Peak Oil and L.A.

I have visited 43 states, about 20 foreign countries, and 4 continents, but somehow never made it out to California. That changed last week when I had to take a business trip to L.A. I spent 5 days there, seeing some sights and taking care of business. I visited the La Brea Tar Pits, toured Hollywood, got harassed by the LAPD at Hollywood and Vine, spent a day at Universal Studios, checked out Venice Beach, and drove around the city quite a bit. The topics of Peak Oil and energy utilization were constantly on my mind, but what I saw there was mostly depressing.

The trip started out well. The man in the airplane seat next to me struck up a conversation. It turns out that he was a fraud investigator for a bank. He told some pretty interesting stories about bank fraud. But we eventually got into my line of work, and I brought up the topic of Peak Oil, as I am apt to do every chance I get.

I explained the dilemma to him. I told him that I don’t think we are at a peak yet, but that it is coming in the not too distant future. I told him that the situation we are in right now – with a supply/demand imbalance that may continue right up through the actual peak – should provide a preview of coming attractions (and keep upward pressure on prices). I explained the worst case scenarios, as well as how I think it is going to play out. And he “got it”, just like people almost always do when you talk to them one-on-one. If only we could talk to every person in the country one-on-one, we might start making some real progress.

Then he asked me a tough question that I always struggle with: “What should I do to prepare?” Now, this is something I think about every day. But the answer to the question is completely dependent upon how bad you think things will get. How much insurance do you need, and how much are you willing to pay for it? Each person must prepare according to their personal situation, but more importantly is how we prepare globally. After all, my preparations won’t amount to much if the country falls apart and descends into chaos.

I had a connecting flight in Salt Lake City, and we flew over the Great Salt Lake. I had flown over it before, but I had never noticed how much algae is in the lake. I started wondering about the prospects for a large-scale algal biodiesel operation there. From there, we flew over a lot of desert that appeared to be completely barren from the air. I wondered how much electricity we could produce from covering those barren areas with solar panels.

On the descent into L.A., I noticed two things. The first was the infamous L.A. traffic. I have lived in Houston before, and I have heard people say that Houston traffic is as bad or worse. Based on what I saw, it’s not. The other thing I noticed was that the air was brown. It would be several days before I figured out this was the reason my eyes were burning and itching during my entire trip.

Driving around Hollywood, I saw some reason for optimism. There were a lot of city buses operating, and a sign on the back of one indicated that L.A. has the largest natural gas fleet in the country. There were lots of people out walking (something you don’t see in Houston), even away from the major tourist attractions. At one point I saw a sign indicating the presence of a methanol pump, but I couldn’t figure out why they would be using methanol.

However, once I left Hollywood and got back on the freeway, my optimism faded. Not only was the traffic incredibly dense, but it was all moving at 80 miles an hour, and Hummers and SUVs were abundant. In fact, I have never seen so many Hummers in one day as I saw on my first day in L.A. I have often thought that Houston has to be one of the worst possible places to be post-peak. But L.A. may be even more car-dependent. I drove 30 miles north of L.A., and the traffic was still very heavy. I finally pulled off of the freeway, and just observed the traffic for a while. Fuel-efficient vehicles were greatly under-represented. Speed limits seemed to be optional. Conservation certainly did not appear to be embedded in the collective consciousness.

The other thing I noticed was that the area seems to be more litigation-happy than most. While I certainly understand the need for Lemon Laws, it is hard to believe that so many lemons are being sold to support as many lawyers as were advertising their services. But if you want to sue someone for selling you a bad car or because you think maybe at some point in your life you may have been exposed to asbestos, or you want to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy with ease, it looked like I was in the right place.

I arrived at my hotel in Thousand Oaks, and asked at the front desk about restaurants within walking distance. They told me there was only 1, less than a block away. It later turned out that there were quite a few within a one-mile radius. But apparently, that’s not walking distance. I did walk to a restaurant about a half mile away at one point, and there were few pedestrians out. Just like Houston, it seemed that everyone drives everywhere. My first impression from Hollywood was that a lot of people traveled by foot. That’s not what I saw as I got away from Hollywood.

Before I left L.A., I did get to engage one more person on the subject of Peak Oil. Once again he quickly grasped the seriousness of the issue. I was pleased that I had brought the issue to the attention of another person. But all I had to do was look back at the freeway to realize that my efforts were like a single drop of rain in a downpour. Two people listened. Millions were still oblivious in this one city. Sometimes I feel so helpless. I want to affect change. I want to help point us in the right direction. So, I take little steps by writing as much as I can to educate people, and by talking to people one-on-one. Then I go to a city like L.A. and am frustrated that so many people are not getting the message. What can we do? How can we affect the behavior of the masses? And what are the consequences if we don’t?

10 thoughts on “Peak Oil and L.A.”

  1. RR: I wonder the same thing all the time. Obviously blogging is one way, and you and the other energy bloggers I’ve found are “fighting the good fight”. It somehow doesn’t seem like enough though. Mostly I’m surrounded by people who are blissfully ignorant. Do people really need to have a crisis upon them before they wake up? All the MSM seem to care about is the price. Unless the price goes above $100/bbl I fear we’ll just get more of the same, and perhaps even then. Scapegoating oil companies, terrorists, newly industrializing nations. The people who do get some “air time” to talk about declining supplies have largely marginalized themselves by offering an apocalpytic message rather than an action-oriented one. People will just tune out a doomsday message, whereas I’m convinced they’ll listen to one that gives them something actionable. I’m afraid in the US we will have to get to the point where there are actual shortages and gas lines before we notice the problem, then all responses will have to be in crisis-mode. I have one last hope, and that is that someone will have the courage to make this the top priority for the 2008 presidential campaign. We’ve suffered through too many presidents making something like “education” their top priority. We haven’t had anyone say energy and the environment would be their top priority, from either party, in my adult life. If possible, that needs to change in 2008. We need to elect the energy equivalent of FDR.

  2. I understand and appreciate peak oil issues. I work at home as much as I can but the only time I drive the speed limit is when I’m forced to. I typically drive between 70 and 80 because I get there faster and with less stress.

    Yes, you heard me right. Driving fast creates less stress. Speed is relaxing. When I go slow, I stopped watching the road. It’s boredom, lack of stimulus for attention which in turn creates situations which make me very stressed.

    I also go slow only when I have time to waste. If I’m in a hurry, going slow is another stressor.

    worrying about distances between cars in front or behind creates a great deal of stress especially when the person behind you isn’t paying attention and comes damn close to the rear ending you.

    but even after all this, cars are probably the least stressful transportation mode because you have more control than you do with any other transportation system. Except maybe a scooter.

    So this why I say, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that the future of transportation will be scooters or scooter like vehicles. Liquid fuel will dominate but only as part of a hybrid system.

    The other future to pay attention to is a vehicle that is usable by senior citizens in suburban and urban spaces in the one-mile and 15 mile range categories.

    if we could figure out how to do a decentralized liquid fuel generation process so that your backyard compost pile could be turned into a significant fuel subsidy for your private transportation, that would be huge.

  3. I made a post about this a few months ago. I think that all it would take is for our public leaders to come out and ask America to work together on this problem. The only presidential hopeful I’ve heard who seems to be remotely shooting straight on this issue is Mitt Romney. It was an interview where a reporter asked him what he thought should be done about high gas prices. He scoffed at the pandering that was being bandied about during those weeks and said that the real solution would be to take measures that would reduce demand. Why hasn’t Bush or Cheney brought this up? A big disappointment for me that they haven’t.

  4. I suspect that, when people start realizing that political leaders cannot do anything to reduce the price of gasoline back to the dollar-a-gallon levels, people will begin to change their patterns. It will start, unfortunately, with the least fortunate folks, creating a messy intersection between the need for walkability and the cost of housing in walkable areas…

  5. Well, political “leaders” often behave more like “followers”, paying more attention to polls or interest groups. Environmentalist groups are organized and have had tremendous influence, a lot for good, but some, especially in energy, for ill. The public sees only the do-gooders versus industry in the energy debate, and naturally view industry with suspicion. This despite the fact that industry is delivering them the gasoline and electricity that they use every day, whereas the enviro-lobbies are offering no solution. This is the core of the problem IMO. We are stuck on fossil energy sources because nuclear power is blocked by powerful interests that have gained public mindshare, and yet they won’t admit that conservation cannot bring demand to zero, nor can intermittent, diffuse renewable sources scale up to meet demand. We need a pro-energy-independence lobbying group with no particular industry’s axe to grind, and no other political agenda to taint the message. One that is willing to embrace all energy alternatives.

  6. The people who do get some “air time” to talk about declining supplies have largely marginalized themselves by offering an apocalpytic message rather than an action-oriented one. People will just tune out a doomsday message, whereas I’m convinced they’ll listen to one that gives them something actionable.

    This is exactly right. Someone said they saw Deffeyes of Princeton on the air a few days ago talking about Peak Oil. They said he came across looking like an extremist. That is not what we need. We need calm heads explaining the problem in rational terms. More importantly, we do need some strong political leadership on this issue.

    I think we are in some trouble going forward, but without strong leadership the trouble is going to be a lot worse. We may try to fix our supply problems by invading countries instead of frankly telling people that their lifestyles have to change.



  7. Keep talking.and there is no better place than right here on your blog. We’re listening. You should know it. Don’t bloggers get a count of their readers? Did you ride on one of those buses in L.A?they’re not bad. And they are not afraid of the big bad Hummer behind them.
    I read somewhere on this vast Bloggerland. A New Yorker, when asked to compare themselves to Californians on energy usage. “In California they talk a lot. Here in New York we actually take the subway every day.” J.C., Sr.

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