Peak Oil, Nanaimo, and Planning for the Future

David Brown: Dec. 8, 2010

Peak oil is defined as that point when the production of oil reaches a level of maximum output.  Peak oil occurred in 1970 in the United States when production reached 11 million barrels.  Peak conventional oil occurred a couple of years later in Canada; however, our oil production overall has not reached and will not reach peak in Canada in the near future because of non-conventional oil production (production from the oil sands and deep-water wells).Peak oil world-wide?  Even the hoary optimists at the International Energy Agency believe that we have already reached peak conventional oil.  As to peak oil overall (conventional and non-conventional sources) the extreme pessimists say it has also already occurred; the pessimists say it will occur in the next five to ten years; the optimists say it will be reached in twenty years; the extreme optimists say forty years.  Of course, forty years really is not very long – think back 40 years – that puts us in 1970 which for us baby boomers seems like yesterday.

One of the interesting things about Peak Oil is that it is not just another left-wing doomsday theory.  The people who believe that Peak Oil is near or already here include oil entrepreneurs such as Jim Buckee, T. Boone Pickens and Gwyn Morgan.  In fact, PR aside, I doubt if there are many people in the oil industry who genuinely think otherwise.

It is widely accepted that an oil supply crisis (a supply crunch) will precede peak oil because demand will outrun supply.  Even in the middle of a recession oil prices are at levels which would have been considered shocking ten years ago – over recent weeks oil prices have ranged between $82.00 to $88.00 per barrel.

Oil is a terrific source of energy and is wonderfully transportable which is why over 95% of transportation energy is derived from it.  Whether we experience an oil supply crunch as huge price increases or as day to day shortages or both, it is undeniable that it will drastically affect our lives.  It will have a particularly big impact on retail commercial activities and that means some hard times ahead for places such as Nanaimo.  Despite the mantra like reiteration of “sustainability” at City Hall, this community will not be particularly viable in the coming age of scarce and expensive energy.  Nanaimo is highly dependent on transportation based on the internal combustion engine (ICE).  Strung out along a highway, it has a low population density; it has few food sources in its immediate vicinity; its shopping centre essentially is a twenty kilometre or so stretch of malls and big box store complexes.  Believe it or not, building LEED standard civic structures (often at considerable additional cost) will not make Nanaimo sustainable.

City and Regional planning staff project a Nanaimo with an ever increasing population but is this all that certain.  Will people continue to retire to a community that is so automobile dependent?  Is the City’s service economy going to continue to expand?  Is it not a real possibility that once we are past peak oil a multiplicity of factors will work to reduce rather than increase this area’s population.  My prediction is that transportation viability will become an increasingly dominant factor in the decisions that individuals make as to where they will live and that businesses make as to where they locate.

Even if electric vehicles displace some ICE vehicles there is likely to be a drop off in road traffic.  Does it make sense at this time to continue to add to a road network which may already be excessive?  Along with a decline in the number of motor vehicle trips there will be fewer air miles flown.  Air transportation is a needy user of oil – fuel price increases quickly translate into surcharges and other “need to keep up” price increases.  One can not avoid noting that Nanaimo seems to have a special talent at being behind the curve – it is expanding its airport and has just completed a Conference Centre which relies on cheap air transportation to get people to it.

Unfortunately City Hall despite its lip service to “green” seems determined to continue to build a Nanaimo reliant on oil based transportation.  These very unsustainable planning directions need to be quickly reversed.

What are some planning principles that might enhance this City’s ability to survive oil shortages?  Firstly, no more large green field developments.  Contain, even contract the urbanized area.  Secondly, concentrate high density housing along two corridors – the Old Island Highway and Bowen Road (which was the even older up island highway).  This will help make it possible to have electrified mass transportation.  Thirdly, simplify zoning so that residence and work are not so “tidily” separated from one another.  Do you see any of these notions in play at City Hall?  An emphatic NO.