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Life Without Oil: How oil dependance is hurting America (Part 1)

By Digital Journal Staff     Apr 25, 2011 in Environment
How would different regions in the U.S. handle a world reaching peak oil? In the first of two excerpts from Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future, the authors believe the American dream could turn into the American nightmare.
The world is dependent on oil, and we won't have an infinite supply of this resource. Energy issues will continue to be one of the most pressing topics of our day. The coming decades could vastly overhaul our breezy lifestyle as oil reserves deplete across the world, forcing our cities to adapt or die.
Author Steve Hallett and journalist John Wright analyzed our oil dependence and co-wrote a book detailing their findings. To coincide with the book's launch, Digital Journal is publishing excerpts today and tomorrow from Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future (Prometheus Books) in order to provide readers with a glimpse of what our future may look like.
In the first excerpt, the authors look at how the U.S. has become oil-hungry and what that dependence means for a future that is both uncertain and troubling.
From Life Without Oil by Steve Hallett with John Wright. Copyright (c) 2011. Reprinted by permission of Prometheus Books
Book cover for Life Without Oil from Prometheus Books
Book cover for Life Without Oil from Prometheus Books
Courtesy Prometheus Books
North America used to be a very long way from both Europe and Asia. It was colonized from the west more than twelve thousand years ago but then sealed off from the rest of the world as the Bering Straits flooded. Native Americans had migrated from east Asia and had been cast adrift in the American lifeboat until it was disastrously rediscovered by a second wave of people, this time coming from the east. These easterners - the Europeans - displaced the first Americans with a genocidal cocktail of guns, germs, and steel.13 Under their tenure, the continent gradually became an integral part of the trading world and, eventually, its dominant military and economic force.
The second colonization of the Americas by Europeans occurred under a different set of rules than had the first. The new colonies were established under slave power, and then coal, and then came into dominance in the twentieth century powered by oil. With abundant fossil fuels, hitherto uninhabitable areas became desirable places to settle. The Great Plains yielded water from underground aquifers, and the herds of roaming buffalo were destroyed to make way for cattle, and then corn. The deserts became retirement homes. The mountains became ski resorts. Energy was poured into the land to bend it to the will of progress.
Powered by oil, America was rapidly transformed from the status of a developing nation to become the world’s sole superpower in less than a century. America was built on black gold. As the oil in its own territory went into decline, America found a range of different ways to secure access to oil from around the world, and the dream surged on. But there is great danger. America has been designed around the oil economy of the twentieth century like no other and is exquisitely vulnerable to the end of oil. As the world reaches peak oil and America struggles with its energy future, the land will begin to push back. This huge nation, shrunk by planes, trains, and automobiles, will expand again. This distant continent, brought closer to the rest of the world by tankers, freighters, and cheap intercontinental air travel, will grow more distant.
As the world’s biggest consumer and importer of oil, the United States is deeply affected by the price of oil. As a paying customer, purchasing roughly thirteen million barrels of oil per day is very expensive. At 1990s prices of $20 per barrel, this costs roughly $100 billion per year. At $200 per barrel, the price tag shoots up to a cool trillion. America has an enormous stake in the price of oil, and its heavy reliance on black gold is gradually eroding its position of global dominance.
Americans also use a huge amount of natural gas for heating and electricity generation, and North America will be the first continent to run up against significant natural gas shortages. North America will need to significantly expand its production of gas from shale deposits, but it is unclear just how much gas can be extracted economically. We will also need to bring tankers across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but this will also come at ever-increasing cost. The most fundamental civilization level resource of all is energy, and, for America, this means oil. As the invisible hand of nature reaches out and removes this resource, America will have some huge adjustments to make.
Despite its lack of access to oil and natural gas, America does have a number of viable alternatives for electricity generation. As has already been discussed, America has huge reserves of coal, and coal-fired power plants can be constructed quickly, so this will keep the lights on for some time. We also have a reasonable nuclear capacity and an abundance of suitable sites for wind turbines and solar arrays. These sources of energy are not without significant problems, but electricity generation will not be America’s biggest energy conundrum, and keeping the lights on will be significantly easier than keeping the wheels turning.
The United States is a huge country spanning a wide range of different ecosystems from desert to tundra and grassland to forest. Parts of the country are resource-poor while others are resource-rich. Some regions are only sparsely populated while others are highly developed. The difficulties faced by the various corners of the country will be very different. At the end of the oil era there will be parts of America, such as the resource-poor Southwest, that will drain the economy, whereas others, such as the resource-rich Midwest, will be pivotal to its recovery.
Of all the parts of the world that have been put to the yoke of human determination, there is nowhere that can compare with the American Southwest. This is a region of severe ecological fragility and old, weathered soils. Rivers are few. Gullies and gulches (and Grand Canyons) attest to the active water erosion of the landscape, but if you’re out visiting for a week, odds are you won’t see rain. Even more striking than the dryness is the size of the place. The American Southwest is spectacularly empty, and then suddenly you hit a city of four million people (Phoenix), one and a half million people (Las Vegas), or sixteen million people (Los Angeles).
Perhaps one of the most bizarre experiences you can have on a road trip is arriving in Las Vegas from the east. Drive in from Phoenix, three hundred or so miles away, to escape the hordes of retirees, zoom past the south rim of the Grand Canyon through desert, desert, and more desert. You can fill up with gas and get a burger at various dusty towns along the way. Eventually, you round the last curve in the hills and get your first glimpse of the glittering city in the desert.
The mountains frame Las Vegas like a film set backdrop. The Mandalay Bay and the Luxor shine like gold at the south end of the Strip. There are two trails of planes in the sky; one leading in and one leading out. Vegas, especially as you emerge from the desert, is a truly crazy, but amazing, place. Vegas is the home of gambling and prostitution. In fact, lax laws in Nevada basically created the place for that purpose, but it'fs a gamble that is poised to fail this quintessential prostitute to oil. Without oil, there will be no Vegas. The city sits on fragile land with limited water and no other resources.
In the era of cheap oil, this has all been eminently possible―easy, even. Fresh lobster from Maine (or even Australia―heck, why not?!), caviar from Russia, steak from Texas, oysters from Louisiana, salmon from Alaska (baked beans and Marmite from England?), and a myriad of other treats are flown in fresh daily. Building materials are brought in on a neverending conveyor belt of trucks that ply the desert highways. Water is piped across the desert from Lake Mead. And then there are the people; millions of them each year. They fly to Vegas to play. Well, why not? Airfares and hotel rooms are cheap, and Vegas has anything you could possibly want (and an abundance of things you should probably not want . . . “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”).
But without oil, there will be no Vegas, and as oil prices continue to rise, Vegas will begin to struggle. The rot is already beginning to set in with deflation of the American housing bubble in early 2007 hitting Vegas hard, and other symptoms will follow. The price of aviation fuel will hit travelers directly in the pocket, and the number of visitors will decline. The price of fuel will also affect the price of lobster,caviar,steak, oysters, and salmon; and the famous Vegas seafood buffets will start to look more and more like Atlantic City fish and chips. As revenues fall, maintenance will decline, and the Bellagio and the Wynn will look increasingly like overblown Super 8’s. Cheap accommodation will become plentiful as the hotels become desperate to fill their rooms, but this will not bring back the good old days. Once its mystique has been lost, Vegas will decline into a decrepit middle-of-nowhere sleaze joint with cheap whiskey in the saloon, hookers upstairs, an out-of-tune piano playing in the corner, and Josey Wales striding to the bar chewing a cigar.
The decline of Vegas, a weird but distinctive American city, will make a great 60 Minutes episode. The troubles in other parts of the Southwest, however, will be much more disturbing. The desert has been tamed so completely by the oil era that places like Phoenix have become the destination of choice for retirees from colder climates to get away from it all in the sunshine with their swimming pool, 24/7 airconditioning, and over irrigated golf courses.
Los Angeles, the glittering city of movie stars, is in real trouble. If there is any city designed for the oil era, it is this one, in the arid landscape of Southern California. Public transport in Los Angeles is about as effective as camels in the Arctic. Pollution is chronic. A dysfunctional city is ringed by gridlocked highways as people scuttle around from airconditioned suburban enclave to airconditioned workplace in oversized, gasguzzling, airconditioned cars.
The Southwest presents a bad combination of prodigious, empty distances conquered by cheap and efficient transportation. It does not help that the region is also highly vulnerable to climate change. It is, by far, the most vulnerable region of the United States in the coming decades―but the Southeast may not fare much better.
An oil refinery in Long Beach  CA
An oil refinery in Long Beach, CA
File photo Neil Kremer/Flickr
The disaster and ensuing debacle brought on by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans revealed something that we already knew about the Deep South. Despite its apparently miraculous development in the last twentyfive years, it is a region of racial division and extreme weather. The South is now a booming region of suburban sprawls punctuated by rundown towns separated by long expanses of empty space. The recent growth of the region has been largely due to a single,dominant industry: real estate, and the new prosperity of the old Confederacy is another product of the oil age. Sealedup, airconditioned box homes have replaced airy, sprawling houses with large verandas and the famous Southern front porch. The elements are excluded, and defeated, by an airconditioned lifestyle. Walt Disney chose Florida as the oiltamed dreamscape for Mickey and Minnie.
The prognosis for Miami is particularly bad. This is one of the most divided cities in the world, characterized by great wealth, sprawling suburbs, fancy yachts, racial tension, and crushing urban poverty. Miami will get even hotter and more prone to hurricanes; its water table will be contaminated with salt water, and many low-lying areas will be increasingly vulnerable to flooding as sea levels rise. The collision of oil depletion and global climate change has nothing but misery in store for Miami. For a sign of things to come, Miamians should look to New Orleans and understand the lesson of Hurricane Katrina: there should not be a big city at this location.
The future looks much more promising in the Northeast, the Northwest, and the Midwest than it does in the Southwest and the South. Resources are much more abundant and include freshwater and farmland with a classic temperate climate characterized by hot summers and cold winters. Agriculture will need a makeover, its scale and productivity will decline, and a much larger agricultural workforce will be required, but the resources are, for the most part, available.
The Northeast and Midwest have many small towns scattered across the landscape that will support a significant revival. The medium-sized centers will lose their Wal-Marts, Targets, and Home Depots, but the small towns will regain their mom ’n’ pop groceries,hardware stores, and butchers. On the whole, this transition, painful though it will be for many, is not entirely a bad thing. This, however, is not true for urban and suburban areas.
An amazing strip of real estate stretches as a more or less unbroken 300-mile urban ribbon from Washington, DC, through Philadelphia and New York to Boston. The Northeast Corridor,15 as it is called, contains more than fifty million people. If there is an economic and technological center of the world, this is probably it, but this global nexus will face serious problems.
Suburbia drives me crazy at the best of times, when the so-called good life consists of shutting your doors and windows to lock out the elements, turning on the heat or air conditioning, as appropriate, to maintain perennial spring, and avoiding your neighbors by never setting foot in the neighborhood. You reverse your car out of the garage (make sure to check as you go―more kids get killed by cars in suburban driveways than anywhere else) down the driveway and nip off to the “nearby” Wal-Mart to get all the goodies you need. You can have a nice house out in the ’burbs, where land is cheap, and you can zoom off to your office job in the city in your gas guzzler. Upon your return, you simply drive back into the garage, and the automatic door closes behind you.
My mum had quite a shock when she first visited West Lafayette, Indiana. I had told her how conveniently located we were; close to the kids’ schools, close to work, and close to the shops. So the first morning of her visit I headed off to work, leaving her at home, nice and snug,with the AC running, plenty of Floridian vegetables for a salad, and California strawberries for a snack. I showed her how to work the television: “Channels 34 and 51 are news, Mum. Stay away from channels 260–300” . . . you know the drill. What more could a girl want?
Well, apparently (crikey, the English--what are they like?!), she wanted to go for a walk. I had told her that the shops were nearby, so she went off to find them. On foot. On foot! What was she thinking? Eventually, she made it back home. Hot and bothered, but home. "It's hot here, in't it, luv?" Yeah, Mum, it can be. A few people had stopped on the side of the road to check on her. "You all right, ma'am?" Oh, yes, she was fine, she explained, and pottered along. She had been a little annoyed that there were no pavements (sidewalks) and that she had to walk on the edge of the road. It seems that she had walked in a sort of zigzag search pattern looking for the shops, and had covered about six miles or so. Thankfully, she eventually stumbled into the local gas station and stopped for a bottle of water, a Mars bar, and a nice sit down. They told her the quickest way back home.
Of course, I was highly amused and not in the slightest bit sympathetic. But it made me look at where I live in a different light. It seems convenient: but only by car. Without a car, the place is a disaster. It*fs about three miles to Wal-Mart and a reasonably complete range of other shops, including hardware stores, restaurants, and the like; about four miles to the kids' schools; and about five miles to work. All in all, I have it cushy, suffer no major commute, and live the easy life. But take away the car and my lifestyle is turned upside down--and I live in West Lafayette, shop in West Lafayette, send the kids to West Lafayette schools, and work at Purdue University in West Lafayette, which is a town of barely fifty thousand people.
Magnify that to the Northeast Corridor.
Now take away the oil.
A major key to survival in the suburbs will be securing access to modes of short- and medium-distance transportation. Fuel-efficient hybrid cars are a good start, but folks will increasingly need to turn to even more efficient options. Public transportation systems will need to be redesigned and dramatically expanded. Living out in the suburbs will be less appealing as the commute becomes even more annoying. There will also be less convenience in the suburbs as the big-box stores move out. The revival of mom ’n’ pop stores will contribute to the survival of some communities, but the economic transformations required in suburban America at the end of the oil era will be painful.
South Manhattan  New York  New York. An aerial view from south-west.
South Manhattan, New York, New York. An aerial view from south-west.
Ester Inbar
The other major weakness of the Northeast is the big cities themselves. Take Manhattan, for example. The centerpiece of modern civilization is a massive black hole for resources. To get a feel for the quantity of resources used, consider what becomes of them. Manhattan sucks in resources from all fifty states of the union and all nations of the world. What resources does it return? Let me know if you think of one.
This is actually a rather contentious subject since many people claim that city dwellers have a smaller ecological footprint than folks living out in the countryside. In fact, I think the contradiction is quite easily explained by the fact that suburbia is often conflated with the countryside. The claim that city dwellers have a smaller footprint than suburbanites is true. High-density housing within the cities promotes a population that walks or takes public transport to most of its destinations, cutting out much of the suburban gas guzzling and occupying less land. On the other hand, cities have a huge ecological footprint. Also bear in mind that most city folk do relatively little that is productive.
Manhattanites are the top echelon of society, making the big bucks while being in the privileged position of being required to produce zero food and zero fuel. At the very pinnacle of society (in a roundabout sense) are the cadres of bond traders, hedge fund managers, stockbrokers, and all those other “money types” who not only don’t have to produce anything but, frankly, don’t even have to value-add to anything. They simply trade whatever they can to make a profit. Supposedly, they keep the markets ticking and healthy by winnowing out the poor performers like predators taking out the antelope with the bum leg.
Filled with people like these, and the people who feed them, clothe them, and teach their kids to play the harpsichord―and the harpsichord salesmen, I suppose―big cities are a huge sinkhole for resources, and they are critically dependent on the continued availability of those resources. I’m afraid we won’t be able to support quite so many nonproducers in the coming years. It might be time to bob down to Wall Street and offer out some farm implements and maps showing Dorothy the way back to Kansas.
The economic prospects for the United States are extremely complicated. The world’s (current) sole superpower possesses some of the biggest opportunities to make an effective transition through the end of the petroleum interval. It is the most technologically advanced nation in the world and has access to significant resources and wealth―and significant developments should be expected in alternative energy, among other things. The country also has a very strong agricultural base and significant opportunities exist for the maintenance of effective food production systems.
But at the same time that we enjoy some of the greatest advantages, we are also saddled with some of the biggest problems. Much of our population and infrastructure is located in inhospitable and resource-poor regions, many areas are vulnerable to climate change, and America is by far the world’s biggest consumer of liquid fuels. Its growth and economic dominance has been built around the availability of huge volumes of these liquid fuels at low cost. The cost is climbing, the supply is about to go into decline, and the American dream is in peril. The United States will remain a powerful and important country into the foreseeable future, but President Obama and his successors had better get things right or the American dream will increasingly become the American nightmare.
Tomorrow, the final excerpt on looks at the potential of a nuclear-hydrogen economy...
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