Transportation: How long can we adapt before we fall off the Net Energy Cliff?

24 08 2017

This is an older post (2014) from Alice Friedemann’s blog, which somehow flew under the radar……. There is one bullet point in this that stunned me:

  1. America is likely to be outbid by China, India, etc., for oil exports.  At China’s current growth rate, China alone would consume ALL exported oil by 2020.

IF you have been following this humble blog long enough, you might know that I’ve been ‘forecasting’ that Australia will be totally out of oil by around 2020, and will therefore need to import 100% of our liquid fuel needs…….  what happens then?

When I asked Alice for more details, she replied “I suspect when I wrote this it was common knowledge, they’re rising empires as other nation fade. But now with China’s housing and other bubbles, and the corruption in both China and India, and ecological destruction, it’s probably not true now. I’ve met Australians who fear a China invasion someday but don’t know how realistic that is.”

Furthermore, as China’s spectacular growth rates have somewhat shrunk, we may get a few more years relief…. but how long will it last? Here’s Alice’s post, very interesting as usual….


alice_friedemannThe problem we face is a liquid fuel crisis.  Absolutely essential vehicles, such as agricultural tractors and combines, railroads, and trucks run on diesel fuel, ships on bunker fuel.  They can never be battery or fuel-cell operated or electrified, nor do we have the decades it would take to build a new fleet even if there were a solution.

In 2011, the United States burned 29021 trillion BTU’s of mainly petroleum for transportation to move 13 billion tons of freight, worth $11.8 trillion, for 3.5 trillion ton-miles:

  • Trucks: 69%  1.4 trillion miles  9.0 billion tons
  • Trains: 15%   1.3 trillion miles  1.9 billion tons
  • Ships:   3%

Non-essential Transportation Fuel can be given to Trucks & Trains (see Table 1 below)

1) Cars (28%) and light trucks (26%) use 55% of transportation fuel.  All of that 55% could be shifted to essential vehicles.  Implication: That would force anyone who wasn’t 100% self-sufficient to move to a town or city because country gas stations will be closed (though rural freeway stations would remain open for essential long-distance trucks).  Also, petroleum will mainly be refined into diesel (this is already happening actually), which gasoline cars can’t burn.

2) Let’s give most of this fuel to essential vehicles: 7% air travel, 1% recreational water boats, 3% Construction and Mining, 1% recreational vehicles (snowmobiles, etc).  That’s another 11% shifted to essential vehicles (leaving 1% for the above, mainly to maintain and fix infrastructure).

3) Essential vehicles: 20% Medium (class 3-6) and Heavy trucks (class 7-8), 4% ships, 2% rail freight, 3% pipelines, 2% agricultural.  A lot of this freight isn’t essential, so about half of this, 15%, can be saved by not shipping non-essential cargo and shipping essential goods shorter distances.

Essential transportation has been given 81% of diesel from other non-essential sources (55% + 11% + 15%).

Meanwhile, production of oil will be dropping off rapidly, because:

  1. Global peak oil production was reached in 2005
  2. Oil producing countries will export less because they’re using more oil themselves (ELM model)
  3. America is likely to be outbid by China, India, etc., for oil exports.  At China’s current growth rate, China alone would consume ALL exported oil by 2020.
  4. The net energy cliff and the decline in the RATE of what we can get out of the ground now that petroleum is gunky and in remote places.
  5. The financial system can interfere with oil production —  when credit dries up after the next financial crash, the money to drill won’t be available.

Optimistic scenario: 20 years before we hit the wall 

The likely decline rate is expected to accelerate. We’ve been on a plateau since 2005, but once production heads downhill, here’s a guess at what the decline rate might be per year: 4%, 5%, 6%, 7%, 8%, 9%, and 10% from then on.

But not to worry, we’ve got some wiggle room. Remember, of the grand total of 29021 trillion BTU’s of petroleum burned in America (Table 1 below), 81% was reassigned from non-essential vehicles and cargo to essential agriculture, railroads, trucks, industrial infrastructure equipment, and miscellaneous important vehicles (ambulances, police cars, military, etc).

The other 19% — 5,541 trillion BTU — is the rock-bottom amount we need to  keep society going.

With a 4/5/6/7/8/9/10/10 /10/….. decline rate scenario, we’ll dip below the essential transportation fuel needed 16 years from now.

Of course, we can import/export less cargo, grow food locally, stop immigration, encourage 1-child families, ship goods shorter distances, and many other oil-reducing strategies as well.  This is when techno-optimists have a chance to shine, and Postcarbon, Bay Localize, Transition Towns, and many other groups help governments and communities adapt.  If all goes well, panic is avoided, and diesel fuel can be stretched out even further, that could delay collapse another 4 years.

Pessimistic scenario: 1-12 years before we hit the wall

What if states that produce energy and/or have refineries stop sharing diesel and gasoline with other states at some point? In that case, Alaska, California, Texas, Louisiana, etc., might last longer than 20 years and other states would hit the wall sooner.

Also, there are many black swans.  Here’s some wild guesses about how soon collapse might come if one of them strikes:

1 year if there’s a small nuclear war, China or some other nation takes down America’s electric grid(s) in a cyberwar, or a world war erupts.

2-5 years if there’s a major disaster, because that will probably bring down the financial system and also drive up prices of oil, natural gas, electricity, wood, cement, steel, and other resources needed to recover with.

3-8 years if the financial system collapses and several other events are triggered, such as social chaos, no credit left for new oil wells to be drilled, and other knock-on effects.

5 years if nations go back to negotiating deals between producing and non-producing nations and bypass the international oil market. That could suddenly cut off America’s oil imports. We’re already seeing this with the historic deal Russia and China just cut for natural gas. China, India, and other countries can afford to pay more than the United States for oil. Other nations are far closer to Russia and OPEC nations, where 83% of world reserves lie.

8-10 years if America decides to go back to the Middle east to keep other nations from getting the 2/3 of oil reserves there. Our military can’t fight without oil, so that means a lot less for everyone else

Okay. I’m going to stop guessing.  I have no idea how much sooner collapse would occur given various events, or what the actual decline rates will be.  But here are a few more black swans to think about:

  • Oil shocks make investors “Peak Oil Aware” and world-wide stock markets crash
  • Decline rates even higher than posited above due to a combination of the Export Land Model and middle eastern countries having lied about how much oil reserves they had.
  • Oil choke-points are blocked by terrorists or nearby nations
  • War breaks out in the Middle East
  • Peak coal, peak natural gas, peak uranium, peak sand, peak water, peak topsoil, peak phosphorous, etc
  • Electric grid outages increasingly common
  • Our infrastructure is falling apart, many bridges are beyond their life-span or dangerously in need of repair, ports, energy pipelines, water treatment, sewage treatment, and other essential infrastructure has a life-span less than 50 years. The steel is rusting and the concrete is falling apart.

So, what do you think?


The 5 key elements of sustainable transport

13 04 2014

The 5 key elements of sustainable transport, or rather ‘so called’ sustainable transport makes for interesting reading.  Some of this info doesn’t really make much sense to me…. like the C intensity of different flights (business and economy, short and long) as a function of emissions per kilometre.

Interestingly, the difference between a ‘small car’ (a car that can only do 35MPG is NOT a small car!  But then, this is written in/for the USA….) and a grid charged electric car is only 15g CO2e/km, or just 9%.  By that measure, the Suzuki Alto I drove in Tasmania emits far less than an electric car, unless that car is 100% solar recharged.  And then I’m doubtful, because since we now know solar has a shockingly low ERoEI, it might be even closer than we think.  I’m also surprised cycling’s numbers are as high as they are shown here.  Does a cyclist really consume a whole lot more food than a motorist?

The article also states “People who live in cities have lower transport emissions.  Fuel economy may be lower in city traffic but that is more than made up for by the fact that city dwellers drive far less.”  Well that depends……  since moving from the city to the country, I’ve actually halved how much I drive!  Then it continues with “In 1950 less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cites, by 2010 that figure was over 50%, and by 2030 it is expected to surpass 60%. This natural trend to urbanization is a huge opportunity to for lowering both distance travelled per person and the carbon intensity of that travel.”  Whoever wrote this has obviously no idea cities will eventually be abandoned for being too far from their food sources, and due to the fact that when grids go down, none of the lifts will work!  Nor the sewerage……..

Shrink That Footprint


Transport is responsible for around a seventh of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Of these emissions almost two thirds are the result of passenger travel while the rest is due to freight.

So passenger travel is a big deal for climate.

In the chart above, which comes from our new eBook Emit This, we compare carbon intensity of different types of passenger transport on a per passenger kilometre basis.  Using it we can explain some elements important to the development of a sustainable transport system.

1) Fuel Economy

Our chart today compares the carbon intensity of different transport modes, per passenger kilometre.  The better fuel economy gets the lower emissions go.  If you just look at the cars you’ll see the large car (15 MPG) has emissions almost three times that of the hybrid car (45 MPG).

By improving fuel economy we can get the same mileage while generating fewer emissions.  Something that is achieved by making engines more efficient, vehicles lighter and bodies more aerodynamic.  But even then combustion engines remain relatively inefficient and produce emissions at the tailpipe, so improving them is really just a stop-gap en-route to sustainable transport.

2) Occupancy

The cheapest and simplest way to lower the carbon intensity of a passenger kilometre is to stick more people in the vehicle.  In each of the figures above car occupancy is assumed to be an average of 1.6 passengers (including the driver).  But most cars are designed for 5 people.

If you take a look at the bus examples the importance of occupancy becomes even more stark.  The local bus example has emissions seven times higher than the school bus.  While there routes may vary a little they are both diesel buses.  The main difference is that the school bus has very high occupancy.

With notable exception of flying public transport tends to have quite low carbon emissions, due largely to having relatively high occupancy.

3) Electrification

In the absence of breakthroughs in second generation biofuels electrification is the most important pathway to low carbon transport.

Electric cars using low carbon power have footprints less than half that of the best hybrid, even after you account for their larger manufacturing footprint.  Right down the bottom of our chart is the high-speed EuroStar rail which used low carbon French electricity. Though not on our chart the lowest carbon transport on earth is probably electrified public transport in a place like Norway where electricity generation is almost carbon free.

While there is a natural tendency to obsess about the electrification of cars, there are lots of interesting innovations occurring in the electrification  of rail, motorbikes, scooters and bikes.

4) Pedal power

They may be a bit low tech for some, but when it comes to carbon emissions bicycles are pretty cutting edge.  Even when you account for the foodprint of excess energy used when cycling, the humble bike is incredibly low carbon.

Bikes have obvious limitations around speed and distance, but for short trips in places with good infrastructure they are hard to beat in terms of carbon. They also have a great synergy with public transport systems like intercity rail.

5) Urbanization

Each of the first four elements we have described above refers to improving the carbon intensity of transport.  But emissions are a function of both how we travel and how far we travel.  One thing that tackles both of these issues is the trend towards urbanization.

People who live in cities have lower transport emissions.  Fuel economy may be lower in city traffic but that is more than made up for by the fact that city dwellers drive far less.  Electrification of public transport is more economic and practical in cities.  Occupancy on public transport systems is much higher.  And access to infrastructure for both cycling and walking is often better.

In 1950 less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cites, by 2010 that figure was over 50%, and by 2030 it is expected to surpass 60%. This natural trend to urbanization is a huge opportunity to for lowering both distance travelled per person and the carbon intensity of that travel.

Those are our five elements of sustainable transport: fuel economy, occupancy, electrification, pedal power and urbanization.

Check out our free new eBook Emit This for more ideas on getting more life out of less carbon.

Source: Shrink That Footprint. Reproduced with permission.

10 Ways to Prepare for a Post-Oil Society

21 03 2014

kunstlerI first came across James Howard Kunstler in that classic old Peak Oil movie, The End of Suburbia…..  I liked his style immediately, dry humour, classic one liners, you know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever read any of his work…

Normally known as an Uber Doomer, it is rather unusual for Kunstler to write something like this……  it’s about solutions, even hopium; of sorts.

I’m too busy painting stuff around the house to write anything at the moment….  so enjoy this piece.



The best way to feel hopeful for the future is to prepare for it.

The best way to feel hopeful about our looming energy crisis is to get active now and prepare for living arrangements in a post-oil society.

Out in the public arena, people frequently twang on me for being “Mister Gloom’n’doom,” or for “not offering any solutions” to our looming energy crisis. So, for those of you who are tired of wringing your hands, who would like to do something useful, or focus your attention in a purposeful way, here are my suggestions:


1. Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline.

This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed “greens” and political “progressives” are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymax™ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car. We have to make other arrangements for virtually all the common activities of daily life.

2. We have to produce food differently.

The Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human labor. The value-added activities associated with farming — e.g. making products like cheese, wine, oils — will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America’s young people (if they can unplug their iPods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history. Get busy.

3. We have to inhabit the terrain differently.

Virtually every place in our nation organized for car dependency is going to fail to some degree. Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami …) will support only a fraction of their current populations. We’ll have to return to traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns, and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract. The cities that are composed proportionately more of suburban fabric (e.g. Atlanta, Houston) will pose especially tough problems. Most of that stuff will not be fixed. The loss of monetary value in suburban property will have far-reaching ramifications. The stuff we build in the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in nature — as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components — at a more modest scale. This whole process will entail enormous demographic shifts and is liable to be turbulent. Like farming, it will require the retrieval of skill-sets and methodologies that have been forsaken. The graduate schools of architecture are still tragically preoccupied with teaching Narcissism. The faculties will have to be overthrown. Our attitudes about land-use will have to change dramatically. The building codes and zoning laws will eventually be abandoned and will have to be replaced with vernacular wisdom. Get busy.

4. We have to move things and people differently.

This is the sunset of Happy Motoring (including the entire US trucking system). Get used to it. Don’t waste your society’s remaining resources trying to prop up car-and-truck dependency. Moving things and people by water and rail is vastly more energy-efficient. Need something to do? Get involved in restoring public transit. Let’s start with railroads, and let’s make sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil fuel or, if we have to run them partly on coal-fired power plants, at least scrub the emissions and sequester the CO2 at as few source-points as possible. We also have to prepare our society for moving people and things much more by water. This implies the rebuilding of infrastructure for our harbors, and also for our inland river and canal systems — including the towns associated with them. The great harbor towns, like Baltimore, Boston, and New York, can no longer devote their waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We actually have to put the piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Right now, programs are underway to restore maritime shipping based on wind — yes, sailing ships. It’s for real. Lots to do here. Put down your iPod and get busy.

5. We have to transform retail trade.

The national chains that have used the high tide of fossil fuels to contrive predatory economies-of-scale (and kill local economies) — they are going down. WalMart and the other outfits will not survive the coming era of expensive, scarcer oil. They will not be able to run the “warehouses-on-wheels” of 18-wheel tractor-trailers incessantly circulating along the interstate highways. Their 12,000-mile supply lines to the Asian slave-factories are also endangered as the US and China contest for Middle East and African oil. The local networks of commercial interdependency which these chain stores systematically destroyed (with the public’s acquiescence) will have to be rebuilt brick-by-brick and inventory-by-inventory. This will require rich, fine-grained, multi-layered networks of people who make, distribute, and sell stuff (including the much-maligned “middlemen”). Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Internet will replace local retail economies. Internet shopping is totally dependent now on cheap delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap. It also is predicated on electric power systems that are completely reliable. That is something we are unlikely to enjoy in the years ahead. Do you have a penchant for retail trade and don’t want to work for a big predatory corporation? There’s lots to do here in the realm of small, local business. Quit carping and get busy.

6. We will have to make things again in America.

However, we are going to make less stuff. We will have fewer things to buy, fewer choices of things. The curtain is coming down on the endless blue-light-special shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of daily life in America for decades. But we will still need household goods and things to wear. As a practical matter, we are not going to re-live the 20th century. The factories from America’s heyday of manufacturing (1900 – 1970) were all designed for massive inputs of fossil fuel, and many of them have already been demolished. We’re going to have to make things on a smaller scale by other means. Perhaps we will have to use more water power. The truth is, we don’t know yet how we’re going to make anything. This is something that the younger generations can put their minds and muscles into.

7. The age of canned entertainment is coming to and end.

It was fun for a while. We liked “Citizen Kane” and the Beatles. But we’re going to have to make our own music and our own drama down the road. We’re going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We’re going to need violin and banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers. We’ll need theater managers and stage-hands. The Internet is not going to save canned entertainment. The Internet will not work so well if the electricity is on the fritz half the time (or more).

8. We’ll have to reorganize the education system.

The centralized secondary school systems based on the yellow school bus fleets will not survive the coming decades. The huge investments we have made in these facilities will impede the transition out of them, but they will fail anyway. Since we will be a less-affluent society, we probably won’t be able to replace these centralized facilities with smaller and more equitably distributed schools, at least not right away. Personally, I believe that the next incarnation of education will grow out of the home schooling movement, as home schooling efforts aggregate locally into units of more than one family. God knows what happens beyond secondary ed. The big universities, both public and private, may not be salvageable. And the activity of higher ed itself may engender huge resentment by those foreclosed from it. But anyone who learns to do long division and write a coherent paragraph will be at a great advantage — and, in any case, will probably out-perform today’s average college graduate. One thing for sure: teaching children is not liable to become an obsolete line-of-work, as compared to public relations and sports marketing. Lots to do here, and lots to think about. Get busy, future teachers of America.

9. We have to reorganize the medical system.

The current skein of intertwined rackets based on endless Ponzi buck passing scams will not survive the discontinuities to come. We will probably have to return to a model of service much closer to what used to be called “doctoring.” Medical training may also have to change as the big universities run into trouble functioning. Doctors of the 21st century will certainly drive fewer German cars, and there will be fewer opportunities in the cosmetic surgery field. Let’s hope that we don’t slide so far back that we forget the germ theory of disease, or the need to wash our hands, or the fundamentals of pharmaceutical science. Lots to do here for the unsqueamish.

10. Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be re-scaled.

You can state categorically that any enterprise now supersized is likely to fail — everything from the federal government to big corporations to huge institutions. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to have food in your cupboard and people who esteem you. An entire social infrastructure of voluntary associations, co-opted by the narcotic of television, needs to be reconstructed. Local institutions for care of the helpless will have to be organized. Local politics will be much more meaningful as state governments and federal agencies slide into complete impotence. Lots of jobs here for local heroes.

So, that’s the task list for now. Forgive me if I left things out. Quit wishing and start doing. The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.


James Howard Kunstler is a leading writer on the topic of peak oil and the problems it poses for American suburbia. Deeply concerned about the future of our petroleum dependent society, Kunstler believes we must take radical steps to avoid the total meltdown of modern society in the face of looming oil and gas shortages.

Further Reading: