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Portlanders meet to learn, plan and prepare for peak oil

By Abby Sewell

Every Wednesday night, between 30 and 100 people pack into the dining hall of St. Francis Church on Southeast 12th Avenue and Stark Street to talk about peak oil. Between high gas prices, the war in Iraq, and a rising demand for energy worldwide, more and more people are beginning to ask, “What do we do when the oil runs out?”

In 1956, M. King Hubbard, a geologist working for Shell Oil, predicted that oil production in the United States would peak around 1970, to be followed by a sharp decline. The term “peak oil” refers to the point in time when oil production is no longer be able to keep up with demand. This has already happened within the United States, meaning that we are unable to supply our oil demand with our own oil reserves. Currently, the United States makes up 25 percent of the world’s oil consumption, produces 8 percent of the world’s total oil and only holds 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

Scientists disagree as to when, or even if, peak oil will happen on a global scale. Some say it is happening now, others that it will come in 10 or 20 years. Others maintain that it is still 50 years away or more and that the world will be able to replace oil with other energy sources in the meantime.

The Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality held a hearing on Dec. 7 to address the issue of peak oil. Kjell Aleket, a physics professor from Sweden, predicted 2010 as the most likely year for peak oil.

At the same hearing, Robert Esser from the Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said, “Rather than a ‘peak,’ we should expect an ‘undulating plateau,’ perhaps three or four decades from now.’ ” However, this was a best-case scenario assuming no major natural disasters or political turmoil to disrupt production.The Portland Peak Oil group is preparing for the worst. The group began about a year ago when a number of interested individuals found each other on the Web site The organization began to gather steam in May 2005. At the Wednesday night meetings, the group has brought in speakers from the Oregon Department of Energy, City Repair, and other groups. Sometimes they show films or hold potlucks.

According to Emily Pollard, one of the core organizers, the group is politically diverse and people have a number of different opinions as to when peak oil will actually come.
“The point is we’re nearing the peak date if we haven’t already hit it. It will be within our lifetime, so why not start building community and preparing now?” she said.

The organizers focus both on outreach and preparation. In terms of preparation, much of the emphasis is on moving to simpler, more energy-efficient lifestyles and on building a sustainable local economy. Pollard said that a couple members of the group have gone as far as selling their houses and moving into co-housing situations, getting rid of their cars or switching to biodiesel vehicles, which run on vegetable oil.

Jim Wrathall, another member, holds an engineering degree and has been following the issue of peak oil for the past 30 years. Prior to joining Portland Peak Oil, he had built himself a meter that allowed him to measure the energy consumption of each appliance in his home.
“I found that the energy going out through my car was dwarfing everything else,” he said. He traded his Honda Civic in for a hybrid car and eventually plans to move away from using a car at all.

Wrathall believes that the solution to the upcoming energy crisis will come from people reducing their demand for energy, not from producers finding new ways to create it. At a recent energy conference he attended in Spokane, Washington, where the peak oil issue was discussed, most of the other attendees were representatives of major corporations.

“Nobody was talking at all about how do we reduce our energy use. The phrase I heard most was ‘But this doesn’t mean we have to stop driving our SUVs,’” he said.

Of course, many people say that is exactly what it means. Especially as developing countries expand their economies, worldwide energy demand looks likely to keep growing for the foreseeable future. Non-oil energy options have their own set of issues; nuclear power creates toxic waste, wind, solar, and other “clean” power technologies are far from being well developed enough to supply widespread demand. A worst-case scenario predicts that when peak oil hits, the world will see widespread economic collapse, wars over resources, and increased government repression.

Despite this gloomy possibility, Pollard maintains that Portland Peak Oil is a positive group of people.

“It’s a lot of fun in the fact of this really pressing, challenging thing we’re facing,” she said.
For more information on Portland Peak Oil and their upcoming events, or to set up a presentation, see

Abby Sewell is a local writer and former Alliance intern.


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Last Updated: January 8, 2006