70% of Every Barrel of Oil

Matthew R. Simmons, an investment banker with a bearish outlook on future oil production and a book out that casts doubt on Saudi Arabia’s oil supply, sat for an interview with The Agonist, a liberal weblog. Mr. Simmons talked about constraints on the future supply of oil, particularly at the world’s No. 1 exporter, and then he turned to demand:

You got to fix the transportation market. 70% of every barrel of oil used in the world today is used to [sic] transportation. But there are some really interesting fixes. If you put all of the goods we now move by long haul trucks and get them off the highways and put them on the rails that has an energy efficiency of between five and ten fold, as opposed to five or ten percent. And that is not an impossible mission from a five to seven year time if we had to do it. There is a huge side benefit to that. By eliminating the trucks on the road we actually make a bug [sic] dent on traffic congestion. Traffic congestion is public enemy numbers 1 through 8 on passenger car fuel efficiency.

The need for trucking has increased in proportion to the sprawling of residential and commercial development in America. Rail freight is great for New York, where there are major portside intermodal terminals, and it’s great for a number of aging industrial cities in the northeast. But it’s not so hot for the sprawl-based cities of the sunbelt, where most goods would still need to be carried into the distant suburbs by truck. Trucking is even more critical for David Brooks’s exurbs, disconnected as they are from urban areas. These places require long haul rigs to get goods to the people there, who would be increasingly stranded out there were trucking to wither.

For an example of what Mr. Simmons would envision for the future of freight transport, one need only look as far as a study conducted by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Greater Bridgeport Regional Planning Agency and others. They present an innovative idea that would remove trucks from highways and put freight on rail cars and barges, as seen here.

Besides removing truck traffic, the plan would revitalize the economies of a number of places that suffered population loss and rising poverty during the automobile-assisted 20th century exodus from cities: Bridgeport, Albany, Camden, Buffalo and Pittsburgh among them. The plan would put the rails along the Erie Canal back to serious work, and it would create working waterfronts and centralized jobs. But there’s still all those green lines representing continuing demand for trucking in the suburban fringes. Our land use patterns are so sprawling we can’t avoid using trucks now.

Another local idea on getting rid of truck traffic is the rail freight tunnel that would cross the Upper New York bay from east to west, connecting Long Island and southern New England with the rest of the country. (As it is now, freight trains have to travel way upstate to Selkirk, N.Y., to cross the Hudson.) That’s a great idea that deserves a whole post of its own.

But there is a certain futility to getting highways rid of trucks. By improving the quality of drive time for other motorists, open roads would encourage driving. Like adding a lane to try to ease congestion, after a while, total vehicle miles traveled would increase. Getting rid of long-haul trucking is a good step toward ending our oil dependency, but not a panacea. Given that more than two thirds of all oil is used for transportation, the only panacea I can see is a return to cities.

- Peak Oil, Saudi Arabia [The Agonist]
- Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy [Barnes & Noble]
- Developing A Short Sea Container Shipping Facility & Service Bridgeport’s Experience [pdf!] [Greater Bridgeport Regional Planning Agency]
- Cross Harbor Freight Movement Project [NYC Economic Development Corp. & Federal Railroad Admin.]

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4 Responses to 70% of Every Barrel of Oil

  1. futurebird says:

    Donkeys. It’s not a canal with ‘em!

    That’s a great graphic.

  2. mike says:

    that’s a pretty cool idea. Virginia is working on a project to put long-haul trucks on I-81 either onto dedicated lanes or a piggyback train route. Clearly the latter is preferable, but more expensive.

    See http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/constSTAN-I-81-environment.asp

  3. AD says:

    Mike, thanks for the link. I think that even if the piggyback train route is more expensive in the short run, it would still save more money in fuel costs over the long term. A dedicated lane reminds me of the situations when officials add an HOV lane to an existing highway. This takes away traffic from the non-HOV lanes, encouraging non-HOV drivers to drive more, thus adding to vehicle miles traveled. Professor Vukan Vuchic (listed in the margin at left) has studied this phenomenon extensively. He concluded that the only time an HOV lane actually encourages carpooling is when it is created out of existing non-HOV lanes, rather than added in the median.

    Futurebird, I think “It ain’t a canal without ‘em.” And I think they used to use mules, no?

  4. futurebird says:

    You’re right… it was mules.