Peak Oil and the Future of Transport

The concept of peak oil may be new to you, or you may be well versed in the subject matter. Either way, its impact on all aspects of our lives will likely be profound in the coming decade, and beyond. Given this importance, I think even a brief exposure to the subject will prove useful. Enjoy!

Industrialisation and Fossil Fuels

Since the launch of the industrial revolution about 200 years ago, first with the discovery and mining of coal, and then methane and oil, our society has tapped into a one-time massive endowment of fossil energy. Composed of decaying photosynthetic organic matter (like algae in the oceans) and cooked under high temperature and pressure over a period of millions of years, this non-renewable source of energy has allowed our society to achieve a state of social and technological complexity never before seen by humankind. However, as with any finite resource, this endowment of fossil fuels (coal, methane, and oil) is being quickly exhausted.

The discovery, extraction and production of any natural resource, whether it be a precious metal, mineral, or hydrocarbon, always begins with the most abundant and easily accessible deposits. As this ‘low hanging fruit’ is used up, new sources that are smaller and harder to reach are developed. When a deposit, like an oil patch, is first tapped, production rises sharply, peaks, and then declines. The production graph looks like a bell curve. Each individual oil well shows the same production profile, and combined together, world oil production also follows this characteristic production profile (Figure 1). Peak Oil is the state of maximum production of oil, after which production enters a terminal decline. Year after year, there is less and less oil to be extracted and produced. It is not that we will suddenly run out of oil, like a gas tank runs out of gasoline, but that the production rate of oil slows. Where we may have achieved 85 million barrels of oil production per day at the peak, the average daily or annual production rate slows, never to rise again.

World Oil Production 1900-1

Figure 1: World Oil Production 1900-2080

(Image from

Being able to grow the economy is directly predicated on growth in energy supplies, since one cannot ship or produce goods, food, or even live without energy (energy itself is defined as the capacity to do work). For the last two centuries, the exponential growth in our economies has been underpinned by exponential growth in energy, primarily fossil sources including oil, but this growth in liquid fuels is coming to an end (Figure 1). Conventional sources of oil peaked in 2005. Discovery of new oil resources is ongoing, but the amount of oil discovered peaked in the early 1960’s, and since that time, we have found less and less oil each year. We now use 3 barrels of oil for every 1 barrel we find. The peaking and subsequent decline of worldwide oil supplies will have grave implications for our transport system. About 95% of transport is powered by oil or its derivatives (diesel, gasoline, jet and bunker fuels).

How these changes will affect transport is multifaceted. A few examples include:

  • Gas price shocks due to severely reduced supply and availability of gasoline, with resultant queues at stations. The reliability supply and cheapness of gasoline which has underlined mass motorisation will no longer be available.
  • Disruptions to delivery of food. With our ‘just in time’ delivery system, the food distribution system lacks resilience to deal with oil price shocks. In an oil shock induced disruption, stores have at most 3-days of food availability.
  • Funding collapse for public transit  (cycling too, but it currently receives very little support at about 0.8% of the transport budget). 2/3 of Translink’s funding comes from motor fuel tax and property tax, both expected to decline in an economic collapse brought about by declining oil supplies.

A half-hour animated movie covers the origins of fossil fuels, their importance to our society, alternative sources of energy, and addresses the issues we are likely to face in the coming years. I recommend watching it when you need a 30 minute break:

Peak Oil, the Future of Transport, and Public Health

The movement of passengers and freight will need to shift from liquid fuels to electric traction vehicles and non-motorised  modes. As I described in a post on cycling, active transport will have an increasingly important role to play in the movement of people and light freight in the coming decade. Besides more walking and cycling, we can expect an overall decline in motoring, accompanied by a shift from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. Higher public transit use on an increasingly electrified fleet, with the replacement of diesel buses with electric trolleys and trains. Intercity passenger transport systems will be revived as conventional and high-speed rail systems supplant highways as the primary mode to move people between cities. Reduced  international shipping is likely to remain par for the course as our economies become increasingly localised.

What influence Peak Oil will have on transport and subsequently on public health is difficult to map because of the unknowns and interconnected nature of nested systems, but may include any of the following:

  • Reduced motoring resulting in:
    • Increased physical activity from walking, cycling, and transit use
    • Lower levels of noise and air pollution
    • Lower social isolation
    • Halting and reversal of the obesity epidemic
    • Changes to anti-social behaviour, including criminal events, may decrease from the effect of ‘eyes on the street’ and improved social relationships, but may increase from economic hardship.

While we can expect some health improvements, we should also prepare to deal with numerous health threats brought about by seismic shifts in economic and energy paradigms. Transport patterns will be jarringly affected, but it is only one system on which our lives are so integrally tied. Modern agriculture is in essence the business of converting petroleum to food. For every calorie of food we harvest, 8-10 calories of hydrocarbon energy goes into its production. People may not care if they can’t drive when they are worried about getting enough food for themselves and their families. At best, we can say that historical trends are not likely suitable for projecting what the coming decade will be like. Relying on past trends to predict the future while we undergo major shifts in our economy and energy systems is like anticipating the road ahead by looking in the rearview mirror. It won’t help much if we’re approaching a sharp turn.

Highly Recommended Reading:

Written by one of our very own professors, Anthony Perl of the Urban Studies Program at SFU Harbour Centre.


Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil

(print and digital copies available in the SFU library catalogue)

Transportation Transformation: Building Complete Communities and a Zero-Emission Transportation System in BC

PDF available: Transportation Transformation



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