things we need closer to home. And he says the big-box landscape of the suburbs will have to be retrofitted for the post-oil era.

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Larry Dalton

But Thayer is a little more optimistic about our chances of getting through the peak-oil transition than some others are. In fact, he says Kunstler is “obnoxious.”

Thayer has spoken about peak oil and urban design around the world and recently led graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, in a project designing a “post-oil retrofit” for parts of Napa and Solano counties. His paper about peak oil and land use, “The World Shrinks, the World Expands: Information, Energy, and Re-localization,” will appear later this year in Landscape Journal.

“Peak oil is yet another reason that the local region needs to become much more important,” Thayer told SN&R.

In the post-oil retrofit for the Napa Valley, the students imagined how the communities there would work in the year 2030, well on the other side of Hubbert’s peak.

They proposed more compact cities and towns with largely infill, rather than green-field development. They reintroduced urban agriculture and local food production, and they looked for alternative energy sources that could be generated right there locally. And they insisted on walkable neighborhoods and balanced local housing with local jobs.

Thayer says these are just good solid planning principles—that communities like Sacramento are already adopting, albeit slowly. Peak oil, he said, “tells us the time for them is coming sooner rather than later.”

A post-oil retrofit for Sacramento, he said, would include rediscovering its rail system.

“One thing I would say is don’t get rid of any more rails,” said Thayer. He’s talking about the still-existing network of abandoned rails left over from the great railroad era in Sacramento. Look along R Street, or in the Land Park neighborhood, and you can find them. Thayer said the existing rails could be used to rebuild a streetcar system that would make it easier to take short trips, or move goods, around the city.

Saving the suburbs, or retrofitting them, also would require throwing out some bad habits. He said the big-box landscape, with its monolithic stores, seas of parking lot and lack of variety, makes no more sense. The land dedicated to strip malls would have to be fixed to function more like Main Streets—with a mix of shops that offer things people need on a daily basis, like groceries. Housing would be built into these new suburban strips turned Main Streets. The six-lane roads that run by them would be partly converted and dedicated to buses or streetcars. And all that extra parking-lot space could be repurposed as public space—for farmer’s markets or outdoor events, or just open public plazas.

“It’s difficult to imagine, after what we have now. But I think communities are going to say, ‘We need village centers, not shopping centers.’”

Re-localization also means moving the production of all the things we need closer to where we live, rather than shipping them thousands of miles. “When you don’t have fuel, you have to replace it with two things,” said Thayer. “Efficiency and labor.”

That’s the opposite of the way our lives are organized now—whether you get your toilet paper and milk at Wal-Mart or Target.

“Right now, we’ve decided it’s not necessary to manufacture anything in the region. We manufacture things anywhere in the world and send it anywhere we want,” said Thayer.

That will have to change when the cheap gas is gone. “It’s going to mean localized milk and bread and beer.” This kind of re-localization is inevitable, because the economics of scarcer and much more expensive energy demand it.

But, much as he’d like to see small, local businesses rule the day after the end of cheap oil, Thayer says big corporations aren’t going away. Neither is economic globalization. Your beer and milk may be locally produced—but Budweiser and Wal-Mart may still own the brewery and the dairy. Like information, Thayer notes, wealth and capital won’t be bound by the new physical limitations in the way people and goods are. The world shrinks; the world expands.

“It’s a fuzzy image right now, but it has enough form that I’m confident that some version of this will happen.”

The years of rice and tomatoes

When SN&R talked to Thayer, McKeever and Kunstler, all remarked on the impact peak oil would have on our food supply. Post-oil Sacramento will have to figure out how to feed its citizens.

The end of cheap oil could disrupt the food supply. But UC Davis professor Gail Feenstra says we can grow our own.

Photo Illustration by Don Button and Larry Dalton

After all, food doesn’t come from supermarkets. As every preschooler learns, it comes from farms, and in most of the United States, those farms are industrial. They run on petrochemicals, whether in the engines of the farm machinery, in the pesticides and fertilizers used to grow the food, or in the gasoline used to transport the food to market.

“We’ve relied on industrial agriculture, and that is allowed by one thing and one thing only: petroleum,” poet, essayist and farmer Wendell Berry told SN&R last spring. “We are now eating and wearing fossil fuels because the synthetic fibers all come from fossil fuels.”

That makes for a pretty frightening future if petroleum isn’t available.

If the large industrial farms can no longer operate, and the trucks no longer deliver pallets of food to the supermarkets, what will Sacramento do?

Gail Feenstra, a food-systems analyst at the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program in Davis, puts her energy into programs that promote alternative food sources and distribution, such as farmer’s markets and the Food to Schools program. She thinks it would take a big shock to make most citizens start looking for alternative means of food distribution.

“It’s like conservation of any resource,” she told SN&R. “Some people will use farmer’s markets and work a community garden voluntarily. But high prices and a lack of availability of foods would be needed to shock most people into looking for sustainable alternatives.”

In addition to its good soil, Sacramento is fortunate to have the sort of climate where food can be produced year-round, she noted, and there are successful large-scale organic farms, such as Lundberg rice farm. “We try to provide support for non-competing systems,” she said. “These sustainable farms don’t compete with the industrial farms.” But they will be able to provide successful models for how to produce and distribute food without—or with a minimum of—oil.

Feenstra is certain that the Sacramento region could feed itself—and certainly on more than rice and tomatoes. “In the event of a shock, people would become willing to do it. They’d learn pretty quickly from the successful examples we’ve got available.”

But, she pointed out, there’d need to be some organization. “Large-scale food production or even small gardens would need to be part of a regional or municipal plan,” she said. “The cities and counties would need to designate areas for food production and provide information and support for the people to get started.”

Thayer said he thinks peak oil means that, over the long haul, there will be many more people involved in the endeavor of growing food—as it makes more economic sense to pay people to do the physical labor of farm work than to pay for the operation of gas-guzzling farm machinery.

But Sacramento might want to consider its surrounding farmland an insurance policy against the post-oil future—rather than a blank slate to build ever more expansive suburbs. “That’s one question we have to ask ourselves,” he said. “At what point does arable land become so valuable that you just don’t want to develop it anymore.”

No crystal ball

Imagine, instead of the nightmarish scenario we started off with, a more optimistic future. The railroad station would link up with the light-rail system, making it possible for Sacramentans to travel throughout Northern California quickly. Yes, everything would travel a bit more slowly—but as people adjusted to the slower pace, they’d likely wind up enjoying themselves more.

In this post-oil scenario, Sacramento could work better because it developed into a cluster of communities—what might have been called “streetcar suburbs” in earlier times. Each neighborhood would develop a balance of small shops, light industry and residences and would be linked to the others by the light-rail system. Most people would live close to where they worked, and those who didn’t would live near a light-rail hub to make their commutes reasonable and affordable.

This is the scenario that folks like Kunstler, McKeever and Thayer all think is possible.

“We’ve spent a half a century or more building a lifestyle dependent on the automobile,” said McKeever. “That’s obviously going to be negatively impacted” in the event of an oil shock, or several.

But it’s hard to tell how peak oil would even play out. Kunstler is predicting great, lurching changes in the oil supply and in energy prices over the next decade. That gives us little time to change the way we’ve organized our economy and our communities. Others, like Thayer, predict “an increasingly obvious pain in the ass”—not upheaval, just a gradual, steady rise in gas prices that never come down again.

“We don’t have a crystal ball,” McKeever noted. But he thinks initiatives like the Blueprint lay the groundwork for the post-oil city and that regional elected leaders ought to be congratulated for adopting it. “I think that will help us prepare for an oil shock.”

Many of the “smart growth” principles that are gaining political support around the region are things we ought to do anyway, McKeever said, because they will cut down on traffic congestion, improve air quality, protect the environment and make our cities and towns nicer places to live. Peak oil, he says, may only add a sense of urgency.

“I think the direction we’re headed in is the correct one,” he concluded. “The question is: Are we moving fast enough, or do we need to pick up the pace?”

Sidebar: Questions for Kunstler
Sidebar: Fun tips for a post-oil world.