What will it take to end our oil addiction?

Energy economics expert Craig Severance has written a sequel toPeak oil production coming sooner than expected.”

It’s time we moved on to something else, or this is going to kill us.

Not only are world oil supplies running out, but what oil is still left is proving very dirty to obtain.  We need to kick our oil addiction now if we expect to preserve any hopes of economic prosperity, or unspoiled habitats.

“This is What the End of the Oil Age Looks Like.”

We have the Deepwater Horizon oil spill now precisely because the easy to obtain oil is already tapped. You don’t drill in mile deep waters if you have somewhere else you could go.

The worst is yet to come. If we don’t kick oil now, we will see more disasters as oil companies move to the Arctic offshore, clear more forests for tar sands, and rape the American West to develop oil shale.  Worldwide droughts, floods and dead seas will also ensue from global warming caused from burning oil.

Richard Heinberg of Post Carbon Institute said it best: “This is what the end of the oil age looks like. The cheap, easy petroleum is gone; from now on, we will pay steadily more and more for what we put in our gas tanks””more not just in dollars, but in lives and health, in a failed foreign policy that spawns foreign wars and military occupations, and in the lost integrity of the biological systems that sustain life on this planet. The only solution is to do proactively, and sooner, what we will end up doing anyway as a result of resource depletion and economic, environmental, and military ruin: end our dependence on the stuff.”

We Can Do That. I said in my recent Peak Oil article “The End of the World as We Know It” that we need to adapt to Peak Oil, but we can do that. This article explains how.

[JR:  Craig Severance is co-author of “The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power” (Praeger 1976) and a former Assistant to the Chairman and to Commerce Counsel, Iowa State Commerce Commission.  This is a repost from his Energy Economy Online blog.]

How Do We Use Oil? To know why we are addicted to oil and where we might most readily save it, we must know how we use it.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration publishes data on oil use, yet typically in broad categories such as commercial, residential, industrial, and transportation.   In a seminal 2002 work Ending the Oil Age consultant Charles Komanoff poured over thousands of lines of raw EIA data to get more detail on our actual end uses of oil, shown below:

U.S. Oil Use Breakdown 2000 by End Use

Author’s graph from Komanoff data

What is no surprise in the above graph is that transportation — for air and land Passenger Travel (47%) and moving Freight (18%) — used 65% of all U.S. oil use in the year 2000, about the same as today.  Our biggest challenge is clearly transportation, which I will discuss below.  However, Komanoff’s detailed work showed there are big opportunities to cut oil use, where it simply does not  have to be used at all.

Non-Essential Uses of Oil. There are many ways to produce heat.  In an oil-constrained world, we must move to other energy sources — natural gas, solar, and electricity — to heat buildings and hot water, provide industrial process heat, to generate electricity, and to run oil refineries.  Komanoff found that in the year 2000, fully 15% of all U.S. oil use was oil burned to produce heat for these end uses.

Buildings. According to EIA, today there are still about 8 million homes, mostly in the Northeast, that use heating oil, as well as many older commercial buildings.  This use of oil should be completely eliminated through conversion of all oil-heated buildings either to natural gas, or to efficient ground source electric heat pumps.

Over 30 years since the Arab oil embargo, these buildings have yet to be converted.  Clearly, more direct action is needed — a requirement that buildings cannot be resold without conversion off oil.

This conversion-off-oil requirement should be part of a broader requirement that all buildings must have an energy upgrade to implement life-cycle-cost-efffective energy measures at time of sale.  To finance these upgrades, lenders should be required to fund cost-effective energy upgrades without affecting buyer qualification. Saving on energy bills actually helps borrowers afford their loan payments.

Of course, if older buildings have to do energy upgrades, Congress must insure we stop building new buildings wrong.  The House Energy and Climate Bill’s new energy building codes would do just that.

Energy savings throughout the economy, such as through better building codes, will be needed to free up natural gas and electricity resources.  This can then allow oil users to switch to these other fuels without overly straining supplies and prices.

Process Heat. While industry has slowly reduced its use of oil for process heat, oil is still used extensively and hence there are still opportunities to eliminate this use of oil. Even oil companies have been open to using solar energy to provide high-temperature steam.

Electricity Generation. Today about 1% of total U.S. oil use is still burned to generate electricity. This is primarily in the Northeast, the Southeast, and Hawaii.   Solar resources, which are well timed to shave peak demand, may cut oil used to generate electricity at peak times even in areas with no natural gas infrastructure.

We Have Met the Enemy: Oil Used in Transportation. EIA data show in 2007 the U.S. devoted over 2/3 of our oil usage to transportation, in the ways shown below:

U.S. Transportation Oil Use 2007

Chart by Author using data from EIA, 2007

It is Us! The lion’s share of oil use in the U.S. is for transportation, and the lion’s share of that is just to move ourselves around.  The oil used for cars, pickups, and SUV’s is for moving people.  Komanoff found that 85% of the oil used for air travel was also for people, as opposed to air freight.

All told, therefore, about 70% of transportation oil use (not counting the heavy pickups over 8,500 GVW included in  the “Medium to Heavy Trucks” category) is our use of vehicles to move our bodies from one place to another.  That’s almost half of total U.S. oil use.  It really is us.

Good News and Bad News.
That’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is that it’s personal — we have to change what we drive.

The good news is that it’s possible.  It really doesn’t take a Hummer or F250 to move people around.  We all know someone with a Prius who gets 50 mpg and loves their car.   That’s about twice the average fuel economy of the U.S. passenger car and light truck fleet today, just using existing technology.

Super-Efficient Cars Coming. Later this year, and not a moment too soon, GM will introduce its new Plug-In Hybrid Chevy Volt, and Nissan will begin delivering its all-electric car the Leaf.  European automakers have also begun marketing efficient diesels to the American market.  The sampling below shows a little of what is happening:

Nissan Leaf

Town Car. The Nissan Leaf is a “town car”. It runs strictly on electricity, with a designed 100 mile range per battery charge, to calm  trip anxiety about running out of battery power.  It costs $32,780 before a $7,500 tax credit is subtracted.  Some states also have electric vehicle tax credits to further reduce the cost of the car. Will it sell? Nissan just announced its first year U.S. model run of 13,000 Leafs is already 100% pre-sold.

Chevy Volt

Town & Country Car. The Chevy Volt is designed to go 40 miles on electric charge only, so most days drivers won’t use any gasoline at all. When the battery runs down, the gas engine kicks in to recharge it, so you can just keep going if you want to take the Volt on a trip.  You pay more for this flexibility — the Volt’s price is expected to be over $40,000 before tax credits.  Yet, a “town & country” car that  averages over 100 mpg of gasoline is revolutionary.

Audi Green Police Ad

Clean Diesels. As anyone who watched the last Super Bowl knows, German auto manufacturers have their own solution to increased fuel economy — super efficient diesels.  For instance, the Audi A3 TDI featured in the Super Bowl “Green Police” spoof advertises 42 mpg highway mileage.

Zapcar Xebra

Errand Vehicles. The Zapcar is simply interesting.  It is a 4-seater classified as a 3-wheel motorcycle. At only about $12,000 (minus half that in tax credits), this is a cheap car to own. I talked to the car’s owner, and she said her Zapcar will go 40 mph top speed, for about a 20 mile range. The rooftop solar panel actually contributes significantly to its charging.  It has a small heater but no A/C.  If you liked the original VW Bug, you might like this.

Standards to Increase Efficiency of U.S. Vehicles. On April 1st, the EPA announced increased Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards through model year 2016   On May 21st, President Obama further directed the EPA to update standards for light duty trucks and passenger cars for later model years, and for the first time  set fuel economy standards for new medium-to-heavy duty trucks.

If you’ve wondered how automakers have been able to meet CAFE standards but still sell giant pickups, consider the “Medium-to-Heavy” trucks which will now be regulated for the first time.  This category includes not only 18-wheelers (which may achieve a 25% increase in fuel efficiency with current technology) but also “medium-duty” trucks such as F250’s and Hummers, which had been exempt from economy standards as they exceed 8,500 GVW.

Using normal turnover rates, these new standards have been projected to increase new vehicle efficiency by up to 30% by 2020 and up to 50% by 2030.

Will Change Happen Fast Enough? The fuel economy standards are a minimum for new vehicles only. However, they may not bring change fast enough to stave off serious effects on the economy if world oil prices spike soon, and consumers do not replace their old vehicles fast enough.

The U.S. has a vehicle fleet of over 240 million cars and trucks, with sales of roughly 10 to 14 million per year.   At normal replacement rates, older vehicles remain in use around 20 years.

Cash for Clunkers. One popular Idea to accelerate efficiency is a renewed “Cash for Clunkers” program.  It can be powerful because it requires gas guzzlers to be scrapped.  To be worth doing, a renewed program should require at least a 40% reduction in fuel use for the new vehicle compared to the scrapped clunker.  Note that % reduction in fuel use (rather than mpg increase) saves more fuel, and would also leave higher-mpg older vehicles still in the fleet for used car buyers.

To pay for a renewed Cash for Clunkers campaign, a “Feebate” program might apply where new vehicles with lower mpg would be assessed a Fee based on poor fuel economy.  All the funds collected from these gas guzzler Fees would be immediately Rebated — hence Fee-Rebate or “Feebate” — to buyers of more fuel efficient vehicles.

The “Truck Testosterone” Factor. The wild card in reducing our personal oil use is the love affair Americans have developed with giant pickup trucks and SUV’s.  Led by decades of advertising from Detroit, these vehicles have gained steadily in market share, vastly increasing our nation’s oil use.

There simply is no Prius Hummer or F350 Volt, nor is there likely to be.  The laws of physics dictate against super-efficient mileage for such heavy vehicles.

The laws of the U.S. Tax Code, however, still dictate that business owners must buy a truck over 6,000 Gross Vehicle Weight to qualify for tax write-offs.  This insanity in U.S. tax law must be fixed, as there are 25 million small business owners in America, who often set the social norms for others.  The “boss’ car” is now a heavy truck.

Those who don’t really need a big truck should do the patriotic thing and haul their bodies around more efficiently. Leave the big truck at the work site where it’s really needed.

Zero-X electric motorcycle

What about the macho factor?  A leather jacket and a hot electric motorcycle bring just as much respect from the guys, and you don’t have to ask an American soldier to die to fill your tank.

What Next? These more efficient vehicles can help us get through the next couple of decades, but beyond that, we will need to move almost completely off oil for our transportation needs. Measures to combat global warming call for an 80% reduction by 2050 in our carbon emissions — and the Peak Oil supply curve looks to fall almost as sharply.

Start Workin’ on the Railroad All the Live-Long Day.  My generation (Baby Boomer) sits on a cusp of history. Within our own family histories, we can look back at a time before the Age of Oil, and look forward to see its end.  It’s really not all that long.

My grandfather grew up in a world before air travel, and the affordable personal vehicle was unknown. Yet, steel rails connected the country, and the leaders of America’s largest cities already understood that a city needs a subway system to prosper. Almost all long-distance travel and freight hauling was by rail.

I look at my one year old grandson, and I realize he will see the end of the Age of Oil.  He won’t need to ride a horse to get around, as we now have electric cars for local use.   Yet, there won’t be any electric airplanes, and we need to save what little oil we will have left to use as feedstock for essential products, construction and farm use, national defense, and intercontinental air travel.

We will need the steel rails once again to perform virtually all long-distance freight hauling and travel.

Freight Hauling. It already makes sense to move long-haul freight off the roads and onto the rails.  Federal Railroad Administration studies have shown rail freight is 2 to 5 times more fuel-efficient for the same routes as long-haul trucking.

Comparison of Rail and Truck Fuel Efficiency

Source: Federal Railroad Administration

We need to move the big trucks off the highways anyway, or we will all pay much higher vehicle registration fees and gas taxes.

Essentially all road damage other than weathering is caused by heavy trucks, yet the bulk of road costs are paid by drivers of personal vehicles.  One 40 ton truck can easily cause as much damage to roadways as 60,000 cars.  This has always been a massive subsidy from drivers of personal vehicles to heavy trucks — and it’s about to get worse.

It’s going to get ugly as we choose to use less fuel, because we now pay for road maintenance primarily with gas taxes. Highway officials nationwide are already calling for higher fees and gas taxes as they see we will now use much less fuel, or no fuel at all, for our cars.

Drivers need to stand up to this and insist that trucks pay the higher costs for the damage they do,  If tolls are set, they should be levied on the vehicles that inflict the damage. This will change the economics to move more freight onto the rails.

There is no downside to ending the subsidy of truck freight — our roads will be safer and less congested, road maintenance costs will go down, and our nation will create jobs by saving on imported oil.

Rebuilding the Rail Network. Though we spent our nation’s resources to build the rail network, railroads have been ripping up track for decades as they were unable to compete with subsidized truckers.

When I was the finance manager of the Iowa Railway FInance Authority, Iowa worked hard to maintain its essential rail branchline network, as did many other states.  However, many lines were ripped up across the nation, and we may now need to rebuild them.  The highest priority will be improving and double-tracking railroad main lines, while branch lines to key areas may also need to be rebuilt or refurbished.

Electrifiying the Rails. The rest of the world is in the process of electrifying their rail lines, yet the U.S. has barely begun this task.  Railroads can be even more energy efficient with electrified lines, as locomotives can be lighter and more powerful.  Regenerative braking downhill feeds electricity into the grid to help power locomotives climbing up the other side.

Most importantly, an electric railroad network would not be reliant upon oil.  America’s own resources of solar, geothermal, hydro, and wind power can move it.  Railroad rights of way could even work in concert with renewables, e.g. to provide transmission corridors and millions of acres which could be covered with solar PV.

Image: US High Speed Rail Association

High Speed Passenger Rail.
There will be no electric airplanes, and the hydrogen fuel economy seems always to be 50 years away.  In a few decades, it may even be hard to take a Prius or Volt on a long distance trip as oil supplies shrink.

Americans may be surprised to see how far behind the U.S. is compared to other countries. Nations who are spending hundreds of billions to implement electrified high speed passenger rail networks.  include not only Japan and the European Union but also China, Argentina, South Korea and Taiwan.  Passengers travel in quiet and comfort aboard high tech trains zipping along at breathtaking speeds over 150 mph.

Truly high speed passenger rail is a challenge, because it typically requires its own dedicated tracks separate from freight rail lines and grade-separated from road traffic.  High up-front costs mean government must be involved, as with all other transportation modes.

American high speed rail may finally be ready to roll out of the station, however, as the Obama administration stimulus package included $8 billion for several high speed rail projects.  The Florida project linking Tampa-Orlando-Miami is the most “shovel-ready”. We need to fully fund — and complete — several U.S. projects now to prove HSR is real.

We have a long way to go, but the rail lines offer a secure path into the future if we keeping a-workin’ on them.

Adapting is What We Do. Actions we take now to kick our oil addiction can help us adapt to a world of shrinking oil supplies.  It will be very tough, as we have waited far too long, complacent with the way we now live.

The way we now live, however, is destroying our world, as the BP oil disaster has shown.  The next shoe to fall will be Peak Oil, which will slam our economy to the ground if we remain oil-dependent.

Those whose vision of the future assumed that everything would continue the way it has been, will not get what they want.  Yet, we can adapt — that is what humans do best.

We just need to remember the famous motto of adaptation:

You can’t always get you want, but you can get what you need.

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41 Responses to What will it take to end our oil addiction?

  1. Joe1347 says:

    Given the current circumstances (i.e., BP’s undersea oil volcano from hell), maybe the timings right for Administration to roll out a few simple new catch phrases to help change the public’s perception towards renewable energy.

    How about something along the lines of “There is No Such Thing as a Solar Cell or Wind Turbine spill”

  2. Jonah says:

    “What about the macho factor? A leather jacket and a hot electric motorcycle bring just as much respect from the guys, and you don’t have to ask an American soldier to die to fill your tank.”

    Those guys at Tesla must be yelling at your computer screens that you didn’t take the opportunity to mention their roadster there!

  3. Jim Groom says:

    America is always slow to move and this disaster is no exception. There will be lots of lip service, but little action. Memories last as long as the next news cycle. Perhaps when gas gets back to $4 plus per gallon the silent majority will get pissed off and run around screaming for action. We can certainly hope.

  4. Lore says:

    “What about the macho factor? A leather jacket and a hot electric motorcycle bring just as much respect from the guys, and you don’t have to ask an American soldier to die to fill your tank.”

    You’ll have to change the phrase “rolling thunder” to “rolling lightning”.

    I’m not sure consideration is being given here to how the rest of the world is poised to suck up what ever we don’t use and then some. It’s one thing to convince ourselves of the necessity of alternative low carbon output sources, it’s quite another to coerce the rest of the planet into substituting more expensive less energy dense alternatives. Especially when they all are just now tasting the fruits of cheap conspicuous consumption.

  5. Marilyn Schaepe says:

    There are ways to modify out existing cars and trucks to run on mostly water. Only by each of us doing it ourselves will things change. I am running my 99 Chrysler on a hydro fuel cell which uses mostly water and I got the kit on ebay. It is getting 50 mpg now!!

  6. Bob Wallace says:

    “It’s one thing to convince ourselves of the necessity of alternative low carbon output sources, it’s quite another to coerce the rest of the planet into substituting more expensive less energy dense alternatives. Especially when they all are just now tasting the fruits of cheap conspicuous consumption.”

    I recently came back from a few weeks in India. India has moved from a country where, a couple decades ago, a doctor might own a bike, to a country where the doctor might own a motor scooter, to a country where not only has the doctor bought a car, but so have many other people.

    India has a very good long distance rail system. I don’t envision lots of people buying cars for long distance trips, the roads are just not that good and too clogged with local traffic.

    I can really see something like the Zapcar selling well there. The price is good, the range/speed quite adequate for around town, and there’s the “don’t have to buy gas” thing.

    Long, long gas lines are not uncommon in lots of Asia. Prices are high. Being able to plug your car in when you get home and go about your business would be very attractive.

  7. Steven Johnson says:

    More efficient cars could help to some degree, but only if we also design our cities and life systems so that we no longer need to travel so much in the first place, and thus bring an abundance of economic, social, and cultural opportunities within walking distance or a short bike ride of all of us. Otherwise, if we do NOT design to reduce car usage, the benefits gained by increases in fuel efficiency will to some extent be canceled out by increased usage due to lower costs per mile, and by the increased sprawl that is promoted by the ability to travel far cheaply. We already spend enough time sitting in cars, not really being anywhere worth being, getting fat, but cities as currently designed often leave us with little choice. By reversing sprawl and replacing it with higher, denser, more livable, multi-use settlements, we can foster genuine human community while freeing up land for sustainable farming and wildlife.See the book Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature, by Richard Register for practical proposals along these lines. Isn’t it time to make re-designing the city, which is humanity’s largest artifact, one of our chief priorities?

  8. Craig,
    Great suggestions! This should be required reading at all environmental organizations, in the Congress and at the White House. I would also suggest re-electrifying public transit via trolleybuses or dual mode trolley buses.

    Excellent call on oil heat…let’s make sure the incentives favor efficiency retrofits, electric heating options like GSHPs and mini-splits, not natural gas.

    A Cash for Clunkers as you describe is probably going to yield some of the faster results.

  9. Lore says:

    “Long, long gas lines are not uncommon in lots of Asia. Prices are high. Being able to plug your car in when you get home and go about your business would be very attractive.”

    This is an interesting point. Given that they are essentially starting out fresh and the cost of fuel, why haven’t they opted for electric vehicles now instead of developing autos with internal combustion engines?

  10. hapa says:

    “you don’t have to ask an American soldier to [kill] to fill your tank”

    the surviving majority doesn’t come back the same.

  11. GFW says:

    As a person who bought an air-source heat pump two years ago, I need to point out that ground-source heat pumps are much easier to install in new construction, and are sometimes utterly impossible with existing construction.

  12. Raul says:

    I still remember how confused the coworkers got when I mentioned
    going back and forth to work on about 10 cents a day. Well that
    was about 50 cents a week. Well, about $2.50 a month. Could say
    about 25 dollars spent on energy for the year to get back and forth.
    Well, the disadvantages to me must be obvious.
    So obviously I should get a nicer electric vehicle.
    If I go for one that is twice as powerful, it would cost twice as much
    per year.
    Scientists, though, probably are smart enough to figure out how to
    do it better.

  13. Kerry says:

    Rather stunning that an article that talks about ways for personal travel to use less oil doesn’t mention one of the best and most obvious, a bicycle. The majority of personal journeys are just a mile or so and could easily be done on a bike. Replacing 1/3 to 1/2 your journeys by car on a bike will do far more to save oil/carbon than purchasing a new hybrid/electric car. And you will be healthier and happier.

  14. Bob G. says:

    What about the 13 percent of the oil is being used for “products and pavement”, according to the pie graph you show? This would seem like a ripe area for substantial savings.

  15. Jim Groom says:

    I recommend that everyone read ‘$20 Per Gallon’ by Chris Steiner, published in 2009. This wonderful book explains in great detail the results from dollar increases in gas prices. I can’t remember for sure, but I believe he takes jumps from $8, 10, 12, etc up to $20. Each jump will represent major changes in society, how we use energy and where we get it from. This is not a doom and gloom piece, but actually explains how the American people we have to make change. An example might be that a return to urban areas will occur and the cost of living in the ‘burbs’ becomes too expensive to continue.

  16. Bob Wallace says:

    Lore #9, the reason developing countries are not going directly to EVs is the same reason why we aren’t driving them. Batteries are just now “getting there”. Batteries are just achieving the ability to take multiple charge cycles and are just now becoming affordable.

    When I think of India and parts of Southeast Asia it seems that EVs are ideal. With thin film solar dropping to the $1 a watt level, lots of sun, and lots of flat rooftops for mounting panels EVs would seem to be the answer.

    Most of Asia has very good public transportation, unlike the US, so the pressure is off for long range personal transportation.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Back to Pedaling

  18. Anne says:


    The last HUMMER H3 made its way down the assembly line at the Shreveport, Louisiana plant this past week marking the end of HUMMER production and the downfall of an iconic vehicle. The last HUMMER H3 was part of a special fleet order consisting of 850 units ordered by Avis car rental. The facility was brought back online recently to complete this one last order. Since General Motors could not find a buyer they will retain the HUMMER brand and all its trademarks if they ever want to bring back a HUMMER vehicle.

  19. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    We will not end our addiction until there isn’t any. Our last drops will be spent driving from empty gas station to empty gas station. A H1 is heavy to push; start exercising now.

  20. Lore says:

    Bob Wallace #16

    “Batteries are just now “getting there”. Batteries are just achieving the ability to take multiple charge cycles and are just now becoming affordable.”

    Here is lies a problem. I don’t think batteries will become cheaper. Especially as usage goes up.

    “Mitsubishi, which plans to release its own electric car soon, estimates that the demand for lithium will outstrip supply in less than 10 years unless new sources are found.”

    Also, another not so comforting fact about lithium.

    “Speaking of negative reports, Meridian International Research does say in a 2006 report entitled “The Trouble With Lithium” that the world’s supply is limited, and concentrated in China, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Total world reserves, according to William Tahil, director of research, is just 6.2 million metric tons. “Analysis shows that a world dependent on lithium for its vehicles could soon face even tighter resource constraints than we face today with oil,” the report says.”

    Read more:

    Whether this pushes technology to innovate other solutions remains to be seen. My concern is do we have enough time to keep running from pillar to post.

  21. Philip says:

    After finishing Joseph Romm’s Hell and High Water I thought I must have missed something, so I checked the index for references to planes, trains, buses, boats, bicycles, light rail, walking, and mass transit, and there was nothing. The only means of transportation Romm found relevant to write about in the context of global warming was the automobile, and Climate Progress’ writing on transportation is plagued by the same narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination. Here the focus is essentially the same. It’s not about analyzing and optimizing our transportation systems, but about changing what we drive. (The section on railroads is welcome, but not sufficient.)

    I don’t understand how one can write about the relation of transportation to peak oil and climate change without looking into transportation needs and real-life socio-economic factors. Many people do not drive,
    but are in need of mobility. There are those who are too young, those who are too old, those who are too poor, those who are handicapped, and those who are able to but choose not to drive. We need mass transit,
    and here it might be appropriate to compare the amount of energy consumed per passenger in cars as opposed to buses, subways and light rails. We might take this a step further and look at the energy costs of the total life cycles – production, use, and scrapping or recycling – of the different energy consuming modes of transportation. I’m reasonably certain that improving and expanding mass transit would be more beneficial than forcing people into cars.

    Then there are other alternatives that are even better, biking and walking. More and more American cities are seeing bikes as a serious means of transportation, rather than as a recreational toy. More biking and walking doesn’t only result in lower oil consumption and lower CO2 emissions, but also in better health. A recent post by Loren Mooney, Bikes Are a City’s Indicator Species, mentioned that 40% of all trips in Copenhagen, Denmark are by bike. She also cited a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate that as many as 40% of car trips are 2 miles or less, a distance that in most cases should not necessitate the use of a car. So, instead of limiting the discussion to the benefits derived from improved gas mileage, wouldn’t it make sense to examine how much oil the country could save If 40% of trips in and around America’s cities were by bike? (And, one might ask how much pollution the country would be spared?)

    For a look at one city’s attempt to deal with the oncoming of peak oil see: San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force Report. Chapter 6 deals with transportation.
    For a more critical view of an automobile based transportation policy than that presented by Climate Progress, see John Whitelegg’s short summary of the Heidelberg, Germany Environment and Forecasting Institute’s report, Dirty from Cradle to Grave.

  22. prokaryote says:

    Getting off of dirty oil.

    Japanese Researchers Invent Elastic Water
    Elastic water, a new substance invented by researchers at Tokyo University, is a jelly-like substance made up of 95% water along with two grams of clay and a small amount of organic materials. As is, the all-natural substance is perfect for medical procedures, because it’s made of water, poses no harm to people and is perfect for mending tissue. And, if the research team can increase the density of this exciting new substance, it could be used in place of our current oil based plastics for a host of other things.

  23. Alex says:

    What about people like me who want a fast car like a Ford Mustang? Are you going to tell me to give up on my dream?

    Because I’m not, and telling me to give it up is a fast way to turn me off and other people like me.

  24. prokaryote says:

    Alex, a car without combustion engine can be fast too.

    Bugatti Experiments With All-Electric Supercar Based on Audi E-Tron

  25. Bob Wallace says:

    Lore – Batteries seem to have dropped from an estimated $1,000 per kilowatt hour to somewhere under $400 per kWh. People who are doing their own gas – EV conversions report buying lithium batteries for around $350 retail. A lot of the cost comes from manufacturing scale.

    There is confusion over the amount of lithium currently being processed and the amount of lithium in the Earth. It makes no sense to process more of anything than one can sell. China came on line a few years back with cheaper processed lithium and other processing plants shut down, including one in North Carolina.

    If/when demand picks up more processing will start happening. Just as happened a couple of years with processed silicon for solar panels.

    Calculations are that Bolivia has enough lithium in its salt deserts to build batteries for 4 billion EVs. That’s enough to produce a car for about every two people when our world population peaks a few decades from now.

    Many other countries such as the US and Canada have lithium deposits which could be extracted. Plans are underway to extract lithium from geothermal plant exhaust water around the Salton Sea. That water is rich in lithium.

    Furthermore, lithium is not consumed but can be recycled when the batteries are played out. There are already recycling plants.

  26. prokaryote says:

    Thanks Bob Wallace, beside there is progress to batterie efficiency/life.

    Tin-sulfur-lithium-ion battery as alternative to conventional lithium batteries

    With a specific energy of about 1100 W h/kg, the new cell surpasses all previous lithium-metal-free batteries. With this large value of energy density, this new battery may also finds its way as power source of choice for electric vehicle applications.

  27. prokaryote says:

    New solar generation products, being offered in Japan starting next month, combine Sanyo Electric Co.’s solar technology with Panasonic’s sales networks in appliances and housing, said Panasonic Executive Vice President Toshihiro Sakamoto.

    Panasonic will be able to provide overall energy-saving systems for homes that will include rechargeable batteries, heating and air conditioning, security systems and Net-linking gadgets besides solar panels, which will all be hooked up to each other, he said.

    Homes will be able to save on utility costs by selling surplus power from solar power generation systems, and using water heaters at night when utility rates are cheaper, he said.

    “You will be living with virtually zero carbon-dioxide emissions through creating, saving, storing and managing energy,” Sakamoto said in Tokyo.

  28. Fr. Tom says:

    The denizens of the far denier right would tell us (see Charles Krauthamer’s editorial over the weekend) that if we would just open up ANWAR in Alaska all of our problems would be over. Their take is that the “liberal” opposition to drilling in the tundra is “forcing” Big Oil to drill ever deeper in ever more risky Gulf of Mexico adventures. Somehow these people keep adding 2 + 2 + 2 and getting 1.

  29. Lore says:

    Bob Wallace #26

    I believe there is a strong correlation between early oil reserves and that of lithium. While just a few short years ago the world had $20/barrel oil, it now faces current prices at four times that and likely to go much higher in the not too distant future. We may only have the next few years by some reports.

    I think it’s important to remember that Peak Oil isn’t about running out of oil. There will still be lots of oil in the near future. It’s about what we will pay for an ever harder and limited resource to extract. Just as with lithium, if we follow the growth and extraction curve. All the easy stuff leading to short term price decreases could be used up in a few decades. There was a reason why the lithium mines were shut down in North Carolina. In 1998, shortly after Chilean brine operations slashed prices to gain market share, North Carolina’s lithium mining operations closed.

    My main point of what’s most disturbing is that the majority of the easy and cheap sources of lithium are being held within a few countries that are not always in alignment with our ideals and needs. Will they at the very least be our next OPEC?

    Do I believe in electric vehicles? Yes I do, the short answer, but I also think it’s foolish to bet the limited economic resources we now posses on running headlong into a technology that may put us back into the very same position we are in now. Rather, electric vehicles, as I see them, can be a very useful bridge into powering down our culture. Giving us time to right size our world for living and not as an excuse for conducting business as usual and continuing our happy motoring ways. A world with 4 billion EVs is just as insane as one with as many fossil fuel vehicles.

  30. fj2 says:

    re: “the lion’s share of that is just to move ourselves around.”

    Highly modular small lighter-than-human-weight vehicles on-and-off systems can likely reduce energy requirements and emissions to less than one percent current values including infrastructure externalities.

    Similar systems using evacuated tubes could provide mobility solutions more practical than over-land air travel in most instances at miniscule environmental footprints.

  31. Bob Wallace says:

    Lore – You might wish to read the Occurrence and Production sections of this site…

    And recognize that there is significant amounts of lithium in seawater. Extraction would not be as cheap as extracting from more concentrated sources but it would not be unreasonable.

    Between Australia, Canada, our own resources, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans I don’t think we need to worry about LPEC.

    (Four billion EVs was about giving you a feel for how not-rare lithium is. Not an attempt to set your hair on fire.)

  32. Raul says:

    yeah- a new electric bicycle. Some report that their new electric bike
    goes way to fast and precaution needs be taken so that the tires don’t
    shred from the high speeds. Seems wicked somehow.

  33. A lot of good comments here. A lot to think about. Thanks for these provocative and insightful posts. I’m worried, however about the impact of ocean acidification. Fishing is how we evolved as a species. Have you seen the studies cited at ?

    What do you think?

    Why aren’t these industries more involved in this dialogue?

  34. This is a great posting – and many comments are great, too. I posted the following ideas around 2pm Pacific but they haven’t shown up yet. I’ll break it in two and try again, with the following points:

    1. Maybe now we can un-subsidize oil
    2. What Nissan’s commitment to EVs means
    3. Many gas guzzlers can be economically PHEV’d
    4. Telecommuting has been underrated
    5. The case for Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)
    6. The trouble with (limitations of) very promising bicycling
    7. I do not relate this to at all discount high-speed rail: NASA & Boeing say PHEV airliners are a good bet to reduce airline fuel by 70% by 2030.

    1. First, we need to un-subsidize oil. This may be an opportune time politically to remove direct national fossil fuel extractor subsidies. Two types of gasoline tax increases may also be possible, especially if some of the proceeds go to national per-taxpayer rebate checks as a partial payment for extracting and fouling our collective resources, like the oil royalty checks Alaskans get (other proceeds should help fund new and retrofit EV & PHEV subsidies, etc.): 1) Revenue-neutral tax rate increases to keep funding road maintenance despite reduced consumption (it’s counter-productive to begin taxing clean energy instead), and 2) an oil price floor that is automatically raised to 80-90% of any peak price that occurs, giving consumers a little relief after each peak, but not enough to change behavior back to BOU (business as usual).

    2. Though we can find ways (some below) to use them less, our U.S. infrastructure will remain largely auto-centric for some time. In committing billions of dollars to battery and auto plants to ramp up to 500,000 EVs per year in the next few years, Nissan is making a huge informed commitment that batteries are now competitive for vehicle propulsion in cost, safety, reliability, and longevity (dependent only for the first year or two on government incentives). However, it took a decade after the introduction of the hybrid before 1% of new vehicles were hybrids. At even 10 times that rate of penetration, and 15-20 year vehicle lifetimes, it will be 20 years before we get significant oil reductions from new vehicle electrification.

    3. It turns out that, with mass produced kits, it can be economically feasible to partially or (where EV range is sufficient) fully electrify millions of our highest consumption existing vehicles – especially pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans, as well as larger vehicles except long-distance trucks – by converting them into PHEVs and EVs. And this can jump-start our oil and GHG reductions while providing idle auto factories, dealers, and repair shops with new business. Other high tech businesses nowadays make much of their income on product upgrades, but the auto industry has not yet caught on. ‘Cash for Clunkers’ could involve retrofitting rather than crushing those gas guzzlers capable of many years of further use. It can take over 40,000 miles of driving a new more-efficient vehicle before breaking even against the manufacturing energy lost by crushing a gas guzzler early, but only 8,000 miles to save more than the energy required to build and install a PHEV or EV retrofit. Check out CalCars’ new Big Fix promotion at, where we have more thoroughly developed the idea. ALTe ( and is ramping up to retrofit tens of thousands of light fleet trucks into serial PHEVs (like the Volt), starting next year, with a calculated customer payback period of just 3 years. Hevt ( has a prototype of a PHEV retrofit that is potentially cheaper, though a little less effective, because it works with rather than replacing the existing engine.

  35. 4. Telecommuting has been talked about very little but could make a huge impact. A large proportion of our workforce is now doing information, not physical, work. A lot of that could be done from homes or small, regional generic work centers that need not even be employer-specific. One regional airline that Thomas Friedman talks about (I forgot which) saves money by having all telephone ticketing and support done by a distributed at-home workforce. CalCars is a virtual organization with no corporate HQ; all work is done from home offices, with very occasional physical meetings. Internet video conferencing is well established, too, as well as tools for project management and real-time discussion and editing of documents. We don’t yet have, despite online social networks, sufficient tools to duplicate the value of professional conferences, including talks, show-and-tell booths, and especially networking, without all the travel – but one can now at least imagine them. Because the main growth limitations are cultural, e.g. bosses worried about control despite oft-demonstrated productivity improvements, what we need is a serious national (and international) promotion of replacing as much travel as possible with communications.

    5. Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is an idea whose time has got to come. The idea is that small, light individual vehicles can be tracked on light, inexpensive tracks – especially light overhead monorail lines – that can be made, like today’s roads, to go most everywhere in an urban and/or suburban environment. Computer controlled, users at their local micro-station could request one and have the next empty one arrive in seconds. They would then punch in their destination for a very quick, automated, nonstop point-to-point ride. One example is SkyTran ( PRT has a chicken-and-egg problem like that of public transportation, but the infrastructure can be lighter and less expensive, and the final result can be far more satisfying, especially in the less dense urban and suburban geography of American cities. Except when built out so extensively as to go from building to building, there is still a last-mile problem that could be bridged with bicycles (see below) or by having the tracked vehicles come off the track at the endpoints to become tiny, slow-speed neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs). I can envision developers of huge new urban or suburban developments installing a PRT system instead of local roads (except minimal, for freight), thereby gaining higher density while offering prospective residents an open, green, safe, quiet ground-level environment with PRT building-to-building and extending to a transportation hub to meet existing mass transit as well as personal and/or shared (a la Zipcar) vehicles.

    6. Bicycles, including electric-assisted ones (I have two) for extra-muscular speed and distance, can be an important piece of a future healthy transportation mix. However, their limitations are seldom mentioned along with their promise. Full-scale alternatives are still needed for then the weather is not conducive to bicycling, which is often in some parts of the country. It is difficult to carry more than a small amount of stuff (true on mass transit, too), making a lot of non-commute trips difficult or impossible by bike. I’m often filling up much of my car with stuff that has to go from one place to another. And there is still the problem of parking and/or transport on other transportation modes such as mass transit (buses, for example, can carry a few bikes, but service would have to be greatly expanded if most passengers brought their bikes along; while someone not doing so may need two bikes to commute, with parking for one at each end). A portion of existing auto parking lots could handle many more bicycles, but without containers, theft will no doubt be a far greater problem than of and from heavy, enclosed, locked vehicles. I have installed waterproof, locked motorcycle saddle bags on one bicycle so I can do light shopping without carrying everything into each store. China, by the way, already has millions of electric bicycles, and is on its way to beating the U.S, unless we become more agile, in electric automobile and truck manufacturing and use.

    7. Finally, contrary to expectations – and not to remove any emphasis on high-speed rail as airline travel for distances less than 500-1000 miles is time- and fuel-inefficient – PHEV airliners and even EV airplanes will soon be practical. In a study Boeing just did for a NASA program whose goal is a 70% reduction of new airliner fuel use by 2030, the best plan they came up with is for an advanced airliner’s first few hundred miles to be electric, with jet biofuel for longer trips and emergency reserves. This can be done with high efficiency airframes and battery advances already expected within a decade. And Bye Energy ( is working on PHEV retrofits for light piston airplanes. Check out the CAFÉ foundation’s Electric Aircraft Symposia (, where I’ve given several talks (

  36. jyyh says:

    So the Military recreation takes only 2% of the oil use? on lithium, I think there’s quite a bit of lithium salts in the ocean water, de-salination plants could possibly be one source for it (separation from sodium is a tricky step, though)

  37. Hans Zandvliet says:

    What about adding two problems and see how the one might affect the other? The alternative development pathways of the 2007 IPCC report (especially the A1FI, but even the B1 emission pathway) still assume an infinite amount of fossil fuels available to be used, which (if true) will doubtlessly lead to disastrous effects climate change. But fortunately, as peak-oil around 2012 suggests, there simply is not that much fossil carbon available anymore.

    Meanwhile; having seen Obama’s ‘heroic’ reduction proposals at Copenhagen, Lula’s dreams to inundate swathes of Amazonian rainforests with hydro-electricity dams and Russian Petro-Mafiosi who are apparently more interested in tarnishing Siberian tundra’s than selling that black poison; it appears increasingly unlikely that nations will ever be able to agree on reducing their national carbon emissions.

    But hark, hope is nigh! Just like the cavalry always comes to the rescue at the darkest hour of battle, peak-oil might just save us in time. Where all heavy diplomatic and activist fights in Copenhagen have only led to insignificant voluntary intentions, peak-oil will probably force us to much harsher emission reductions within soon.
    Unfortunately for most poor people in tropical and southern regions of this world, those reductions will likely be distributed very unfair and gruesome. But let’s keep up the good spirit: after they have died (by the billions) and the surviving rich have finished writing their history books to teach their children, they will soon be forgotten. And wouldn’t you agree that it’s worth an offer to save our planet?

    So much for sarcasm. I fear that will be the road ahead of us indeed. Only, I don’t want to witness the US shooting down thousands of Mexicans trying to escape from their desert, while US citizens manage to overrun Canada by sheer power and numbers to escape to higher latitudes themselves. I prefer to try to survive as a subsistence farmer in South America, or to preserve my dignity by being among the dead.

  38. Another problem with peak-oil-driven GHG reductions is that carbon-intensive oil from coal and tar sands may well be a too-attractive ‘solution’ to oil shortages and shortage-driven high oil prices.

  39. Price Lasik says:

    It is 2010. 2020 is only ten years away and it looks grim

    The fact is that when you add heat trapping gases to the atmosphere, guess what? They trap heat. We are breaking temperature records right and left. The clock is ticking.

  40. Dave says:

    Is it just too Orwellian to consider personal fuel quotas? This is what we did for a war effort in the past, and since Earth turning into Venus is a scourge worse than any military threat, we will have to grapple with something more meaningful than encouraging rich people (or people with a credit rating) to buy more new electric cars that as far as I can tell are still manufactured with petroleum-based steel, tires, plastics and lubricants.

    I think personal energy quotas should be a refundable and tradeable commodity too. If someone doesn’t use up their own quota, they can sell it to someone who has, or return quota to the issuing agency for a dividend or tax rebate. This rewards conservation directly, and acknowledges that some people have already kicked their own oil addiction by making personal changes and sacrifices.

    And fuel quotas must apply to aviation as well, or the whole thing’s a myopic joke. I did an analysis of people in my own community, and discovered that for many, their winter vacation habits contribute as much to GHG levels as their personal driving!