National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Rethinking America

The mini-crises relating to oil production springing up during the last few weeks seem to have settled down for a while. There is a ceasefire in Lebanon.

 Iraq has patched up its northern export pipeline for the umpteenth time. BP has figured out that they only have to shut down half the production from Prudhoe Bay. There are no hurricanes in sight, and we have another two weeks before having to do something about Iran’s refusal to shut down its uranium enrichment facilities.

All this tranquility gives us a few days to think ahead about what we are going to need to do when peak oil arrives. The first big problem we will confront when gasoline gets real, real expensive is what are we going to do with those 210+ million oil-powered cars, SUVs, vans, and pickups that are running around our country.

Anyone who studies peak oil for very long soon learns that oil-for-export is going to dry up a lot faster than oil-for-domestic-consumption and those countries that import most or all of their motor fuel are going to have problems very soon. Here in the US, with our 10 million barrels a day (b/d) gasoline habit, we are going to be leading the pack to new ways of motoring.

Our cars will very quickly come to be valued for one characteristic: how far can they go on a gallon of gas. To get through the first decades of peak oil, only those that get very high mileage, or preferably do not use liquid fuels at all, will be affordable or useful for most of us.

Thus far there is little indication Detroit really understands what is about to happen. The notion that 15 mpg SUVs and pickups aren’t selling too well may be settling in, but the outside of fooling around with $1 million-per-copy hydrogen cars and talking about hybrids that will get all of 20-25 mpg, the big three seem to have no idea that they are only a few years away from being out of the liquid fueled car business as they know it.

What should our manufacturers be doing? First, and most obviously, they should stop making absurdly inefficient cars and trucks. People may be dumb enough to keep buying them, but as a society, we should simply not let manufacturers continue to make them. There is too much at stake. We already have 200+ million, mostly inefficient, cars running around the country. Why on earth add to the gigantic scrap pile that is sure to come? If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!

Manufacturers certainly can make 40-mpg cars— Europe is full of them. They know how to make 100-mpg cars— Volkswagen had one for a while that got 235 mpg. They know how to make plug-in hybrids that can do a lot of their running on off-the-grid electricity. Satisfactory, affordable batteries appear to be on the way. Detroit even knows how to make electric cars that require no fossil fuels at all.

There are two major problems in getting from today’s world to one in which our motor vehicles consume only a fraction of the fuel they currently use. Number one is that hardly anybody recognizes there is a problem, and number two is what to do with the America’s inventory of 200+ million cars and light trucks. There’s unlikely to be enough money or production capacity to replace them with little, ultra-efficient cars after oil imports take a precipitous drop.

Jump-starting production of post-peak oil cars will either take Congressional action mandating what can or cannot be sold, or the free market. Thus far the free market seems to be off to a good start with sales of 15 mpg SUVs dropping rapidly. The problem is that free market and the manufacturers’ response may not be fast enough. Most of the next generation car talk from Detroit seems to be focused on 5, 10 or 15 years ahead. It seems inevitable that at some point Congress will have to get involved in accelerating the process. Don’t count on the Japanese, the Germans, or the Chinese— they will have even less oil for making stuff than we will.

So what to do with our 200 million gas-guzzlers during the 20 or 30 years of potentially useful life? Either we are going to have a lot of overflowing scrap yards and empty roads, or we are going to have to figure out how to get more efficient use and better gas mileage out of the existing fleet.

The first answer to this is simple: slow down to the most efficient speed for your vehicle. Last time around we grudgingly went to a 55 mph national speed limit. This time 55 mph may not be slow enough. We are going to have to squeeze every last foot out of every last gallon out of every last vehicle if we are going to get through the transition to a post peak world.

Here, however, is where the manufactures can perform a real service for a change. They made the cars. So they can figure out how to get much better mileage from the existing fleet, at the best possible cost.

There are numerous things that, within the bounds of physics, can be done to drastically increase mileage — perhaps with a little urging from Congress: Publish tables showing speeds for optimum mileage under various conditions of vehicle weight, temperature, and terrain; Design and sell aftermarket boxes that tell a driver to either push or let up on the gas to maintain optimum efficiency; Integrate these boxes with existing cruise controls so that cars and trucks will have highly efficient auto-throttles similar to airliners. These are all simple, inexpensive, and would be quick and easy to implement.

With a little ingenuity, we can figure out how to modify existing vehicles for much greater fuel efficiency. Modifications can range anywhere from new gear ratios and better-mileage tires to completely replacing existing engines with smaller, hybrid, or all-electric ones. Expensive? Yes! But not in comparison to scrapping millions of relatively new and expensive cars because there is not enough gasoline to go around. The only criteria for modifications would be maximum fuel efficiency; the notion of "performance" is gone forever. If the top speed turns out to be 30, or 40, or 45 mph, so be it, beats walking home.

The government will need to be there to help with the adjustment of drivers’ attitudes. When the roads are filled with a mixture of folks who just hocked their wedding rings to pay for this week’s gas and seven figure incomes who will still be driving their Hummers at $100 per gallon, there is bound to be friction. A little legislative action relating to maximum speeds, and polite driving coupled with draconian enforcement should sort this out quickly.

When does all this need to happen? It’s probably too late already. Should the Hezbollah-Israel-Iranian-nuclear bomb situation take a wrong turn, we could be in a lot of trouble by Christmas. If not, well, there is always next year.