National Train Day was last Saturday, and cities across the country celebrated. In the spirit, I thought it would be a great time to follow up on my previous post about Anthony Perl and the future of transportation. The second edition of his book Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil is out this month, and I think it is a very important work. When Mr. Perl presented at the HOPES conference, he outlined the concepts of his book and painted a picture of the future that we face whether we like it or not, whether we plan for it or not, and whether we accept it or not. The fundamental principle which drives his vision of the future is the end of oil.
That end is a long way off, by any measure, but before the end there will be a steady decline in oil production which will raise prices likewise steadily until the average person, even in the richest nations in the world, will not be able to afford to drive. Basically, the amount of oil in the earth is finite. We are burning through it at a steady rate, which will only increase with a growing population (although improvements in fuel efficiency could offset this somewhat). At some point, the discovery of new reserves will decline and eventually stop. At some point each individual well will reach its peak and begin a rather rapid descent in production. At some point, the amount of oil being produced world wide will stop increasing, and will begin to decrease at a rather fast pace. At some point after that, we will have got all we can get, and we will have burned through it.
You may be thinking right now that I am talking about some far off future, some backdrop for a Sci-Fi story, but in reality most of the analysts put the time frame for peak oil within my lifetime and many of yours. Some analysts say that we have already peaked, and the decline is about to begin. That is actually the case in the US and Mexico, and the OPEC nations have some interesting ambiguities in their reporting of reserve levels. The estimates for exactly when the world as a whole will reach peak oil are pretty disparate, but everyone agrees that the peak will come, and we probably won't know that it has happened until we are looking back at it with about 5 years of good data. That being said, it does look pretty likely that we will peak before mid century, and probably within the next 10 or 15 years. So while I may not live to see the end of oil, I may live to see it recede permanently from my price range.
So what does a world without oil look like? Since almost half of the oil we produce goes to making gasoline, we would have to find some alternative to gas powered cars, buses, motorcycles, scooters and go-carts, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, generators, and chainsaws. That 'almost half' does not include, unfortunately, jet fuel, which means an alternative to travel by plane, or diesel fuel, which means an alternative to shipping things with trucks and container ships. So in other words, every method of getting stuff from one place to another place would have to be re-figured, along with a few of our favorite methods of cutting things into smaller pieces.
While fuel accounts for most of the uses of petroleum, there are a number of other products that it is hard to imagine being the same without petrochemicals that are byproducts of the fuel industry. Primarily, if you like having stuff made from plastic, you should start recycling now because it will be very difficult to match current plastic production rates with nothing but orange peels as raw materials. A number of mechanical lubricants are also made from petrochemicals, as well as some personal hygiene products (anything made with petroleum jelly, e.g.). Petrochemicals are a prime ingredient in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well, so organic farming will be basically foisted upon us. Are you a painter? Because you can kiss acrylic paint goodbye too. In short, petrochemicals have worked their way into just about every industry on almost every level. For a more comprehensive list of stuff that we can't make without oil, follow the links on this page (there are a lot of them).
That last paragraph aside, however, transportation really is the biggest issue. Not just moving people, but moving stuff quickly and efficiently all over the world. As an example: unless you live near a train line in California, you may have trouble getting fresh vegetables year round. Fresh seafood will also be difficult unless you live in a city with a big port. And even then, the fishing boats will have to be sail powered, because diesel is out, which means your seafood supply will be somewhat weather dependent
But ultimately, the ability to get in your car and go wherever you want whenever you want will be gone forever. Likewise, the ability to visit your relatives and friends across the country or around the globe will be severely reduced since airplane travel will be effectively over. So what do we do in this bleak post apocalyptic world to travel, ship, and eat exotic foods? Well according to Anthony Perl, we had better start building trains now, cause that is going to be our best option.
If this country was connected with a comprehensive network of high speed trains, powered by electricity, we could cut our oil consumption by, well, as much as we wanted to right away. More importantly, as oil becomes more scarce and less affordable, high speed trains will provide a viable alternative to long distance freight and travel, while light rail can provide an alternative to commuter vehicles. Of course, these will be powered by electricity, but there are already a number of very bright people working on making electricity more sustainable (check out what these guys are doing with wind). By hooking trains up to the power grid instead of burning fuel, they are poised to run on green energy as soon as it is supplied to the grid.
The Obama administration has approved 8 billion dollars to build new high speed train lines, and that is a really great start. Unfortunately, it is not nearly enough. Trains are expensive to build, operate and maintain, and the revenue from fares is unlikely to provide a profit model that is favorable to the private sector in the short term. This means that any new train lines are unlikely without government funding, and to get a train system that is up to the job of replacing airline travel, we will need many times more than the 8 billion currently allocated to train funding. It is worth it, however, because the alternative is that in 20, 30, or even 50 years, we will be back to the 1700s in terms of transportation.