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Cutting education to save fuel

Losing muscle: saving fuel by cutting education

It’s my last day of vacation here in Arlington, Vermont, where gasoline is $3.79 a gallon or so (it’s still over $4 back in Cali) and the winters are long and warmed with fuel oil. Our hosts had friends over last night, and I asked a man named Hamilton what the winter would be like. “Cold” was his laconic answer.

At current prices, winter can cost residents here $6000 or more in fuel oil. Hamilton went on to relate that a fuel-oil supplier he knew was already carrying about $750,000 in debt from last year, when suppliers faced customers unable to pay who are facing freezing temperatures. Who will step in this year, I wonder. And the next, and the next.

Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times describes how schools across the nation are dealing with the triple whammy of skyrocketing fuel costs and more foreclosures and the recession: cutting bus service; cutting hours (and in some cases, days); restricting travel; generally saving money any way they can. “The big national picture is that food and fuel costs are going up and school revenues are not,” said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, according to the article.

As the school year begins, teachers will be playing oil mini-crises with their students in their classrooms, using the World Without Oil lesson plans. Students not of driving age may have difficulty relating to gas prices, but underheated houses and four-day school weeks will connect them more directly, alas.

In the World Without Oil game, the players imagined what would need to be done if petroleum suddenly became more expensive or otherwise hard to get. In the game, the players wrestled with cutbacks of essential services. What does it say that schools across the country are going to four-day weeks? The oil crisis of 2008 continues. Photo by bitzcelt via Flickr.

Fuel Efficiency Standards by Country

Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

“Over the last 25 years, opportunities to head off the current crisis were ignored, missed or deliberately blocked, according to analysts, politicians and veterans of the oil and automobile industries. What’s more, for all the surprise at just how high oil prices have climbed, and fears for the future, this is one crisis we were warned about. Ever since the oil shortages of the 1970s, one report after another has cautioned against America’s oil addiction.” (The World Without Oil game, ahem.)

The “Asleep at the spigot” article in the New York Times goes on to show just how the U.S. has gotten itself out on the limb as far as it has – and who led us out there – it’s good reading for those who hope we don’t get fooled again.

Plus I’ve got an excellent article summarizing the global oil situation, also in the NYT, courtesy of reader PeakProphet. It’s 2 months old but still nails it. (Image from the New York Times)

How to reduce oil dependency
<< How to reduce oil dependency

David Kirsch, an oil analyst at PFC Energy, said that if the most promising areas off Florida and California were opened for drilling, their peak production in a decade could be as little as 250,000 barrels a day — less than a quarter of what the gulf produces now. “It’s almost a desperate attempt to take advantage of the political climate brought on by high energy prices to steamroll through legislation that won’t fundamentally address those high energy prices,” Mr. Kirsch said. (As reported in the New York Times)

250,000 barrels a day – to put this number in perspective, it’s the amount that the Cantarell oilfield in Mexico declined in the last six months (and its decline will continue).

Steep decline

Cantarell: Steep decline

It’s the amount that North Sea oil fields declined in the last year (and their decline will continue). It’s the amount taken offline recently when rebels in speedboats attacked an oil rig off the coast of Nigeria. It’s a little over 1% of our current oil consumption and maybe a third of a percent of the world’s. It’s spit in the bucket.

Meanwhile, conservation methods offer us a way to reduce our dependence on oil by as much as one-third. That would be 28 times as great an effect. Twenty-eight times. We wouldn’t have to spend anything, or spoil anything, to do it. We could start right away, rather than waiting 10 years. And perhaps most tellingly, it would be a benefit that actually accrued to squeezed U.S. citizens, rather than a benefit that accrued to oil companies and whoever will bid the highest for the offshore oil.

It’s what the other developed nations of the world have done. Maybe we should take advantage of the research they’ve done in this area? Or must we live through the World Without Oil scenario first?

U.S. lags in conservation measures

U.S. lags in conservation measures

Interactive graphic - New York TimesClifford Krauss is living World Without Oil, but it’s no game. Clifford wrote an article that appeared yesterday in the New York Times. It’s about the effects of high gasoline prices on rural areas in the U.S., where people are reeling under the triple strike of low incomes, fuel-inefficient vehicles, and long commutes to work. Folks, you have to read this article: this is not fiction, this is really happening.

Cars abandoned at the side of roads. A man loses his truck because he couldn’t afford the payments and the fuel.  People eating less meat, giving up video rentals to buy gas. People forced to choose between food and transportation. People praying to God for lower fuel prices. People unable to afford the transportation cost to get medicines. People defaulting on their electric and phone bills. People quitting jobs because working less is the economically rational choice: all the wages just go down the fuel spout.

And the ripple effects: stores and restaurants closing. Layoffs. Theft rising. Local governments abandoning services. A new calculus is at work to define the haves and have-nots: the Petro Razor. Fissures are appearing along the lines that WWO foresaw. 

 

Warning symbol showing a fuel gauge on E“Oil prices raise cost of making range of goods . . . Hard choices all over . . . profits suffer, prices rise, workers’ hours are cut . . . airlines, shippers and car owners are no longer the only ones being squeezed . . . companies that make hard goods are watching their costs skyrocket . . . unpleasant choices . . . the sense that many companies may be hitting a wall is palpable . . . cutting jobs at an accelerating pace . . . more dire action may be in store . . . since last spring, the average profits of the nation’s corporations have declined at an annual rate of nearly 6 percent . . . ‘starting to be confronted with unprecedented price increases’ . . . ‘these surges in energy prices are just one surge too many’ for companies to handle. More news that sounds eerily like World Without Oil, from a front-page above-the-fold article today in the New York Times.

People surging into cars in a transit stationThis just in from Jane McGonigal (otherwise known as mPathyTest) who’s in New York for the Stories From The Near Future conference: an article in the New York Times titled “Gas Prices Send Surge of Riders To Mass Transit.” Apparently, gas prices are motivating people to take transit in record numbers, catching transit planners by surprise. “Nobody believed that people would actually give up their cars to ride public transportation,” says the executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. “The whole NYT article reads like a KalWithoutOil report,” Jane says.

The biggest surges are occurring in metro areas in the South and West – the very strongholds of American driving culture. The article says Denver ridership is up 8%, for example, and several routes now run at capacity at rush hour.

Now this is no surprise to WWO players. Player Ararejul explicated this very situation in her video posted from Denver, titled “Is Public Transportation Ready?” Posted over a year ago, I might add. “This was the first thing our players predicted and documented when gas hit $4 a gallon,” Jane notes. “Dude, WWO seriously worked as a forecasting device.” One that looked not to the past for answers, nor to experts, but to the future and the collective imagination.

Photo by caribb via Flickr.

Jump at the Pump…is fuel prices, according to a study released by the New York Times this week. David Leonhardt, who writes about economics for the Times, tells Renee Montagne of NPR that “eight in 10 people said they’re staying even or falling behind,” which basically means they understand what’s actually going on. “Household income set an all-time record in 1999, and we still haven’t returned to that record. That’s really remarkable. There is no other economic expansion in history that failed to give most people a raise.” And thus the worry about fuel prices: the jump at the pump is cutting directly into the income that’s already failed to keep up with prices; it’s the tangible sign that people are falling farther and farther behind; and as we found in WWO, it’s the thing that has the power to get people to change their lives. (Thanks, Laurel, for this lead.)

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.