Sunday, June 15, 2008

The inimitable Tom Toles

Another gem from the best editorial cartoonist in America.

Oregonian Wakes Up, Remembers Peak Oil Task Force

This is Portland-focused, but the thrust is even more applicable in Salem, where we are in a far worse position to meet the new reality on energy. There have not even been any mentions of peak oil in the Statesman Journal, the City Council chambers, or the County Commissioners' meeting room. The local transportation planners, SKATS, has heard about peak oil but has chosen to adopt the fingers-in-the-ears-and-shout-"I can't hear you" strategy.

One year ago, the Peak Oil Task Force delivered a report to the City Council, but the whole region needs to mobilize

Think of it as a commuter version of "Some Enchanted Evening." At a recent graduation party in Cedar Mill, two neighbors squint at each other across a crowded kitchen island. Kinda scary, isn't it, they agree, about those gas prices headed toward $5 a gallon. Then a bit shyly, they circle a new question. Maybe it's time to take it to the next level. Both, they know, work downtown. Both leave home and return each day at roughly the same time. Turns out, they even park right next door to each other. Maybe this is a match made in post-Peak Oil Heaven.

All over the metro area, people are flirting with new transportation hookups. Bus and train ridership are soaring; interest in car-sharing is, too.

That should help Zipcar (formerly Flexcar), which has 202 cars available in Oregon. Except the same spikes in fuel costs that help the company attract new customers also eat into its profits and limit its ability to expand. (It has only three cars in Vancouver, three in Beaverton, none in Hillsboro.)

In fact, many businesses, governments and families are in the same fix: They must ride the ice cube while it melts. We need to fuel a transformation, and it may ultimately improve our lives. But only if we can fuel it fast, while supplies last -- of diminishing fuel.

Two years ago, when Portland created the Peak Oil Task Force, it sounded apocalyptic. Not anymore. Summer of 2008 may be remembered as the moment we awoke from our long national gas binge. Whether oil production has peaked or will do so in a few decades is almost academic. Every fill-up knocks home the realization that we can't afford to go on like this.

With oil prices headed toward $150 a barrel, the Peak Oil Task Force's key recommendation -- that the city must cut its oil consumption in half by 2030 -- seems ever more prescient and prudent.

The report belongs on Mayor-elect Sam Adams' bedside table. But it deserves an equally close reading by business and community leaders in car-oriented suburbs. There, some residents face a triple trap: a decline in housing values because they're so far out, an inability to buy anything closer in and too little income to keep filling the tank -- at least all on their own.

Never has the wisdom of the region's investment in TriMet been clearer. The key is to maximize it, in part by persuading businesses to stagger their hours of operation or go to four-day workweeks, so everyone isn't scrambling into a train at once. Another key is educating people, not just with maps but with one-on-one advice.

As of last week, 10,000 people had signed up for Metro's, an increase from 9,000 in April. No doubt at summer potlucks, some neighbors will figure out on their own that one plus one equals a carpool.

But the research also shows that intensive hand-holding and "green guidance" of the sort Portland's SmartTrips offers can alter behavior. Gas prices have sparked a desire to change. Door-to-door help on a massive scale could ignite regional transformation.

Will they, won't they? The neighbors part for the night, promising to rendezvous again soon. No worries. No big deal, except that it actually would be huge if they could align their lives even once or twice a week.

The party's over.

But a deeper community connection has just begun.