Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

The end of cheap oil doesn’t have to be the end of the world

One of the guys at Zerohedge just bought a Nissan Leaf and was crowing about the possibility of driving 100 miles at 24 cents a gallon.

This created a fascinating conflict as the Utopian conspiracy nuts went to war with the angry cynics. This thread made me realize I’m a bit more optimistic about this whole “running out of oil” thing than most of my libertarian peers.

Not really fair to call this optimism. But in this day and age, I guess an absence of cynicism might as well be optimism.

The transition won’t be easy, cheap or fun but I think it can be done, and I don’t think the resulting “energy poor” world will be that awful to live in.

First, it won’t happen overnight. They’re not going to flip a switch and turn the oil off. Oil will slowly increase in price, providing incentives for people to use less and come up with alternatives.

Our electrical grid would collapse if everybody switched to electric cars overnight, but it won’t happen like that. Consumers will start with hybrids, early adopters will buy recharge stations and we’ll have a decade or so to improve the grid. It’s in terrible shape and needs to be reworked anyway. We just need an excuse to spend some of that teacher pension money on infrastructure. Skyrocketing oil prices will provide a lovely excuse.

Things aren’t likely to change until we see prices at the pump hover above $6 for a while but once that happens, it shouldn’t be hard to find the political will. Modern nuclear reactors and “clean coal” plants will spring up, while research into alternative energy and battery technology accelerates.

This will change consumer behavior, of course. I can imagine a world where families own electric cars for their daily city driving and rent vehicles for out of town trips. Suburbs will fragment into hub and spoke community structures and a lot of young people will move back downtown. Telecommuting could offer the best of both worlds for stay-at-home parents and video conferencing will replace a lot of recreational and business travel.

The biggest problem will be trucking, and the transport of basic goods in and out of cities. But we had a pretty good system for this before the internal combustion engine changed the world and I don’t see why we couldn’t go back to it, if the economic incentives were right. It’s hard to run an 18-wheeler on batteries, but why couldn’t we rebuild the railroads?

Electrified railways aren’t perfect, but they work. And let’s be honest. Do you really expect to see fewer government projects and infrastructure improvement programs in the next 20 years? Governments are bending over backwards trying to find big projects to spend stimulus money on. I don’t expect to see smaller government in a world of $10 gas.

Yes, fixing the electrical grid, building nuclear plants and installing new rail lines will be big jobs, but how long did it take us to wire our neighborhoods for Internet, cell phones and cable TV? How much did we spend on those projects, voluntarily, in our monthly entertainment and communications bills?

The point is, this is a world we can live in, and it doesn’t require any giant theoretical breakthroughs to make it work. We’ll have to consume less oil, of course, but we don’t have to go back to the dark ages. And if we do end up with a giant theoretical breakthough in the next 20 years, well, so much the better.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

October 17, 2010 at 19:02

Posted in Science

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