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Commentary: Will we be able to maintain & replace our energy & transportation infrastructure in a post-peak oil world?

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)
Developed countries worldwide are facing enormous financial costs associated with maintaining and ultimately replacing their aging energy and transportation infrastructure of pipelines, refineries, power plants, electric transmission lines, roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, etc. Given the reality of an energy-constrained global economy, especially in the context of a long-term decline in global net oil exports, it seems inevitable that, at best, our current energy and transportation infrastructure will only be partially replaced in future years.

Given a long-term expectation of partial infrastructure replacement, it seems likely that inevitable natural disasters — like earthquakes/tsunamis such as recently hit Japan, and hurricanes like Katrina and Rita that hit the US Gulf Coast in 2005 — will only aggravate the infrastructure problem. It seems likely that many areas heavily damaged by natural disasters will not be rebuilt, or will only be partially rebuilt. Government officials in Japan are considering exactly this scenario regarding many coastal fishing villages that were damaged by the recent earthquake and tsunami.

In the US, civil engineers have been warning about failing infrastructure for years. In 2009, they gave US infrastructure a "D" ranking, just barely above failing. Executive Director Patrick Natale of the American Society of Civil Engineers told CNN in 2009: "The bottom line is that a failing infrastructure cannot support a thriving economy."

Unfortunately, when we consider the probability of an ongoing and accelerating rate of decline in global net oil exports, we have to consider the predicament of failing infrastructure combined with a declining economy.

Of course, the conventional wisdom is that we can have a virtually infinite rate of increase in our consumption of a finite fossil-fuel resource base. Most governmental planners in the US are still making plans to cope with a vast increase in US automobile traffic in future decades. The irony of this point of view is that there is already evidence that we can’t fully maintain, let alone consider replacing, the current road system.

Already, many county governments in the US are being forced to stop paving county roads and turn them back to gravel roads. In Texas, in order to help balance the state budget, legislators are debating a proposal to completely eliminate state funding for county road maintenance.

However, when we look at the global economy from the point of view of a long-term decline in global net oil exports, it seems very likely that, to paraphrase a famous quote, what can’t be funded and maintained won’t be funded and maintained; and that the funding and maintenance problem will probably continue to become most apparent in the short term in American suburbia and exurbia (which is very remote housing developments at great distances from job centers).

Jim Kunstler famously called American suburbia the "Greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." In a number of books and lectures, Jim has described how the US had a pretty good and highly energy-efficient urban system, up until immediately after the Second World War, when the long national nightmare of out-of-control suburban development really began.

I would agree that the Late Forties was the inflection point, for a number of reasons. First, the Late Forties was really the starting point for the post-war boom in the US. Second, in 1948 the US slipped into net oil-importer status, after serving as a primary source of oil for the Allies in the Second World War only a few years earlier. Third, 1948 marked the high water point for many urban electrified-rail mass-transit systems. For example, in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in the Forties there were up to 250 miles of electrified streetcar lines in 1948, connected by a regional electric interurban rail system, all of which began to be abandoned that very year.

So, how should we address the problem of failing infrastructure in an energy-constrained future?

I have previously argued that we need to look at a triage plan. The simplest triage approach, given a mass casualty event, is to divide survivors into three groups: (1) Those who are likely to survive, regardless of the care that they receive; (2) those who are likely to die, regardless of the care that they receive; and (3) those for whom immediate care might make a difference in outcome. With that as background, here is what I argued for in a 2006 essay entitled, "Net Oil Exports Revisited":

A Proposed Triage Plan
I believe that vast expanses of American Suburbia are going to become virtually abandoned in the years ahead. Alan Drake has noted that a good deal of suburbia was so poorly constructed that a lot of it is biodegradable. Alan has outlined how we can go back to what we used to have: electric trolley cars connected to electric light rail lines.

CBS Sunday Morning, on 8/20/06, had a segment on "tiny houses." They profiled a home designer and builder who specialized in building very small functional homes of about 100 square feet. You can find more information on his website.

What this builder has realized, and what millions of Americans are just beginning to also realize, is that anything over 100 square feet or so per person is not a necessity; it is optional consumption, a want, instead of a need.The US is not Switzerland, but Alan Drake has described how Swiss per capita oil consumption in the Second World War was about 0.15% of current US per capita oil consumption. They did it primarily by electrifying their transportation system.

I propose a sort of triage operation: "tiny" homes and multifamily housing along electric mass transit lines. In my opinion, it is the only way that we can preserve some semblance of a civilized society. The suburbs are, by and large, a lost cause.

If we apply "Triage Rules" to infrastructure, we need to focus dwindling resources on areas that can be rehabilitated.
Of course, at least for the time being, the probability of a serious discussion, let alone implementation, of an infrastructure triage plan is somewhere between negligible and none.

On an individual basis, I would suggest that one consider living in an area that was doing well with the infrastructure and energy consumption levels that we had in the Late Forties. Unfortunately, when one considers population growth, total US oil consumption, even at Late Forties per capita levels, would still be quite high. US per capita oil consumption in 1949 was 14.2 BO (barrels of oil) per person per year. In 1978, US consumption had increased to 30.8 BO, before beginning to decline. In 2005, the US consumed 25.6 BO, falling to 22.8 BO in 2009 (EIA & Census Bureau).

In terms of total volume consumed, in 1949 the US consumed 5.8 mbpd (million barrels per day), increasing to 20.8 mbpd in 2005, falling to 19.3 mbpd in 2009.

However, the US population has increased from 149 million people in 1949 to 309 million people in 2010. So, even if, or more likely when, US per capita consumption falls back to 1949 levels, the US would still be the world’s largest oil consuming country, consuming about 12 mbpd. Interestingly enough, note that France’s per capita annual oil consumption in 2005 (12 BO, Nationmaster) was well below the US per capita annual oil consumption in 1949 (14.2 BO).

Therefore, as low as our per capita oil consumption was in 1949, it seems likely that a 1949 per capita consumption level will only be a milepost along our path to a much lower level of per capita oil consumption.

Obviously, given this outlook, trying to maintain a long commute in a gas guzzling SUV to a large suburban mortgage would not be advisable.

In early 2007, I outlined my advice for a post-Peak Oil environment in my "ELP Plan" essay. ELP stands for Economize, Localize, Produce. An excerpt from that essay follows:

In this article I will further expound on my reasoning behind the ELP plan, otherwise known as "Cut thy spending and get thee to the non-discretionary side of the economy."

I have been advising for anyone who would listen to voluntarily cut back on their consumption, based on the premise that we were probably headed, in a post-Peak Oil environment, for a prolonged period of deflation in the auto/housing/finance sectors and inflation in food and energy prices.

To put our current rate of worldwide crude oil consumption in perspective, during George W. Bush’s first term, the world used about 10% of all crude oil that has been consumed to date, and based on our mathematical models, the world will use about 10% of our remaining conventional crude oil reserves during George W. Bush’s second term. . .

Recently people who have followed some version of the ELP plan, either because of my recommendations, or based on their own evaluation of the present environment, have had considerable reasons to be glad that they voluntarily downsized. So far, I have not heard any regrets from anyone who downsized.

Or, turn it around. Does anyone now wish that they had bought a large SUV and large suburban McMansion--all with 100% financing--on January 1, 2006?

In the ELP Plan essay, I recommended that readers: (1) Try to live on half or less of current income; (2) move to smaller, energy efficient housing, close to where one works, ideally along a mass transit line and (3) become, work for, and/or invest in providers of essential goods and services. Perhaps something like the ELP Plan is the most sensible approach that one can take, as we begin the second decade of what is going to be a most "interesting" century.

Jeffrey Brown is a graduate of Texas A&M University and a licensed Professional Geoscientist in Texas. He has written and coauthored articles on Peak Oil, with emphasis on global net oil export capacity.

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