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.
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[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: