Thursday, March 31, 2005


When it comes to truly understanding peak energy and its implications, you either get it or you are clueless. Based on some recent experiences at work I would have to say most people still do not get it. The Gas Company supply procurement representative I spoke with certainly appeared clueless. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I finally reached a representative that handles the “big picture” natural gas acquisition and planning elements for the company. When the matter of depletion was discussed, the response proceeded along these lines:

“The low market prices of [gas in] the late 1990’s discouraged investment, resulting in a lack of new supplies being brought online. Now demand has skyrocketed, which will result in more fields being found.” He added that the decrease in hydro power helped drive up the demand for gas while higher prices caused the depletion of existing inventories. (There is anecdotal evidence of this depletion of inventories—stored gas—proceeding the March 2003 natural gas crisis. At that time, rising natural gas prices in the fall of 2002 spurred users to tap into their already purchased gas reserves for consumption rather than acquiring the gas on more expensive spot market. Then when the natural gas was legitimately needed in the late winter period, the market discovered dramatically less of it was stored in reserve). His concluding thought on the matter was that depletion was more a function of market price than anything else.

Now where have we heard this argument before? Ah, yes the economists.

Earth to economists…earth to economists: Geology trumps the economy. Energy isn’t any ordinary commodity; it’s the principal means to do all types of work. When it’s gone, it’s gone. But I won’t get into that.

Returning to the issue of the looming natural gas crisis, I should take a few moments to discuss everybody’s knight in shining armor, Sir LNG. According to the same individual with the Gas Company, LNG received at the Energia Costa Azul facility in north of Ensenada (Mexico) will provide up to one billion cubic feet of gas (BCF) per day in new supplies to both Californias. The details of this plan are still sketchy as the LNG staff with Sempra has not returned my phone calls. But according to their web site, up to half will be consumed in Mexico with up to 500 MCF/day being exported to the US, declining as increasing growth in that country consumes more that facility’s supply. So where does this facility fit into Sempra’s service area? According to their staff, a maximum of 5 BCFs/day are consumed during peak gas season (winter), declining to a base load of about 2.5 BCFs in the more temperate part of the year. At the current levels of consumption, that would indicate the need for 3-5 new LNG terminals. And that is just to supply Sempra’s territory.

Where is all of that gas going to come from? How many ships will that require? Do we have the long term contracts? Can we afford it? The math in my mind does not look promising. Never the less, companies, state agencies and politicians are slowly warming to the necessity of planning for the eventual handling for that very cold substance. Too bad they seem to be clueless on its likely capabilities.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Protecting our food supply

On a few occasions Unplanning has discussed the challenges of keeping everyone fed in the future. Currently, agriculture as we know it refers to the use of land and sunshine to convert natural gas and oil into large amounts of edible food at the lowest possible price. In the process, it allowed a wholesale reworking of the rural landscaping as well. With a stable subsidy of cheap energy providing unlimited plant fertilization and easy access to global markets, whole areas became dedicated to supplying a certain commodity in the greatest quantity at the lowest price. Rather than produce a mix of locally consumed products, farmers shifted to growing one of only a handful of locally prevalent cash crops.

You probably already have a general concept of agricultural geography: Iowa corn, Nebraska wheat, Georgia peanuts, Florida Oranges, Louisiana sugar, and California lettuce. The list could just go on and on. Each of those regions had the optimal climate and soils to permit the level of intensification that would give them an edge up over anyone else. The end result would usually be large crop yields and low prices. A few enterprising farmers would try to sell some locally, but most ended up selling to wholesalers for domestic and international sale.

But commodity sales are just half the picture. It is just as important to consider the end use for these products as well. Many are sold to food processor firms for production into pre-packaged convenience goods or sold to livestock operations for animal consumption. Eventually, the (poultry) eggs and the cow milk will be collected with the livestock being sold to meat packers or food processors. The end result is a food system that delivers food to the local grocer from the most economical supplier instead of the nearest. And the average shopper is not the wiser.

However as many of you know, this whole arrangement is predicated on the continued availability of oil and natural gas. Without it, the whole setup falls apart. Remove the energy subsidy and you will lose the ability to:

· artificially supply the soil with nutrients
· kill weeds and pests
· till, sow and harvest large scale yields with limited labor or time inputs.
· dry (certain crops) and ship crops across the country or around the world
· process, package and reship to end retailers anywhere in the US.

To give you an idea of the insanity of the food supply system, milk that I buy in my local grocery store most likely came from a cow in my county. That milk however took a 300 mile trip to a Los Angeles area packager in a diesel powered tanker truck only to get packaged into an individual plastic container and shipped right back nearby grocery store. That cow incidentally, was most likely fed corn grown in Iowa courtesy of natural gas-based fertilizers and shipped out here by diesel pulled rail cars.

This nonsense cannot be sustained. From an energetic standpoint, the modern food supply system is perhaps one of the most wasteful contraptions humans ever came up with. It is only by virtue of economic subsidies and a temporary rush of fossil fuels that this system even works.

Once the subsidies dry up and fuel costs skyrocket out of control, we better have another system ready to go. As suggested in recent posts, mankind needs to shift back to a localized system of production and consumption. We also need to stop moving energy in a linear pattern and return energy (and nutrient flows) to a circular flow.

Instead of growing crops where there is an economic advantage, try growing them close to where they will be consumed. The nearer the better. The movement of locally grown crops to market consumes little energy in the process. But proximity is only part of the solution. Farming itself, must ditch all mechanical implements of production. This step, while radical on its face, must be done. Additionally, agriculture must rid itself of the dependence on artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Too much energy, all of it fossil in origin, is embodied in the food that is yielded by their continued use. And that use is ultimately not sustainable.

Now, without fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization how are we going to continue farming sustainable manner without suffering a drastic drop in food availability? Moving to BioIntensive or ecologically synergistic means of production is one option. Use raised bed agriculture instead of row cropping. Utilize small animals for both protein production for you and waste production for fertilizer and compost. Return your wastes whether they are you kitchen scraps or the toilet flushings back for nutrient recovery (albeit not directly back into the food supply). Try to maximize all nutrient or energy flows and eliminate any waste or export out of the local system. (Small quantities may be tolerable). Growing crops in as small of batches that can be consumed by the local residents while staggering the plantings will ensure a steady flow of crops will also help. Practicing climate modifications such as greenhouses or screens can allow the extended or out-of-season production of many plants, while permitting those that ordinarily could not have been grown in that locale to thrive ensuring a more diverse arrangement of locally grown food.

Eliminating mechanization will result in the decrease of the speed of planting and harvesting of row crops. On the other hand, mechanization is not practical with raised bed agriculture. Never the less, the future promises less technology, not more. The number of people engaged in agriculture will have to increase and by a pretty significant margin. Throughout human history, most people engaged in agricultural activities. We simply had no other choice. Human life simply existed courtesy of that slight energetic surplus we glean off of cultivation. And that cultivation occurred primarily by hand and animal traction. In an era of cheap energy it does not make any sense to compete with a machine. When that energy is no longer cheap and is in short supply, the continued use of machines makes little sense, if it is even possible.

Cultivation changes are only part of the solution. Altering what happens with the food once it leaves the farm is just as important. We will have to move away from the model of food packaging and production by conglomerates like Kraft or Morningstar and returning to the local canning and handling of agricultural products. Likewise the proportion of cultivated crops diverted to livestock use needs to decrease. At the moment, a significant proportion of grain production goes to fatten up cows, pigs and other livestock for eventual consumption. This is a poor use of energy.

Changing the food supply system is only half the battle. Changing dietary expectations is equally important. We need to eat fewer calories worth of food and make sure more of them are derived from produce and grains. Meat and dairy can continue to be a part of our diets, however in drastically reduced quantities. Food will also need to be prepared at the time of consumption by the person doing the eating, rather than mass-produced and packaged in factory far away. Our expectations of food preparation, like everything else post petroleum, needs to slow down. Finally, we need to get used to eating what is in season. That may clash with the current arrangement, but the absurdity of flying grapes from or Chile to the US so your average Joe can always eat fresh will vanish once the cheap energy subsidy is removed from our civilization.
We have our work cut out for us. Expecting to continue with the status quo will not cut it. As a civilization we will have to rework our food system or many of us will go hungry waiting for the trucks to keep pulling into the local Albertson’s or Safeway’s loading dock.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Break in case of Emergency

As discussed in previous posts, changing course at this point (as beneficial as it may be) is not viable due to political concerns. What commissioner, councilman or supervisor is going to adopt a “no-suburban housing ordinance”? Which jurisdiction would opt to take a pass on a large economic development project? What politician could stand behind a platform of decline, shortfalls and cutbacks? Unless one is in the midst of a crisis and plan A isn’t working, alternatives will be ignored. Next step would be then to get a plan started that could be implemented as the crisis unfolds. Visualize it as an emergency alarm or fire extinguisher that is only used when there is an emergency.

So I am going to explore that option in this post. Instead of logically unplanning our way back to sustainability while we still have some options, lets look at an option that waits to the last possible minute to implement. There are precedents set for these kinds of events. Most disaster response plans are prepared ahead of time, practiced occasionally and only implemented during an actual emergency. Of course the actual emergency will likely require derivations from that original plan as the conditions change, but the broader concepts remain the same.

A low energy emergency plan would have to have some pre-identified trigger points, general actions to be accomplished and a set of actors or agents to carry them out. It would also be helpful to add an overarching goal for all of the actions to accomplish and a means to make these actions permanent. The first three elements are standard emergency planning elements and more reactionary than planning, while the latter two are really more planning related.


To decide when to take action, one needs to be aware that an emergency exists. In an actual disaster, this is obvious; the earth has shaken, the storm has raged or a volcano has erupted. In a man-made crisis, awareness is not so obvious. Economies do not explode overnight. Instead, things happen slowly at first before potentially snowballing out of control. In that situation, being aware and taking the right actions could potentially allow a timely escape to occur. As a consequence it would be helpful to create a set up trigger points, such as unemployment levels, commercial activity, fuel price and availability, state and federal actions, tax income and overall awareness of a problem. For example, the identification of a key unemployment level, energy price and commercial activity (e.g. a certain percentage of commercial failures and abandoned structures along with a specific unemployment rate) could allow the commencement of manual retrofitting programs. Pre-identified trigger points could also be utilized to know when zoning and land use decisions must be altered (e.g. the inability of large scale farming to produce a crop or the isolation of the suburban realm).

General Actions and Agents

Identifying the trigger points is the first step. Deciding the actual actions and the organization or agency to carry them out would be next. As described above, specific actions would be developed for implementation at a certain point in time. These actions would be specific and detail what they were, the length of time and the principle agent or actor. For example, the action to be carried out when commercial failures abound could be the adapting or scavenging abandoned buildings for post peak-energy civilization usage. The principle actors would be the government (which would identify the structures) and the private work crews (that would carry out the action). In the farming scenario described above, the response could be the alteration of minimum parcel size requirements by the government agency to allow the subdivision of large farms back into smaller family-sized holdings and the abandonment of single-use zoning.

Creation and Implementation of a Greater Vision

Rather than be content to mitigate each of the individual crises that will occur over the next several decades separate from each other, the jurisdiction would behoove itself to adopt an overarching vision that each of these individual actions would take. This vision or greater plan would be the framework for all of the specific actions to be taken so they lead to a commonly identified end result and not further into trouble. The vision need not be focused solely on the end result. It could also identify and depict the civilization in transition, neither here nor there at any given point in time, but simply describing the interim goals at a specific point in time.

Ideally of course, you would start planning before there is a problem. Decisions taken in the midst of an emergency would not have clarity or any end goal. The actions would simply be reactionary in nature and ultimately not solve any of the fundamental problems our energy-dependent lifestyle has created

Monday, March 14, 2005

[Escape from] Los Angeles…

A trip to Los Angeles the past few days allowed the following realization: there are parts of the world that exist way beyond their carrying capacity. Once the era of cheap energy is behind us, Los Angeles, like many other urban areas will be due for a long period of unplanning. It may be orderly, chaotic or catastrophic but one way or another, LA will have to wind its way back to a sustainable existence.

For starters, the Los Angeles metro area is home to approximately 12 million people. Twelve million people that live, work and play in a basin that prior to the advent of industrialized civilization, could support just a few hundred thousand residents. The limiting factor then as it is now is actually water, though in California, the issue of energy and water are intricately linked. The Metropolitan Water District, which is the agency now charged with supplying (directly or indirectly) much of urban southern California from the Tehachapis to Tijuana operates a massive water supply network that reaches more than six hundred miles from the city. Canals that stretch out like tentacles of a giant squid now reach up past Sacramento, drive deep into the Owens Valley and across the blazing desert to drink at the West’s limited water supply. Los Angeles’s ever present thirst for more water to beg, borrow and even steal water from other locations, in part courtesy of colorful characters like William Mulholland.

Water that does not fall from the sky or flow freely down stream needs to be pumped. And that of course, requires energy. Over a gigawatt alone is required to send the water from the California Aquaduct system over the mountains from the Central Valley into LA. Add in all of the additional pumping and you have quite significant energy consumption figures. Of course electricity is used for many other purposes and with some 12 million in the metro area, that’s a lot of potential users.

Natural gas has been the preferred fuel of late to power some of the state’s recent power plant operations. It also has long been the fuel of choice for cooking and heating for many households and businesses.

Energy, in the form of food is vital to its residents. While urbanization has swallowed up most of the region’s agricultural land and driven many of the livestock operations into the Central Valley, many of the food processing facilities remain anchored in the LA basin. As a consequence, the raw materials, be it grain, vegetables, dairy, or meat must be shipped in from somewhere else.

And of course, what is a discussion of LA without a mention of its road system. The layout of the city and its countless suburbs is one massive monument to miracle of petro-commercial development that oriented itself squarely around the automobile. The construction of those roadways and the continuing dependence on the personal vehicle has led to ever increasing gasoline (and by proxy) oil consumption.

Start taking away LA’s energy sources and it becomes abundantly clear that the current situation is untenable.

* An increasing price of gasoline and ultimately declining amounts of that fuel will render obsolete much of post World War II developments useless. Separation of jobs housing and commerce will make little or no sense if you have to walk miles.
* Increasing fuel prices will also drive up the cost of agricultural products that the processors need to make in their final products. Eventually whole regions will become inaccessible. If the agricultural products aren’t locally produced, then the area will suffer shortages over the long term.
* Natural gas will deplete. If LNG resources are able to mitigate the depletion of continental supplies, then natural gas will available for a little while longer. If not, then depletion will deprive industrial users of gas, followed by commercial and final residential users of gas.
* Decreasing gas availability will directly correlate with decreasing electrical supplies. Less electricity will translate into rolling blackouts.
* Finally, less electricity means less water. Less water in a dry area is never a good idea.

How those looming problems play out remains a mystery. One thing is clear—it won’t be life as usual.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The American Dream

Time and time again you hear this expression in the news, in advertisements and in pop culture itself. It is also very much a part of the planning profession as well. Just this past week, it came up in a General Plan forum on a number of occasions. Most of those were made in reference to the common desire to own one’s very own 2,300 sq foot, two car (minimum) with a little yard and a little privacy from the hustle and bustle. There was a general sense of concern among the participants that continued development would consume too much land and price out too many individuals from attaining that dream. Others voiced concern with the rampant speculation and influx of “equity refugees” to our county. Some were concerned about potential limits to growth posed by water shortages and even endangered species act (by declaring certain lands of limits.
Excuse me? The prospect of too little land and too much speculation is causing worry? Consternation over the delays triggered an endangered species may lead to the torpedoing of the American dream? I think there are a lot bigger threats out there than an endangered fox. Try energy maybe? The next topic of discussion at the meeting was even more amusing: sustainable growth. At this point you may be aware of the UNplanning take on growth; it is unsustainable over the long term whenever you have limitations on the availability of the requisite inputs. So any promotion of growth, “sustainable” or not, is not a good idea. Whether or not people are willing to understand this message or not, it does pose one serious challenge: it goes against the “American Dream”
Well sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but our “American Dream” is not sustainable. It is not even maintainable. It was merely an aberration, brought to us by a spectacular raid on the most highly formed, energy-dense source of fuels this planet has ever known—oil, gas and coal. Without them we have no easy transportation that permits our two-car household and our ever-increasing VMT (vehicle-miles traveled) rates. It renders useless our current land use patterns that were built around the automobile that dictated the separation of non-residential lands from our residential lands and different types of residences from each other. Without access to an adequate supply of energy the residences themselves are left uninhabitable when they can no longer be heated, cooled or supplied water. Our “American dream” economy is greased by oil and fueled by it and natural gas and coal. Originally financed by the products we used to make it is increasingly funded by debt lent to us by other nations. Take away the energy and this engine of growth seizes up and fails.

The fact that we use a disproportionate share of the world’s energy supply to achieve the American Dream has bred feelings of hostility against the US and its reluctance to share—or negotiate—the American way of life. Hostility at least is manageable (via diplomatic and militaristic means). What is not manageable and ultimately threatens our global ecology is that our way of life has also bred emulation by others. In country after country, automobiles and mass-produced consumer goods proliferate almost exponentially. Diets shift from locally produced, indigenous crops to globally supplied processed groceries. This emulation great and small is taxing this planet’s ability to cope with the effects. It is also becoming painfully obvious that there isn’t enough energy to go around for everyone. Every country that bought into our “way of life” will soon realize they were sold a defective set of goods.

And what about us, the originators of the “good life?” Well, you know what they say, “the bigger they are, the harder the fall.”

Thursday, March 03, 2005

On Viewing Growth

Working in a high growth county in a state undergoing significant population growth itself presents a unique set of challenges to us planners. How those challenges are met determine how well a jurisdiction’s planning department is viewed.

The continuous addition of people to an area results in the ever-present need to add a whole range of goods and services to support the newly enlarged population. Some of these services are provided via the market place, such as the opening of a new store to serve a newly constructed residential area. Most however, have to be supplied by the government. Too often, the measurement of good planning is how rapidly and comprehensively the government can provide the needed services. An area experiencing rapid growth that has adequate transportation (road and transit), uncrowded schools, sufficient parklands and generally appealing aesthetics is all too often referred to as “well planned.” Jurisdictions that have planning departments that adhere to the neo-traditional tenets espoused by Peter Calthorpe or Andres Duany are sometimes even referred to “Smart Growth” communities.

But how smart is this growth? And is growth itself, really smart? In most cases growth is viewed favorably, even positively. A growing population means to many vitality, diversification, and new opportunities. It signifies a positive outlook on the future of the community. This viewpoint is further supported by many jurisdictions’ use of population size measurements (publicizing how many residents) to gauge their comparative importance to other locales. Growth is not limited to pure population figures either. An area must also be increasing its relative wealth as well. New commercial ventures should be started, new jobs created and the overall health of the local economy improved. Whole organizations, like the chambers of commerce and other lobbying groups have sprung up to promote the prospect of a perpetually growing community.

In many cases, growth is seen as a solution to a problem and not a problem in-and-by itself. A city or county that fails to have any population or economic gains is often viewed negatively and referred to as “stagnant”, “a backwater”, “left behind”, or outright “failing” by the media, local officials and even many citizens themselves. The absence of growth is seen as a problem and many “solutions” are geared toward solving this problem. Stagnant local economy? Encourage an employer to relocate. Not enough children in your local schools? Allow more subdivisions.

Growth seldom pays for itself however. Even in communities where the developers are forced to pick up the direct costs of growth, by constructing or funding infrastructure improvements (roads, schools, services), indirect costs are incurred. A larger community demands more commercial opportunities, which results in commercial developments. A larger community needs more jobs, which depends on a sufficient number of employers. Larger communities require higher local government staffing levels. This is a result from the increasing workloads caused by a greater number of residents requiring more specialized services. Finally the addition of new families will inevitably result in continued growth pressures long after active development ceases. A number of communities in California and elsewhere have resorted to the use of a growth moratorium to slow or stop construction of new units. That does not stop the growth pressure though. Demographics make it clear that those children will eventually form households for themselves, demanding new units in the process even if no new residents move in.

Planning for growth seldom extends beyond the accommodation factors (roads, schools, services etc). The fundamental “big picture” questions seldom are contemplated. Is there enough water for the entire population? Will there be enough energy for an increasing population? Will the air quality continue to be impacted? It seems those questions are never answered or worse, overridden for economic reasons. In the California Environmental Quality Act better known as CEQA (pronounced See-Kwa) a jurisdiction has the option to essentially ignore a significant impact in an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that cannot be mitigated, by making a statement of overriding consideration. This statement allows the city or county to justify permitting this project by stating reasons why the known environmental impact should be overridden. Typically those statements revolve around economic arguments like: “this project will provide X million dollars of revenue to city coffers or employ Y number of individuals”.

Ultimately, these “big picture” issues form the eventual limiting factors for growth in any location. Whether its land, resources or pollution these issue need to be addressed or they will eventually stop the development process dead in its tracks. If any one of these manifests without adequate planning, the area will exceed its local carrying capacity and be forced into a decline. We now have an understanding of this planet’s ultimate limitations. What we have not apparently reconciled is that unlimited growth on a limited planet is not possible. Past attempts solving former limitations (food supply, energy) only resulted in more growth. Unless we understand this concept we are doomed to overshoot and collapse.

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