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Peak Oil Matters

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


Tag: municipal services




A fossil fuel-driven-and-made-possible life is all any of us have ever known. There are virtually no aspects of commerce, leisure, transportation, or consumption which do not depend in some part on inexpensive, readily-available and easily-produced fossil fuels. That is most certainly not going to change dramatically overnight, but the situation we’ll soon be facing simply isn’t going to get any better if all we’re counting on for many more years is even more inexpensive, readily-available and easily-produced fossil fuels.

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In order to break the addiction to oil, economies dependent on oil will need to invest huge amounts of money and energy in building new social and economic infrastructures that are not so heavily dependent on oil (e.g. efficient public transport systems to continue reading…







An observation worth noting … and pondering, from the International Energy Agency:

…pre-planning is essential in order for transport demand restraint measures to succeed during an emergency. It is not enough for countries to have a list of measures to use; they must be ready to implement those measures on very short notice. To do this, they generally must develop detailed plans and make certain investments ahead of time. Communicating this plan to the public also appears very important; if the public is not well informed of plans ahead of time, and supportive of them, they may be less likely to cooperate and do their part to help the plans succeed during an emergency. Strong support and cooperation from the business community is also essential. In general, providing clear information to the public – that the public can trust – seems to be an important element of any plan. [1]

It’s been a consistent theme of mine that the impacts of Peak Oil will extend to all segments of our society—social and industrial.

Peak Oil is not an event that’s going to happen at a designated yet undetermined point in time. It will become the foundational energy aspect of our lives. Given how much we depend on fossil fuels—crude oil in particular—it borders on the insane to ignore the many facts suggesting an endless change in the energy source we’ve collectively relied upon for well over a century. Oil plays a prominent role in the supply, manufacture, distribution, and transportation of almost every product or service we rely upon at home, at work, in our communities, in our industries, and in the technologically astounding lifestyles we’ve created for ourselves.

The easily accessible, reasonably affordable, high-quality crude oil we’ve utilized in countless ways through the magnificent displays of our technological prowess and ingenuity has been on a plateau of production since the middle of the last decade. We’re now resorting to costlier, more energy-sucking, inferior quality, harder to access substitutes.

For all the Happy Talk about the vast this or that potential, the numbers do not add up. We’re not going to be able to seamlessly transition everything from crude oil to unconventional substitutes.

The public continues to be underserved by fanciful claims which artfully skate around the facts which cast a long shadow over their exuberant claims of energy independence and a worry-free energy future.

Business leaders don’t blindly open themselves to new markets; professional coaches don’t just show up for the next game; and families don’t wake up every morning and just wing it from start to finish. Each of them and countless others making plans for whatever endeavors they are about to undertake—consequential or not—do not succeed without first relying on facts at hand. Plans are meaningless without them.

Peak Oil will be high on the list of “Consequential” undertakings, given the wide swath it will carve through all our lives. Not having accurate and complete information makes it a wee bit difficult for individuals, companies, teams, local governments, state officials, national organizations, and our federal government to consider viable—any—options. That’s not a strategy. But so far, that’s all we’ve got.

We’re better than that.

~ My Photo: Newport Beach, CA – 02.12.06

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[1]; Saving Oil in a Hurry, 2005 report – p. 15







This is the sixth part of a series [ links below], discussing how the same “skate past the facts and hope no one notices” strategy typically employed by most Peak Oil deniers is not-so-surprisingly used by those cheerleading for shale gas development. What triggered this is a March 2012 article written by a Chevron Corporation executive, entitled “The Truth About Natural Gas From Shale.” [Quotes are from that piece unless noted otherwise.]

His stated purpose was quite clear:

Understandably, this natural gas boom has raised some questions and concerns about how this resource is developed, including questions about the process of hydraulic  fracturing and the affects, if any, on the water table. While there is much debate and rhetoric surrounding this resource, often times a simple explanation of the process is left out of the discussion. In an effort to help raise awareness of how natural gas from shale is extracted, here is a brief explanation.

Those of us concerned about our energy future believe it’s vital to provide the public with information. It’s not enough to offer vapid assurances that all is well with energy supply and production. Yes, there’s certainly been some good news in the last year or so, and we readily acknowledge that. But that’s only one part of the story. Without context, a great disservice is being extended to the public.

We certainly respect that the vast majority of citizens cannot make or do not have the time or interest or inclination to understand what’s at stake. There is an ongoing, determined effort by too many to at best muddle the issues enough to draw little or no attention from the public to the challenges we face. “Public interest” does not appear to factor into their motivations. Too few are benefiting at the expense of too many. Sound familiar? (It’s not a coincidence.)

Being prepared, understanding the issues, knowing both the positive and the negative aspects of energy supply and production affords citizens their best opportunity to either contribute meaningfully as we address and adapt to the looming problems, or to engage their leaders in more substantive dialogue in order to direct more specific actions. Not knowing there are any problems makes it a wee bit difficult to accomplish any of this. The consequences will thus only be worse. Not a good option.

If nothing else, citizens should easily appreciate that there are two sides to most stories. Too many are telling too many others only one side of the story—and facts tend not to play much of a role.

Once again making the fracking process start to finish sound like not much more than a walk in the park, the Chevron official then said:

Once a well is completed, a pipeline is built to take the natural gas to market to be used for electricity generation, home heating and other energy needs.  We then work with the landowner to remediate the drill site and restore the land with minimal impact to its original contours.
After the well site has been remediated, the remaining footprint of a producing natural gas well is typically less than one acre. It includes a well head, a gas processing unit and one or two water tanks. Natural gas wells that produce from shale rock are typically expected to have a long production life spanning many years.

If only if were that simple….

Fracking is not limited to shale gas production. It is also being used extensively to produce “tight” oil from shale formations. In fact, its relative success is largely responsible for the recent upticks in U.S. production totals. The process itself is not significantly different, and thus the same issues and concerns experienced in other areas of the country (primarily in the Bakken formation whose principal drilling locations are in North Dakota and Montana) apply here.

Evelyn Nieves and Nicholas Kusnetz in particular (here and here) offered wonderful overviews of what residents in North Dakota have been dealing with since fracking became a prime industry there. The titles of those two articles each offer a glimpse of the storylines: “The North Dakota Oil Fracking Boom Creates Clash of Money and Devastation” and “North Dakota’s Oil Boom Brings Damage Along With Prosperity.”

The stories they shared are strikingly similar to accounts regarding residents in the Marcellus formation here in eastern portions of the U.S. I’ve previously mentioned Ms. Nieves’ piece, and found one description particularly telling, so much so that I’ll repeat it here:

No one imagined tanker trucks barreling up and down Main Street, back-to-back like freight trains, seven days and nights a week. No one predicted construction zones that grind traffic to a halt as far as the eye can see, the deafening clatter of semis, the dust kicked up by 10,000 vehicles pulverizing the two-lane road every day or the smell and taste of diesel. No one anticipated the accidents, two or more a week on Main Street and all over the rutted reservation roads, costing lives and shattering families.
In fact, Fort Berthold, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, or Three Affiliated Tribes, did not reckon on a lot when North Dakota invited the energy industry to Drill Baby Drill. No one knew that energy companies in search of housing for their workers would buy private property and evict some of the reservation’s poorest residents from their homes. No one planned on police and fire calls multiplying. No one guessed that on a reservation of nearly one million acres, all the deer would disappear

Tara Lohan introduced a description of several truck accidents with accompanying fracking fluid leaks by observing this:

One of the main complaints you’ll get from people living near fracking operations is truck traffic, whether it’s North Dakota or Pennsylvania or any other gasland state. People have seen their rural roads and quality of life decimated by thousands of daily truck trips. They worry about diesel emissions, relentless dust on dirt roads, accidents and spills — and they have every reason to be concerned. Here’s a little sampling of what people in West Virginia experienced last weekend.

In another article I cited in a prior post of this series, Roberta Brandes Gratz shared this:

A recent visit to Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, currently a prime drilling target, revealed very troubling impacts that have received little attention so far. On scenic farm roads that never before bordered anything but farms — not even a gas station — industrial sites are sprouting left and right, representing the different segments of the gas production process — compressors, storage tanks, staging sites, maintenance operations and more.
Consider for example the situation in and near the towns of Wyalusing and Montrose. Both are small, historic towns, not quite fitting the description of ‘sleepy’ but, then again, not home to intense activity either. The library in Montrose is packed daily with gas company researchers poring over land deeds. The small hotel in Wyalusing is mostly filled with gas workers or deal makers. The coffee shop conversation on this short, storybook Main Street is filled with complaints about endless midnight truck traffic and news of residents trying to sell or move.
The road between these towns is a bucolic, windy, two-lane farm road. About midway is a staging area for trucks each carrying 50,000 lbs of sand. I observed roughly 30 trucks waiting to deliver to a nearby drill site under construction. The truckers report that each load had been trucked 80 miles from Wellesville, N.Y. One driver noted, that this typical site — a drill pad with six well holes — takes 480 million pounds of sand! At 50,000 pounds per truck driven 80 miles one-way — you do the math. Then calculate diesel fuel burned, exhaust released, road wear caused for that 80 mile trip for one pad of six wells. How could this be defined as clean energy? That doesn’t even begin to touch the controversy of the impact on global warming of the leaked methane during the drilling process.

And then there’s this:

A surge in hydraulic fracturing to get gas and oil trapped in rock means drillers need to haul hundreds of truckloads of sand, water and equipment for a single well. Drilling that added jobs and tax revenue for many states also has increased traffic on roads too flimsy to handle the 80,000-pound (36,300 kilogram) trucks that serve well sites.
The resulting road damage will cost tens of millions of dollars to fix and is catching officials from Pennsylvania to Texas off guard. Measures to ensure that roads are repaired don’t capture the full cost of damage, potentially leaving taxpayers with the bill, according to Lynne Irwin, director of Cornell University’s local roads program in Ithaca, New York. [1]

And a few other minor inconveniences. Earthquakes, for one, as Joe Romm explained. There are some other not-so-obvious consequences, also.

In addition to the environmental impacts of oil and gas production, including dangerous air and water contamination and destruction of wildlife habitat, NRDC is concerned about other impacts to communities that have been documented, such as increased crime, infrastructure burdens that require massive repair, and the growing demand for social and municipal services. Another serious impact is a large increase in the need for health care services. Communities with oil and gas development can see increased emergency room visits in particular, from traffic and occupational accidents. [2] [ links in the original article.]

(Ms. Mall has also written about the influx of hundreds of new children into school systems, with all the challenges associated, and how public safety officials are likewise inundated with significantly greater demands.)

And as for “long production life spanning many years” comment? Not quite. I’ll discuss that in Part 7.

* My Photo: Manhattan skyline – 09.05.09

[ links to the first five posts of this series]:


[1]; Taxpayers Pay as Fracking Trucks Overwhelm Rural Cow Paths by Jim Efstathiou Jr. – 05.15.12
[2]; Oil and gas industry takes a toll on local health care providers by Amy Mall – 12.28.12

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Oil plays an essential role in almost everything that touches our everyday lives. From the food we eat to the means by which we transport ourselves, our goods, and our services, to what we grow, build, have, own, need, and do, oil is almost always an important element. But the painful truth now and soon is that the ready supply of oil and gas that we almost always take for granted is on its way to becoming not-so-ready—recent production increases notwithstanding.

What happens when there’s not enough to meet all of our demands, to say nothing of those of every other nation—including the many countries seeking more growth and prosperity? What sacrifices will we be called upon to make? Which products will no longer be as readily available? Which services? Who decides? What will be decided? Who delivers that message to the designers and producers and shippers and end users? What’s their Plan B? And how will we respond when decisions are taken out of our hands? Where exactly will the dominoes tumble?

There is nothing on the horizon that will work as an adequate substitute for the efficiencies and low cost and ease of accessibility that oil has provided us. We simply do not have the means to make that happen—not the technological capabilities, not the personnel, not the industries, not the leadership … yet. Clearly, we do not have enough time to do it all with effortless ease and minimal disruptions.

Piecemeal approaches that address some small aspect of need for some short period of time in some limited geographical area for just a few consumers is in the end a monumental waste of limited resources, time, and effort. We can’t wait until we’re up to our eyeballs in Peak Oil’s impact to start figuring out what to do. We’re too close as it is. We’re going to have to be much better, much wiser, and much more focused. **

Here’s the latest contribution to my Peak Oil’s Impact series—observations and commentary on how Peak Oil’s influence will be felt in little, never-give-it-thought, day-to-day aspects of the conventional crude oil-based Life As We’ve Known It. Changes in all that we do, use, own, make, transport, etc., etc., are inevitable. A little food for thought….

Two years ago, in the midst of an absolutely hellacious winter, I posted a piece about snow storms shortly after one of too-many strong ones walloped us hearty New Englanders over the course of several long months. One surprise (major) Halloween storm the following winter, and two or three more “storms” which each dropped an inch or two of snow, were our rewards for having survived the prior year’s onslaught.

Prior to Friday’s blizzard which dumped two feet of snow in the Boston area (while my wife and I were 1500 miles away at a conference), we had a larger-than-forecast storm just after Christmas which dropped almost ten inches of snow in my town, and since then I used a broom more often than a shovel. By the first few days of February 2011, nearly 71 inches of snow had fallen in the Boston area that winter (average total was 24.4 inches). Same time last year, less than 8 inches had fallen, and official Logan Airport totals for this winter were just under 10 inches before this weekend’s major howler.

I thought it might be worthwhile to re-post some segments of that article as a refresher. Not much has changed, and the concerns remain.

~ ~ ~

[January 20, 2011]: Last week, my comfy little Massachusetts town was one of many to endure the brunt of a major nor’easter. Somewhere between 12” – 18” of snow fell in not much more than half a day. The big and little plows of our town worked pretty much nonstop through the pre-dawn hours and on through most of that day to try and keep pace with the impressive storm.

Later that day, the steady cacophony of snow blowers was everywhere. (2 of our 3 children helped me shovel – we don’t own a snow blower, although that would have been a good day to have one!) It’s amazing how high, thick, and heavy snow from the street can be when a plow passes by and dumps it all at the end of one’s driveway … several times…!

I found myself wondering what happens in years to come, as these massive storms intensify as a likely consequence of climate change….

Snow blowers might very well be relics 5, 10, 20 years down the road. Hard to imagine that fossil-fueled machines like that will have a place in most garages. Wind-powered snow blowers? Not so likely.

But that’s a small matter. Of course, plastic shovels may be a lot more expensive, given that we won’t have as much fossil fuel available to help manufacture and/or distribute those plastic items—given that petroleum is an important element in the manufacture and use of plastics. Metal shovels aren’t likely to be any less expensive, either … transportation costs and all will increase, and that means those costs get passed on to those of us buying the shovels … when we can find them. Not likely to be as many of them around….The cost of,  and to run, the needed machinery; higher utility bills and similar costs at those industrial facilities, and all those other little extras that we tend not to think about when we swipe our credit cars at the local hardware store will all be that much more pronounced in the years to come as we find ourselves with less and less oil available to not just fuel transportation, but to serve as an irreplaceable component to manufacturing and distribution.

There are no signs as yet that the magic of technology will be able to seamlessly step in and allow industry to continue on as is with nary a glitch. What then?

Back to those plows. When diesel fuel production is similarly curtailed of necessity, how will the remaining smaller portions be allocated?

There are no doubt tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of similarly-fueled vehicles in dozens of northern states (now, even some southern ones), and their hundreds upon hundreds of cities and towns. Each and every one of those municipalities depends on fossil fuels to power the sanders and salters and plows which enable all of us hardy souls in colder climates to get around in the winter.

What criteria are states going to use to ensure that each community has a remotely-sufficient supply of fuel for its municipal plows (to say nothing of all of its other municipal vehicles)?

We live at the top of one of our town’s steepest roads. When it snows in any measurable amount, getting up and down our street becomes a bit of an adventure, to put it mildly….

So what does happen when municipalities are confronted with the difficult and painful realization that they simply will not have enough fuel to power their snow-removal vehicles? Which locations or neighborhoods within each community will be serviced first, and how are those assessments going to be made in such a way that the remaining eighty percent or so of residents and business owners aren’t immediately raising a ruckus?

Aside from the obvious fire, police, hospital locations, what’s next? (Is that in fact obvious?) Are only primary streets going to be plowed? How is that designation going to be made? Do people whose homes were built on the hilly streets get next priority, or do they have to get at the back of the line? Are only some of the steep streets eligible for priority plowing…?

Are lotteries conducted at the first snow fall, with “winners” being assured that their streets are plowed first? How well is that likely to sit with those holding all the non-winning “tickets”? Are some areas simply going to have to wait for melting temperatures if snowfall totals are by some criteria determined to not merit plowing at all?

Less plows needed, less plows manufactured. Less available plows means less plowing jobs, and we all know by now what that means. The dominoes tumble quickly.

What happens to all the individuals who depend on private contractors/other residents with plows? If gas is no longer as readily available for ordinary passenger and commercial vehicles, on what basis will the owner of a pickup truck and plow be deemed to have priority in acquiring gas over, say, a nurse at the local hospital, or the owner of the town’s primary grocery store, or … or … ? Why will the owners of some private parking lots be deemed to have plowing priorities over equally-deserving others? Mall parking lots or school parking lots? Plow today, or plow perhaps in a day or two? If multiple storms are forecast in a relatively short period of time (not uncommon here in the Northeast), does everyone have to wait for plowing until after the second storm has passed so as to conserve fuel and fuel costs…?

Is anyone thinking about this right now?

It is surely not a problem in isolation. Very few challenges brought about by declining oil production will lend themselves to facile, straight-out-of-the-box solutions. One problem begets another which begets more still.

No one wants to have to deal with any of this, of course. One can simply hope that the problems either go away, don’t materialize to begin with, won’t be as severe, or won’t happen for many, many decades into the future (with the hope that by then we’ll have just figured it all out by accident), but are those strategies ones that thousands and thousands of communities and their millions of citizens ought to be relying on?

Now is when we need to turn the immense skill and capability and potential of our citizens and industries and leaders to work to not just prepare for Peak Oil, but to transcend it. Are we up to the challenge?

~ My Photo: after the referenced winter storm – January 2011

** Opening paragraphs adapted from prior posts:







Imagine, if you can, that there is a resource everyone likes to use.  They like to use it for convenience: it lets them go places, have neat things, eat the foods they want no matter what time of year it is….
Now imagine, if you can, that this resource begins to become scarce. Imagine that the world could not discover any new supplies of this resource, nor could they produce it any faster. Imagine this was because the ‘easy’ supplies had already been used, and now the more difficult to reach supplies were economically disadvantageous to access… What would happen to the supply of this resource? It would dwindle. And what would happen to all the items that were made from it? They would rise in price. And what would happen if the resource became so scarce that not everyone could have it? How would people react? [1]

How indeed?

While it would be so much easier and better if we only had to imagine this scenario, Reality is telling us a different story—magical technology and bazillions of barrels of shale oil and tar sands underground notwithstanding. Likely consequences are certainly unpleasant, enduring, and far-reaching—all the more so if we aren’t planning to do much about it in advance, as seems clear.

Given that there are almost no aspects of everyday living and producing which are not dependent in large or small part on the ready availability of affordable, high-quality conventional crude oil, Peak Oil will leave few aspects of life-as-we-know-it untouched. It’s all the more important we recognize that the various “Plan B” substitutes/alternatives don’t provide us with the same combination of energy efficiency, accessibility, affordability, and supply. Changes in all that we do, use, own, make, transport, etc., etc., are inevitable.

A little foresight will go a long way. A lot more foresight would be better.

With that in mind, here’s the latest contribution to my Peak Oil’s Impact series—observations and commentary on how Peak Oil’s influence will be felt in little, never-give-it-thought, day-to-day aspects of the conventional crude oil-based Life As We’ve Known It. A little food for thought….

In the ongoing saga of recovery from Hurricane Sandy, I find myself observing the incredible efforts, manpower, services, products, etc. being expended to help the millions of people suffering the after-effects of the latest example of climate change hoax. [Just imagine how awful the devastation would have been if climate change was a reality! Wow!]

And as I observe the broad range of generous assistance being extended to help our fellow citizens, I now almost instinctively find myself wondering what will happen when the full range of Peak Oil’s impact are being felt by all of us, and relief efforts of this magnitude are needed—as they surely will be?

Gas rationing is already being employed. Frustrations are evident everywhere as citizens struggle just to return to the most minimal aspects of normal, daily life. My wife and I watched a CNN report on a seventy-something year-old woman in New York who is now—twice daily—going up and down six flights of stairs [still no power in her building and thus no elevators] just to retrieve a half-dozen gallons of water to flush her toilet. Try that out if you’re twenty-five years old!

What gets prioritized during relief efforts in the years to come when we are all drawing from a smaller pool of fossil fuels to send power crews out to restore service, or safety officials to monitor darkened neighborhoods, or transportation services to deliver basic necessities? What gets sacrificed [and whose needs are set aside] in a mad scramble to deal with already-chaotic efforts if the most fundamental resources needed to perform any kind of relief effort is not available in anywhere near the amounts needed? Is adding more chaos and more last-minute scrambling atop chaos our wisest strategy?

NO ONE wants to think about or adapt to the long-term effects of a warming planet coupled with a decline in energy resources. There exists no standard by which those considerations are pleasant or eagerly embraced. But to not be having broad-based, ideology-free discussions is insane! Facts suck, but to ignore them is nuts.

Why shouldn’t we be having conversations about how to put plans into place now, before we’re dealing with ever-more-frequent upheavals with much less energy resources at the ready? By what measure of irrational thought is ignoring all the evidence and relying instead on a wing and a prayer a better approach?

When do we start having these conversations?

* My Photo: Good Harbor Beach, Gloucester MA 11.03.12 


[1]; Peak Oil: Why Gas Prices are Never Coming Down by Dark Smith [“a former liberal … now firmly planted in the independent libertarian camp”] – 02.25.12