Sunday, October 16, 2005

A Peek at Peak Oil, Inc.

Willamette Week

By Adrian Chen
September 28, 2005

War. Famine. Pestilence. Death. It's a mid-September Thursday night, and these calamities are projected in bold, black letters onto the wall of a basement conference room in the downtown Portland Marriott. Those are a few of the bleaker scenarios predicted once global oil production begins to dwindle, explains Dr. Kenneth Deffeyes, a Princeton geologist and author of Beyond Oil: The View From Hubbert's Peak. Published earlier this year, the book offers a less-than-optimistic view of the coming global energy crisis.

"I took those words from the four horsemen in the Bible," Deffeyes jokes at the podium. The audience of about 250, a bizarre mix of dreadlocked enviros and clean-cut financial types, laughs nervously. They're here for a seminar on energy investment hosted by MKG Financial, a local trends investment firm.

Deffeyes, the keynote speaker, is among the leaders in a growing faction of scientists, politicians, and activists-known as the Peak Oil movement-who are clamoring that the Age of Oil is about to end. Soon. In fact, Deffeyes predicts that global oil production will peak this Thanksgiving, thus beginning a long, painful slide to zero.

Judging from his own financial advice, Deffeyes is a strange choice to speak at an investment forum: Earlier in the day, he half-jokingly advised me to put my savings into 1/8th-ounce gold pieces. His argument: "They'll be easier to make change with" than larger pieces in a post-apocalyptic economy.

The guy sitting next to me, an IT professor at Willamette University, might have considered Deffeyes' advice more seriously than I did.

"I just came to see how I can profit off of all this," he whispers as Mark Gaskell, head of MKG Financial, takes the podium to tell us how to do just that. After Gaskell finishes without mentioning gold pieces once, a representative from a fuel-cell manufacturer starts his presentation. His company's projected profits rise on graphs as sharply as Deffeyes' oil-production numbers plummeted.

With the meeting now turned to a fuel-cell infomercial, Emily Pollard, a member of the grassroots organization Portland Peak Oil, leaves the conference room to distribute brochures in the hall. She just came to see Deffeyes.

"Those other guys are full of it," she gripes. "I don't know how they can sleep at night."
Theressa Latoski, another member of Portland Peak Oil, has enlisted Roger, an MKG employee, to help hand out flyers advertising a screening of the film The End of Suburbia, an activist favorite. Roger stands sheepishly in a suit and tie, back to the wall, offering the papers to passersby.

"He kicked me out at first, but after he found out I was allowed to be here, he felt really bad and offered to help," explains Latoski, a former campaign worker for 2004 Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich. Just then, Roger spots a client and hustles off to escort him to the bathroom.

An elderly couple is surveying cookies laid on a table next to us. They're MKG clients who came to see what the future has in store for their grandkids. He's an engineer, and she's just started taking college classes again. Well, actually, she's taking a break.

"I didn't get along with my teacher," she says. "She was one of those '60s hippie-types." She glances around and gives a theatrical shudder. "From Vermont."

Applause signals the end of the two-hour-long presentation, and the crowd files into the hall. Overheard conversations are all profit margins and radioactive mushroom clouds of doom. I'm thinking about a mushroom cloud of 1/8th-ounce gold pieces and, grabbing two cookies, promise to make this a killer last Thanksgiving dinner ever.


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