June 2010 Archives


The BP oil gusher should remind us that our civilization relies on unseen, not very well understood forces, especially energy and the environment, for our day-to-day economies.

Our institutions and communities have recently failed stress tests that pushed system designs beyond intended limits: whether it's toxic exurban real estate assets, climate-altering pollution or deepwater oil drilling.

The Post Carbon Institute just published my report, "The Death of Sprawl: Redesigning Urban Resilience for the Twenty-first Century Resource Crises." Random exurban sprawl and informed urban systems are the opposite ends of a spectrum. In this continuum, the interplay of economics, energy and natural resources management can be optimized (or wasted or ignored) through planning, design, behaviors and technology to yield astonishingly different outcomes.

The chapter will be in a Fall 2010 book being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media.

We need to understand what stresses will hit before the levees reach their breaking point. When stresses do hit, we will better know how to respond quickly and systemically. Meanwhile, we're stuck with the impacts of scores of towns like Victorville, California, which were overbuilt during the height of 1990s and early 2000s speculation. I examine in detail just how Victorville became a poster child for foreclosures and why it is a harbinger for our economy, resources and oil use. Chances are if you are in the West, Sunbelt or Midwest, there's one of these towns out on the fringes near you.
Location of hyper-growth US Boomburbs 2000-2009 (click to enlarge)

Quickly developed and poorly planned exurban communities, called "Boomburbs," require cars for virtually every human activity outside the home, going to school, eating out, shopping, dating, seeing a movie, playing and of course, working. But working actually comprises only about 25 percent of the driving we do as a nation: the national reliance on cars goes far beyond our jobs, and is more based on how our communities and streets are designed.

(If that "Green Home" you see in so many magazines doesn't analyze how people get to and from that home, then it's probably far from being sustainable.) 

The foreclosures started in these exurban areas after gas prices started rising in 2006, impacting local communities, lenders and housing or strip mall developers that formed the points of the triangle, or a pyramid, you might say. A bank, rig or smokestack regulator won't limit the flood of bad paper, crude or carbon emissions if rules can be circumvented in order to make more money. That's the point when stresses build up, exposing failures that at first seem an outlier, then become more commonplace as the very fabric of the system gives way. 

Historically cheap gas was enabled by the federal government and foreign producers, combined with no-holds barred real estate development encouraged by the feds, states, and local communities, and of course the banking industry. Zero down homes are still being offered by developers and their agents in these sprawled communities. To be fair, many low-income individuals wanted to own or invest in their first home, but greed greased the transactions.

Sprawl was one of the major factors requiring more driving and more cars, leading to more time spent commuting, poorer health and ever-greater oil consumption. As a nation we needed to Drill, Baby, Drill in ever-more precarious situations, be it Iraq or the deep waters of the Gulf. 

Meanwhile, the ongoing foreclosure crisis in sprawled California, Arizona, Florida and Texas is undermining a national economic recovery, and will eat away at resources for decades to come: energy, water, time, investment, and security.

washington DC real estate.jpg 
Real estate prices in or near transit-served Washington DC (green arrows indicate prices going up) and in car-dependent outlying areas (red arrows mean prices decreasing): Credit: Kaid Benfield, NRDC, 2010

Even before the oil gusher, smart institutional money started to avoid sprawl like the plague for the first time. Now, there is a new wrinkle: will the BP Deepwater Horizon incident change global access to oil and the public's cognitive understanding of what burning gas and driving really mean?

So far the reaction in this nation has been to talk about developing renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar and nuclear energy. None of those forms of energy have been used to power our cars and trucks on a meaningful scale--though they will in 10-20 years--so such talk is premature.

Other nations, such as China in wind and solar, are leading US development in such technology, so we are falling down in preparing for the distant day when cars will be powered mainly by renewable energy and alternative fuels (Brazil has gained dominance in producing non-food based ethanol).

Euro nations have tempered their oil addiction by taxing gas at a higher rate while also building denser communities requiring much less driving, and allowing many people to walk or cycle to their destinations. Besides being more energy efficient for residents, these cities and suburbs are also more attractive to businesses and tourists, with their density and mixed-uses (cheese and wine markets, parks, schools and office buildings) being a big part of the charm.

China and India are embarking on ambitious programs to build new cities and redesign existing cities, which is a necessity, considering their exploding urban populations. While automotive growth is a given in these nations (China just overtook the US in auto sales last year), both nations are weighing innovative metro-area designs. Tianjin, China has an "eco-city" district (one of 40 in the nation) that is planned to have 90 percent of all trips by public transit, bicycle or walking.


Denver, meanwhile, passed an innovative update to its zoning codes this week that will make its transit-oriented planning and investments more successful, reducing auto-dependent development and integrating more mixed uses into the city's neighborhoods.

Not everyone wants to or is able to afford living in a city or dense suburbs served by transit. But as "The Death of Sprawl" illustrates, we need to find a way out of the institutional, economic and environmental hangover from the last days of cheap and easy oil.

We can deny there's a problem and continue our delusional ways, or we can put the bottle down, sober up and get to work on seeing what the rest of our lives can really be.    

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.  


President Obama's announcement of a $20 billion escrow fund to help pay for Gulf economic damages from the oil spill likely won't be enough to cover projected damages to the economy, environment and livelihoods in the region. Early this month, I've estimated those costs potentially to be in the $50-80 billion range, not including clean-up costs.

Ultimately, BP might not be able to afford the damages it is responsible for, as its North American unit has assets valued at about $50 billion. The US and Obama should look at other ways of balancing the ledger, by reducing U.S. oil and gas subsidies ($15-35 billion per year) and transferring those funds to Gulf clean-up, environmental and economic restoration while creating a true foundation for clean energy and alternative fuels development.

Obama called during his Tuesday White House address for a new energy economy: "For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels...Time and again, the path forward has been blocked--not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."

This demand was also made at the beginning of his presidency when he kicked off numerous clean energy and alternative energy funding measures, mainly through ARRA funding to US Department of Energy programs.

In his early Oval Office days, Obama even went after sprawl, the energy inefficient, destructive and now economically bankrupt car-dependent form of development that has also dominated the United States "for decades," but that rarely is addressed by national policymakers in the executive or legislative branches of government.

Then came Spring 2009 to Spring 2010, a lost year for energy and sustainability policy, when all minds and actions at the White House were about health care reform. President Obama rarely mentioned cleantech or sustainability policy. His staff were up to their eyeballs in health care discussions, with one day a month dedicated to a staff meeting on "the environment" (with no regular meeting devoted to clean energy jobs or sustainable economic development).

Was it any wonder that comprehensive climate change and energy legislation have since floundered in the Senate? There has been little attempt to project statistically or show how more sustainable technologies--wind, solar, alternative fuels, green building and infrastructure, water conservation technologies--are fast becoming become one of the more dominant economic sectors globally.

Meanwhile, sprawl and its economic (foreclosure meltdown); health (obesity); environmental and energy consequences (import more oil or drill ever deeper domestically) are running rampant, with little "political courage and candor" in admitting that all the latest technologies will do little do overcome these deep-rooted structural and economic phenomena.

There are untold billions of dollars we will collectively save if the Obama Administration, Congress and our communities are willing to examine and reform the root causes of the BP disaster.

Damage from spewing Gulf oil is occurring to millions or billions of life forms in nature, from plankton, to plants, to fish and aquatic species, to mammals and humans.

Planetary climate change from burning oil, gasoline and other fossil fuels is accelerating, and some developing nations suffering the worst early effects are human equivalents to the innocent pelicans and sea turtles gasping at this very moment for their last breaths.

Who is setting up the escrow fund to repair global destruction from climate change? Costs have been estimated at $80 to $500 billion annually and these will be steadily rising as drought, desertification, heat waves and catastrophic flooding impacts become more severe.

This is a tough question for any entity or nation to answer. The longer we wait in the United States to even pose the question of climate change reparations, however, the more the oil wells, pipelines, tailpipes and smokestacks will be uncontrollably spewing with the meter running, reducing our options in times of future crisis.

We need to get creative now, and go beyond creating mere taxes, penalties and escrow funds, and restructure our assumptions about the role of government, business and economic development.

Globally down to the level of our communities and neighborhoods, we need to awaken to the realization that the time of crisis is now upon us. We must respond in a scale that is appropriate to ensuring that quality of life is an issue not just for elite nations or people, but also for the "small people," whether in the United States or in developing nations, as well as for the biological tapestry that sustains us and the global economy.   

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.




Portland, Oregon and General Electric announced this afternoon they were signing a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to consider co-developing green technologies, businesses and eco-districts, particularly around energy efficiency, power generation and job creation.

Portland Mayor San Adams said in a Portland City Hall ceremony, "The signing of today's MoU is a milestone in our efforts to move forward aggressively on our city's economic development strategy and our climate action plan. I'm proud to bring Portland and GE together to benefit local entrepreneurs and innovators."

According to the MoU and an associated press release, GE will partner with Portland to:

-- Engage with local companies to help them develop and expand into new markets via global product licensing;

-- Implement residential and commercial energy efficiency retrofits, and develop neighborhood "Ecodistricts" throughout the city;

-- Explore city finance needs via municipal, state and GE resources.

The Pacific Northwestern city has been a US sustainability leader in everything from regional green building and light rail development, to renewable energy implementation and farmers markets. Mayor Sam Adams announced the agreement today in a city hall ceremony: "It is an opportunity to take Portland products and services and sell them all over the country and around the world."

The agreement states that both Portland and GE will inform one another of new products, services, technological developments and business opportunities related to sustainability.

Sustainable urban planning leader Portland State University might also benefit from attention surrounding the agreement with its planned Oregon Sustainability Center research and development supporting related practices, policy and education.

Other US cities attempting to develop sustainability "eco-districts" include San Francisco, which announced a Civic Center district sharing renewable energy generation and project development, and Seattle.

Vancouver, British Columbia, is also investigating new green economic development initiatives. (Portland Mayor Sam Adams visited Vancouver last fall for series of appearances and meetings when Vancouver announced it had aims of becoming the "greenest city in the world.")

Meanwhile, General Electric, which has long-running marketing program called "Eco-Imagination," has invested $50 million in a new sustainability R&D center called Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, with the GE focus of the planned 50,000 population center concentrated in smart grid appliance development.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

Black tarballs and goopy oil are washing up on the summery white sands of Florida's beaches. The Gulf oil gusher has reached a pivotal moment, not unlike Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching on fire during the summer of 1969.

The burning Cuyahoga River became a symbol for a national ecological and industrial system so out of kilter anyone living at the time could see things were really screwed up. News reports and even songs, including Randy Newman's "Burn On," about the flaming chemical-contaminated water blazed into the public consciousness--I remember as a six year old in Chicago hearing talk about the burning river over in Cleveland.  

Partially because of the talismanic Cuyahoga, the United States was forced to enact clean water and clean air legislation that helped reform poor corporate and government management practices. Earth Day was also launched within a year and a potent social moment was hatched. The Nixon Administration supported the passage of new clean water and clean air legislation in Congress, and President Nixon even proposed in late 1969 a new oversight agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, for independent industry oversight, with stiff penalties for those that violated regulations. One of the first cities the agency "went after" when formed in 1970 was Cleveland, precisely because of its burning river.

We are facing the nation's worst environmental disaster, and it is becoming visceral.  Models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict that oil from the Gulf spill will travel from off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida's panhandle, toward South Florida, the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Seaboard by summer (NOAA model image below). So don't be surprised to see more shots of tarballs, oily birds, turtles and greasy human feet. If you live in the Southeast or vacation there, expect to smell, see and feel them in real life.


"The smell is the worst thing," said NBC correspondent Anne Thompson Friday.  "Until you smell it, you haven't experienced it. It is so vile and it gets in your nose and your throat and your lungs and just stays there. The consistency is like a combination of molasses and chocolate syrup and it just stinks."

As Pensacola's famed white beaches are besieged by toxic fumes, tar balls and oil blobs, the first real audience reviews from average Americans are coming in, and they're not pretty. 

In the world's consciousness, it's one thing to have oil wash up on a coastal Louisiana "swamp"--though scientists and the fishing industry know that marine life, along with many bird species, depend on estuary wetlands for their existence.  It's quite another thing to prohibit Americans from enjoying their summer vacation at the beach, which endangers the Southeast's tourism and fishing industries, along with the service industries that rely on summer visitors for all or much of their livelihood.

What will happen next?  I wrote on early April 29 that the BP oil crisis could become larger in magnitude than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. How much worse can this get? No one knows, but eventually government policy, consumer habits, technology adoption, media, and even real estate markets will be changed as a result of the BP oil gusher.

Stopping the oil from spouting into the ocean is of course priority number one.  Sunday some 10,000 barrels of oil a day were being captured by BP, with cameras showing more oil still spewing. 

Here are urgent needs that should be prioritized:

  1. The Obama Administration must conduct a detailed risk assessment of the regional tourism industry, the fishing industry and regional services (haircuts, restaurants, plumbers, etc.)  that could be impacted by this tragedy. The geographic focus should include the Gulf Coast states, south Florida, Atlantic Coast (north Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina) and the open Atlantic. By my rough estimate below,  there could be an economic impact to the Southeast US economy of more than $52-78 billion, based on the following:

·         Gulf Coast commercial fish products $6.5 billion Total--$2-3 billion impact?

·         Gulf Coast and Southeast Coast share of $42 billion Total US recreational fishing equipment expenditures: $2 billion impact?

·         Gulf Coast $100 billion tourism industry Total --$30-50 billion impact?

·         Florida beach-related tourism $42 billion Total--$10 billion impact? 

·         Florida recreational fishing $5.4 billion Total--$1-2 billion impact? 

·         Florida commercial fishing: $5.5 billion Total--$1-2 billion impact?

·         Florida boating industry $18 billion Total:--$3-4 billion impact?

·         Georgia coastal tourism $2 billion Total--$.5 billion impact?

·         South Carolina coastal tourism Total $6.5 billion--$1-2 billion impact?

·         North Carolina coastal tourism Total $4 billion (estimate)--$1 billion impact?

·         Regional services associated with tourism?

·         Impact on Ecosystem services (wetlands that clean water, vegetation including mangroves that provide flood and hurricane buffer zones)--incalculable?

·         Heath Care costs for workers, and residents impact by air and water quality?

Such "full cost" accounting is now more than ever necessary to examine complete economic, climate, environmental and societal impacts.   

  1. US subsidies to oil companies--some $15 to $35 billion a year--need to be curtailed, and transferred to Gulf oil clean-up funds and Gulf economic restoration, and also redirected to fund alternative transportation fuel and technology research and deployment.  
  2. The Mineral Management Service agency needs to go. MMS's relationship to the oil industry is so incestuous it will be impossible to reform.  "Obviously, we're all part of the oil industry," one MMS official said to investigators who were looking into reports of graft, porn and drugs shared by MMS staff and oil officials. The feds need to create a completely independent oil and gas regulatory agency, similar to the EPA, but with greater power as energy is essential to the daily functioning of the overall economy. The EPA has already said that it might have a hard time penalizing BP because it is such as large supplier of fuel to the US military, including being the top supplier of military jet fuel.
  3. Higher-vehicle mileage and alternative technologies need to gain much faster traction. We need more miles per gallon (beyond current goals) for conventional engines, more plug-in hybrids, and the development of more biofuel-burning engines that don't use food as a fuel source.
  4. Can this finally be the time in our history when "recreational" cars and other joy-ride vrrooom vrrooms--at least oil and gas burning machines--stop being cool? That goes for jet skiis and race cars. After all, besides demanding all that gasoline, oil and oil-derived products (tires, hoses, asphalt roads), these machines are causing global climate change, not to mention regional and global air pollution, and water pollution from runoff.  Measures should be instituted so individuals using these machines purely for pleasure make the connection between their hobbies and the perilous quest for harder-to-justify oil.
  5. The United States needs to consider less-polluting domestically produced transitional fossil fuels for transportation, including compressed natural gas. Recent discoveries have shown a large supply of domestic natural gas can--if used for transportation--can offset some of the need for risky deepwater drilling (though natural gas drilling has been shown to pollute some local water supplies, and such activities need to be monitored closely).
  6. Here's the most obvious yet least discussed solution in public or the media.  Urban and community planning needs to be instituted that will reduce automobile dependence.  Cars use close to half of the oil used in the United States, with much of that use resulting from our national migration to poorly planned communities, which has been condoned and abetted by national, state and local policy. Yes, plug-in hybrids and electric cars will one day replace many of the gas-burning cars on the road today, but until then (15-20 years?)  transportation including cars and trucks will account for about 70% of oil used in the country, primarily in suburban/ exurban communities that lack public non-automotive choices for commuting to jobs, schools or for shopping, entertainment and errands.

It is time to face the sobering truth.

We, or at least all of us that drive or use goods delivered by or that contain oil, are the root of the BP Gulf oil crisis. Until, we change the way our communities are planned, operated and valued, we will unfortunately encounter with numbing frequency disasters related to oil that may be even more horrific than BP's gusher.

Denial and guilt, combined with entrenched financial interests (Big Oil and the Auto industry), have been powerful forces chilling media discussion about the need for less-oil dependent community planning--walkable neighborhoods with mixed uses and good public transit.

It's time to step up the post-oil conversation while implementing full-cost risk and reparation analyses. The Obama Administration and our nation have their work cut out for them:  there is a need to clean up not just beaches, Gulf communities and wetlands, but also the dank bureaucratic swamps of institutional corruption.

The burning Cuyahoga River demonstrated that a crisis truly can present numerous opportunities. Let's link cause and effect to powerful solutions by taking bold national and local actions that will have lasting impact, long beyond the narrowly framed BP Gulf oil disaster news-of-the-day.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.


About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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