Congressman backs post-oil planning: Thompson says Willits can set national example
The Willits News
By Claudia Reed
December 2, 2005
WILLITS "We can't keep going the way we've been going," said Congressman Mike Thompson. "That's a no-brainer."
Speaking during Monday's meeting with local officials and members of the Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) group, Thompson was referring to an economy based on insatiable consumption of fossil fuels. The United States, he said, comprises about 6 percent of the world's population, but consumes at least 25 percent of its oil, most of which is imported.
"Congress has a responsibility to take the U.S. away from foreign (fuel) dependency," Thompson said.
The U.S. Department of Energy currently predicts the condition of peak oil (the time when demand outstrips supply) will begin in 2036. Thompson joined WELL's Phil Jergensen in calling the timeline overly optimistic.
Thompson charged the date was set in order to allow time to win the current U.S./China competition over a dwindling oil supply, rather than to prepare for a post-oil economy. President George W. Bush's energy policy, he noted, calls for heavy subsidization of the oil industry and relatively little incentive for development of sustainable energy sources.
Keith Rutledge, who has acted as consultant to such clients as the City of Sacramento in the transition to renewable energy, compared federal energy policy with burning the wood on the Titanic for heat, rather than using it to build life boats. He called for using existing oil resources to build the infrastucture needed for a post-oil economy.
Mendocino County Supervisor Hal Wagenet suggested calling the DOE's bluff by asking for funding and incentives to begin the full-scale development of alternate energy systems that must be operational in another 31 years.
In the meantime, Thompson strongly supports renovation and use of California's North Coast Railroad Authority lines in order to reduce the number of gas and oil guzzlers on the road. He said he's taken flack for his position from those who call the project, pegged at between $60 million and $200 million, too expensive.
The question remains: too expensive compared to what?
"Abandoning the lines," Thompson said, "a job that includes disposing of the creosote-soaked rail ties, could cost as much as $2 billion."
Repair and expansion of roadways impacted by heavy truck traffic, he added, also runs into the millions of dollars. Thompson recommended reducing truck traffic by promoting an active connection between smaller ports and rail lines. Larger ports, he said, are already at capacity.
WELL co-founder Dr. Jason Bradford pointed out the cost of the future Willits bypass is currently estimated to be at least $150 million.
Several of those taking part in the discussion noted a historic preference for roadways over rail lines on the part of both federal and local agencies. Thompson said longstanding connections with road builders may be influencing the viewpoint.
Turning from transportation fuels to energy sources for homes, local governments and businesses, Thompson noted the administration's energy plan, which authorizes an additional oil industry subsidy of $1.5 billion, also authorizes expenditure of about $800 million for development of alternate energy. He promised to look into ways to send some of that money this direction.
"We could use it here," said City Councilman Ron Orenstein, who chairs an ad hoc committee on development of sustainable energy systems for city buildings and operations.
Thinking aloud, Thompson suggested federal incentives aimed directly at establishing renewable energy cities.
Meeting participants discussed ways to expand city-owned renewable energy systems to the private sector. Possibilities include city ownership and maintenance of solar panels and other generating equipment that could be rented or leased by homeowners.
Madelyn Holtcamp of the Economic Development and Financing Corporation said city-owned utilities can make different decisions on serving the public because they don't have to provide profits for stockholders.
With or without a city-owned utility, Kevin Erich, president of Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital, said his facility's new building complex would comprise the first rural green hospital in the country.
"I really believe renewable energy (use and production) can create jobs," said Janet Orth of Willits Renewable Energy Development Institute.
Thompson agreed. He offered to help develop something that can work for this area in making the transition to a post-oil reality.
"If we do," he said, "we can get something that will work for the rest of the country."