Peak Oil News: The road ends in post-petro future

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The road ends in post-petro future

By Kelly Jones Sharp

Like many Americans, I came of age in the era of cheap gas, cross-country vacations, the family station wagon and the Beach Boys croonin' while I spent my high school years cruisin'.

Later, warming in the fumes of JP-4 on U.S. Air Force flight lines and relocating cross-country and around the world -- to Florida, South Korea, Washington state, Virginia, Michigan and finally Indiana -- mobility on the cheap was something I took for granted.
At a party during the 2004 election campaigns, I even said (aloud), "I don't give a damn about the environment." OK, what I meant was I didn't give a damn about it as a campaign issue among what I thought were weightier concerns like the war and civil liberties.

And when Hoosier Environmental Council activists tapped on my door a few years back with their petition to stop I-69, I told them I was not opposed to it. New construction is the quintessential "can't-please-everyone" issue. There will always be tree huggers prostrating themselves before bulldozers. If they had their way every time, nothing would ever be built.

Then I heard the phrase "peak oil production" at a presentation by self-confessed tree hugger Scott Russell Sanders at last year's Spirit & Place Festival. And it occurred to me that those words I'd heard many times before had fallen on deaf ears until that moment.

In 1971, the bubbling crude in the United States that was easiest and cheapest to get, peaked. Half of our petroleum, a non-renewable resource, had been burned up. Forever.

According to that same principle -- M. King Hubbert's 1956 "peak" -- the global supply of petroleum is likely also now half gone. Next is decline, and after that it's over.

James Howard Kunstler, in his book "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century," outlines a gloomy scenario for post-petroleum America, warning that our "reality check is in the mail." He states, "The American way of life -- which is now virtually synonymous with suburbia -- can run only on reliable supplies of dependably cheap oil and gas. Even mild to moderate deviations in either price or supply will crush our economy and make the logistics of daily life impossible."
Consider for a moment those logistics. Although I grew up in a car-worshipping culture, nearly every service our family needed was within walking distance of our house. Our schools, grocery, drug store, doctor, dentist, library and church were all within a two-mile radius. And we walked to all of them.

Today I walk to none of those places, the closest being a couple miles from my house and the farthest being about 10 miles away. Like most Americans, my daily existence is centered on my car, which is powered by a resource that will someday be unavailable.
Kunstler says, "No combination of so-called alternative fuels or energy procedures will allow us to maintain daily life in the United States the way we have been accustomed to running it under the regime of oil." Among the proposed schemes he refutes are ethanol, tar sands and shale oils, saying the energy economics due to costly extraction and pollution make these things impossible to produce on the same scale as oil.

Matthew R. Simmons, chairman of Simmons & Company International, told the World Oil Conference in Boston on Oct. 26, "It's time to wake up! Preparing for post-peak oil and gas takes careful planning and implementation."

Next to John Mellencamp's gung-ho ode to Chevy Silverados, a looming crisis seems positively surreal.

Now we hear from Gov. Mitch Daniels about his proposed Indiana Commerce Connector, a $1.5 billion outer beltway.

Perhaps the best reason to stop hemorrhaging cash into these new construction road projects is that someday we'll no longer need them. The next best reason is those dollars might be better invested in post-peak planning, mass transportation and new urbanist living arrangements such as Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard's handiwork that could help stall dependency on automobiles.

When the governor pre-accuses those who might oppose his new road project of "provincialism," he's really projecting his own myopic view. Building roads is not new thinking.

To the HEC: Bring on your petition. This time, I'm signing.


At 1:44 PM, December 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The dire issue of Peak Oil will be resolved in a process that depends heavily upon free-market forces, just not the ones oil economists predict will solve the problem. While oil companies make higher profits from ever tightening supplies which will allow them to solve the problem of converting expensive reserves into useful fuels, the American working class will find ways to make the oil we have stretch farther because of their need to control costs.

I remember back in the 1960s that many factory workers and construction workers car pooled because they could not yet afford two cars and all the expenses associated with two cars. Now those same people are the grandparents of families that have cars for every licensed driver. This will change when the price of fuel is so expensive that it creates a harship on family finances. First teenage children will need to make do with less because of expensive oil and then the wage earners will start to carpool again to help stretch their earnings.

Public transportation will again become a necessity like it was until the mid-1960s and the public transportation that should become prevalent is the light rail which utilizes electricity instead of oil. People will own less cars because of the expense of fuel and will return to the patern of dependence on a public system much like it was in America prior to WWII.

When people say Americans will be faced with a fuel shortage dilema that has no resolution, they seem to imply that we will not be able to resolve any other way other than to find more oil. I would suggest that we will become just as good at finding ways to stretch our transportation dollars as our forebearers did before us. What will happen may well be a reversal of the automobiles prevalence today. What has it been, 50 years since the start of the interstate system. It took a short while for cars to become such a part of the American culture but I don't think there are many who would say we can't survive unless we can continue exactly the same into the future as we are today. If the first 25 years of the interstate highway system was the build up and the next 25 years were the full utilization, maybe the next 25 years will be the decline and removal of some of the unnecessary parts.

The American public will cope, adapt, and prosper because we seem to always be willing to change for the better. Fifteen years from now, I may only own one car and but I know that whatever is needed for me to get to work, vacation, as well as shopping, it just may be public transportation instead of private. So what. Does that mean I must change over to public transportation now? Not likely, but I will when it is the best way for me to get around economically.

We will work together, we will solve the problems of transportation and we will still be able to live life comfortably, it just will be different than today but it may look like it was in 1940. Is it wrong because we may have benefitted from cheap oil until now but might need to abandon the private part of transportation in the future?

I look forward to seeing the American public adapt and change to the problem of Peak Oil.

Silence Goodmen


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