November 10, 2009

Quote: Peak Oil and the IEA

From The Guardian:

Now the “peak oil” theory is gaining support at the heart of the global energy establishment. “The IEA (International Energy Agency) in 2005 was predicting oil supplies could rise as high as 120m barrels a day by 2030 although it was forced to reduce this gradually to 116m and then 105m last year,” said the IEA source, who was unwilling to be identified for fear of reprisals inside the industry. “The 120m figure always was nonsense but even today’s number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this.

“Many inside the organisation believe that maintaining oil supplies at even 90m to 95m barrels a day would be impossible but there are fears that panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further. And the Americans fear the end of oil supremacy because it would threaten their power over access to oil resources,” he added.

A second senior IEA source, who has now left but was also unwilling to give his name, said a key rule at the organisation was that it was “imperative not to anger the Americans” but the fact was that there was not as much oil in the world as had been admitted. “We have [already] entered the ‘peak oil’ zone. I think that the situation is really bad,” he added.

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Benny Chan’s pics of LA freeways have been mounted for a show at, appropriately,  the Pasadena Museum of California.

Rush hour in Los Angeles is synonymous with gridlock, but the sheer enormity of the situation can be tough to grasp. Fortunately, there is the architecture photographer Benny Chan, whose Traffic! series depicts the scale of overcrowded lanes of rush hour traffic from high overhead.

Shot over a few years during various helicopter trips, the photographs now stand eight feet high and six feet wide, and convey, quite effectively, the enormity of the problem—as well as the need to get things moving.

Ah yes, “the need to get things moving” – the road builders’ mantra.  That’s always worked.

More very-high-resolution images here.

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September 17, 2009

My current Business in Vancouver article:

The bets are in. The stakes are high. With billions on the table for the Canada Line and the Gateway project, we have two very different visions for our region.

The first, transit-oriented; the second, auto-dependent.

The City of Vancouver played its hand back in the early ’70s when it rejected freeways and said no to auto dominance. Instead, it made density livable. Transportation choices followed. The result has been called “Vancouverism,” and it is the face we will present to the world during the Olympics – the Vancouver of False Creek North, Coal Harbour, the Olympic Village, greenways, streetcars and sustainability.

The Gateway project, on the other hand, will spread auto dependence up the valley. The new bridges – Pitt River, Golden Ears and Port Mann – and their connecting arterials will lock another generation into a vision of Motordom from the 1950s: everyone drives and there’s always free parking.

Call it ADUP: auto-dependent urban planning. The main problem with ADUP is that it drives out choice. It allows for only one mode of practical travel and limits urban design to a narrow range of options best typified by the strip mall.

To see a small but dramatic contrast between urbanism and auto-dependence, go to the new Aberdeen Station on the Canada Line. Descend from the platform and be irresistibly pulled forward along the landscaped greenway that curves towards Yaohan mall.

Here the pedestrian has priority, the overhead guideway provides protection and it feels safe and comfortable.

But when you get to Yaohan – no sidewalks!

 You You have no choice but to walk down the roadway originally designed when it was expected that everyone would drive and park.

So what’s likely to happen?  Will pedestrians return to their cars to drive to Yaohan or will a new sidewalk be built to the mall? I’m betting “sidewalk.”

That small change will be indicative of the transformation that will occur up and down No. 3 Road as Richmond eventually accommodates 120,000 people within walking distance of its five stations, a population equivalent to the build-out of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula. That’s the win from the $2 billion Canada Line bet: a city centre worthy of the name.

Meanwhile, out in Motordom, they’re building the strip malls and big boxes wherever an expanded interchange is anticipated or, in the case of Langley, already there. Even when plans for the 200th Street corridor call for “sustainable principles,” stand-alone commercial development will trump mixed-use when, as happened last month, developers make the case that auto-orientation is the only feasible alternative.

Advocates for Gateway argue that traffic congestion and transit options can be addressed simultaneously. Problem is, once we’ve built the bridges and widened the highways, who really needs the transit? Yes, the extra lane for additional buses may be provided, but more problematically, who will pay for the service? The message we’re getting from senior governments is that they will happily pay for big roads and bridges, but only for small pieces of rapid transit and nothing for operations.

We know from past experience how our billion-dollar gambles are likely to play out. Rapid-transit will deliver on its investment by attracting growth to its stations, visible in the development that has sprung up along the SkyTrain lines and is already starting along the Canada Line.

We also know from experience that building more roads and bridges will likely fail to solve the condition it was meant to address: traffic congestion. We have no model of success to point to in North America, no place where ADUP has produced the kind of urban environment that we want to be more like. The only place where vehicle traffic has dropped in our region is in the downtown peninsula, where transportation choices work.

In the next few months, the provincial government will have to decide whether to support TransLink’s call for increased revenue. It’ll have to take another gamble. But given the near impossibility of supporting a new or increased tax for TransLink in this time of the HST, what are the chances? Will the Evergreen be delayed yet again while Gateway goes full-speed ahead? Will transit be cut just as the demand for it grows?

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I spent last weekend in Leavenworth.  No, not the prison; that’s in Kansas.  This is Leavenworth, Washington – the  mock Bavarian town.

And yes, it’s easy to mock Leavenworth.  It is very faux Bavarian indeed:

Originally a railroad and timber town, Leavenworth chose to go German in 1962 as an economic strategy.  It worked, even if on a summer’s day the primary economic activity looks to be the consumption of ice cream.

But there’s something about Leavenworth that satisfies, that makes it successful for the tourists it attacts.   And why is that? 

Because it’s an urban experience.  Because it meets David Sucher’s three rules:

(1)  Build to the sidewalk property line.

(2) Make the building front ‘permeable’ – no blank walls.

(3) Prohibit parking lots in front of the building.

The sidewalks may be skimpy, but the crowding adds to the effect, rather like Robson Street.  And the over-exuberant decoration constantly stimulates, with never a blank wall or parking lot to dilute the energy.  It goes on for about four shaded blocks – the right length for an urban village, similar (not coincidentally) to the length of a shopping mall.

And one thing more.  Leavenworth has the right combination of highway and commercial streets close by and in parallel – a model that works around the world.  I explored this phenomenon in Price Tags 102, comparing our version (Georgia/Robson) with Paris’s (Champs Elysees / Rue du Faubourg St. Honore):

In the case of Leavenworth, the traffic pours by on Highway 2 (solid red), capturing glimpses of the three-storey streetwall on Front Street (dotted line)  in all its kitschy glory. 

How could you not be curious and want to pull off? – which is easy enough to do at the intersections.

Front Street is narrow enough, with angled parking to slow down the traffic, breaking down the constraints of Motordom.  Here, people jaywalk.

Add in the oom-pah band, the crafts market, the unique boutiques, the flowers, the treed parks and the ice cream – altogether not a bad if totally incongruous experience on the far side of the Cascades.

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An interview in The Independent (August 3) with Dr. Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, which is charged with the task of assessing future energy supplies by OECD countries.

Dr Birol said that the public and many governments appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years – at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated.

But the first detailed assessment of more than 800 oil fields in the world, covering three quarters of global reserves, has found that most of the biggest fields have already peaked and that the rate of decline in oil production is now running at nearly twice the pace as calculated just two years ago.

On top of this, there is a problem of chronic under-investment by oil-producing countries, a feature that is set to result in an “oil crunch” within the next five years which will jeopardise any hope of a recovery from the present global economic recession, he said.

“One day we will run out of oil, it is not today or tomorrow, but one day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day,” Dr Birol said. …

The IEA estimates that the decline in oil production in existing fields is now running at 6.7 per cent a year compared to the 3.7 per cent decline it had estimated in 2007, which it now acknowledges to be wrong.

“If we see a tightness of the markets, people in the street will see it in terms of higher prices, much higher than we see now. It will have an impact on the economy, definitely, especially if we see this tightness in the markets in the next few years,” Dr Birol said.

 “It will be especially important because the global economy will still be very fragile, very vulnerable. Many people think there will be a recovery in a few years’ time but it will be a slow recovery and a fragile recovery and we will have the risk that the recovery will be strangled with higher oil prices,” he told The Independent.


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Standing at the corner of Burrard and Pacific, 5 pm on Monday, watching the traffic flows.  Something seems familiar.

The traffic is moving.  Cars do back up on red lights, but most of the backlog dissipates on the green.  Even the worst bottleneck, where cars line up on Pacific west of Burrard, seems to be working itself out.  Enough merging vehicles get though the free right between onflows from other directions.  The whole intersection functions rather like clockwork.

The way the signals are cutting up the traffic into platoons, merging them together into a southbound flow, like packets on the Internet – it’s like something I’ve seen before.

And then I remember where.

At Denman and Georgia, the same thing.  Traffic westbound on Georgia and Pender Streets is cut up into platoons by the upstream signals and then merged with flows from Denman Street to be fed onto the Causeway.  The eastbound flow from the Causeway  is cut up into platoons before being fed onto the grid by the signal at Denman and Georgia (pictured above). 

Outside of rush-hours, it’s like clockwork.   And when demand overwhelms the intersections, vehicles are lined up in orderly rows, waiting to be processed. 

Vancouver uses intersection signals as meters on arterials that lead into the core, rather like a switching yard, to regulate the traffic flows on and off the downtown peninsula – at Georgia and Denman,  Terminal and Main, and now at Burrard and Pacific. 

They work  better in some ways than freeways which disgorge an uncontrolled flow of traffic onto surface streets.  But these switching points have explicitly limited capacity.  And Motordom doesn’t allow for limits on the number of vehicles a city is expected to accommodate. 

Hence the sense that these intersections are congestion problems, to be solved with more capacity (or at least not reduced capacity), rather than necessary regulators of a system that seems to work rather well once its limits are recognized.    Like clockwork.

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Yup, in addition to this personal blog and one I do for the SFU City Program, I have foolishly agreed to contribute to the Vancouver Sun’s Community of Interest – just me and three to four dozen others. 

Expect some repetition.

For my first major post, I took the opportunity to define Motordom – a word you may have seen me use occasionally in these posts.  Go here for a fuller explanation of its origins, along with a few illustrations.

UPDATE: And find out how the City of Sydney thinks it could revert to a pre-Motordom condition with Naked Streets.

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Engaged in a heated but friendly debate last evening with an engineer who worked on Gateway. 

His position: Gateway – the highway widening and new bridge – is serving an already existing need, namely the growth that has occurred south of the Fraser.  Cars aren’t going away, even if we have to switch to electricity.  Land use is in the hands of municipalities, and not a responsibility of the Gateway project.

Next day, I opened the Sun to the business pages:

Massive mall near Abbotsford interchange stirs up debate

A new shopping mall planned for an eight-hectare site near Abbotsford’s Mount Lehman interchange will be a major retail draw for Fraser Valley residents, according to the city’s mayor.

  “The potential regional draw for that centre is enormous,” Abbotsford Mayor George Peary said in an interview about the $170-million, 600,000-square-foot Shape Properties development, dubbed Abby Lane.

It’s huge and it’s got amazing freeway access. I think this will be the largest mall in the region. It will be relatively easy for people to get there from Langley, Chilliwack and Mission. Millions travel that freeway and they’re all potential customers.”

Opponents of commercial sprawl say the new plaza is an example of the type of retail they expect will pop up all along the highway because of the provincial government’s Gateway Program to add lanes to Highway 1 and double the size of the bridge.

I confess, I get annoyed by highway planners and advocates who ignore, discount or wash their hands of the consequences of their projects, especially when the evidence is so obvious.  Highways generate car-dependent urban form, which then produces the congestion that the highways and arterials were meant to address.   It’s a self-defeating cycle they seem not to acknowledge.  (Which means that TransLink , Metro and the municipalities must have a pro-active startegy to offset the consequences.  Otherwise we get more and more Abby Lanes.)

So, as always, I asked him this question: name me one good example of a place that had successfully addressed congestion with more roads and bridges.  A place that can serve as a model for what we are doing.  A place you want the South of the Fraser to become more like.

No answer from the engineer.

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Here’s a quote from a California candidate for Congress:

Just because oil is found on American soil, does not make it American oil. Unless America is preparing to nationalize its resources, that oil will belong to an oil company. And that oil will go into a world market that we do not control—a market that is subject to the whims of OPEC, terrorists in Nigeria, Russian bullying, China roaring, and our own wasteful energy habits.

I wouldn’t expect the Americans to nationalize oil reserves any time soon (they’re counting on ours, no doubt) – but I’ll make this prediction.  As the largest single consumer of oil in the States (the military) does its own assessment, significant pockets of light, sweet crude will end up in ‘military reserves.’ 

It’s not unprecedented.  In 1912, Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admirality ordered the conversion of the British fleet from coal (which Britain had a lot of) to oil (which they didn’t).  Why?  Because of the advantages of oil for speed and distance.  

To get a secure supply of oil, Churchill helped form the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (ultimately BP) with concessions in Persia (ultimately Iran).  With 51 percent of the shares, the government could excercise control over the company, and if necessary over Persia.  And we now know where that led to.   

One way or the other, as oil gets scarcer, the military will exercise its control.   In any conceivable trade-off, oil will go to fuel their Hummers, not ours.   And those who complain in the States will be accused of a lack of patriotism or not concerned about national security – which pretty much ends the debate.

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