When Energy Demand Exceeds Supply: Impacts on Transportation and Cities

Read Time: 7 minutes

June 28, 2006, 7:00 AM PDT

By Jessica Roder

Does your city have a Plan B? Without a plan for an oil-free existence, cities around the world may face drastic changes, according to a recent symposium in Winnipeg, Manitoba about the approaching energy shortage. Jessica Roder offers her perspective on the symposium's guidance for addressing the inevitable challenges of reduced supplies, and a new hope for peak oil planning.

Jessica RoderNow available in a Planetizen Podcast are highlights of a speech given at this symposium by James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency.

The recent relocation of the Centre for Sustainable Transportation to Winnipeg, Manitoba and the Centre's collaboration with the Institute of Urban Studies to bring a symposium on peak oil to this city has given me new hope. When I moved to Winnipeg two years ago the plans for a bus rapid transit system had just been killed and a massive new suburban development approved. The city seemed oblivious to the energy crisis looming on the horizon and how the urban form they were creating would amplify it. I was therefore thrilled by the number of city staff that attended the one-day symposium "When Energy Demand Exceeds Supply: Impacts on Transportation and Cities", held in Winnipeg on April 19, 2006. Hopefully the learning they took away from the day will be disseminated into city practices and policies in the near future.

The symposium featured six speakers throughout the day, and ended with a panel discussion. James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, spoke at a free public lecture in the evening. The symposium concluded that peak oil is only the beginning of our worries; climate change, and natural gas, food and water shortages will compound the problem and soon be even more disruptive to cities and humanity than oil shortages. Demand-side management is very effective and must be emphasized immediately in order to curb oil use as it will be more difficult to change our lifestyles once a crisis point is reached.

Hitting the Peak

Dr. Bill Buhay and John Mawdsley started off the conference by providing context on the world oil situation and discussing projections for future supply and demand. According to Buhay, a paleoclimatologist from the University of Winnipeg, since 1980 the world has been consuming more oil than has been discovered. The world consumes 1 billion barrels of oil every 12 days, but we don't even discover that much in a year. The risk is not in running out of original-oil-in-place, but in running out of recoverable oil, or the oil that can be physically and economically extracted from the ground. With Saudi Aramco declaring on April 11th that their fields are declining annually at a 2% rate, most countries in the world now admit they have hit their own oil "peak".

Stuart Ramsey, a transportation engineer and planner in British Columbia, added later that food and water supplies, and climate would be destabilizing soon. Mawdsley, the senior vice-president and oil & gas analyst for Raymond James Ltd, emphasized that oil is not our only problem, but that soon natural gas will also be in short supply. This is disconcerting to say the least. Mawdsley suggested that the only way to slow down the problem of peak oil is through pricing, but I am skeptical. High prices will bring demand down and make it more economical to extract the harder-to-reach oil but will not solve the fundamental problem of humanity's unlimited desire for growth, one that has been fed on oil for over 100 years.

The Right Honourable Edward Schreyer, former Governor General of Canada, feels it is government's role to implement change. While I believe that grassroots action and altering peoples' behaviour is essential for creating change I agree there is also a place for government policies that encourage or even impose reform. Can government policies inform public opinion? Schreyer criticised the Canadian government for not doing enough about the energy issue. He framed it eloquently by saying that Canada's House of Commons is supposed to be the custodian of our common resource base. Instead, said Schreyer, they are more dilettantes than stewards.

Plan A and Plan B

As a future city planner, to me the most interesting talks were given by Dr. Richard Gilbert and Stuart Ramsey. Both have had success working with, and for, different city councils on the oil issue. They each presented best and worst case scenarios (Plans A and B) for dealing with energy shortages and outlined immediate actions that will need to be taken to mitigate shortages in a crisis situation. It is promising that municipalities are beginning to take these issues seriously and devise potential ways of dealing with them. Perhaps Winnipeg will follow their lead.

Dr. Gilbert, of the Centre for Sustainable Transportation, debunked many of the touted alternatives to fossil fuels. He favours the development of 'grid-connected' vehicles. This concept, which relies on vehicle connection to a citywide electric grid, was exemplified in his report, Hamilton: The Electric City. It is a comprehensive examination of ways that the city of Hamilton, Ontario, can prepare for an energy crisis through changes in transportation, buildings, and land-use planning -- an economic development strategy as much as a "peak oil" document.

Ramsey described Plan A as relatively easy to implement. In British Columbia's Greater Vancouver area, many steps are being taken already. Vancouver is not only very energy-efficient, it is one of the best cities in the world in which to live. This illustrates that practices adopted to reduce energy consumption do not have to be painful, they can in fact improve quality of life. Plan B -- a worst-case scenario -- will need much more creative solutions. At that point a city cannot just increase transit capacity by buying more buses to put on the roads because every other city will also suddenly want buses. Ramsey proposed some innovative solutions such as school buses being used for the public during off hours when they are sitting idle, for example.

Downscaling Systems

Kunstler emphasized that the developed world needs to drastically downscale the complex systems it relies on, such as food, transportation, and modes of habitation. According to Kunstler, life will, out of necessity, become much more localized. While Kunstler generally spouts doomsday scenarios that reinforce my own dire views, he ended by saying he is hopeful about the future, stating that we simply "need to put our shoulder to the wheel and make things happen, not sit around watching porn and eating cheesedoodles".

This leads to the big question, really: how do we get people to do that? They are happy watching porn and eating cheesedoodles and the majority seem to avoid thinking about the issues discussed at this symposium. An audience member suggested that another conference on the same issue should be organized shortly to introduce the expertise of the arts and social research communities into the debate. We need to learn how to change cultural values quickly, and on a large scale. Massive public movement and government cooperation towards a common goal occurred in many countries during the war effort for WWII and the quest to put a man on the moon. Surely we can mobilize in this fashion again in order to allow continued human prosperity on the earth.

Kunstler predicts increasing conflict between the U.S. and Canada, particularly over NAFTA, which obliges Canada to maintain at least the same amount of export goods, such as natural gas and oil, as the year before. The audience laughed somewhat nervously at his suggestion that the U.S. might try to annex Alberta, or even break up Canada entirely so that they can entertain different relations with different regions. NAFTA is already creating conflict that will surely only get worse as shortages loom; annexation seems a touch melodramatic but is nevertheless a scary notion I had not previously considered.

I was pleased with the breadth of people attending the symposium. The issue of peak oil is one that will affect everybody and people from all walks of life will need to cooperate to reduce the impact it will have on our lives. The goal is to try and reduce the chaos and ease the transition to a new way of living. I think every citizen has a role to play, but government and industry need to step up to the plate sooner rather than later. Increasing the supply of oil and developing the infrastructure to use it more wisely can be a slow and expensive process. Decreasing the demand for oil can be relatively cheap and quick to implement. Canadians, and citizens of every nation, need to begin doing both with more conviction than we have been. Local governments do not need to wait for the state or province capital to acknowledge that there is a problem before they start acting. By working on Plan A now, Canadian cities can hopefully delay the need to implement Plan B. As Kunstler put it, "people get what they deserve, not what they expect, and if we work to make change happen, we will get change." Let's get to work!

Jessica Roder is a Master's of City Planning student at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba, Canada.

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