With gas prices rising, the real issue is how to change our consumption

Gasoline prices are high now, and although they may fluctuate, a variety of indicators suggest they’ll only go higher. As a result, it’s time we get serious about living well using less fuel.


Gasoline prices are high now, and although they may fluctuate, a variety of indicators suggest they’ll only go higher. As a result, it’s time we get serious about living well using less fuel.

There are many reasons for the surge in petroleum prices over the past few years — from Asia’s economic miracle to the utter failure of the Bush administration’s Iraq war to develop Iraq’s petroleum reserves and bring them to market. In fact, we should prepare for gas prices to double again within a similar period of time. Finding ways to reduce our fuel consumption can be a healthy exercise rather then a struggle if we face the facts and get creative.

Supply is part of the issue. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, since 2005, conventional petroleum from land and shallow seas has peaked, meaning the world can no longer expand production. With all the drilling and new sources tapped, we are no longer even keeping pace with the depletion of the world’s existing oil fields. Making up this oil supply-demand gap so far are far more industrially intense and climate damaging sources, such as tar sands (deposits of oil mixed in sand and clay) and heavy oil.

Biofuels are also playing a small role, but some experts fear that biofuel development does not expand production due to the low or negative energy return from energy invested. Although it is hard to measure, one study shows we have not increased total liquid fuel production since 2006 and that any additional oil hitting the market has come from draining stock piles.

At the same time that supply is close to or past its peak, demand for petroleum is growing, in part because of an expanding industrialization that is pulling billions of new people into the global economy. The construction of new highways in and out of fast-growing cities, for instance, has enabled billions of people to “upgrade” to faster lifestyles, harnessing the power of petroleum.

This trend is accelerating with new innovations, such as Tata Motor’s Nano (a small car made in India with a base price of $2,500) hitting the market. This new cheap car will open the world of automobile use to tens of millions of new drivers each year.

Price is determined by how supply meets demand, and from this brief picture you can see the future trend pretty clearly. Hold on to your wallets, folks! We’re in for a ride, and it’s downhill with the motor off.

Petroleum is a base resource that shapes how we live and gives us tremendous power; it is said that one gallon of gasoline contains the equivalent energy of 100 person hours. If you don’t believe that, try pushing your Escalade from the north-end ferry terminal to the south-end terminal.

Oil production in North America peaked in the 1970s, when we went from being an oil exporter to oil importer, and, although we have drilled more holes than anywhere else in the world, production rates have consistently declined. Similar scenarios are playing out all over the world, and with the world’s enormous appetite for petroleum, a tightening of the supply-demand curve is upon us; hence the high prices are here to stay.

The question is how we adjust to using less. As individuals, many of us are able to invest in more fuel-efficient vehicles or adjust our driving habits so as to make fewer trips. But I believe we can make a bigger difference as a community working together.

What about a ride-sharing program? With some ingenuity, we could find ways to match drivers headed in a particular direction with riders, who make a set contribution, also headed that way — perhaps to the ferry, a neighborhood or Vashon town. A successful ride-share system could cut the driving on the Island in half, help businesses that have to drive all over the Island offset their costs and allow those who are struggling with the expenses of a car to sell it. Meanwhile, all of us who participate could meet more of our Island neighbors.

How about improving the pinch points on the roads that make bicycling hazardous? More parents might then send their kids to a friend’s house or school on a bicycle rather then drop them off and pick them up. I find bicycling pleasant even in the rain.

I know that many of you are working on solutions — from growing your own food to putting solar panels on your house to working at home and cutting out the commute. The point is that over the long term energy prices will continue to rise; how we respond as individuals and as a community will define our Island and our future on it.

— Joe Yarkin is a renewable energy specialist who just returned from Greenland, where he was working on a contract for the National Science Foundation.