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Peak Oil Matters

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

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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….

Bringing winter to a merciful close!

Recently, Theo Spence offered a post from his blog on Switchboard (from the National Resources Defense Council – NRDC), about climate change’s effects on the winter sports industry (skiing, snowboarding, and the snowmobiling) and its impact on its 23 million+ participants. The NRDC has teamed up with Protect Our Winters and issued a report on the subject. The link can be found in that NRDC post.

Theo summarized some key statistics about the industry worth pondering by more than just the enthusiasts:

The report finds that a bad snow season hits the economies of ¾ (38) of U.S. states–clearly showing that lower snow years result in fewer skier visits compared to higher snow years. That translates into money, and people’s livelihoods, jobs, and lifestyles.
Snow is ‘currency’ in these 38 U.S. states: more specifically, $12.2 billion in 2009/2010. If that ‘currency’ continues to be undermined by climate change, the industry –  manufacturers, resorts, hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, and bars – is in serious trouble. An estimated 211,900 jobs are either directly or indirectly supported by the industry, our study shows, and  snow-related economic activity resulted in $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue and $1.7 billion at the federal level….
Our report finds that if we have a season like last year, winter tourism employment is expected to drop by 6% to 13% (13,000 to 27,000 jobs) compared to a higher snowfall seasons. That will cost the US economy between $800 million and $1.9 billion.
A recent survey cited in our analysis found that 50 percent of responding ski areas in 2011 opened late and 48 percent closed early, with every region in the country experiencing a decrease in overall days of operation.  The snowmobiling industry — one entirely reliant upon natural snow — has had relatively flat registrations since 2000.

Yikes!

But what if you are, say … a former insurance company executive and now a United States Senator—meaning that this vast professional expertise of course endows you with similar levels of expertise on climate science—and you think climate change is a hoax. Might there be a chance that declining supplies of fossil fuels would produce similar, unpleasant financial impacts on this winter sports industry?

You don’t need fossil fuels to power your skis or snowboards, of course. Snowmobiles are different. However, chances are the overwhelming majority of skiers and snowboarders don’t have facilities in their back yards. That means they have to go from home to ski/snowboarding resorts of some kind to enjoy their recreational activities, and that almost always means they need gas in their vehicles to get from A to B.

It’s a good bet that the manufacturers of the skis and snowboards and snowmobiles need more than a bit of fossil fuel energy to obtain the raw materials needed to build all that equipment and then transport it to end users. Safe to say that the suppliers of all the raw materials and the transportation outlets used need some of that same energy supply to fulfill their obligations in this chain. That also means a lot of personnel employed up and down the line also depend—directly and indirectly—on a continuing supply of affordable, availability, same-quality fossil fuels to keep themselves employed.

So when the supply of depleting conventional crude oil continues to decline, and reliance turns to the inadequate supply of inferior quality, more expensive, harder to come by unconventional sources such as the tight shale formations in the U.S. and the Canadian tar sands cheered on by certain factions of the energy and media industries, what gets prioritized in such a way that the winter sports products/services are still available at current levels? What gets sacrificed as a result?

Who benefits? How many more up and down the line will suffer as a result? Fair to say that the adverse impact of climate change (humor me, Senator Hoax Expert) will be more than matched by the adverse impacts of insufficient energy supply?

Plans? Opportunities?

~ My (wife’s) Photo: above Vancouver, BC – 02.10.07

** Opening paragraphs adapted from prior posts:

http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/02/15/looking-ahead-to-peak-oil-transition-part-iv/
http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/02/07/looking-ahead-to-peak-oil-transition-part-i/
http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/12/13/thoughts-on-peak-oil-planning/
http://peakoilmatters.com/2011/02/14/peak-oil-a-new-direction-pt-5/
http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/02/25/peak-oil-infrastructure-more-to-discuss-part-ii/

 

Following up on last week’s post about yesterday’s Super Bowl, these two articles seemed especially noteworthy:

http://www.alternet.org/economy/4-ways-super-bowl-sucks-new-orleanians

Matt Reichel
01.31.13
4 Ways the Super Bowl Sucks For New Orleanians

~ ~ ~

http://dealnews.com/features/super-bowl-costs/

Lou Carlozo
January 2013
From Beer Ads to Beer Runs, a Look at This Year’s Super Bowl Costs

Not only is the business of big-time sports highly visible in our culture, but it also can use tremendous environmental resources and generate significant emissions (think lighting at night games, air conditioning in domed stadiums, high-volume traffic getting to and fro).  When teams, leagues, and stadiums make significant progress in improving their performance, they deserve our applause. [1]

In recent weeks, several articles and blog posts have been written about the commitment our major sports leagues and teams therein have made to sustainable, environmentally-aware practices. A related report by the NRDC provides a more detailed description of the greening and renewable energy efforts.

I’ve provided links * to those articles at the end of this post.

The various pieces describe an impressive range of responsibilities undertaken by our professional teams—a needless-to-say vital contribution to our future well-being, and a great example to the tens of millions of sports fan across the country. What if our political leaders were smart enough to suggest national efforts at conservation and sustainability? [Good to have dreams….]

You realize just how out-of-step anti-environmental lawmakers are when a $400 billion industry with hundreds of millions of fans is busy installing solar panels and expanding recycling programs. [2]

Baseball playoffs are just around the corner; college football and the NFL are now in full swing, and millions of fans are now and will be flocking to games around the country. Any and every effort favoring sustainable practices and energy conservation is a welcome bonus.

More than two years ago, I raised the specter of Peak Oil’s impact on sporting events.

A bigger question remains unanswered: when gas prices are so much higher because supplies are that much more difficult to come by because they are more difficult to access and thus costlier, take longer to get to market, are of an inferior quality, and thus of necessity are not as readily and immediately available to everyone all the time for all their needs, where do major (or minor) athletic competitions fall on the scale of prioritization? How much will fans continue to be willing to pay for the fuel needed to get from here to there?

And if our fossil fuel supplies are no longer as readily available and affordable, how will they get from here to there when the narrow-minded and shortsighted leaders from one of our major political parties (hint: begins with the letter “R”) see almost no reason to invest in alternative forms of transportation?

When the necessity of public transportation becomes vital to meeting everyone’s daily needs and challenges, just how quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively are we likely to create the infrastructure and mass transit systems needed to accommodate just about all of us?

Sure hope the Magic Technology Fairy doesn’t use up all of her pixie dust on shale oil and tar sand production.

* http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/how_sports_are_helping_to_gree.html
http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/fbeinecke/major_league_sports_show_ameri.html
http://www.sustainablebusiness.com/index.cfm/go/news.display/id/24051
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/opinion/the-greening-of-professional-sports.html

* My Photo: N Y Jets at New England Patriots – Jan 2007

Sources:

[1] http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/how_sports_are_helping_to_gree.html; How pro sports are helping to green cities by Kaid Benfield – 09.12.12
[2] http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/fbeinecke/major_league_sports_show_ameri.html; Major League Sports Show Americans–and Lawmakers–the Power of Sustainability by Frances Beinecke – 09.12.12

 

 

 

 

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….[A follow-up to last week’s post on the U.S. Olympic Training Centers]

~ ~ ~

The Olympic Games are now underway. It remains one of our great cultural and athletic events—a spectacle unlike any other.

Two hundred-plus nations. Hundreds of events. More than ten thousand athletes. Hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of British citizens and visitors and volunteers and workers and trainers and broadcasters and chefs and hotel staffers and providers of transportation and a near-endless list of others. An amazing undertaking by any measure.

A Few Considerations….

Different venue, but still wondering….

How do teams [and/or individual athletes] … deal with travel issues and schedules when gas is much too expensive … or when air travel is severely curtailed and wildly expensive because not enough jet fuel is being processed to meet demand (and airports are shuttered because air travel has diminished markedly), or when the fans cannot afford to put the gasoline in their vehicles that in the past allowed them to attend the games without a second thought?
What happens when half, or a third, or one-tenth the number of fans can afford to attend because budgeting all that money to drive [or fly] to an in- or out-of-state stadium no longer makes financial sense…?
What happens to the vendors and other suppliers when the majority of fans just stop  attending…? [2]

 

And what of all the related transportation services dependent on all these flights: rental cars, limos, taxis, hotels, restaurants, airport gift shops and the like? What happens to them, and their employees, and their suppliers? What kind of plans have been discussed in the boardrooms?
How many employees in each of those industries, each individual business establishment, and each spouse or partner or child dependent on each one of those countless employees might be adversely impacted when those businesses start to feel the serious pinch of declining energy supplies…?
And what of the ripple effect?
What happens when this air travel decline is extended to hotels and rental cars and all the rest; when rental cars are either much more costly and/or there are less of them to begin with? What happens when the preferred hotels have downsized because business and tourist travel has declined? [3]

 

What happens when the mind-boggling efforts in planning, preparing, transporting, supplying, delivering, etc., etc. needed to stage this incredible event by countless thousands of individuals and merchants and organizations and government officials are simply no longer feasible because every single entity up and down the supply and service chain is faced with the reality of insufficient availability of “affordable”, quality, energy supply to make this extravaganza happen?
How many economic dominoes tumble as a result? How many businesses lose out? How many employees? [4]

And A Few Details

A fascinating story about the construction of London’s Olympic Stadium is just one account of the awe-inspiring levels of planning and preparation and work required by countless tens of thousands to stage this great event.

An entry in Wikipedia details the incredible breadth of plans and preparations and considerations and activities engaged in by London officials and others in the years leading up to these 2012 London Games. Construction; redevelopment; addressing and adapting to citizen concerns and opposition; funding (billions of dollars); security concerns; private and public transportation (including new high-speed rail service and the construction of a cable car system); lodging, meals, and the staffing of and supplying for same; marketing; broadcasting; entertainment; and last but not least: the creation of needed facilities, supplies for same, and services for and on behalf of the athletes, their families, and assorted staff serve as an overview of the countless details attended to in advance of the Games.

Aside from the obvious costs, manpower, effort, and time, all of the above and the myriad assortment of other preparations each and all require energy … a LOT of energy, and of necessity a LOT of fossil-fuel derived energy to meet and plan and travel to and construct and implement and coordinate and oversee and experience.

I’m not anticipating that the Olympic Games and the years of preparation required will cease to be anytime in the near future, but the reality of Peak Oil will affect this event just as it will every other commercial enterprise.

What happens when there simply isn’t enough energy to make all of this happen as smoothly and effortlessly (I use those terms loosely) as has been the case to this point? How high a priority do we—and every other nation—assign to our Olympic athletes and the stupendous amount of resources and plans and preparations they need when we’re no longer dealing with the same quantities and quality of affordable and accessible energy supplies?

How much magic does “human ingenuity” and the Technology Fairy have at the ready for just this one spectacle?

It will take an incredible amount of planning and thought to figure out an appropriate Plan B just for this one event … how much more planning and thought will be needed for everything else? [5]

* My Photo: Fenway Park, Boston – June 1, 2010

Sources:

[1] http://americanendgame.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/peak-oil/; 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
[2] http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/06/09/peak-oils-impact-1/; Peak Oil’s Impact # 1
[3] http://peakoilmatters.com/2012/02/02/peak-oils-impact-winter-travel/; Peak Oil’s Impact: Winter Travel
[4] & [5] http://peakoilmatters.com/2012/02/16/peak-oils-impact-the-super-bowl/; Peak Oil’s Impact: The Super Bowl

Summer is full upon us here in the U.S., and that means for many of us the joys of summer vacations. Hiking, camping, biking, visiting, beaching … all the favorable-weather options are available to us. Just this past weekend my wife and I had the pleasure of hosting family from both out-of-state and from the opposite end of Massachusetts. I’m flying out at the end of the week to visit my daughter as she prepares for school. A lot of things to enjoy and a lot to look forward to during these warm summer days!

My wife and I have not yet taken our “vacation”. Our summer plans tend to be somewhat fluid. As I noted way back when in my introduction to this blog, we are very fortunate. We own an exquisite (at least to us), spacious summer home a hundred yards or so from the Atlantic Ocean. We vacation here and enjoy every blessed minute of it! In normal driving conditions, it takes us fifty minutes or so to go door-to-door from our suburban Boston home to the “beach house”, which is where I am as I write this. What a treat for us!

Summer vacation usually means grabbing as much time as we can here—work and young adult schedules permitting. That means frequent travel along the Route 128/Interstate 95 corridor … most times with more than one vehicle; most times more than once or twice a week.

As a strong proponent of Peak Oil, I have decidedly mixed feelings about this, as I have mentioned before (Kurt Cobb wrote a sensible piece touching on a related theme just a few days ago). I love this lifestyle, and I approach my task of disseminating information about our soon-to-be-curtailed availability of fossil fuel supply with more than my fair share of selfish trepidation. We do not yet own hybrid vehicles, and so we spend more than our fair share of time filling the gas tanks of my wife’s German import and my Japanese SUV in order to make many trips to and from our summer home from Memorial Day through mid-October. I balance that guilt with the acknowledgment (rationalization?) that I work from home, and that my wife’s office is about 6000 feet from our home, so we actually spend no more on gas than most other families.

Once gas prices begin their inevitable climb up, whether that’s later this year, next year, or a couple more years down the road, and with a simultaneous curtailment in how much fossil fuel will remain available to us to meet all of demands and expectations and needs, my rationalizations may not matter much.

With that in mind yesterday, for the first time in the 6 summers that we’ve owned this home, I used public transportation to make most of the journey from home to here at the beach house. My daughter drove me a couple of miles to a commuter rail stop which took me into Boston’s North Station, where I then—some fifteen minutes after my arrival—boarded a different rail line to take me to the North Shore. I then hailed a cab to take me the three miles or so from the train station to our summer place. (I’ve already informed my wife that I will soon take public transportation door to door, just to see what that’s like. That will add two bus trips and a decent amount of walking at the beginning and end of my trip, along with two separate subway rides. I’m expecting at least an additional hour of travel each way, but no more than a few more dollars in fares.)

The one way trip yesterday cost me about $20.00, and took me two hours and ten minutes door to door. Compare that to less than $10.00 of gas and less than 60 minutes of travel time when I drive. More expensive certainly, and clearly more time-consuming, but all in all it was a pleasant enough experience, and surprisingly scenic in several places along the way. It was nice to be able to read and engage in some computer work while traveling … not an option when I’m barreling along at 65 miles per hour on Route 128.

I’m expecting to have to do much more of this in the years to come if we intend (as we most certainly do) to keep this as a second home (and eventually as our primary residence, or so we hope.) At the very least, this kind of travel will become a not-inconsiderable inconvenience for us. I’ll expect no one to shed any tears for us, and rightfully so.

All of this got me thinking about what other families normally do during the summer for their vacations. My thoughts then almost immediately turned to one of our nation’s more popular destinations: Walt Disney World in Florida. We have vacationed there on a couple of occasions, as have hundreds of millions of others just like us. It’s a deservedly popular tourist attraction.

Then, as I find myself doing more frequently these days, I started to wonder how Peak Oil is going to impose itself on the subject at hand. Truth be told, not much will escape the consequences of declining oil availability.

Just for the heck of it, I started an internet search for facts about Disney World—to get some kind of idea about the place. (I make no promises that the following stats are the most current ones.)

“Approximately 46 million people visit Walt Disney World – including Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park and Downtown Disney Area – annually.” [1]

“A Cast of Thousands . . . around 62,000 to be more precise. That’s how many people it takes to create the magic at the Vacation Kingdom. Not surprisingly, Walt Disney World Resort is the largest single-site employer in the United States
“Suds ‘R Us . . . If you were to wash and dry one load of laundry every day for 52 years, you’d clean as much as the folks at Walt Disney World Laundry do in a single day. The cast members there launder an average of 285,000 pounds each day. In addition, between 30,000 and 32,000 garments are dry-cleaned daily.
“Who’s Still Thirsty? . . . More than 75 million Cokes are consumed each year at Walt Disney World Resort along with 13 million bottles of water. Guests also gobble 10 million hamburgers, 6 million hot dogs, 9 million pounds of French fries and more than 300,000 pounds of popcorn
“Room Roulette . . . If you wanted to stay in all the guestrooms in all of the hotels and resorts currently open on Walt Disney World property (at a rate of one per night), it would take more than 68 years.” [2]

“There are 46,172 parking spaces at the Walt Disney World theme parks, water parks and Downtown Disney. That does not include the parking lots at the resort.” [3]

The point? That’s a lot of tourists traveling a lot of miles, buying a lot of airplane tickets, renting a lot of vehicles, and consuming lots of fossil fuels for transportation (to say nothing of the energy expenditures to do all the laundry, transport and prepare all the food, maintain all the rooms, etc., etc. A lot of dollars are spent while visiting Disney World.)

What happens when the $3.19 per gallon of gas that we now pay for premium gas is $4.09 per gallon? $5.29? $7.79? When the now incredibly inexpensive $200.00 round trip air fares from Boston becomes $380.00? $660.00? I have no illusions that we’ll see those prices in the next few years, but I can’t say that I’d be terribly surprised if that happens sooner than I expect.

Those higher prices will stand alone … they won’t be rising along with a commensurate increase in incomes. Incomes will be what they will be in the years to come while fossil fuel prices climb ever-higher, simply because we are not going to have enough to meet all the world-wide demand by the billions of people who either want to maintain their convenient and occasionally extravagant lifestyles, or who aspire to reach those goals themselves.

Something is going to have to give.

And when those gas prices begin that climb, how many families are going to make the decision that a trip to Disney World, or Las Vegas, or Myrtle Beach, or our astonishing National Parks, or to Europe, or to the Caribbean, or [insert preferred vacation spot here] are no longer in the cards? What happens to the countless millions who depend on those tourist dollars? How many dominoes tumble in all the industries affected by or existing because of tourism? Difficult to wrap your mind around all of that, isn’t it?

What kinds of personal lifestyle changes will each of us have to then embrace when we start thinking about the family vacation in July or August?

Something to think about, perhaps? It is definitely not too soon to do so. We’ll be thankful for having taken the time to consider these issues well in advance. Being blind-sided is not nearly as much fun as it might seem.

{Note to my readers: I’m heading down South later this week to help my daughter set up for her senior year of college, so this will likely be my only post until the middle of next week. This month, I’ll also be heading to New York for a few days to move our other daughter into her new digs for college year # 2, my wife and I will be taking some vacation time throughout the month, and we’re celebrating our anniversary at the end of August, so postings will be sporadic until after Labor Day. Thanks for your patience and interest!}

Sources:

[1] http://www.orlando-florida.net/press-releases/50-things-you-dont-know-about-disney-world.htm

[2] http://corporate.disney.go.com/media/news/Fact_WDW_Fun_Facts_08_06.pdf

[3] http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_parking_spots_are_in_Walt_Disney_World