By Kevin Werner
Decades ago the "peak oil" argument had the same cachet as a John F. Kennedy assassination paranoia theory propagated by the granola crowd.
Fueled by the Iraqi War, and high energy prices, a quick scan of any of the more vituperative websites and you'd believe U.S. President George Bush, V.P. Dick Cheney, and the American industrial complex are in league with the devil to destroy mankind.
These apocalyptic premonitions of a Mad Max-like world worked in favour of the environmentalists. Scare enough pants off suburban residents about losing their precious cheap energy, and it would mean improved fuel conservation, better waste management, and more sustainable transportation through public transit.
A documentary called "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the America Dream" that had been making the rounds had activists clucking. The grassroots planning group Hamilton for Progressive Development will be showing it this month.
The real fear, though, is that Mad Max fantasy may be more real than first imagined.
Over the last few years the peak oil theory has gained traction within the U.S. government, and mainstream publications.
"Oil and gas are limited. My personal feeling is that we have a concern in the next couple of decades," U.S. geologist Thomas Ahlbrandt, who co-authored a study on peak oil.
The theory states that oil has a limited lifespan. Since the 1960s, oil companies have found fewer oil fields, and the ones that are in production are steadily being drained. The Association for the Study of Peak Oil believe in the next few years humans will have extracted half the earth's oil.
When peak oil occurs remains a debating point. Some of the extremists believe it will happen in 2008, others 2016, while some U.S. government analysts say global oil production will peak in 2037.
Critics dismiss this end-of-the-world scenario believing that technology will keep oil production at bay and will lead to alternative fuel development.
The Peak Oil theory has more in common with another doomsday scenario. Thomas Malthus, in his 1798 essay, proposed the Earth could only sustain a limited amount of people. If left unchecked the human populations would grow until it became too large to be supported by the food grown on available agriculture land. Over 200 years later, the theory isn't wrong, but the issue has become more complicated because of improve technology, cultural impacts, and global transportation. The same result could happen to the peak oil situation.
So what does this have to do with Hamilton?
Hamilton councillors Brian McHattie and Dave Braden pushed the city to conduct a report on how peak oil will impact the aerotropolis plan. That happened last June. For the last six months the report has been in administrative limbo, prompting a belief that city staff didn't want the report's information made public because of its negative consequences about the aereotropolis.
"I don't believe in that," said Mr. McHattie.
He said it was more of a "disconnect" between what council wanted and what the author, Richard Gilbert, a director of the Toronto-based Centre for Sustainable Transportation, produced. Mr. McHattie hopes a revised report will be ready for council by the end of February.
But beyond the administrative miscues, Mr.McHattie wants Hamilton to seriously look at how peak oil will impact on one of the most important development ideas to affect Hamilton since the Red Hill Creek Expressway.
The original report on the aereotropolis was nothing more than a "cheerleading" document, he says. It provided no options for councillors to consider, no "triple bottom-line" analysis.
"This is critical," he said. "It will mean we are not spending money elsewhere. It will also be irreversible."
Mr. McHattie says Hamilton should look at other municipalities such as Calgary, which establishes 100-year planning cycles, and has already adopted alternative energy programs to safeguard their community.
Hamilton instead should focus on rail and shipping as more vital transportation systems rather than the energy-sucking airport, he says.
"There is a tendency for humans to believe nothing will change," said Mr. McHattie. "There are examples where people didn't notice (the change) until it was too late. But the cities that wake up and understand the issues will be the successful cities."