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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face


Tag: high-speed rail

“We are trapped in a very complex civilization that is rapidly losing the sources of energy and numerous other raw materials that built and maintained it….
“If current trends continue, somewhere in the next five years a critical mass of us will realize that new foundations for civilization, and new ways of life must be found and implemented if we are going to survive with a modicum of comfort, economic, and political stability. Until then there will be many false prophets calling for a return to a civilization which is no longer possible.” [1]

A stubborn insistence that we’re just going to ignore the facts about global warming and the arrival of a peak in worldwide oil production—paying no attention to a rather large body of quite convincing evidence in the process—and instead plow ahead with public investments and plans that will in due course prove to be nothing more than monumental wastes of time (and incredibly short-sighted to boot), ought to be revisited.

We cannot afford to continue to design and then implement plans based only on what seems feasible now, or much worse, because it’s what we’ve always done, or it’s what an uninformed electorate would prefer. The first task, as I’ve mentioned in my recent posts, is that we all need to make a commitment to learning more and understanding the facts. In doing so, we need to find and rely upon the resources where the truth is the only option.

Allowing current business and political leaders to decide what will need to be done based on what has been done before is not the solution. There is no clearer indication of that than the continued resistance to spending money and investing in alternative forms of transportation.

“[N]ewly elected Republicans soon to enter gubernatorial offices have promised to shut down their local federally funded intercity rail corridors that they fear will overwhelm them with future operating expenses. Of course, those complaints are patently absurd when put in context of each state’s respective overall transportation budget. Wisconsin, for instance, spends more than a billion dollars on roadway construction annually and would have been asked to contribute a mere $7.5 million to train operations. Is such a small contribution really such a huge price to pay for a transportation alternative?” [2]

A worthwhile question that demands a much better response than what we’re seeing.

To be fair, there’s no question that making these kinds of investment decisions and committing even more funds from a limited supply is under no one’s definition an easy, simple or—at first—an obvious solution. There are indeed many legitimate arguments against such a commitment. I’m firmly in the camp that believes high speed rail is a necessity, but I’m just as clear that we need to think through the strategies more than we have to date. High-speed rail aside, I’m more convinced by the day that a great deal more reliance on public transportation will be mandatory.

A fear of deficits and increased public spending are going to have to give way to a longer term vision for the kind of nation we choose to be and the levels of growth and prosperity we at least hope to attain in a world no longer able to rely on fossil fuels. That vision and the corresponding plans of necessity must include a greater commitment to public transit. The choice to devote our limited transportation capital funds on the more familiar roadwork projects makes perfectly good sense in a vacuum where growth is expected to return to “normal” soon enough. The harsh truth is that it will not because it cannot. There will be new definitions of “normal” in the years to come.

I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but we create only more difficulties for ourselves by denying the facts and delaying our efforts to create an industrial economy that no longer depends on fossil fuels. It’s a monumental undertaking to be sure, and is not one we should expect to complete for at least a couple of decades. But oil supplies have reached their peak and it is soon enough all downhill from there, so we’re confronted with the dual challenge of re-creating the way our economy functions while utilizing declining supplies of oil in the process, and simultaneously trying to keep our heads above water under current conditions, dependent on that exact same declining supply. All the creativity and spin in the world cannot make that math come out in our favor. Change is a-comin’.

The bottom line is that for all the arguments favoring more expenditures on road construction at the expense of public transportation, the same end result would be arrived at with far less effort if we simply burn piles of money on the steps of Capitol Hill. Appreciating the challenges and implications of having now arrived at the peak of oil production does lead to the obvious conclusion (political ideologies in opposition notwithstanding) that we are going to have to move away from an automobile-centric society.

In the years to come, we simply will not have enough oil/gasoline to power the number of automobiles we own in this country under similar or growing levels of usage when we add to that astounding number the many millions more new automobiles that will be added to the roadways of other nations. We could meet that demand, of course. We’d simply have to do away with a great many other necessities and products (see my last post for a brief list) dependent on oil, since there won’t be enough fossil fuels to go around to meet all the demand everywhere all the time for everyone. That’s Peak Oil!

As I’ve taken great pains to emphasize, we’re not running out of oil any time soon. But depletion and an inexorable decline in production which no alternative or unconventional resources can make up for means there’s going to be less available for everyone and everything. Those dominoes will continue to tumble until one day, likely several decades into the future, it will no longer be feasible to continue extracting oil or using. Too much effort and too much expense for too little reward is what we face. Start planning now is the smart choice, because once we’ve solicited all the input available—no easy or quick task in itself—we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us putting those plans into action, with the myriad modifications and adaptations that will surely be needed.

We’ll need to be smarter about the new choices we make, too. Reliance on (or hope that) the electric vehicle is the answer to the transportation aspect of Peak Oil’s impact is all fine and well in the abstract. But as has been pointed out by others (here and here), if we’re just expecting that fancy new electric Mercedes and BMWs and Ford pick-up trucks and Honda SUVs and Chevy Volts will just simply replace the ones we drive now, we’re in for another rude awakening. An enormous conversion of infrastructure will be required, for one thing. And for another (topics for upcoming posts here), if the strategies we design to cope with fossil fuel depletion do not also include plans for where and how we live, we’re just digging another deep hole for ourselves.

As objectionable as this will be to many, “smart growth” and “sustainable living” practices are going to warrant much greater levels of attention than they have to date. If ideological principles cause one to blanche at the thought of our federal government “dictating” how and where people live by controlling urban sprawl, the message is a simple one: Get used to it. This is not about a desire of the government to impose its will or make choices for others. It will instead be another courageous recognition that great changes will and must take place, and that there must be a national mechanism for guiding the choices and actions of local governments and private industry to address those looming realities.

Given that certain segments of the media (and the political and social groups that align themselves with that media’s particular ideology) seem convinced that President Obama does not believe we’re an “exceptional” nation (the convenient omission of facts and context debunking that meme are neatly summed up here and here), here’s our chance to prove him “wrong.” Let’s do so by leading the charge into the 21st century with a new vision about how prosperous and successful nations adjust to the new realities about energy supply and usage. It will take one hell of a village to make this happen in any event.

Why not us?


[1]; The Peak Oil Crisis: The Future of Government By Tom Whipple
[2]; Growing Conservative Strength Puts Transit Improvements in Doubt by Yonah Freemark

“I don’t think people quite understand how fundamental transportation is to the economy and their standard of living.” [1]

“Some might also wonder why a shortage of oil should automatically trigger a collapse. It turns out that, in an industrialized economy, a drop in oil consumption precipitates a proportional drop in overall economic activity. Oil is the feedstock used to make the vast majority of transportation fuels—which are used to move products and deliver services throughout the economy. In the US in particular, there is a very strong correlation between GDP and motor vehicle miles traveled. Thus, the US economy can be said to run on oil, in a rather direct and immediate way: less oil implies a smaller economy. At what point does the economy shrink so much that it can no longer meet its own maintenance requirements? In order to continue functioning, all sorts of infrastructure, plant and equipment must be maintained and replaced in a timely manner, or it stops functioning. Once that point is reached, economic activity becomes constrained not just by the availability of transportation fuels, but also by the availability of serviceable equipment.” [2]

“The United States is saddled with a rapidly decaying and woefully underfunded transportation system that will undermine its status in the global economy unless Congress and the public embrace innovative reforms, a bipartisan panel of experts concludes in a report released [several weeks ago].
“U.S. investment in preservation and development of transportation infrastructure lags so far behind that of China, Russia and European nations that it will lead to ‘a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run.” [3]

This is real life; this is what happens when you put on blinders and decide that a political ideology already proven not to work will nonetheless work magic this time. If they do what they’ve always done, we’ll get more of what we’ve already gotten … hello!

Spending the kinds of money being tossed about for transportation infrastructure modernization is mind-boggling. As one recent report suggests, an additional $134 billion to $262 billion must be spent per year through 2035 to rebuild and improve roads, rail and air transportation systems. [4] Coupled with even larger investments needed to modernize our entire infrastructure, and it becomes terrifying. Talk about bad options or bad options! There are few short-term upsides to the choices we’re confronted with, but that’s the key issue: this is not about what’s best for us only right now. Difficult decisions or difficult decisions are the choices on the table.

But what is the option? Where do we wind up ten, twenty, fifty years down the road? Do we leave our children and grandchildren with potentially burdensome debt but in an economic environment that meets their needs and gives them hope and chance for an even better future, or do we send them into the world relatively debt-free but confronted with decay and decline and little hope as far as the eye can see?

“The United States can’t compete successfully in the 21st century with a 20th century transportation infrastructure—especially when its chief trading partners, including not only the advanced economies of Western Europe and Southeast Asia but also rapidly developing countries like China, are making significant investments in cutting-edge transportation technologies and systems. Transportation efficiency has a direct impact on Americans’ standard of living and on the cost of goods and services delivered by U.S. firms and businesses.” [5]

The knee-jerk reaction to raising any fees, notably the 18.4 cent (per gallon) federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, hamstrings any efforts to legitimately address these challenges. A sense of entitlement—that we shouldn’t have to pay for public services—is rapidly becoming not just an enormous impediment to resolving our difficulties. We also run the risk that our fears of national decline will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and with no one to blame but ourselves.

“We would also note that while other nations are effectively rebuilding and improving transportation infrastructure (think China, France, India and other competitors), we are consumed with debates about the proper role of our national government, all the while avoiding the tough decisions that would give us the resources to do the same. [6]

You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand that inflation and increased fuel mileage over the years (and thus less spending at the pump) have dramatically reduced the sufficiency of the gas tax as a source for highway construction and maintenance funds. The sad truth is that Americans don’t want to pay for much, and that’s a sure recipe for all kinds of disasters, but our attention span is short and our memories about other consequences are just as short.

One proposal repeatedly floated about only to be instantly shot down is a one or two cent (cent, as in penny!) increase in that per gallon gas tax. Two or three cents would be fabulous, but we can’t get Congressional leaders to even consider a one freaking penny increase to help pay for road maintenance and repair … one penny per gallon! Let’s take a look at how this breaks down in the real world of facts:

Estimated miles traveled per year by the average driver is 15,000

Average miles per gallon is 15 – 20 miles per gallon. Let’s lowball and say it’s only 15 mpg

15,000 miles per year divided by 52 weeks = 290 miles; let’s say 300 miles per week

300 miles per week divided by 15 miles per gallon = 20 gallons of gas used per week, or about $60.00 per week at current prices, or about $3000.00 per year

20 gallons of gas per week with a one freaking cent gas tax increase = 20 cents per week, times 52 weeks means that the average driver paying $10.40 more per year to help alleviate an urgent need … ten freaking dollars per year!

And we have leaders and organizations and media personalities telling us that raising this tax is as calamitous as anything we’ve ever seen. This begs the obvious and unfortunate question:

How irresponsible, clueless, and short-sighted is this?

“The fact is that failure to adequately maintain and invest in our transportation systems means not only gridlocked roads and deteriorating bridges in the near term, but a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run. Avoiding this outcome means government, and ultimately taxpayers, need to be willing to invest more in transportation, not just for one year or a few, but on a sustained basis over time….Policymakers and the public will need to understand that investments in transportation infrastructure—provided these investments are wisely chosen and effectively implemented—will have long-term benefits that more than justify their near-term costs.” [7]

“[O]ur transportation infrastructure also is the foundation upon which virtually every major industry sector depends. Many industries could not exist without the wise infrastructure investments our nation has made in the past. These industries include tourism, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, agriculture and forestry, mining, retailing, wholesaling and many others that are essential to our economic vitality and quality of life. Dependent industries provide more than 78.6 million American jobs with a total payroll in excess of $2.8 trillion, illustrating just how much we have at stake when we underfund our transportation efforts.” [8]

As my favorite political blogger, Steve Benen, so dryly noted: “We are, by the way, talking about projects that create jobs, spur economic development, relieve traffic congestion, and help the environment, all while offering the promise of transforming American transportation in the 21st century.” [9]

Not that that matters….

Whether or not we manage to restore some semblance of prosperity in the near (or even not-so-near) future will depend in no small part on the courage and wisdom we ask our leaders to demonstrate—with our support—in making wise investment decisions with an eye to the future, difficult as those choices may be. Not making those decisions has the potential to be catastrophic.

We have to encourage and even insist on a vision for our future that takes into account legitimate concerns on both sides of these investment issues but also moves beyond them in recognition of the fact that in a near-future powered by less fossil fuel resources, changes will have to be made in how we address these challenges. Throwing more money at public roads is not the sole option, nor can it be.

“Name one attribute America’s most successful cities have in common. The ‘it’ factor often overlooked – but necessary for success – is transit. Successful cities all across the nation have made the choice to make public transit a priority – and that decision pays off.
“According to the American Public Transit Association, for every $1 cities invest in public transportation, they generate $4 in economic returns. Economically viable cities make funding transit a priority because they can generate multiple, positive economic outcomes with a single investment:
“Developers are attracted to transit areas. If a city wants to revitalize a blighted area or dictate where high-density growth and expansion occur, one of the smartest things it can do is invest in transit.” [10]

For all the (many of which are legitimate) arguments against investing in high speed rail, the reality that almost none of those opponents bother to consider is that in a world with ever-declining oil production, increasing world-wide demand, and more complex geopolitical and geological challenges, our insistence on remaining an automobile-based nation evidencing our greatness and independence is at best extremely foolish. We are simply not going to have same level of fossil fuels we now depend on for transportation. That’s just the reality, and we ignore it or stubbornly insist otherwise at our peril. Alternative forms of transit—expensive or not—are going to play a critical role for us in the future, both personally and commercially. Stomping our feet and demanding otherwise is nice, but not going to get you much.

“In the United States, high-speed rail remains roadkill for Republicans who, in playing to anti-big-government voters, reflexively say states cannot afford it rather than reflect on how mass transit and speedy corridor trains will wean us off oil and improve quality of life for generations to come.” [11]

We, and our leaders, need to be wiser and far less shortsighted than we tend to be.


[1]; New Report Shows States Want to Cut Infrastructure Spending by Eric Jaffe (quoting Byron Schlomach, director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona)

[2]; Peak Oil is History

[3] [link to PDF]; Report from the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virgina: Well Within Reach – America’s New Transportation Agenda – David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Conference (Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner, Conference Co-Chairs, Jeffrey N. Shane, Conference Director) issued October, 2010

[4]; Failing U.S. transportation system will imperil prosperity, report finds By Ashley Halsey III

[5] Miller Center Report (above) p.26

[6]; How to Finance the Next Six-Year Transportation Authorization: A Taxing Issue – October 19, 2010 by Glen Bottoms

[7] Miller Center Report (above) p. 27

[8]; Investing in our economic future


[10]; Talkin’ About A Rail-Volution? By Fawn Johnson; (Response by Tom Madigan: The ‘It’ Factor Of Successful Cities)

[11]; US needs to get on track for high-speed rail By Derrick Z. Jackson

Last month, I came across a interesting article showing the production breakdown of a barrel (approximately 45 gallons) of oil.

I found it a bit surprising that only 4 gallons, or approximately 11 %, from every barrel of oil is typically produced as aviation fuel.

As Dave Jackson noted in another recent article:

“A-1 jet fuel, a high grade, moisture free kerosene, competes directly with the production of diesel. A refiner has a certain amount of leeway when extracting fuels from each barrel of crude oil. By and large, however, a choice must be made between kerosene or diesel.”

Jackson then asked pretty much the same question I have: What happens when there isn’t enough crude oil to satisfy the full demands of freight transportation and the airline industry? Can’t satisfy them both once oil production begins its continual decline, so what happens? As it stands now and if my math is correct, airlines use somewhere in the neighborhood of two billion barrels of oil each year. That cannot continue in the face of Peak Oil.

What decisions are the various transportation industries—freight and aviation in particular—going to be faced with when the worldwide supply of oil cannot ever match demand again? Who decides which of those two will have priority? It’s unlikely that only one industry will have all of its demand met, so that means both industries will suffer reductions in what is available to them. Then what?

As other writers have duly noted, once Peak Oil’s impact is being felt immediately and daily by the transportation industry, the foods and goods and services we’ve grown accustomed to having on hand 24/7/365 … won’t be. We’re going to have to start making do without some of those products and services we like to enjoy or use whenever the mood strikes, and if we’re being deprived, somewhere along the supply and distribution chain there will be employment and production cutbacks. We all now know what happens when people start losing their jobs and industries stop making or supplying goods and services.

A broader question as it affects aviation: what happens to air travel in general? Once Peak Oil is in full swing, we clearly cannot assume that that same eleven percent of each barrel of oil will still be devoted to producing aviation fuel. What then?

One obvious outcome is that the then more restricted air travel will become more expensive. I’m no economics whiz, but when supply decreases and demand remains steady, prices increase. So get ready for more expensive air travel as well as higher crude oil prices. For many, that means no more air travel. Then what? I’m fairly confident that airlines aren’t going to survive if their increasing costs for fuel lead to fewer passengers (who are obliged to pay much higher fares), and on and on the dominoes tumble.

When the price of a barrel of oil shot up to nearly $150.00 two short years ago, Brad Plumer—in a terrific New Republic article well worth reading—noted that nearly 25 airlines bit the dust just in 2008, almost four times the average. Should we expect anything different the next go-‘round?

On a more personal note, what will families do? As the parent of two daughters currently in college, I recognize first-hand the concerns any parent has when their graduating children decide to take jobs far from home. The emotional pull of wanting the best for your child while nonetheless wanting them close by has a powerful influence on our well-being. What happens if my daughter accepts a job in Portland, Oregon and in the not-too-distant future, the several dozen reasonably priced daily flights currently available out of Boston’s Logan Airport are reduced to just a handful, and the acceptable $550 flight through Dallas suddenly become a $1700 flight with multiple connecting stops en route, and an 8 hour trip is suddenly a two day adventure?

I am well aware that my daughter’s employment and location choices won’t depend one iota on what dear-old-Dad would prefer, but if my daughter does make the choice to live in a locale that is now an airplane ride away and a few years down the road I no longer have that as a feasible option to see her, dear-old-Dad is not going to be a happy camper. (I will let my daughter speak for herself on this subject!)

What happens to business meetings, to governmental business, to international negotiations, to sports travel, to family visits, and a host of other lifestyle and industry needs when we have less aviation fuel competing for our business and personal demands? What happens then?

Who decides which of the limited and now much more expensive flights have priority? Are your business meetings in Chicago more important than the Boston Red Sox seven-game road trip, or a fact-finding mission by several U.S. Congressional leaders, or seeing your parents? We cannot possibly hope to sustain the same level of air service when aviation fuel has doubled or tripled in price, and when perhaps only 4% or 5% of each barrel of a smaller supply of oil is now produced as aviation fuel because somewhere along the line, someone will have decreed that that is the most we can expect from each barrel because of countless other priorities.

To its great credit, Britain recently turned down construction of a 3rd runway at Heathrow Airport in favor of committing that same amount of funding to high speed rail, as noted here. Perhaps more insightful than most, the decision-makers likely recognized the pointlessness of committing billions to a service that will likely exist in a greatly-diminished capacity a few short years from now.

As Brad Plumer also noted in his 2008 essay:

“Small towns will be especially vulnerable to losing scheduled air service. That’s already happened to nearly 30 U.S. cities in the past year, from Wilmington, Delaware (population 72,000) to Boulder City, Nevada (14,000). Hagerstown, Maryland, lost all commercial air service recently, rendering its new $61.8 million, 7,000-foot runway useless.”

It won’t end there. What are the ripple effects to communities and regions when airports shut down, or flights are offered on a greatly restricted or reduced basis? What of the people accustomed to relying on those services? What happens then?

Technology is not close to finding adequate alternatives sufficient to meet current and projected demand increases, so what happens? And biofuels, for all their promise, are not close to being deemed an appropriate substitute.

So we can either start making plans, considering alternative forms of transportation, making a greater commitment to seeking alternative sources of energy, or try to come up with last-minute solutions to deal with the problems Peak Oil is going to force upon us.

Hint: That strategy is not likely to work

Michael Lind is the Policy Director of New America’s Economic Growth Program and a frequent contributor to—a publication (and writer) whose perspectives I usually agree with. The new America website is quite good.

However, Mr. Lind recently published an article at Salon regarding the future of transportation—fixed/high-speed rail, specifically—that I take issue with. I do so not so much because his information might be incorrect (and I don’t dispute his knowledge and information on the subject), but I disagree because he offers up an attitude regarding our approach to transportation and automobiles that can only cause us more problems as we confront Peak Oil. It’s an all-too-familiar refrain Peak Oil proponents encounter, and is one we find especially distressing in light of the challenges Peak Oil is going to impose upon all of us.

Lind begins his article advocating more government spending on infrastructure—a position with which I wholeheartedly agree. (Readers familiar with Bob Herbert’s op-eds in the New York Times—which I’ve referenced in several posts—will recall that Mr. Herbert is likewise a passionate advocate of our need to repair, maintain, and enhance infrastructure spending for a host of sound, well-considered reasons.) Enough studies are out there demonstrating the many positive benefits and effects those spending priorities have on our economy and employment numbers.

Despite his advocacy for this essential governmental strategy, Lind criticizes support for high speed rail. In doing so, he raises common objections to funding and planning for alternative forms of transportation. While factually there may be merit to his arguments, the problem is that despite the rhetoric, the reality of Peak Oil is going to make the stated objections entirely irrelevant.

There is little chance that we’re going to devise a perfect public transportation solution, but to dismiss the approach outright because we’re too spoiled to recognize the need for change is at best foolish. We’re in need of some serious attitude adjustments, and transportation woes are another consequence of Peak Oil that we can either prepare for voluntarily, or have imposed upon us. Something is going to have be done. We can either throw our hands up and keep hoping, or start taking steps to figure out the solutions that just might work. It seems quite obvious that public transportation is going to have to be part of that mix.

Lind observes that “As nations grow more affluent, their people prefer the convenience of personal automobile transportation to the inflexibility of mass transit.” Of course they do! I much prefer jumping in one of our cars to run errands or to go to our beach house or do any number of other things when I feel like doing so rather than walking up and down my lengthy and very steep hill and then figuring out how many different modes of public transit I might need to get where I want to go. Millions and millions of other car owners harbor their own legitimate reasons why they favor the comfort and convenience of their own autos.

If fossil-fuel supplies were unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready, we would not be having these discussions. But facts are annoying—especially the true ones!

All of the factors this blog and other writers have set forth regarding the imminence of Peak Oil tell us that unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready oil is not going to be an option for much longer—some reports suggest in as few as a couple of years. Many writers have already noted one of Peak Oil’s many obvious warning signs: we’re drilling thousands of feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere because “cheap” and easy-to-find oil no longer exists. It’s just one sign among many. “Affluence” isn’t going to buy anyone bonus points when it comes to oil supply and demand … the transportation needs of the rich won’t stave off Peak Oil.

So when the ever-diminishing supply of unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready oil is a factor with which we are all contending every day, preferring “the convenience of personal automobile transportation to the inflexibility of mass transit” won’t be worth the paper that comment is printed on. Peak Oil doesn’t much care about our “preferences,” or whether long-distance air or passenger car travel is “more practical,” as Lind also argued.

That’s simply not going to matter … not a little, not a lot, not at all. It’s nice to discuss preferences and wishes and hopes and all the rest, but geology and reality are what they are, and soon enough we are not going to have anywhere near the amounts of inexpensive oil readily available to each of us so that we can drive wherever and whenever we want. That’s a fact. Wishing it away is a nice sentiment but utterly meaningless. Peak Oil doesn’t much care for wishes and prayers, either.

So objections notwithstanding, we need to be thinking about, planning for, and finding ways to fund, create, and construct the types of public transportation we’re all going to need in the decades to come. It’s painful, but it’s that simple.

It’s no doubt true that implementing passenger rail and other forms of alternative transportation (and sources of energy, which Lind also criticizes) on a scale even remotely approaching the levels we’ll need in the decades to come is a jaw-dropping, almost unfathomably expensive proposition … until you realize we will have no rational alternatives other than to truly shrink our growth and become a nation of many local economies.

There is going to be a lengthy list of items and services and needs that are going to have to continue to be fulfilled by an ever-declining amount of crude oil, and I daresay that your and my carefree choices to run a couple of errands on a near-daily basis or visit with friends on the weekend aren’t going to have much priority on that list of who gets what, when, and how much.

Those who are waiting for a low-cost, ideal alternative to our current forms of personal transportation are in for a very rude awakening somewhere down the road.

Likewise, Lind’s urging that we devote more financial resources to enhance freight transportation on our roadways is just as misguided. Truckers won’t be exempt from Peak Oil’s impact … no one will. He is unfairly and inaccurately dismissive in suggesting that all of our urgings to provide more funding for high-speed rail and the like is so that we can “cut five minutes off the daily commutes of office workers in New York and New Jersey.” Enough high speed rail proposals have been put forth, and the Obama Administration has at least opened the door to enough other high-speed rail projects, to dismiss Lind’s snarky contentions outright. That’s something I’d expect to hear from someone on the Right, for whom facts are all-too-often useless and/or irrelevant when choosing to perpetuate narrow-minded ideology instead.

“Focusing on freight infrastructure improvements means that, among other things, we need to build more highway lanes and in some cases new highways for the trucks that will continue to carry most freight.” I’m hard-pressed to understand how that could possibly be a legitimate solution. Not only will not be able to afford that; higher gas prices and declining supply will leave less cars and trucks on the road. What a waste of limited resources!

And despite Lind’s claims about asphalt as some kind of magic solution, the truth is that asphalt is one of the countless products derived from crude oil, or from the energy-intensive and more expensive extraction process of the tar sands. (See this Oil Drum post for a discussion of asphalt.) Less crude oil equals less asphalt—as some cities have already witnessed first-hand.

Thinking that the enormous population increases expected in the coming decades is going to be properly addressed by building more roads and creating more suburban sprawl where owners are going to be left entirely dependent on automobiles they won’t be able to regularly or readily fuel seems ass-backwards at the very least. Asphalt is not nearly the savior Lind asserts it to be.

Two items of note on this subject from an extremely informative 2009 article by Phillip Longman (a Lind colleague) in The Washington Monthly [1]:

“The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that for distances of more than 1,000 miles, a system in which trucks haul containers only as far as the nearest railhead and then transfer them to a train produces a 65 percent reduction in both fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. As the volume of freight is expected to increase by 57 percent between 2000 and 2020, the potential economic and environmental benefits of such an intermodal system will go higher and higher. Railroads are also potentially very labor efficient. Even in the days of the object-lesson train, when brakes had to be set manually and firemen were needed to stoke steam engines, a five-man crew could easily handle a fifty-car freight train, doing the work of ten times as many modern long-haul truckers.”


“Failing to rebuild rail infrastructure will simply further move the burden of ever-increasing shipping demands onto the highways, the expansion and maintenance of which does not come free. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (hardly a shill for the rail industry) estimates that without public investment in rail capacity 450 million tons of freight will shift to highways, costing shippers $162 billion and highway users $238 billion (in travel time, operating, and accident costs), and adding $10 billion to highway costs over the next twenty years. ‘Inclusion of costs for bridges, interchanges, etc., could double this estimate,’ their report adds.”

And Lind wants to increase freight transportation on our roads?

As for his urging that we build more airports … seriously? In a few short decades—as things stand now and for the foreseeable future—we’ll be lucky to have one-third the number of airports now existing. It’s also quite likely that only a very small percentage of the population anywhere will be able to afford air travel in any event—assuming jet fuel remains available in any semblance of reasonable supply. How is that a solution?! Ignoring the effects of Peak Oil isn’t going to get us much except more difficulties.

Lind urges us to consider a “harsh reality” that makes no sense in light of Peak Oil: “The greatest economic crisis since the Depression shows no signs of ending soon. A major, long-term program of public investment is needed more than ever. But the public investments must pass the reality test. And the harsh reality is this: There isn’t going to be a significant high-speed rail system in the U.S. in the near- or medium-term future. There isn’t going to be a continental electric grid permitting solar panels on condo buildings in Berkeley, Calif., to power heirloom-poultry farms in Maine. Most Americans are not going to sell their cars and move back from the suburbs to the cities in order to live in tiny apartments or condos and ride the rails to work. These are romantic daydreams that Democrats could afford to indulge only as long as they were out of office and were not responsible for results.”

So how does he reconcile those statements with the fact that majority of the world’s population already lives in cities, with estimates suggesting that as much as 75% of the world’s population will reside in cities by 2050? [2] Hate to say it, but “romantic daydreams” or some reasonable approximations may very well be our only options in the not-too-distant future. That is the very harsh reality we will have to contend with in the face of Peak Oil. The fossil fuel choices he seems to think we’re going to endlessly possess are simply not going to be available to us. Ignoring that truth is an option … just not a very good one.

Lind is absolutely correct that we need a massive commitment to our woefully ill-maintained infrastructure. (See this and the referenced links therein.) But his assertions that we need to rely on more roadways and more fossil-fuel-consuming trucks is not a solution. We will cater to consumer demands or for more suburban sprawl at our collective peril. We won’t have those options once Peak Oil is upon us, either.

Again I’ll emphasize how critical it is that we begin considering alternatives to transportation, the nature of our infrastructure, and our sources of energy. The dislocations will be challenging enough; let’s not make them worse by waiting for some “better” day to get started. (And let’s not forget that putting into place the infrastructure and technologies needed to make the transitions a reality are themselves going to require a lot of fossil fuel. We’re simply not going to have enough to do all of that and still maintain our lifestyles and industries as we do now. Something is going to have to give.)

While Lind is correct that “There is no public support in the U.S. or any other industrial democracy for the combination of self-imposed austerity and massive subsidies that would be necessary to create an economy based on renewable energy,” that is likewise not going to matter. Who among us wants to sacrifice the lifestyles we’ve come to insist upon?! The real issue is that when Peak Oil is here, lack of public support (predicated on selfishness and an unwillingness/inability to make sacrifices voluntarily) won’t matter either. We either suffer from the harsh impact of Peak Oil by choosing to do nothing, or start working on the next best options, whatever they may be (while understanding those undefined options are no guarantee of harsh-free changes).

I fully recognize that the energy, affordability, and efficiencies derived from fossil fuels/crude oil are as yet unmatched by any forms of alternative or renewable sources of energy. That’s a major part of the challenge of Peak Oil: there will be no seamless transitions to something else to keep life going as it does now because we don’t have that option. Changes—perhaps even drastic ones—are looming.

So do we wait until we’re really battered and beleaguered by Peak Oil, or do we make a national commitment (and act upon it) to finding some reasonable means of supplanting fossil fuel usage—especially for transportation, given that it’s going to take us many years (decades is more likely) to effectively and permanently transition away from oil? We’re already too far behind, and we have no guarantees of finding a successful solution in any event. Is waiting and doing nothing the better option? Is that our legacy?

There are no easy fixes. There are no inexpensive fixes. There are no quick fixes, either. But we clearly can no longer rely on what got us here.

The sooner we all understand that and begin acting on that knowing, the sooner we can begin digging our way out of a mess our own successes and innovations have created.


[1] – Back on Tracks: A nineteenth-century technology could be the solution to our twenty-first-century problems by Phillip Longman

[2] Nimble Cities: Help Slate make transportation in and between cities more efficient, safe, and pleasant by Tom Vanderbilt

I’m still planning my next series of posts, which I don’t expect to begin until sometime next week, but two more articles of note crossed my desk in the last day or two, and are worth passing along if for no other reason than the fact that it clearly appears that other nations “get it” when it comes to the importance of high-speed rail and investing in transportation infrastructure.

 “Two years ago, nearly 90 percent of the six million people traveling between Madrid and Barcelona went by air. But early this  year the number of train travelers on the route surpassed fliers. The trajectory is ever upward.”

Like their counterparts in Germany and France, travelers in Spain are discovering the values inherent in high-speed rail travel, as this recent New York Times article makes clear.

And no nation seems more prepared and willing to devote the financial resources to this than China, as is evidenced here.

As that article notes, China is planning to connect its high speed rail line through 17 other countries in Asia and Eastern Europe, with additional plans to build in Southeast Asia and Russia. That is not an insignificant project, and if successful will clearly help position them as a solid economic leader for decades to come. That level of infrastructure and transportation commitment, as I have stressed frequently in recent posts, is absolutely vital to economic prosperity. Notwithstanding President Obama’s solid leadership, vision, and understanding of this, we fall woefully short in measuring up against China’s progress in these areas.

Our recent $8 billion down payment on high-speed rail transit, important as it is, doesn’t quite cut it when you consider that (as the New York Times articles noted) by 2020, half of Spain’s $160 billion transportation will be devoted to rail travel.

If we don’t figure it out that we have to join the high-speed rail game soon, we’ll pay a hefty price for a long time. As I keep insisting, short-term thinking and planning cannot be our strategy for economic revival and sustained growth. Transportation and infrastructure investments are of critical importance, and we ignore this at our peril.

More choices … and more opportunities

Before I get started on my next series of posts beginning either later this week or early next week, I came across a couple of posts related to my recent series on Transportation that are worth noting today.

First up is another informative piece by Chris Nelder (here) in the form of an open letter to Congress. It contains some very straightforward information about the state of our energy future, and as I discussed in my last post also, he calls on our leaders to begin thinking long term, and to make rail transit a fundamental part of our economic revitalization. (Growth of rail transit infrastructure = jobs.) Of necessity, he is blunt in warning Congress not to make decisions that are only “politically expedient.” That approach, the one Congress is far more comfortable in adopting, simply won’t get it done.

The process of transforming our infrastructure will take decades, and as I continue to insist, waiting to formulate the plans we’ll need to guide us is sure to make things worse.

Just as important, Nelder makes it clear that all Americans need to understand what is at stake here, as I and others continue to urge as often as we can. We’re all in this together, much as we may think—or wish—that the solutions are in the hands of “others.”

It’s well worth the read.

This weekend, I also came across this terrific article from early in 2009. Anyone looking for a solid primer on the basics and importance of high-speed rail can’t do much better than this one.

The author also makes clear the challenges faced by rail proponents (including, shocking as it may be, shortsighted Congressional opposition). Understanding those issues moves us many steps closer to finding solutions and overcoming obstacles that simply should not be factors at all. Narrow-mindedness usually doesn’t get you very far, and so education remains a vital component in the process of economic renewal and future prosperity.

The vital message in author Craig Canine’s article on the critical importance of high-speed rail is this:

“…countries that aspire to participate fully in the twenty-first-century economy are coming to see that a high-speed rail network is as essential as a robust Internet or mobile-phone infrastructure.”

No one is saying any of this will be easy, or quick. But if we truly want this country to return to solid economic footing so as remain a world leader, the re-building of our infrastructure, with rail transit as one of its most essential components, is simply not negotiable. We need to understand this yesterday, and start working on making this happen today.