Turn the calendar back to October 1973. Israel was at war with Egypt, and Arab members of OPEC tried to stop the U.S. from supporting Israel by imposing an oil embargo. It caused gas shortages in the U.S. and much of Western Europe. Long lines and “no gas” signs at the pumps were the result over here.
In Germany, hastily enacted legislature made driving illegal on Sundays.
Fast-forward to October 2008. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike knocked out power to several refineries, crucial to gasoline supply in the U.S. Southeast. Once again, long lines formed at the pumps, some towns running completely out of fuel, police providing escorts at gas stations to prevent violence among drivers desperate for gas. Price gouging produced reports of stations charging $6 per gallon, one even allegedly demanding $8.49.
The U.S. and Canada sit on vast reserves of oil shales and tar sands, which can be processed into gasoline. The shales make us independent of Middle Eastern oil, but this comes with another price. Gainesville stations charge $3.50 per gallon, which is unlikely to drop much in the future because extracting oil from rock, as they are doing in North Dakota, is more labor- and energy-intensive than pumping it out of the ground as they do in Saudi Arabia.
Canada’s tar sands are even less efficient. Vast areas of forest need to be cut to mine and process the sand. It is estimated that the amount of energy gained vs. energy invested is less than 3 to 1, whereas “normal” crude oil can be had at a 25:1 ratio.
The recent boom in those new sources of oil has eliminated the dreaded fuel shortages of past years. But it only prolongs the problem of our reliance on fossil fuels when we could have advanced to more modern methods of getting around.
Getting to downtown Atlanta for a morning business meeting is a stressful two-hour operation in dense traffic. MARTA still doesn’t go anywhere near Gainesville.
This summer, a train carrying tar sands oil derailed in Quebec, incinerating the downtown of Lac Megantic and killing 47 people.
The future of transportation isn’t in oil. It’s in electricity, which can be had as solar, wind, water or nuclear power, and even from garbage. Affordable electric cars and a light rail system that truly serves the greater Atlanta region are well overdue.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.