Viewpoint: Getting ready for chaos—the aftermath of cheap oil

America’s economy is based on urban sprawl, the continuous development of suburbs and related industries. It can only continue through huge infusions of cheap oil, but the age of such oil is ending.

So what happens if that necessary petroleum is inadequate or unavailable? The formula is fairly simple: if the oil industry can bring that black gold to market fast enough to meet demand, the economy will keep on ticking. When demand outstrips supply, growth [development] will stop.

That means oil prices will soar until it is high enough to force demand downward. After a period, supply and demand will match up again. In this country, demand is still growing. According to Ryan McGreal, editor of, a Canadian Web site, the recent spike in pump prices was not because of less oil being pumped but because of maxxed out refining capacity. Still, the industry is rapidly approaching the point where the rate of production will top out.

From then on, each year will see less oil produced and even higher prices. What follows after that is a frightening and grim scenario that most are not aware of or even suspecting.

The coming energy crunch will end our present car-crazy suburban lifestyle and force us to adopt alternative ways. McGreal says if cities don’t plan now for the energy crisis, many won’t survive it.

In many places, early signs of declining oil are putting hefty pressures on municipal budgets. In Los Angeles, police and fire budgets have been devastated, while the mass transit authority there is 40 percent over its budget. There are hints that emergency services may have to be reduced if fuel costs get too much higher.

So far, Rockford has not been too adversely affected by this situation. Chris Black, central services manager for the city, said the local fire department is “18 or 19 percent over budget for the year. We anticipate we probably will have to increase the budget 30 percent over last year.”

Black added: “Certainly, there are some additional costs over last year, but we have seen our revenue bouncing back. We try to set the price per gallon for wholesale gasoline. We’ve been doing that early on in the budget process.” He admits it is difficult to forecast where those prices will be. “It’s difficult to look in the crystal ball,” he said.

Black said the police department’s fuel budget is about 10 to 12 percent over its limit. There is no expectation that cutbacks will be needed unless fuel prices really skyrocket. Deputy Chief Chet Epperson said: “Right now, it (price) is no issue. I assume we would buy fuel at a good price.”

Epperson added that the public need not worry about any future cuts in police service. Should higher fuel prices create problems, he said, “we would look at cost-saving mechanisms; we have to answer the calls. There would not be a public safety issue.”

Recent news reports indicate Rockford Mass Transit is seeing an increase in ridership, especially among the low-wage workforce. These are the people who are hit first by economic forces in collapse, and they are the ones dependent on public transportation.

Lisa Brown, public relations specialist for the Rockford Mass Transit District, said RMTD just completed its fiscal year. “We started budgeting last March,” she said, “and we budgeted for an increase (in prices). We don’t pay taxes on fuel, and we can lock in the lowest prices, so we have some flexibility.”

Brown said the fuel budget was increased about 7 percent over last year, or $150,000. As for any future reduction in service, she said: “We don’t anticipate any (price) effect on service. We hope it (price) will level off. We can adjust accordingly. We have a contingency plan that includes a review of fare structure. It might mean a fare increase. We would look at that before cutting service.”

So, if fossil fuel resources become inadequate, what happens to the bus service, the emergency services and public works? Does Rockford have a contingency plan to carry us through such circumstances?

“We’ve never been in a position where we had to look into conservancy mode,” Black said. “In certain instances, we’re not going to have much of a choice.”

Think of what could happen in the big cities like Los Angeles—dependent on the car to get around—when the prices get so high the urban poor will be unable to afford driving and will bank on mass transit. What if mass transit can’t supply the service or only a little of it? Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne once wrote “they pick up a gun, or a brick or a stone.” Don’t believe it can’t happen here!

Already, we have seen the murder in Alabama of a service station attendant who tried to thwart a $50 drive-off theft. Will we see armed guards at our service stations in the near future? Will locking gas caps become a hot retail item?

Despite abundant evidence, there are still those who believe there is no growing decline in oil production, and we have nothing whatever to worry about. James H. Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, quipped: “The accepted idea is that since America outsourced most of its heavy industry to China and elsewhere, we now have an economy that runs just fine on Tic-tacs and Diet Pepsi, and oil is not in the picture anymore.”

Kunstler said one of the delusional ideas floating around out there is that some magic market mechanism will produce nick-of-time replacements for the vanishing oil. He said that reveals an even more delusional underlying belief, that technology and energy are the same thing. Out of oil? Get new technology.

As Kunstler sees it, the U.S. economy today is not much more than “running 200 million motor vehicles around the suburban metroplexes to serve more slapped together McHousing developments, big box stores, and fried chicken huts.”

Yet, much of the national media continue to perpetuate the idea of endless extreme dependence on the automobile to carry out “the American dream.” They see no problem with that; it will just go on and on, despite the fact that natural resources are finite.

What, then, can we and our communities do to prepare ourselves for the storm ahead? Here in America, some 70 percent of the oil we use goes for transportation, mostly on roads and highways and into private cars and trucks. Another 30 percent is used to make plastics, asphalt and other things. We cannot continue this practice, which means the prime mover role of the car will end.

To begin with, McGreal says, we must stop investing gargantuan sums in highways, and develop light rail systems instead for intra-urban transportation. Then we need to convert our existing highways into rail lines. Trains are 10 times more energy efficient than trucks for moving goods and people. City streets should be designed to be shared with small electric vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, and others as well as motor vehicles.

Kunstler and others explain that transportation is closely linked to land use. We must change the building patterns that streets serve. When it comes to energy depletion, building more sprawled-out subdivisions simply forces more use of cars and wipes out farmland, which will become increasingly valuable.

McGreal said public transportation is not a viable choice in these far-flung subdivisions because population density is too low to make either buses or light rail cost-effective. Distance from necessary services forces people to drive to reach them.

We need to rehab existing older buildings to make them energy-efficient, and rework our cities to create a more compact environment where vital services are within walking distance. New houses must be energy cost-effective. It is possible to build houses that utilize passive solar heating and heavy insulation so that no furnace is needed, thus saving many energy dollars.

Cities increasingly will have to alter zoning rules that encourage sprawl, deep set-backs, parking requirements and other restrictions. Building codes need to be changed to promote more energy saving design.

No longer should we subsidize developers who build on farmland. They sho

uld be encouraged to build on brownfields, upgrade old buildings, and allow different uses to coexist. Incentives to build more sprawling subdivisions make absolutely no sense.

We also need to recognize the threat of seasonal storms like Hurricane Katrina to potentially disrupt oil supply. Not only can these storms damage or destroy oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, but they can wreak heavy damage on coastal cities where oil port infrastructure, refineries and distribution facilities are located.

Besides all this, we must find ways to reduce the consumption of electricity and water. Both will become scarcer and more expensive in future years. Power plants, which feed the electricity grid, are fueled by natural gas. Much of that comes from Canada, but its production will peak around 2010. After that, we will have to look elsewhere.

Obviously, the first and foremost step is conservation, then rising use of whatever alternative energies are available. Meantime, we need to get that contingency plan in place and begin thinking about what may happen as the social fabric unravels.

From the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2005, issue

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