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From Gusher to Crusher 

Former oilmen join environmentalists to warn America about the need for alternatives to petroleum.

It's a small group: three members of the Houston Unitarian church we're gathered in, an engineer from Mexico, a smattering of activists, and a Pacifica Radio reporter. The meeting opens -- the second of the just-hatched Houston Climate Protection Alliance -- by talking about what each at the table has done to cut down on their fossil-fuel use.

From there on out it's what you would expect in such company: One rode a bike to the meeting, another hopped a bus, yet another cut down on her meat intake. Small sacrifices -- and just the type that so often rankle the uninitiated with their odor of do-goodery. Talk turns to launching a campaign to encourage Houston Mayor Bill White to join a national movement of U.S. mayors who are fighting global warming. That's when it occurs to you that something deeper is at work here. A few miles from where you sit are the national headquarters for some of the richest, oiliest companies on Earth. Halliburton, ConocoPhillips, Reliant Energy and Shell's U.S. oil division all make their homes here. This is Houston, Texas, by God. Why haven't these activists been locked up?

Has global-warming-think sunk in this deeply? Have climate fears finally saturated our country to the point that even Houstonians are mobilizing? When one recovers from the remarkable fact that a campaign to fight global warming has infiltrated Energy City, the rebounding tremor comes quickly with the realization that the movement isn't an aberration. It's actually growing.

A central plank of the movement involves "Peak Oil," the belief that world oil supplies, as a finite resource, have a "peak" point the world's production capacity will never exceed. The peak could come suddenly, with terrible energy upsets shocking the market on the way down, or it could be drawn out for decades, providing an easier buffer period for the world's petroleum-based economies.

NAN HILDRETH IS REFILLING PRINTER cartridges over a low, round coffee table in her South Houston home. Brandishing stained fingers, she recalls one of the forces that propelled her into forming a climate group in Houston. It was a comment made by the Houston mayor's health and environmental advisor, Elena Marks. It happened at a global-warming conference, of all things, hosted by Rice University. She remembers Marks telling the crowd, "We don't say global warming in Texas. We talk about sustainable development." It got under Hildreth's skin.

Then came Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the highway deaths and chains of human misery stretching in all directions from New Orleans. By the new year, the idea of forming a Houston climate group, leavened by the growing scientific evidence that global warming was intensifying the frequency of these powerful storms, became tangible. At the time, Hildreth thought, "I can help the mayor say, 'Climate change,'" she recalled. "Integrity will do that to you. It will make you say strange things, like 'global warming.'

The climate-protection mindset isn't restricted to activists, either. In recent years, prominent and not-so-prominent members within the oil and gas industry have stepped away from the herd -- the most often cited (and criticized) of these being a former energy advisor to President George W. Bush, Matthew Simmons. It was only a few months after the hurricanes of '05 ripped through drilling rigs and production platforms and damaged refineries across the Gulf of Mexico. Simmons, who now serves as CEO of a major Houston energy-investment bank, told members of The Petroleum Club of Houston that Hurricane Katrina was "our energy 9/11," that the world oil supply was "peaking," and that the industry needed to get on "war footing."

Two months later, an article appeared in Fortune magazine featuring another Bush confidante, Richard Rainwater, who made his billions in oil and Houston real estate. It was titled simply "The Rainwater Prophecy," and it forecast an economic tsunami that was about to rip through the world as a result of the Peak Oil crash.

A few hundred miles to the north, Jeffrey Brown, an independent geologist living in the Dallas suburbs, is waiting for his daughter outside Forth Worth's Kimbell Art Museum. As much a product of Texas A&M as his family's West Texas oil business, Lucero Oil & Gas, Brown still strikes the quiet and assured mannerisms of the power elite. His gaze is direct. Though we stand outside one of the country's most recognized art museums, Brown is far more interested in talking about Peak Oil and something called Heather's House, a nearby home built to function almost totally off-grid. "You should see it," he says.

It was only a decade or so ago that Brown was still in the West Texas oil patch. Though the lingering pockets of petroleum around San Angelo are worth some serious green today, Brown got out when oil dropped to $10 per barrel following the Gulf War. He set himself up as an independent geologist. Soon, prices were recovering. He began hearing the term "Peak Oil" tossed around. The thought, along with the corresponding dressed-up returns, made Brown, and many, many others in his position, giddy. In fact, when Kenneth S. Deffeyes' book Hubbert's Peak appeared, explaining in calculated detail why the world was in for a long, drawn-out scramble in its hunt for petroleum energy, Brown went on a buying spree.

"Literally, I was buying copies of the book and handing it out," he said. "I was basically encouraging investment in looking for these small [West Texas] fields." It wasn't long before the other side of the Peak Oil coin rolled over in Brown's head. Peak Oil, if true, may make one rich today, but it comes at a terrible price, he realized.

"I started reading up on this because I thought it was just good news for oil prices," he said. "Then the reality dawned on me that, well, it's good news for oil prices, but it's incredibly bad news for the overall economy and the world."

Brown became a true believer, organized a Dallas conference on the topic with Simmons as one of the speakers, and started visualizing what a sustainable society will look like, post oil-crash. He began holding private screenings of Peak Oil movies for friends. Somehow during this period, Brown connected with Hildreth, and he's since come several times to eavesdrop on the Peak Oil community in Houston. A mini-conference in Houston this past Sunday was the first time he appeared as a speaker. His topics were about farming and ensuring a stable food supply into the future. Think Quakers with 12 gauges.

Brown says, "I was, you know, like Rush Limbaugh. 'The environmentalists are out to get us. They're a bunch of crazies.' The hard, cold reality is the environmentalists had it right. We live in a world of finite resources.

"It took close to 65 years to fully deplete the East Texas oilfield" where the first true gusher announced the birth of the oil age, says Brown. Now we burn that much petroleum every 30 days. "It gives you an idea of how unsustainable our lifestyles are."

Greg Harman is a freelance writer and the editor of Earthhouston.net, an environmental- news Web site focusing on Houston and the entire South Coast.

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