Surviving peak oil will require rethinking our transportation policies
By A. Robert Thurman
There should have been banner headlines in every newspaper in the country. It should have been the lead story on every newscast. On June 7 U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced that the world had reached peak oil output and that demand was outracing supply.
Instead, Bodman's pronouncement in Japan, before the energy chiefs of eight industrialized countries, drew virtually no notice. Bodman did not use the term "peak oil," but the situation he described, flat global oil production dating back to 2005, coupled with ever-increasing demand, including hefty increases in demand from China and India, precisely fits the paradigm of peak oil.
The theory of peak oil, first promulgated by Shell Oil geophysicist M. King Hubbard in the 1950s, holds that for any petroleum source, dating from discovery, production will increase until approximately half the oil has been recovered, which represents an absolute limit on production.
Once the peak has been attained, production will slowly decline until the residue cannot be produced economically. Hubbard predicted that for the United States as a whole, the peak would be reached in the early 1970s. He was close to spot on. There have been relatively small discoveries since, but the trend has been inexorably downward.
Current estimates of the timing for global peak oil range from right now to 2030. But given the situation Bodman described, it would appear that peak oil is upon us, or very near, and the current record run-up in the price of oil and oil products is hardly surprising. Economics 101 says a scarce product coupled with strong demand must result in rising prices.
The implications of peak oil are unnerving, to put it mildly. One of the most far-reaching implications is the decline and eventual end of the use of the individual automobile. With gasoline at $4-plus per gallon, we are already seeing the beginning of the decline. Behemoth SUVs are rapidly becoming unmarketable, and, according to a June 10 Washington Post story, car owners are starting to curtail their driving.
With the problematic future of the automobile in mind, perhaps it's time to reconsider transportation policy for the Wasatch Front. New highways may not be what we need. In fact, they may not even be economically feasible.
According to a June 6 USA Today story, oil-based asphalt prices have increased more than 25 percent over the past year, leading some communities to defer and even cancel imperative road maintenance.
When one adds the enhanced cost of fuel for heavy machinery and even tires (prices have doubled in a year for some equipment) prospects for the proposed west-side highway do not look favorable, particularly when a decelerating economy will lead to tax revenue shortfalls.
Nor does financing via tolls make a great deal of sense. Fewer miles driven by fewer vehicles does not augur well for recouping an investment in any reasonable time.
Instead of new highways, we need more mass transit, and we are likely to need it soon. Transportation monies should be spent on mass transit projects to tie together the sprawling Wasatch Front communities, not on highway projects that are all too likely to become virtually useless white elephants.
A. ROBERT THURMAN is a retired administrative law judge for the Utah Public Service Commission. He taught commercial law at Utah State University and was in private law practice with a natural resources law firm.