Bright Idea

In the film There Will Be Blood, oilman Daniel Plainview goes from town to town extracting bountiful crude from beneath each. "There's an ocean of oil under our feet," he tells the townspeople, promising that if they'd just let him extract it, he can make them all rich. "New roads, agriculture, employment, education. These are just a few of the things we can offer you," he tells the people of New Boston, Calif. "If we do find oil here, this community of yours will not only survive, it will flourish."

The film seizes on a worldwide moment of revelation around the turn of the 20th century -- that moment when humanity realized how much oil there was to be had, what it could do, and how much they could sell it for.

One hundred years later, though, the oil boom is over, and the rising price of petrol is making some countries poorer, not richer. Some analysts suggest the globe has already passed the maximum rate of production. Melissa Ahern, an economist with WSU Spokane and one of three co-founders of a new environmental think tank called the Northwest Climate Change Center (NWCCC), says that these days the kind of mining that Plainview did in the movie is bringing to the surface barrels that are only 20 percent oil. The rest is water.

"There's depletion going on," she says. "We need to realize that the earth is indeed round. [That] oil is a non-renewable resource and it is, in fact, finite. That's the first piece of the puzzle to help people understand: that at some point it's not going to be economical for people to use oil at the rate we've been using it."

Ahern's partners in the newly formed NWCCC are Lands Council director Mike Petersen and Ron Reed of PacifiCAD, a local design and engineering firm. The goal, they say, is to deliver a two-pronged message: oil depletion is leading to an energy crisis, and toxic emissions are leading to a climate crisis. "We're the only [institution] in Washington that combines the two in one analysis," she says.

The center will introduce itself to the public and begin its first campaign on Tuesday, March 25, at a presentation in the Spokane City Council chambers. The group's founders will discuss a white paper they have completed, piggybacking on earlier efforts by Avista, which suggests that if only 57 percent of households in Spokane swapped the incandescent bulbs in their homes for more energy-efficient compact fluorescent ones, the area would save enough electricity to power an electric rail line extending from the airport to Coeur d'Alene.

Ahern recognizes that the initiative isn't necessarily about light rail as much as showing what a simple switch in consumer patterns could accomplish. Still, it's not entirely not about light rail, either. She notes that given the rapid depletion of oil -- and the result that rising prices in energy are raising the prices of everything from air travel to the food you buy in the grocery store -- it's irresponsible for governments not to be looking at renewable energy sources, like wind, solar and hydro power.

"Spending all our money on asphalt -- I would say that's a perverse incentive. No attention to electric light rail -- that's perverse at this point in time," she says. "It's not in synch with the best understanding out there right now, relative to oil depletion and climate change."

"What's the outcome of us making the mistake of taking action?" asks Ron Reed. "We have cleaner air and water?"

The NWCCC also plans to provide guidance on state energy policy and to work with local businesses to encourage more energy-efficient building and green architecture. But first, it has to persuade you to buy light bulbs that can be as much as 10 times more expensive than regular incandescent ones.

Ahern says they're going to start on the neighborhood level. "Engaging a community is different than engaging [the public as a whole]," she says. "People want to feel like we're [in this] together. If they feel they're making a sacrifice and nobody else is making a sacrifice, they won't do it."

Don't be surprised to see the Climate Center in your neighborhood soon. Their message? There's an ocean of renewable resources at our fingertips.