Energy Depletion Risks Task Force Report

R. Duncan, D. Baker, T. Browder, S. Campbell, S. Duval, L. Gilg, L. Graham, E. Mathews, S. McNally, J. Walls, M.E. Webber, May 2009 (Citation)


The decline of the world’s current producing oil fields will offset new discoveries in the coming century, resulting in an overall net decline in available oil. Much of the current global economy is fueled by the availability of low-cost and high-energy density petroleum. Even a modest decline in supply could cause profound shifts in the social equity and economies in Austin and Central Texas. The impact of energy depletion could be severe, moderate, or inconspicuous. In any case, a scenario involving disruption or depletion of energy supplies will probably cause some destabilizing effects. As with any economic crisis, those citizens, businesses and governments who foresee these destabilizing effects will benefit as they adapt more quickly than their competitors. Given sufficient leadership and cooperation, Austin may possess the technological and intellectual resources necessary to weather the economic uncertainties caused by energy supply disruption or depletion. The following four basic sectors of life in Austin could be impacted by an energy supply disruption or depletion: 1. Transportation and Land Use 2. Food, Agriculture, and Water 3. Businesses, Economy, and Jobs 4. Low-Income Populations and Public Services The Task Force identified several possible points of concern in each sector:

Transportation and Land Use

Existing mass transit in Austin lacks the capacity to serve additional new users. If the energy supply is disrupted or depleted, the following situations may occur.

  • Single-occupancy automobile use may decline and citizens may seek more affordable transportation.
  • Public schools may experience an increase in school bus ridership.
  • Air travel may become unprofitable and unaffordable.
  • Road and infrastructure maintenance may become prohibitively expensive.
  • Fuel-intensive air and truck delivery may lose customers to rail and maritime freight shipping.

Food, Agriculture, and Water

At the present time, Austin maintains a low level of self sufficiency in food supply to its citizens. While water resources may not be affected, a disruption or depletion in the energy supply could cause the following situations.

  • Food could become much more expensive and food shortages could occur.
  • Austin has a low level of food self sufficiency.
  • The amount and variety of locally-produced food may increases slightly and the amount of food imported might decrease.
  • Food retailing options may shift.
  • Low-income households vulnerable to higher prices experience diet and nutrition deterioration.
  • The kinds of foods produced and processed may change, introducing business pressures and opportunities for producers and processors.
  • Diminishing tolerance for waste may bring changes in food packaging.
  • The high cost and low supply of food may discourage use of petrochemicals in farming.
  • Water resources might not be affected.

Business, Economy, and Jobs

While Austin’s economy might be more resilient than other cities of its size, an energy disruption or depletion could still cause significant changes in the economic landscape.

  • Rising prices could lead to inflation.
  • Some businesses might experience significantly higher production and distribution costs, others may be impacted by change in demand for their products and services.
  • Unemployment may increase.
  • Strategically positioned companies may flourish with high oil and gas prices.

Low-Income Populations and Public Services

  • Low-income populations will likely suffer first and hardest from energy shortages and resource depletion.
  • Increasing costs and decreasing incomes may jeopardize public health, reduce health care coverage, and further stress the health care system.
  • Demand for social services might increase, while ability to provide these services might declines.
  • Electric utilities might not experience significant effects from an oil shortage, but could be greatly affected by a natural gas shortage.


The Task Force has formulated 10 recommendations. Some of the required actions are already under development, and some actions need City support. 1. Reduce total energy consumption by developing new programs and continuing existing programs to reduce total energy consumption. a. Austin Energy, Texas Gas Service, The Austin Water Utility, and numerous other service providers have effective programs in place to promote conservation. Support for these should continue. b. No public programs exist to encourage oil conservation. A program should be created. i. Capital Metro and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization may be well positioned to lead this effort. ii. The City may choose to pursue legislation to increase the gasoline tax. 2. Continue progress with fleet fuel efficiency and diversity. 3. Inform citizens about energy depletion and the potential effects on the City of Austin and the United States. Enlist the public, local media, and local schools to participate in energy-saving programs and coordinate efforts with existing programs, such as the Pecan Street Project and Austin Climate Protection Program. 4. Enlist the Office of Emergency Management to plan reductions in energy consumption and evaluate contingency plans for possible fuel supply disruptions or price spikes. 5. Promote infrastructure development to reduce energy consumption. Assign this project to Capital Metro or the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Create new City programs that emphasize: a. Increasing rail mass transit, Metrorail, and transit-oriented development (TOD). b. Shifting trips from single-person cars to other modes of transport. c. Facilitating utilization of rail for both passenger and freight service to and from distant locations with Intermodal Transportation. 6. Encourage businesses to reduce energy consumption through telecommuting, staggered work hours, compressed work weeks, and corporate-organized ridesharing. A new program may need to be developed to coordinate with businesses, or this initiative could be handled by the Office of Emergency Management as part of Recommendation Four. 7. Review the components and identify gaps in the social safety net to protect vulnerable and marginalized populations. The Austin/Travis County Health Department could be enlisted to lead this effort, with the help of organizations such as Family Eldercare, Meals on Wheels, and Neighborhood Watch. 8. Prepare emergency contingency plans for sudden and severe fuel shortages. Enlist neighborhood-level organizations and the Office of Emergency Management to help ensure reliability of emergency plans. 9. Encourage local food production and processing, and actively protect local farmland to ensure food security. Enlist certain State agencies and other jurisdictions, as well as the Sustainable Communities Initiative and similar organizations, in this effort. 10. Use the nexus of energy and water to achieve synergistic gains. Invest in research and development. The Task Force acknowledges the possibility for some positive outcomes of petroleum depletion, including reduced traffic congestion, improved air quality, increased walking and biking, decreased obesity and improved overall health of the community. Austin has already moved in the direction of preparing for fossil fuel shortages with the development of programs like Smart Growth, Austin Climate Protection Program, Energy Conservation Program, and Water Conservation program. This report recommends that Austin broaden these efforts to insure social and economic security. To mitigate the problems expected from resource depletion, dedicated leadership is required.


    “Energy Depletion Risks Task Force Report,” City of Austin, May 15, 2009.