Are We In The "Post Petroleum" Age?

The world is slowly, but surely running out of cheappetroleum. There are no more major oil fields to be opened up…unless you can drill in very deep (>20,000 ft.) water, or in dangerous places like Antarctica. Yet, we (Americans) keep on buying gas guzzling SUVs…and,houses get bigger all the time! Now, the recent moaning and screaming when gasoline hit $2.00/gallon…what on earth will we do when it rise to, say, $6.00?Are we in for a major depression? Or, can we make a transition to a post-petroleum world?
My best case scenario: oil gets more expensive, so we switch to a massive program of building nuclear power plants. We adopt electric cars, and wind farms are built to generate more electricity. Coal comes back…asnew,more efficient coal-burning plants come on line.
Now, the worst case:
Gasoline prices rise…and inflation returns with a vengeance…the stock market slumps, as the Dow drops to 1000, 600, finally 200. Detroit shuts down…there are no markets for its cars and trucks…unemployment in Michigan hits 75%. Riots begin in major cities, ans unemployed peoplebreakinto and loot food stores and warehouses. The government authorizes martial law…army divisions are brought into major cities to restore order. Gasoline finally stabilizes at $35.00/gallon

The answer to your question is “no.”

Huh? Since none of that’s happening, I’d venture that we’re not in a post petroleum age. And I guess you mean “petroleum fuels,” since aside from gasoline there’re lots and lots of other things we need petroleum for.

As far as Michigan is concerned, we’re not so directly dependant on automobile manufacturing before. Most plants aren’t even in the state any longer. We do have a huge base of suppliers that sell worldwide. But aside from that, we can make cars that don’t use gasoline. The problem right now is no one wants them. Gas is too cheap for us. If you look at Europeans’ vs. Americans’ cars, the size difference isn’t due to small roads; it’s gasoline prices.

Sure, I’d love an electric car with high torque that performs like my big V8 and gets me 440 miles per charge and costs me $25 to charge completely. Heck, maybe I’d pay up to $30 per charge. But I won’t pay exceptionally more for the initial vehicle acquisition. Until there is a proven demand for 200,000 full-size, high-performance, somewhat luxurious cars of this same model per year no one’s going to build one at any price I’d consider paying.

Little by little, though, these changes are being made. The next Ford Escape will be a hybrid SUV – it still uses gasoline to generate electricity, but the drivetrain will essentially be electric. That’s a positive step, and it doesn’t even cost that much more. Currently the Toyota Echo and the Honda something-or-other use the same concept, but you pay a lot of money for a tiny little cheaply made car (although their owners love them so that’s all that counts). Disclaimer: Ford’s advantage is in not being an early adopter; Toyota and Honda deserve a lot of credit for being pioneers (they just need something bigger).

These things still depend on gasoline. And even if you have one, you’re not doing anything to help the environment or preservation of resources by yourself. Those few measly gallons of gas aren’t even a dimple on the national scale. If you have 200,000 of these per year, though, you’ll start to make an impact.

But in the longer term, we’d have to eventually move away from gasoline entirely. It will eventually run out, although probably not in any of our lifetimes. Hydrogen is a good idea, but it takes a lot of electricity to make. Direct electric vehicles aren’t a bad idea, but we don’t know how to store enough of it efficiently yet. The “hydrogen economy” is mentioned a lot these days, but the “post petroleum” world will probably be electrical storage once we figure out how. New nuclear plants will be built, and we can make them meltdown proof these days.

So long as the increases in price are slow and steady, the economy will adapt. The UK is able to adapt to prices of more than $4 per USG, although their standard of living in terms of luxury items is in some ways not nearly to the level as the US. And, of course, distances in the US are very profoundly different than in the UK.

Much more research is needed by you on this subject. Oil is barely used for any power generation in the US. And worldwide it’s still a minority fuel for power generation. And where does coal come back from? Currently, 50-55% of our electricity is from coal. Nuclear may never come back due to the combined stranglehold of the “nuclear fear lobby” and the fear-driven ignorance of the average American.

The economics and science of the fuel-based side of the economy do not support anything close to this scenario unless something happens like a complete oil embargo of the US. Long before $35 a gallon many other fuels and methods for making gasoline become economical.

Realistically, what happens is prices slowly rise, biodiesels and biofuels become relatively less expensive, people consume less, mass transit programs are undertaken (giving a boost to some sectors of the economy), electric cars become somewhat more common (but not until that battery situation is fixed), we return to carpooling and bus lines start to spring up. Hydrogen vehicles may see some use. Costs of goods shipped by truck rise, which leads to local goods and local stores being patronized more. People travel much less on “small” vacations (no more driving 600 miles to see aunt Edna over Memorial Day), the airlines use the energy crisis as an excuse to jack ticket prices to double or triple what they currently are, thus ending recreational air travel. Pizza and other delivery services vanish as no one wants to pay an extra $5 per pizza to have it delivered.

Of course, there are some other benefits as well to expensive energy. Kids stop driving their cars “cruising” for hours on end on weekends, driving up and down your street with stereos thumping (of course, in the UK they just ride around at night on their mopeds and motorbikes which seem to have very little exhaust muffling on them…). And less consumption of energy means less greenhouse gas production, unless we end up having to fuel millions of electric cars by building hundreds of power plants.