Peak Oil - what could and should be done?

There are different opinions on the issue of Peak Oil, and I will not go into that long and detailed discussion (however, feel free to discuss it :wink: ), but rather discuss what we could and should do to prepare.

After all, even the optimists regarding this issue agree that there eventually will be a peak, the debate is about the timing.

A thing to consider in this discussion is that the effects of Peak Oil will vary immensely from country to country. So I propose that we start this discussion at the general level, and then maybe take it down to local level after a while.

My own view is that we are between 0 and 10 years from the actual peak, which gives us at least some years to really prepare. However, we shouldn’t waste any more time, as the effects of the peak can be immense.

It is my view that the peak can be seen as an opportunity for progress in society. First of all, we are currently wasting energy at insane levels. The best example of this is the automobile transportation system. An automobile wastes about 85% of the available energy, and in a world facing energy crisis, this really is a luxure we cannot afford.

So for me, this would be the place to start. Countries should invest heavily in public transportation systems. Railroads and tramlines. Buses where railroad is too expensive.

What is your view on this issue?

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I’ve always thought the best solution to the problem of transportation and the concommitant pollution would be to design cities such that it isn’t required anymore.

Everybody, everyday, gets up and jams up the roads going to the same places - home - bank - post office - school - work - restaurant - stores - etc, and lives in a box seperated from all the other boxes, which is another big energy waster.

So, a viable solution is to condense a city which has seperate buildings and is spread out over a large geographical area into one uber-building that has it all, probably with underground parking as such for when you need to leave the city. Basically like a termite mound, but with people.

This would cut out a huge amount of auto traffic - have moving sidewalks and such inside to get around in a more efficient way, or mini-monorails like some airports have. Plus you’d get to meet new people every day, and not waste as much time in traffic.

No need to go shopping for food unless you want to - eating at any number of cafes and buffets 3x a day is built in to your rent for living in the City. Thus a huge savings in the transport, storage, and packaging of food. Fresh milk in a big tank rather than 1000’s of plastic jugs, soda from a tap rather than 1000’s of cans, etc…

Energy is saved again as AC is far more efficient when one big AC unit is running for 100 dwellings rather than each one having a small inefficient one. Ditto for heating and ventilating, hot water, etc…

Have events, a theater, lots of entertainment and special interest group get-together spots, integrated park space, and it’s clear, at least to me, that this would be a fantastic and pleasant place to live, far better than our current system.

Obviously, none of this is going to happen… But it’s an interesting thought.

I should note a few things:

  1. Does the U.S., by virtue of its geographical space and the way the nation is built, require huge infrastructure changes? If so, how do you propose to persuade people to pay for those changes now?

  2. Islands, like Hawaii and various other tropical islands, depend on imports from overseas. What can we do about them?

  3. Some Peak Oil experts say it’s already too late; that there’s nothing we can do but sit back and watch civilization burn. Just something to think about.

Thrasymachus, the concept of urban living in one big building is an old one; probably goes back to the 1920s. To make a long story short, it’s impractical. Even the Soviet Union- famous for it’s ugly architecture, bureaucratic central planning, and lack of concern for it’s peoples’ wishes- never tried it.

The response to the decline of oil production has been roughly equivalent to cramming for a final the next day at 1:00 AM. Only now that the crisis is imminent has the political and economic will to do something about it appeared. In the last few years mass transit has been making a modest comeback and improved auto milage is being worked on. That said, we might end up driving hydrogen-fueled cars with less convenience and more cost, but I doubt anyone is planning to entirely scrap the auto/freeway culture that’s been built in the USA- simply too expensive.

I’ve always thought the best solution to the problem of transportation and the concommitant pollution would be to design cities such that it isn’t required anymore.

Everybody, everyday, gets up and jams up the roads going to the same places - home - bank - post office - school - work - restaurant - stores - etc, and lives in a box seperated from all the other boxes, which is another big energy waster.

So, a viable solution is to condense a city which has seperate buildings and is spread out over a large geographical area into one uber-building that has it all, probably with underground parking as such for when you need to leave the city. Basically like a termite mound, but with people.

The notion of large-scale restructing of cities being a ‘viable solution’ is ridiculous. You apparently have no idea how much that would cost.

Thanks for the pointers chappachula, but these three debates seem to me to be more about whether or not peak oil is a problem, than what we should do about it given that it is a problem (which was my intention with this thread).

I really agree with you, Thrasymachus. I also believe this would be possible to do. Only problem, of course, is that you can only do it with completely NEW cities. And that’s a rather rare thing these days :slight_smile: (They could have done this with Brasilia, I guess).

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  1. That’s a good question with some potentially scary answers. I would say YES to the first one. When we hit the peak, oil prices will probably multiply, and that will be painful for an economy that already shivers at current prices (USD 70+). So regarding the issue of persuasion. I don’t think it will be possible to persuade people before they sit there with the gargantuan gas bill themselves, and then society will have lost valuable years of preparation. So I believe strong governmental leadership will be necessary with this matter. I’m European myself, so I don’t really know if this will be possible in the US.

  2. In some ways islands will be better off, for two reasons: 1) the relatively smaller size and 2) the availability of wind energy. Hawaii could probably be a post-peak haven if they built massive wind farms combined with hydrogen generation plants, with which they drove the transportation systems.

  3. Well, even if they’re right, I would still be willing to fight to the bitter end to save what’s possible. I don’t believe they’re right, though.

This is what should be done: (Among other things, but rail transit is indispensable.)

See also

Brainglutton, I agree completely! So if I were a US citizen, I would put as much pressure on decion makers as I could, to start building this while energy prices still are relatively low.

After all, there will be no coolies this time…

Peak Oil (again), ehe? :stuck_out_tongue:

What could be done? Increased research into viable alternatives both for power generation as well as personal transport. In addition changing the perception (at least in the US) about nuclear energy and ramping up production of new, modern reactors is something we COULD start doing now…and this could have a significant impact not only wrt power generation but could influence emerging personal transport technologies that will superseed the current oil based transport system.

What should be done? Essentially let the market handle it. As the price of oil related products rise it will open up alternatives that already exist or that are in the pipeline but whos cost currently makes them uncompetetive with cheap oil. Its not like whenever the peak happens the entire system is going to collapse…its a bell curve after all. We’ll have decades AFTER the peak as oil prices steadily rise before they reach a point at which alternatives begin seriously to cut into the current oil monopoly (at least on personal transport).


I think some people have a poor idea what decreasing oil supplies would mean.

They understand that decreasing supply means higher prices. But then they imagine that those prices just go up and up and up and up, since demand outstrips supply. Except that never happens. In a free market demand never outstrips supply because demand is elastic.

In other words, as prices rise, people seek alternatives. Yes, in the short run demand for gasoline is price-inelastic. If prices doubled tomorrow you’d still need to get to work, you’d have to pay whatever the price was, no matter how high.

But in the medium run people have alternatives. Over a few years you can change jobs, you can move closer to work, you can sell your SUV and buy a moped, you can arrange to telecommute, you can carpool, you can take the bus. Yes, price shocks can hurt, but they can be adjusted to. And every choice you make to buy less gasoline means less demand for gasoline, which means prices stabilize.

And in the long run there are technological and infrastructure changes that can be made. Switching from diesel trucks back to rail to transport goods. Build rail mass transit. Build nuclear power plants. Increase the fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet. Switch the vehicle fleet to alternative fuels, biodiesel, hydrogen, natural gas, electric, alcohol.

I’m not sure why people expect demand for gasoline to stay constant when gasoline is $10.00 per gallon, and eventually we’ll have Mad Max style warfare over the last few drops of gas. As the price of gas rises, fewer and fewer people are willing to pay higher prices. And the higher the price of gasoline the more competitive alternative fuels become. The Germans manufactured gasoline from coal during WWII, once they were losing the war and could no longer import oil. So the cost to produce gasoline from coal is an absolute upper limit on the price of oil. Once petroleum becomes more expensive than gasified coal then the price has hit a ceiling and can’t rise any higher.

I don’t think anyone could give us hard numbers for what price per gallon a massive coal gasificiation industry could provide, but it surely isn’t much beyond $10.00 per gallon. And we’ll never have Mad Max style warfare over gasoline. What do people need gasoline for? To drive to work, to drive to the store, to truck goods across the country. People aren’t going to be shooting their neighbors with crossbows and siphoning their tanks, all so they can commute 2 hours to their office job. When gas prices are that high your neighbor won’t have any gas for you to steal anyway, and if you had gas you wouldn’t burn it to go to your office job, you wouldn’t have an office job anymore.

The other thing to remember is that even if gasoline is $100 per gallon, we’ll still have plenty of electricity. We don’t burn oil for electricity, we get our electricity from nuclear, hydro, and coal. So we won’t be facing the collapse of civilization, we’ll just be forced to switch to more costly methods of heating than fuel oil, and more costly methods of transportation than gasoline and diesel. The only reason we use gasoline and diesel and fuel oil today is that they are cheap and convenient. When those forms aren’t cheap and convenient any more we switch to other goods. There’s nothing magical about it, there’s no blind faith in the power of the marketplace, or some technological miracle that will save us.

We don’t need a technological miracle, technological alterantives to gasoline have been around for a hundred years. It’s just that no one uses them because gasoline is cheaper than the alternatives. What happens when gasoline is more expensive than the alternatives? Is it blind faith in the power of the invisible hand to expect people to switch to alternatives when the alternatives are cheaper? Or common sense?

I find your objection interesting because of your location, and wasn’t going to reply otherwise, but I’m interested in your comments and have a little time this morning. Of all the cities in the US, Minneapolis MN is probably closest in implementation to the “One Building City”.

For those that haven’t been there - the city has an extensive network of “skyways” connecting the major downtown buildings. These are fully enclosed bridges about 100 feet or so, most of them at the second or third story level. The convenience of it is enormous, just veer off the highway into a big parking garage at the south end of the city (it has its own exit even), and into the city you go on foot. There are maps inside the skyway, and many of the buildings have restaurants and shops on the floor where the bridges connect, or decorations, so it’s a very pleasant walk.

Your date of 1920’s-ish for the time when people first got ideas for building on a larger scale, to include the uber-building concept, seems about right as that’s about when steel became accepted as a building material - making larger structures possible.

I’m curious about the reasons why it was found to be impractical though, care to elucidate? From your post it seems that it was never attempted. Of the various ideas I’ve heard about for conservation, these types of massive urban planning projects are in a special category as they require no new tech to be invented, which is a plus.

I gathered on my visit there that the skyway project was controversial, as all municpal projects seem to be, so I guess you were one of the objectors? I wouldn’t mind hearing your comments on it, as you live there…

Well, it’s ambitious I’ll grant, but I haven’t seen an “energy crisis solution” that wasn’t at least small-r ridiculous (solar panels in space, hydrogen cars, everyone lucky enough to be alive is a hunter-gatherer, growing oil with algae all over the ocean), so let’s hang some numbers on it and see if the cost vs. benefits wash out.

I’ll start with costs. How about 1 trillion $ and ten years for a good sized city? 10 million people at $100,000 per capita to build the thing. Doesn’t seem unreasonable - the land is already owned by the gov’t and there are economies of scale as an advantage, but it’s not just homes for all, it’s working and common space, plus infrastructure and there will be engineering challenges galore whether it’s built new or retrofitted Minneapolis style.

So that’s 10% or so of the US GDP, or roughly 1% per year, either way it’s is a pretty solid chunk of change. Even GWB would wince before asking Congress for that kind of dough. :smiley: To put it in perspective, to do this instead of going to Iraq would mean that it’d be 1/3 done now, in both $ and years.

Now there’s a big problem here as you can’t just bulldoze a city and put an orange fence around it while construction happens for 10 years, where do all the people go? Let’s say this is a “The New New Orleans further upstream” or “The Big one hit SF, build it again” kind of situation for the sake of argument so building a new city is motivated and plausible and the old one is semi-useful still.

For benefits, it’s hard to calculate as most forms of energy usage would benefit under such a scheme, but this thread is about peak oil, so we’ll concentrate on petroleum to keep things tractable. The DOE tables are here:

For 2004, table 5.1, total petroleum supplied is 20.5 million bbl daily for the US. With a population of 300 millions, that’s .068 bbl per person per day, or 2.87 gallons (petroleum, not gasoline).

Multiplying that back out for the 10 million folks in the hypothetical city, and it’s 683,333 bbl per day.

Now the savings for the new city vs old is hard to estimate. Petroleum is cracked mostly to gasoline nowadays, but it’s also used for plastics and lube, and aircraft fuel and solvents.

There’s still transport energy cost even if most walk, as a larger volume is being heated/cooled in the new city, and the turbo-elevator and moving sidewalks for old people use electricity, which comes from somewhere. If power is generated onsite, cogeneration can handle hot water and some heating, and the huge size of the structure affords some insulation that is not present for individual dwellings, etc…

I’m going to WAG at a usage factor of 0.15 for the folks in the big city for petroleum vs a standard usage of 1.0 for the US average. This is a guess, and I’m basing it on most petroleum being used to make gasoline, and these folks aren’t burning much of it anymore on a daily basis since cars are designed out. They’ll still drive out on weekends, still use plastic for a lot of things, and still light up with Bic lighters though, so it ain’t zero. Seems reasonable enough - they burn it 1/6th the usual rate.

So if those 10 million are living as usual, 683,333 bbl at 70 a barrel (current price as of this post) is 47.8 million per day/

If they’re in the hypothetical city, 7.1 million $ per day - so the city saves 40.6 million in petroleum each day. Break even is therefore 67 years away on the initial 1 trillion.

Certainly not the best of investments, but I don’t think it works out to being beyond consideration at all either, even with the very coarse assumptions involved. I suppose including the time value of 1/2 hour or so saved on commuting each day for everyone would make it quite attractive.

Even if you are a believer in the “invisible hand” of the market, I think you have to acknowledge that the market has a lot of inertia, and responds slowly. And there may well be some lag between the end of the oil age and the creation and placement of infrastructure needed for the hydrogen age. Nuclear power plants don’t just spring up overnight.

And in the meantime, there may be a lot of suffering.

People with long commutes could suffer badly in the short term, as gas prices rise and take a bigger and bigger bite out of the family budget. Time to sell that suburban house and move closer to work? Might not be so easy if everyone gets the same idea. Suburban house sales would lag, and housing in town will become very expensive.

Could be boom times for bankruptcy lawyers.

On top of that, fuel costs generate a lot of inflationary pressure. Think of the fuel expended in getting food to market. That increasing cost will be factored into food prices.

And if fuel becomes scarce enough, the cost of transporting food to market could make food costs really skyrocket. When bread is $20 a loaf where does that lead us? What consequences could ensue? (And how does the invisible hand tackle that one – bearing in mind the lag time before new transportation infrastructure is in place?)

You have to factor in the mostly untapped sources of oil for gasoline that are still out there. Alberta Canada is frantically trying to ramp up production because their vast amounts of tar sands are just now becoming economically viable sources of petroleum. They have enough oil by themselves to keep North America supplied with oil for many decades. Their rapid increase in production will be a stabilizing effect on world oil prices and extend useful supply out until many of us are dead.

Assuming that somehow just went away, both the U.S. and Canada have so much coal that we might as well consider it infinite for human timescale purposes. You can convert coal to gasoline as well it is just more expensive. Both of those sources greatly hold down the ceiling on doomsday scenarios for oil prices. We can have as much gasoline as we want in the foreseeable future coming out of our own backyard once the price of foreign oil pushes past the $80 a barrel mark and makes it worthwhile to get.

No, but it is blind faith to assume that “alternatives” that can effectively fuel the kind of society to which we are accustomed will exist. Just because consumers are willing to buy something doesn’t mean the engineers will, or can, invent it.

From The City in Mind by James Howard Kunstler (New York: The Free Press, 2001), – the chapter on Atlanta, pp. 73-75:

Of course alternative fuels can’t be produced as cheaply as gasoline. And this is obvious, because if they could, they would.

Alternative fuels will be more expensive per unit of energy than today’s prices of $3.00 per gallon for gasoline. How much more expensive? Hard to tell.

But expecting a $20 loaf of bread (in today’s dollars) is nonsense. Exactly how large a fraction of the price of bread is dependent on the cost of gasoline? I can get bread for ~$2 today. Even if we assume that transportation costs (considering only fuel!) and petroluem dependent fertillizers are the only costs involved in getting that loaf of bread to the supermarket, we would have to have a 1000% increase in transportation costs. Gasoline at $30 per gallon. And even that is ridiculous, since gasoline is only a fraction of the cost of transportation, you need to buy trucks, you need to maintain roads, you need to maintain the truck fleet, you need to pay drivers, and on and on.

To put it plainly, a doubling of the price of gasoline doesn’t mean a doubling of the cost of transportation, and a doubling of the price of transportation doesn’t mean a doubling of the cost of goods.

There is no need to invoke any scientific or technological breakthrough, and hope that will save us. We already have dozens, if not hundreds of alternatives to gasoline, many of which are mature technologies that have been around for more than a hundred years. Coal being the primary example. Coal gassification isn’t some pie in the sky wish, it is reality. We could do it today, on a massive scale. Why don’t we? Because $3.00 petroleum is still cheaper than artifical gasoline made from coal. But you’re never going to get $30.00 per gallon gasoline, because long before then dozens of alternatives become cheaper.

Does this mean we’ll pay higher prices? Probably. Why is this a crisis? Back in the 80s we had $1 per gallon gasoline. Are we paying three times as much for goods and services now? Of course not.

Will gasoline prices trend upwards? Likely so. What I object to is the idea that gasoline prices will drift upwards for a while, then suddenly soar upwards, with no end in sight as demand increases insatiably while supplies dry up.

But demand will not increase at current rates if the prices continue upwards. As I tried to explain, demand may be inelastic in the short term, but in the medium and long term it is highly elastic. We saw this in last year’s oil shocks. The newspapers printed the surprising news that people were inexplicably consuming less gasoline now that the prices were higher. Apparently there was no economic theory that could explain the phenomenon.

What you are referring to is called an arcology. Essentially it’s a large multi-purpose hive for people. You may have seen one in Blade Runner, the anime Appleseed, SimCity 3000 or one of the Shit They Won’t Ever Build shows on Discovery Channel.

Personally I’m not a big fan of such an all eggs in one basket approach.