Those in the “peak oil” camp, who predict that we are about to run out of easily accessible petroleum, warn that the drop in global oil production will bring dire consequences. Writer James Howard Kunstler, and like-minded groups such as the Capital Region Energy Forum, predict the collapse of Western Civilization and the establishment of an “Amish Paradise.” Yet they forget history and underestimate the technology available to sustain our technological civilization.
First, much of technology is based on electricity, not oil! Computers, telecommunications, lights, industrial machinery, household appliances are electric; electricity can also cook our food and heat our homes. While the power grid needs to be expanded and modernized, North America has abundant energy resources — including coal, nuclear, hydro, tidal, wind, solar and geothermal — to keep us in electricity without depending on oil-run power plants.
There are also substitutes for oil in the many synthetic chemicals and materials that contribute to modern life. Glass, ceramics, metal and wood could substitute for plastic in many products, and much of those products can be recycled. Coal and biomass can also be used as feedstocks for plastics, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals.
We are not so much in an energy crisis as a transport crisis, a troika of increasing congestion, environmental degradation and energy shortages.
As global demand for transport and petroleum products grows as a result of population and economic growth, demand is beginning to exceed supply, leading to an inflationary spiral of prices that could cripple the economy.
The goal should be to switch our transportation from being powered by petroleum to electricity, because electric vehicles can utilize a variety of power sources, and use it more efficiently than internal-combustion engines. Electric vehicles won’t compete with the food supply, as do biofuels, and are more practical than using hydrogen fuel cells. Overall pollution would be reduced, including greenhouse gases.
“There is no substitute for oil [or liquid fuels] in transport” is a canard that is frequently uttered in the media by so-called experts. While true for airplanes, it is demonstratively false for transport on land and sea. Maritime transport is very fuel-efficient and could once again run on coal via steam engines or gas turbines. Ships could also utilize sails or kites to save fuel. Europe, with its excellent system of inland waterways, moves more than 40 percent of its freight by water. Perhaps there is a future for the New York State Barge Canal beyond recreational boating.
After a century of retarded development, affordable and practical plug-in hybrid electric cars will soon be a reality due to the advancement of lithium-ion batteries. The cars will be powerful, yet safe and compact. They will get at least 40 miles to the charge, significant because most U.S. commutes are less than this distance. Renault, Nissan, Toyota and General Motors are planning to introduce models early next decade.
Electric trolley buses and trucks can receive electricity directly from the grid by overhead wires. There are globally 353 cities with electric trolley bus systems, including Boston, Dayton, Seattle and San Francisco. Large cities could electrify major thoroughfares for use by streetcars, transit buses and delivery trucks. Eventually even the interstate highway system could be electrified, saving long-distant trucking.
There is a mature, existing technology that has successful use electricity since 1880s. From the New York City subway to the Trans-Siberian Railway, electric trains are hard at work. They carry urban commuters to and from work, hauling heavy freight trains across snowy mountains or scorched deserts, and racing along at speeds of 225 mph on new, inter-city, high-speed railways.
Modern cities were first made possible because electric streetcars and subways allowed us to work and shop farther than we could walk, leading to the dense downtowns, centralized industrial districts, and leafy “streetcar suburbs” of the early 1900s. Los Angeles, the home of the freeway, was actually built by the Pacific Electric Interurban Railway, once the largest rail transit system in the world. In the 1920s more than 2,770 daily trains ran over the 1,060-mile system.
Modern grocery stores also came about because of the railroads. The invention of the refrigerated boxcar allowed grocery stores around the nation to stock apples from Washington, potatoes from Idaho, lettuce from California, oranges from Florida, and dairy products from New England.
Chicago became the center of the meat-packing business because cattle across the nation could be brought to Chicago by cattle car, processed, and then distributed across the nation by refrigerated boxcar.
Chicago also became the center of the mail-order business, most prominently Sears & Roebuck. The competing urban department stores and local general stores could also offer countless goods because of the national and global movement of goods by train and ship.
In the age of the Internet and Wal-Mart, the same holds true, with ships and trains loaded with containers bound for the shelves of big-box stores.
Kunstler correctly identifies the “Happy Motoring” bias of even environmentalists that poisons the debate on energy and environment. A prime example is Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times, who, in an interview with Discovery Channel for his television documentary “Addicted to Oil,” stated while discussing alternatives to oil that “With Japan they didn’t have a choice. They import 100 percent of their oil . . . so they looked for alternatives and in Japan’s case it was smaller cars and hybrid engines”.
Somehow, Friedman completely forgot Japan’s rail-centric culture. The image of the Shinkansen or “Bullet Train” passing beneath Mount Fuji is an iconic symbol of the nation. Japan consumes far less oil per capita than the U.S. because its people drive less and ride far more trains. Most of its rail network was electrified after the Second World War as a means to become more energy independent by utilizing domestic energy sources. Yet no mention!
Today, America’s freight railroads after decades of consolidation are once again expanding. Innovation in technology and operations has combined with growing congestion and rising fuel prices to win back business from truckers. The railroads are now hauling more tonnage than in any time in history while using the least amount of track, rolling stock, fuel and labor to do so, and lastly they are making record profits.
The government could best solve our energy crisis by responding to the market forces already at work, including the quickly rising ridership of Amtrak and regional transit authorities such as the CDTA. Redirecting the postwar subsidies that fueled the expansion of our automotive suburbs to rebuilding central cities and inner-ring suburbs as mixed-use, pedestrian-scaled, transit-oriented communities would be a start.
Next, the U.S. must follow the example of China, and enact a program to electrify the railway network and construct new high-speed lines.
Research and development of electric propulsion for all forms of transport should be increased, including ensuring that utilities can properly supply the increased demand. New public-private partnerships should be set up to harness the financial power of both Washington and Wall Street.
The economic collapse predicted by Kunstler and company need not occur if government, business and science work together. Much of what constitutes modern civilization began before the mass consumption of oil.
A properly informed public and good leadership on all levels of government and corporations can quickly bring the needed changes that will ensure a comfortable and prosperous life for future generations.
Benjamin J. Turon lives in Ballston Spa. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.