Other countries may be passionate about cars and manufacture millions of them, but The US has built itself around the “idea” of the car, around maximizing convenience for the car in a way that no other country has. Not only do we have by far more cars per capita than elsewhere, but we drive them much further than on other countries and we have oriented our society around the car to an extent that no other country comes close to. This is the uniquely American car culture and it is literally running out of gas – although most people don’t know it yet.
The car culture is not just about cars themselves; it is not just the numbers of them, the traffic problems, and the extensive road and highway systems. In fact many other countries in the world, especially in the industrialized and now also in the successfully industrializing places also have millions of cars on the road. Many cities are suffocating with daily mega traffic jams and the pollution that burning (and partially burning) so many hydrocarbons create for them and their inhabitants. Some places have legendary highways, such as Germany’s Autobahns and some countries like Germany and Italy have a passion and love for cars that may in fact exceed Americas own, but in these countries people still use the trains.
I would argue that the car culture is unique to the US. In fact only our nation has oriented itself around the car to the extent that we have. Our sprawling low density suburbs, with their automatic garage door openers feeding huge pulses of vehicles each work day onto the freeways and arterial routes leading into the city centers and increasingly to suburban corporate campuses designed to accommodate and be reached by the car. Our retail system, our malls, strip malls, drive through fast food establishments, the big box stores, the vast asphalt parking lots surrounding them are artifacts of the car culture.
The US has built itself for four or five generations around the car and the urban sprawl it engendered. In most places in this country not having access to a car is a serious problem and a cause of considerable economic hardship – a thirty minute commute can easily become a two and a half hour ordeal in many American cities… poorly served by bus lines that run once or twice an hour. Owning a car is rightly considered almost equally as important as having a roof over ones head by many Americans who know that without their car life would become so much harder for them.
But this car culture is running out of gas. It is unsustainable – no matter what any politician or media mouthpiece may be saying to the contrary. The hard truth of oil geology and the lack of any viable alternative for the “gas” we fill up with are the real arbiters of this discussion.
Peak Oil… Is Not Just a Bad Dream
The stark reality is that we have already burned (or will very soon have burned) more than half of the oil heritage on planet earth. And what is more… we have burned the easy half. The famed gusher wells of Texas and Saudi Arabia had an energy payback or ERoEI on the order of one hundred to one; meaning that they produced something around one hundred times as much energy as the energy needed to get that early easy oil out of the ground. What remains, for the most part has a far lower net energy payback of ten to one or less. Increasingly just getting the oil will consume more and more of the oil (and other energy sources).
There is a wealth of, unfortunately poorly publicized hard evidence for this long term decline; evidence that flies in the face of the soothing sounds made by politicians, Wall Street types and media personalities that seek to convince us that nothing is amiss; that plenty of oil is waiting to be pumped lying just offshore or in Alaska’s North slope; that we can go on with our car culture just as before. These people are speaking because they have a narrow political or economic interest to speak this way or because taking this position helps enhance their standing as a media figure. The facts in the ground tell a very different story.
For example in an interview with The Independent, Dr Birol said that the oil on which modern civilization depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years, which is at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated. Dr Birol is the chief economist at the respected International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, which is charged with the task of assessing future energy supplies by OECD countries. This analysis is based on an assessment of more than 800 oil fields in the world, covering three quarters of global reserves. Most of the world’s biggest fields have already peaked and are experiencing a rate of decline in oil production that nearly twice as steep as was calculated just two years ago.
The Oil that Does Remain is Harder to Get, of Lower Quality and Will Yield Far less Net Energy Than the Oil We Have Already Burned
The days of the gusher fields are history. New fields are much harder to develop, requiring massive capital expenditures and sucking up huge amounts of energy before they produce even a single drop of oil. Squeezing oil out of mature fields also requires large amounts of energy. In fact the average ERoEI has dropped by a factor of around ten times since those early days and the new fields being developed today as well as the oil being squeezed out of mature fields produces much less net energy than the mega fields that came on line in the middle to later part of the last century. And it only can get harder and harder from here on out. The remaining oil on earth is going to be harder and harder to find, produce and to bring to market.
The earth’s remaining oil will need to be extracted from mature declining fields or extracted from fields located in deep offshore waters, small marginal scattered pockets, politically unstable and remote regions, or in extremely difficult places with harsh environments such as the North Slope of Alaska or in Siberia.
Unconventional sources such as such as bitumen rich tar (or oil) sands or shale oil are no panacea either. For example tar sand oil extraction is a dirty, environmentally destructive strip mining operations that have an ERoEI of around 5:1 for the best reserves (located in Canada). Tar sand extraction is also limited by other factors such as available water, or natural gas supply and so forth so that the annual rate of production is constricted. Achieving even an annual rate of production of 2 billion barrels per year for Canadian tar sands will be quite difficult – and this barely covers Canada’s domestic consumption.
It is substantially more difficult to extract synthetic oil from the Kerogen containing oil shale deposits than it is from tar sands. Shale oil is often cited by uniformed opinion makers and their followers as a huge available domestic supply of future oil. The phrase “America is the Saudi Arabia of shale oil” comes to mind. While the total estimated reserves are indeed impressive, they cannot be usefully extracted. Shale oil is a marginal source of energy at best.
All of these future supplies of oil will have even lower ERoEI than the 8 to 1 ERoEI that characterizes today’s reserves that are being developed.
For a more extensive discussion on what is meant by ERoEi and how it is calculated and why it is so important see: Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) And Why It Matters
Electric, Hydrogen, Biofuel Powered or Natural Gas Powered Cars Cannot Replace Oil
When faced with this evidence many will retort that hybrid cars or more exotic electric or hydrogen cars will keep our car culture alive and rolling down the highways from the mall to the cul de sac. What is left silent and unsaid is that electricity or hydrogen are energy carriers – they must be generated somehow and doing so takes a lot of energy. Where is the energy supply that will produce the hydrogen or generate the electricity in the vast quantities needed in order to sustain the car culture going forward?
Biofuels, especially the current corn, soya, or sugar cane based biofuels have marginal ERoEI (or even a negative ERoEI). They displace food crops or as is the case of corn or soya are food crops. Algal biofuels seem quite promising – they appear to have a much better ERoEI than even Palm Oil, but they are still in a very early stage of development and are many years away from large scale production and the ultimate sustainable levels of production is in question.
Electric or biofuel vehicles do have a future. This is the Green Economy Post after all — they are cool and we love them, but they cannot keep the car culture rolling on. Nothing is on the horizen that can replace oil as a concentrated liquid fossil store of energy… a geological bank that we are fast looting.
These types of vehicles definitely have a place in the coming green economy – after all the need for transportation of people and goods & services will not disappear – and electric or non food biofuel powered vehicles seem quite sensible. But there will not be enough electricity, biofuels or natural gas to replace the lost oil that is going to leave the pumps dry.
Will We Sleep Walk Till the Pumps Run Dry or Will We Finally Wake Up and Do Something
America seems to be oblivious to this impending catastrophe – and there is no other word to describe the rapid collapse of future energy supplies and our societies continued exposure to fossil fuel dependency. Drive down any urban highway during rush hour and you will see an endless sea of large vehicles, many weighing more than two tons each creeping along in rush hour traffic and burning massive amounts of precious oil. Look closely and for the most part each of these vehicles crowding the roads will contain a single person – the American commuter. I know, I have been that person… and you know as well.
The open question is, when will we collectively wake up and realize that this way of life… the car culture… is unsustainable and is headed for a major head on collision with reality. Will it be just as we hit the wall of collapsing supplies, or hopefully will enough of us wake up and begin to make changes in our lives ahead of time? So that when the crisis hits – and it will hit someday soon in a series of successive body blows – we will be better prepared to face it and to survive it.
We need to start moving beyond the car culture now; that is if we hope to avoid being forcibly move beyond it by a head on crash with the reality of collapsing energy supplies. We would do well to start figuring out how to re-invent America. This is a huge challenge and will involve much sacrifice – we will need to learn to live with less convenience and material wealth – but if we approach it with Yankee ingenuity and a can do spirit we still have a good chance to build out a bridge to a green economy… a bridge for us, for our children and their children.
What will a tomorrow that is not beholden to the car look like? One way or another we are going to find out.
© 2009, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.