October 18, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 6Comment

Earlier this month, I was able to attend the final day of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO) USA conference, and it reminded me how far behind we are in preparing for a future in which oil is less readily available than it is now.

Sharon Astyk, who’s an ASPO board member, wrote a helpful Peak Oil 101 post that walks through the concept in some detail, but the basic issue is that there’s a finite quantity of oil in the world, and at some point the rate of global oil extraction will slow. We may have already reached that point, or we may reach it in a decade or so. The important thing is that global demand for oil is increasing while production is or will soon be slowing. Much of the oil that remains is harder to extract, requiring more energy and posing more risks to the health of workers and the environment.

There are different predictions about when and how sharply oil production will decline, but the key point is that we need to figure out how to live with less oil – while continuing progress toward the goal of eradicating hunger and poverty worldwide.

Sharon and her fellow ASPO bloggers have several posts on sessions from throughout the conference, which I recommend to anyone who’s interested in this issue. Here are a few of the key points from the sessions I attended:

Transport Revolutions
Anthony Perl of Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies Program advocates for “Transport Revolutions” (the title of his book), replacing much of our use of internal combustion engines with electric motors whose power comes from renewable sources. Electricity isn’t as attractive a fuel source as oil, which is particularly energy-dense, but it’s being used successfully to power rail and buses. In general, we should replace much of our road and air travel with air and water travel. (Marine transport, Perl noted, is already the most carbon-efficient way of moving goods, and technologies like SkySail can reduce ships’ oil use further.) This, of course, will mean less reliance on what Perl calls “personally managed travel” and more “collectively managed travel.”

Much as I long for the day when I can ride high-speed rail from DC to New York or Atlanta, I know building such a network will be tough. Not only will the infrastructure be expensive (Perl estimates $1 trillion for a bare-bones HSR network), but getting the necessary right-of-way in valuable and built-up corridors will require endless battles. I’d like to hear more about Perl’s proposal for a Transportation Redevelopment Agency (TRA), which he’s described as “a new federal entity that could play a role of banker and infrastructure entrepreneur similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority.” It would need to be pretty powerful.

Food and Farmers
Sharon Astyk – who’s an author and a blogger at Casaubon’s Book, as well as ASPO board member – focused on what peak oil will mean for global food supplies. She noted that there’s a correlation between rising oil prices and rising food prices, and the recent enthusiasm for ethanol hasn’t helped. When it comes to a competition between people who want to eat the grain directly and people who want to put it in their cars, “cars always eat first.” Meanwhile, world grain production is increasing more slowly than it has in the past, and unchecked climate change will have an impact on agriculture.

The global food system has increasingly relied on transporting food long distances from where it was grown, but rising oil prices will make that less feasible. Sharon asked an important question: How will we grow food where people are?

Energy and the Emergency Pathway
Ken Zweibel, who runs the Solar Institute here at George Washington University, suggests dramatically ramping up US solar energy production, generating much of the energy in the Southwest and distributing it via an improved transmission system and national smart grid. He noted that there’s been a major drop in the prices for solar technologies over the past three years, and solar projects ought to receive better financing terms because they’re less risky than other energy-generating projects.

Zweibel suggested that we shouldn’t look at the US’s history with renewables (which hasn’t been impressive) to gauge their potential, because we haven’t been on an emergency pathway. Once we are on an emergency pathway, they can ramp up much more quickly.

The problem is, we’re facing an emergency, but we don’t have a critical mass of elected leaders willing to do anything about it (and one reason for that is that not enough of their constituents are willing to do anything about it). Overhauling our transportation, food, and energy-generation systems will take time and resources that the US doesn’t seem willing to invest.

6 thoughts on “Transportation, Food, and Electricity Systems Not Well Prepared for Peak Oil

  1. Zweibel suggested that we shouldn’t look at the US’s history with renewables (which hasn’t been impressive) to gauge their potential, because we haven’t been on an emergency pathway. Once we are on an emergency pathway, they can ramp up much more quickly.

    Nonsense. Once we’re “on an emergency pathway” the capital and diesel fuel for “ramping up” so-called “renewables” will be unavailable. We will have missed our chance.

  2. The Sail network is beloved by many, just as the notion that aviation is a staple going forward. Ignoring in-service existing rail infrastructure seems just plain ignorant, girls & boys! Rail came along because we have all that rock and dirt and mountains all over. That’s why we have the July 10,1838 Act of Congress: The “Post Roads Act” -All Railroads declared Post Roads, Guarantor of Societal And Commercial Cohesion in the United States.

    Post Roads are a Constitutional requirement; see Article I. Section 8, powers of Congress. Now, around the world, railways come just as naturally as, er, sailing. China is embarked on the most massive railway engineering upgrade on the globe. Oilpatch nations are (with our gas money) building up railway lines. Hugo Chavez announces a $5 Billion rail program, also with our money.

    In 1933, Bank of America partnered with Marin County property ownerds to build the Golden Gate Bridge, now a transportation cash cow. The Swiss are near completion of a 35 mile rail tunnel under the Alps, a Peak Oil hedge unifying European commerce and eventually an income source for Switzerland. The banks are in dire straits because of financial shenanigans, and need to take the initiative on infrastructure with all due haste: Suggest several high profile Engineering projects of note:

    NAWAPA, a water resources and hydro- electric compendium, bringing water and electric generation from Columbia River outflow. NAWAPA recharges strategic US Aquifers and brings water to irrigation across the west, including northern Mexico. Mucho electric power for electric railways new & rebuilt. Parsons Engineering proposed this engineers solution in 1965, before it’s time. Had NAWAPA been built, instead of squandering national wealth to secure oil import flow, we would be A LENDING NOT A BORROWING NATION; Energy independent. Not too late to do the right thing. Bankers, be brave, and form consortia…

    How new generic RR? ASLRRA is a talent pool for local rail corridor upgrade policy. New railway lines in the US50 and US95 corridor, and rebuild of many dormant branch line rr features must come to spell fuel-pinched trucking. We must snap out of our reverie about bicycles and boats and blimps;, at least at the strategic level. It’s OK to dream a little in the middle of a nightmare. But really, we still have to move victuals and necessities of life in a large scale & cost effective way. Why do you think rail is being expanded worldwide, and still a going concern in the USA?

    Try “Parallel Bar Therapy”, if “Second Dimension Surface Transport Logistics Platform” sounds too military (it is).
    Space limits; see “tahoevalleylines” posting at “theoildrum” and website “Suntrain Transportation Corporation”.

  3. Most people don’t realize that when oil hit $150/barrel, it wasn’t transpotation costs that drove food prices up. It was the cost of commercial fertilizer, which is made with petroleum products. The food supply we see today is only possible because of oil, it could never happen by manure alone. As oil reserves drop, so will the amount of food.

    We won’t just see superficial and unimportant frippery like “high prices”. We’re going to see food shortages, and starvation in many so-called “wealthy” countries. The deaths of two million North Koreans in the last 20 years (because of their government’s ineptitude and arrogance) is going to be repeated worldwide over the next century.

    It would not surprise me to see wars and invasions of other countries for food within my lifetime. It doesn’t stretch credulity to envision China invading Vietnam and Thailand, two of the biggest producers and exporters of rice, or for the US to invade Canada or Latin America for their food. There have been plenty of instances of countries invading others to steal their natural resources (e.g. the Spanish invading South America for gold, the US invading Iraq for oil, Israel invading Lebanon in 2006 for water, etc.).


  4. “Most people don’t realize that when oil hit $150/barrel, it wasn’t transpotation costs that drove food prices up. It was the cost of commercial fertilizer, which is made with petroleum products.”

    [citation needed]

    About 75% of oil is used for transportation.

  5. Perl estimates $1 trillion for a bare-bones HSR network

    That’s, like, a year of war in Iraq. It’s only a matter of political will then.

    Now, what is the cost of not having a decent railway system?

  6. Alex: GAO report “Domestic Nitrogen Fertilizer Production Depends on Natural Gas Availability and Prices”, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d031148.pdf. We can generate methane from manures, but at the scale we use it it’s priced by the fossil fuel market.

    (Also, you followed a curt request for a citation with an unsupported numerical assertion. Not very consistent!)

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