The Oil Drum Meets Philly Regional Planning

Today I attended a historic moment in US transportation history. In attendance were all the local transportation authorities at the federal, state and local level in the region around Philadelphia. The final segment of the I-95/PA Turnpike Interchange was approved by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), thus completing the Federal Interstate Highway System as it was designed in the 1950s. In one of those great ironic twists of fate, I was invited there to present the concept of peak oil on behalf of The Oil Drum community and to urge them to address their oil addiction by reducing automobile dependency. Typical Top-Down Planning - Just as one project is finally completed, it no longer fits the community's needs!

Background on the DVRPC:

Serving the Greater Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton area for more than 40 years, DVRPC is the federally designated metropolitan planning organization for the region who works to foster regional cooperation in a nine-county, two-state area. Representatives from city, county and state agencies work together to address key issues, including transportation, land use, environmental protection, information sharing and economic development.

Increasing energy costs were already on their radar, as I imagine it is becoming more important to everywhere now. In their long range plan, they already identified runaway energy costs as a potential scenario, but one that had been considered a low probability back in 2003, but their interest has reawakened over the last year. They now have a draft report Titled "A Post-Global Economic Development Strategy to Energize Our Economy and Secure Our Future" that quotes Robert Hirsch, Colin Campbell, Matt Simmons, the Post Carbon Institute, Amory Lovins and other usual suspects.

To set-up the peak oil problem, I presented a brief history of the oil age (including that it all started in Pennsylvania!), some of Stuart's great data charts on production levels over the last few years, how OPEC / Russia have hit their limits in production and an example of Prudhoe Bay's production curve. Then I talked about how Hybrids and bio-fuels will only get us so far. The efficiency gains from hybrids will take time to replace existing car stock (10-20 years) and are constantly stripped away by increasing costs of fuel. I told Ethanol/Biodiesel can serve useful niches, but are not scalable to replace gasoline and they have a questionable Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI).

Then I urged them to consider how conservation oriented planning may be a more effective alternative planning technique to reduce their oil addiction. If you eliminate the need for auto-use through transportation alternatives like good mass transit, biking, mixed use walkable shopping districts, you can design a system that requires fewer energy inputs, particularly liquid fuels, to sustain it. I also urged them to consider the positive impacts on quality of life by lower ground level pollution, noise, easing traffic congestion by reducing automobile usage.

Then a guy from the Sustainable Development Fund gave a presentation on how they are investing in a wide range of alternative energy development projects.

The DVRPC then did a presentation of their analysis of the situation and some of the proactive policy alternatives. Rather than viewing peak oil as a threat, they are trying to turn this into an opportunity to stimulate the development of a regional green economic sector, bringing alternative energy production and green technology companies to the area. They were also talking about restoring their rail and port facilities, restoring small town center retail areas to re-localize commerce and perhaps even light industry.

We did a little Q&A session, talked about clean coal technology, carbon sequestration, Coal Gasification, Liquid Natural Gas facilities. In particular Pennsylvania's governor seemed interested in leveraging all their nearby coal deposits. Following the addiction theme, I compared those ideas to treating a heroine addiction with methadone - you simply change the addiction, but the root dependency remains. But they might serve as a useful bridge fuel to a more sustainable future. There was also a lot of talk of stimulating the development of alternative energy. I kept emphasizing conservation ideas as a way to save people money and stop simply shipping local wealth outside the region, when you could have that all being spent locally. They agreed that it really came down to showing how international energy prices created a good opportunity to spur local economic development.

All in all, I thought it was a productive start to what will be a long process of rethinking their regional transportation system's infrastructure. In many cases they just talked about how reactivating their 19th Century freight & passenger rail and port infrastructure will serve them well in the 21st Century. The meeting underscored how the answers to peak oil will be different in every region.

With the NY Times Article from yesterday, there has never been an easier time to start talk about peak oil in your local area.

Woohoo!  Way to go, Peakguy!

Keep up the good fight.

As an urban planner, it is interesting to see this issue finally working its way into planning dialogues.  Do you plan to continue this interaction with the Commission?
They seem to have a lot of the big picture stuff well researched so now it's all about follow-through and implementation. It was very refreshing to hear a pragmatic, almost technocratic approach to Peak Oil. But building public awareness is going to be a delicate task.

I did collect a number of business cards from the participants. When the draft report is finalized, I will post it. I think the dialogue will continue in some form. Those that had heard of us really respected the quality of the dialogue on the site. I invited them to register at the site and join our discussions here.


Good job!  I was glad to read that fed officials were in attendence too.  Your quote: "But building public awareness is going to be a delicate task."  I hope you can offer more info on why the MilGov thought this is 'delicate'.  Seems to me if NYT can talk Peakoil, there is no reason why an elected official should hold back on Peakoil.  I don't think it has hurt Congressman Roscoe Bartlett's chances of re-election any--I think it has helped him.

I think our national leadership is extremely short-sighted.  Bushco should be upfront leading the Powerdown Paradigm Shift.  As a lameduck Prez, he has nothing to lose, and the country has everything to gain.

The Saudis are obviously aware of Matthew R. Simmons.  If the Saudi Royals are also reading TOD, LATOC, and, and I think it is safe to assume they are: when Ghawar peaks, surely they must realize the tremendous first mover advantage of a Saudi Powerdown combined with a severe throttling of exports. This Saudi desire to keep the remaining oil to power just their society for the next 1,000 years and force the consuming countries to assert the ASPO Depletion Protocols would benefit the entire world.

If America can be taught the probable ramifications of Jay's Thermo-Gene Collision: we will gladly disavow the present 'Nuke their Ass--I want gas' mindset, bring our kids home from overseas, and heartily accept the correct moral choice of 'No thanks--I like Empty Tanks', then cooperatively work to instill the honest social norm of ERoEI > ERoVI [Violence Invested].

I see no way out for us but to remake our infrastructure and permiculture to be local, just as Kunstler has argued.  Bicycles, not Hummers and GMC Denials.  Just imagine if the world could simply agree to just abolish all outside lighting-- the sun does sink below our horizon creating darkness, nightime was meant for Humanity to admire the stars, then dream for a better day.

I am no expert on Islamic Society, but it seems to me that they would then gladly accept the ERoEI > ERoVI equation too.  I think they would adapt back to a Beduoin lifestyle faster than we could adapt back to a lifestyle where 95% will be daily working in localized permiculture fields and humanure industry.

This is far better than endless war, suicide bombers, starving mobs, being killed by your neighbor, and millions of newborn babies clogging the sewers worldwide.  Time will tell if we can stop the delusions and then gladly face a brighter day.

Jay Hanson would love for the World prove him wrong. Me too, for all ours' sake.

Bob Shaw in Phx,AZ  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

That'd be the subscription only NYT article on Peak Oil.

Thanx, NYT.

Anyway, Peakguy, it's definitely not a step in the wrong direction.

FYI the NYT article is on FTW today.
CYTMW FTW means?
FTW = From the Wilderness, the article is also on Energy  Bulletin
Nearly all of our transportation dollars around here are going for freeways.  If you can provide some contact info for a regional transportation agency (and key person) who has bought into the peak oil argument for why this is insanity please pass it on since this can be used to enroll locals in similar positions.  

Also, if your presentation is in a form that can be shared easily, e.g., powerpoint slides, please upload it somewhere and let us know.

Nice work!

Prudhoe Alaska, BP oil spill. See here.
Peakguy, it sounds like some of the folks had seen the NYT article, even tho it was online only.  What kind of a splash does it seem to be making in the area?
I've sent it around to all my elected officials. It certainly takes this issue and makes it mainstream and acceptable to discuss. Here are some reader reactions, also behind the pay wall
Very encouraging!  Outstanding work.
Here's a link to the NY Times Op-Ed "The End of Oil"

Also a link to the site where the above article was found. This site has an impressive amount of links to articles and papers dealing with energy matters:


If you eliminate the need for auto-use through transportation alternatives like good mass transit, biking, mixed use walkable shopping districts, you can design a system that requires fewer energy inputs, particularly liquid fuels, to sustain it.

This means a cultural change and quite frankly, I don't believe its going to happen until we have leadership informing the people we have a problem. But we don't have a problem until the sheeple start feeling the pain of higher energy costs and being forced to use less.. Inasmuch as conservation is a grand idea, its going to a massive efforts on the part of the government to enforce..

I am looking forward to the conclusion of the panel and will be quite surprised if they take any of peakguys' suggestions.. Remember, our society about more growth and a better tomorrow, the corporate way..

" we don't have a problem until the sheeple start feeling the pain of higher energy costs and being forced to use less"

Yes, I suppose we could expect our 'leaders' to take the lead on this, but of course, 'that's JUST what we're expecting them to do!' to paraphrase Lloyd Bridges.  I guess I picked the wrong week to give up amphetamines..

My thought is that people ARE feeling this pain, they just don't know it yet, or at least don't know how much the energy costs are causing any number of the difficulties in 'getting-by in America' these days.(not to exclude all the rest of y'all in the world)

   We're used to having substantial credit-card debts, used to paying the freight at the pump, cuz' what're you gonna do..  I think too many families are just too wiped out getting through the day to think they can fight city hall and exxon at the same time, if either.  The Pain and Fear are a lot like that rattling bearing on the right-rear wheel.. I'll just turn up the radio for now, and I don't have to think about it.  I'll deal with it, I will.. sometime.

But I don't buy the whole 'apathy of the masses' argument.  I think people here are smart, and they're trying, and we haven't killed off the 'can-do' that's built into the American idea,.. but they are just also buried in debt, don't have a second to deal with 'extracurricular projects' what with both parents working, largely to keep up with Mortgage, Health Insurance, Childcare, and oh yeah.. gasoline, heating oil, electric, a cord of wood, new windows(maybe).. > Clearly, the inefficiencies of the system are not only wasting 'Petroleum' energy resources, but human energy as well.. (working an extra job to pay for the corresponding extra daycare, all to lose precious time raising and knowing our own kids) <  

and so we constantly tune out with TV, DVD's, Beer and Wine, 'chatting earnestly on the internet', offroading ..  a lot of 'lifestyle addictions' that get us out of the present moment where we 'should' be, trying to climb out of this hole, but we're just too damn fried.

I do think seeing neighbors coming up with {Visible} solutions, and trying to shed some of this dependency is  a good way to get the others to ask 'what's that thing do, are you saving any money with it? How much was it?'.. as long as we don't plaster our Hybrids, PV's and Evacuated tubes with bumper stickers that tell our neighbors we think they're idiots for not doing this first.  

  If it is a 'Government of the people', or if we just still want it to be.. then we get to take the initiative of adopting some of that mantle of leadership that we hope the elected leaders will adopt.  If our thinking is clear, we can help them come up with the examples, processes and terms to introduce it with, that they can run with.  Barama's speech the other day was a nice try.  You can plaster him with the Accusation of "Politician".. but what the name means is someone who is at a place between many forces in a perpetual shoving match, and I think the Politician has to try to match those various forces up in a synthesis that, at the very least, is a compromise ~most~ of the parties can at least live with.  "Politics, the art of the Possible"

Please keep in mind that while some of this good stuff is going on, the Bush regime has been trying its best to cut off Amtrak from all federal assistance. It has only failed to do so as the result of the efforts of some powerful Eastern corridor members of Congress, such as our own Senator Joe Biden.  

If the federal goverment had an ounce of forward thinking, it would be spending money to encourage public rail service rather than trying to kill it.

Second on that comment, joule.

The DVRPC has been publishing unimplemented regional plans for decades now. It's primary function is to allocate federal dollars to the highway infrastructure. It has a small adjunct staff that produce regional planning documents that for the most part gather dust.

But who knows? It's true that the Philly metro area does have a functioning rail network, and even the remnants of a canal transportation system. Many of these that are no longer in use could be converted back someday (many contain utility right-of-ways and have escaped redevelopment, and some rail beds are being converted into walking/biking trails.)

But who will pay for the programs proposed by the DVRPC that involve projects other than federal highway subsidies? The City of Philadelphia? The county governments? The states of PA and NJ? I'm skeptical, but want to know more.

As far as I understand, they make suggestions, it's up to the state and local agencies to fund and implement them. And I agree that restoring the rail infrastructure to its former glory is definitely the first priority.
I understand that the DVRPC is looking for a new executive director. Maybe you should throw your hat in the ring, peakguy!

thus completing the Federal Interstate Highway System as it was designed in the 1950s.

Nice! I am trying to advocate the same thing at home in Sweden.

Whenever the peak is there will be a need for cars, trucks etc for a very long time after the peak. I think railways should be priority one but a road system with high and even standard is a very good priority two while it is fairly cheap to build them.

The national rail and road budget in Sweden is approximately $2G for roadbuilding and maintainance and $1,4G for railwaybuilding and maintainance. Both budgets are too small. It would be very good for the post peak oil era to increase the rail budget with 50% and the road budget with 10% but there is little room in the budget for that.

But the most important long term priority for the road network should be to get it to a high maintainance standard and then get the axle loading down to keep it there with a reasonable effort. I think a kilometer fee based on road wear is a very good idea. Our current government have neglected a lot of the mainatinance, the bridges are usually in good shape but manny fairly major roads have weaker  roadbeds(?) built in the 50:s and early 60:s and the asphalt  is worn down on manny roads.

Building new roads have taken priority over maintainance and it is even more so for railways where most of the money goes to debottlenecking tunnels and new railway lines. About 1/3 of the proposed railway projects are currently building or in advanced planning and will be built if the budget is held  at the current level and the costs do not get much higher during the next 10 years. It will take decades to get a realy good rail network built. :-(

Mr. Shaw,
I have my doubts about the Arabs going back to a Bedouin lifestyle.  About a year ago, Scientific American had graphic showing the balance between human resource demands (water, food, etc.) and natural productivity across the globe - like a GIS map, color coded by the local balance.  Deep green meant that nature produced more than was locally consumed, while red meant that humans were demanding more than nature sustainably produced (the colors had  continum between green and red).  As you would expect, major cities were red, India as a whole was light green, but the most striking thing was that by far the largest red region was the Middle East.  Once the world moves on from oil, they are screwed - way overpopulated.  The grandson won't be riding a camel, but pushing a broom in a Chinese factory.

Of course, my home is screwed too - infrastructure almost all built in the 20th century around cars, and an economy dependent on middle-class tourism.

The DVRPC in Philly is a Metropolitan Planning Organization. Like the 100 + MPO's across America it came into existence to facilitate highway expansion. By and large, that is what MPO's (along with the even larger State Departments of Transportation) do.

An interesting question is what will happen to these transportation bureaucracies post-peak. Will they whither away with the highway system they helped create or will they evolve into something else? For all their problems they often represent more rational geographic boundaries than states and counties and they do have the ear of many high level state and local officials. That is one of their powers of the moment...persuasion.

After the peak their funding will dry up or will be changed. But in the meantime they exist and they are excellent conduits to a broad base of local officials. I recommend people exploit them to plant memes and get the message out about the need for a change in transportation priorities.

It looks like the DVRPC in Philly may be one of the first MPO's to even acknowledging peak oil. Other places will certainly follow. It will take persistence to change the course of these colossal transportation bureaucracies, but it is not impossible. MPO's are a good place to begin.

Find yours; repeatedly prod it; see what happens.

This is where the "coolness" factor of peak oil comes in. Imagine you get a job at one of these planning agencies - all the big exciting projects are done and now you're just filling potholes, collecting accident data and in general just trying to maintain a flawed system of "build more road and they will come and congest it".

Peak oil changes everything - you start thinking about rail, ports, mass transit, biking, intermodal connections, park & rides - those can be a lot more interesting and fulfilling than boring old highway stuff....

Huh. I'd never thought of that, but it seems likely to be an important driver. I know from the technology industry how many decisions get driven by what the engineers think would be fun, rather than what actually makes sense for the problem. So if those factors work in our direction, it's a very good thing...
Great post; great idea! One of my concerns locally (sort of) is fighting the idea of the '3rd Infranty Division Corridor' (Savannah to Knoxville) proposed by Georgia legislators.(Google Interstate 3) Those opposing it mainly base their complaints on the horrendous destruction of some of the nicest wilderness areas in the east and suggest a rail corridor with a much smaller footprint. But it seems to me that peak oil is also an excellent argument against the construction of this road as there will likely be a lot less traffic by the time it is completed. The study is due in 2009 although there is a push to complete it much sooner. As I understand it, the study is going to cost around $6.6 million which seems a complete waste of money unless it involves studying transportation alternatives. The trucking industry supports this construction because it would allow them to avoid Atlanta traffic. They probably could use a 'peak oil' argument that it will save fuel by keeping them from getting tied up in Atlanta traffic idling...