Transportation: How long can we adapt before we fall off the Net Energy Cliff?


The problem we face is a liquid fuel crisis.  Absolutely essential vehicles, such as agricultural tractors and combines, railroads, and trucks run on diesel fuel, ships on bunker fuel.  They can never be battery or fuel-cell operated or electrified, nor do we have the decades it would take to build a new fleet even if there were a solution.

In 2011, the United States burned 29021 trillion BTU’s of mainly petroleum for transportation to move 13 billion tons of freight, worth $11.8 trillion, for 3.5 trillion ton-miles:

  • Trucks: 69%  1.4 trillion miles  9.0 billion tons
  • Trains: 15%   1.3 trillion miles  1.9 billion tons
  • Ships:   3%

Non-essential Transportation Fuel can be given to Trucks & Trains (see Table 1 below)

1) Cars (28%) and light trucks (26%) use 55% of transportation fuel.  All of that 55% could be shifted to essential vehicles.  Implication: That would force anyone who wasn’t 100% self-sufficient to move to a town or city because country gas stations will be closed (though rural freeway stations would remain open for essential long-distance trucks).  Also, petroleum will mainly be refined into diesel (this is already happening actually), which gasoline cars can’t burn.

2) Let’s give most of this fuel to essential vehicles: 7% air travel, 1% recreational water boats, 3% Construction and Mining, 1% recreational vehicles (snowmobiles, etc).  That’s another 11% shifted to essential vehicles (leaving 1% for the above, mainly to maintain and fix infrastructure).

3) Essential vehicles: 20% Medium (class 3-6) and Heavy trucks (class 7-8), 4% ships, 2% rail freight, 3% pipelines, 2% agricultural.  A lot of this freight isn’t essential, so about half of this, 15%, can be saved by not shipping non-essential cargo and shipping essential goods shorter distances.

Essential transportation has been given 81% of diesel from other non-essential sources (55% + 11% + 15%).

Meanwhile, production of oil will be dropping off rapidly, because:

  1. Global peak oil production was reached in 2005
  2. Oil producing countries will export less because they’re using more oil themselves (ELM model)
  3. America is likely to be outbid by China, India, etc., for oil exports.  At China’s current growth rate, China alone would consume ALL exported oil by 2020.
  4. The net energy cliff and the decline in the RATE of what we can get out of the ground now that petroleum is gunky and in remote places.
  5. The financial system can interfere with oil production —  when credit dries up after the next financial crash, the money to drill won’t be available.

Optimistic scenario: 20 years before we hit the wall 

The likely decline rate is expected to accelerate. We’ve been on a plateau since 2005, but once production heads downhill, here’s a guess at what the decline rate might be per year: 4%, 5%, 6%, 7%, 8%, 9%, and 10% from then on.

But not to worry, we’ve got some wiggle room. Remember, of the grand total of 29021 trillion BTU’s of petroleum burned in America (Table 1 below), 81% was reassigned from non-essential vehicles and cargo to essential agriculture, railroads, trucks, industrial infrastructure equipment, and miscellaneous important vehicles (ambulances, police cars, military, etc).

The other 19% — 5,541 trillion BTU — is the rock-bottom amount we need to  keep society going.

With a 4/5/6/7/8/9/10/10 /10/….. decline rate scenario, we’ll dip below the essential transportation fuel needed 16 years from now.

Of course, we can import/export less cargo, grow food locally, stop immigration, encourage 1-child families, ship goods shorter distances, and many other oil-reducing strategies as well.  This is when techno-optimists have a chance to shine, and Postcarbon, Bay Localize, Transition Towns, and many other groups help governments and communities adapt.  If all goes well, panic is avoided, and diesel fuel can be stretched out even further, that could delay collapse another 4 years.

Pessimistic scenario: 1-12 years before we hit the wall

What if states that produce energy and/or have refineries stop sharing diesel and gasoline with other states at some point? In that case, Alaska, California, Texas, Louisiana, etc., might last longer than 20 years and other states would hit the wall sooner.

Also, there are many black swans.  Here’s some wild guesses about how soon collapse might come if one of them strikes:

1 year if there’s a small nuclear war, China or some other nation takes down America’s electric grid(s) in a cyberwar, or a world war erupts.

2-5 years if there’s a major disaster, because that will probably bring down the financial system and also drive up prices of oil, natural gas, electricity, wood, cement, steel, and other resources needed to recover with.

3-8 years if the financial system collapses and several other events are triggered, such as social chaos, no credit left for new oil wells to be drilled, and other knock-on effects.

5 years if nations go back to negotiating deals between producing and non-producing nations and bypass the international oil market. That could suddenly cut off America’s oil imports. We’re already seeing this with the historic deal Russia and China just cut for natural gas. China, India, and other countries can afford to pay more than the United States for oil. Other nations are far closer to Russia and OPEC nations, where 83% of world reserves lie.

8-10 years if America decides to go back to the Middle east to keep other nations from getting the 2/3 of oil reserves there. Our military can’t fight without oil, so that means a lot less for everyone else

Okay. I’m going to stop guessing.  I have no idea how much sooner collapse would occur given various events, or what the actual decline rates will be.  But here are a few more black swans to think about:

  • Oil shocks make investors “Peak Oil Aware” and world-wide stock markets crash
  • Decline rates even higher than posited above due to a combination of the Export Land Model and middle eastern countries having lied about how much oil reserves they had.
  • Oil choke-points are blocked by terrorists or nearby nations
  • War breaks out in the Middle East
  • Peak coal, peak natural gas, peak uranium, peak sand, peak water, peak topsoil, peak phosphorous, etc
  • Electric grid outages increasingly common
  • Our infrastructure is falling apart, many bridges are beyond their life-span or dangerously in need of repair, ports, energy pipelines, water treatment, sewage treatment, and other essential infrastructure has a life-span less than 50 years. The steel is rusting and the concrete is falling apart.

So, what do you think?

Alice Friedemann

Table 1. Transportation energy use in America 2011 by BTU (Source: Center for Transportation Analysis. 2013. Transportation Energy Data book Edition 32. Chapter 2. Energy. Oak Ridge National Laboratory.)


Trillion BTU 2011 % Trillion BTU 2011
TOTAL 29021
   HIGHWAY 21,815.3 0.75 %
       Light vehicles 15823.1 0.55 cars 8140.9 0.28
light trucks 7629.0 0.26
Motorcycles 53.2 0.00
       Buses 194.4 0.01 Transit 91.5 0.00
Intercity 29.8 0.00
School 73.1 0.00
       Medium & Heavy trucks 5797.8 0.20 Class 3-6 trucks 1282.6 0.04
Class 7-8 trucks 4515.2 0.16
   NON-HIGHWAY 5,151.9 0.18
       Air 2162.1 0.07 General aviation 227.1 0.01
Domestic Air 1494.7 0.05
International 440.3 0.02
       Water 1388.1 0.05 Freight 1143.2 0.04
Recreational 244.9 0.01
       Pipeline 949.0 0.03 Pipeline 949.0 0.03
       Rail 609.1 0.02 Freight (Class I) 514.6 0.02
       Rail passenger overall 140.9 0 Passenger transit 94.5 0.00
Passenger commuter 31.9 0.00
Passenger Intercity 14.5 0.00
   OFF-HIGHWAY 2,053.9 0.07
       Agricultural Equipment 573.9 0.02 Tractors, mowers, combines, balers,
       Airport ground Equipment 15.1 0
       Construction & Mining 918.1 0.03 Pavers, rollers, drill rigs, graders, backhoes, excavators, cranes, mining equipment
       Industrial Equipment 340.2 0.01 Forklifts, terminal tractors, sweeper/scrubbers
       Logging Equipment 24.7 0 Feller, buncher, skidder
       Railroad maintenance 3.7 0
       Recreational equipment 178.2 0.01 Off-road motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATV, golf carts, specialty vehicles





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3 Responses to Transportation: How long can we adapt before we fall off the Net Energy Cliff?

  1. Rick Helm says:

    Alice, thanks for a very useful (and sobering) outline of various transport fuel scenarios awaiting us. You are right to point out that the crisis is a going to be a transport fuel crisis, a fact that some who tout a transition to solar and other alternative energy solutions tend to forget or ignore. I agree with you that the net energy cliff means the crash will come quickly with multiple unpredictable feedback loops. Of the list you have presented, the one that intrigues me most is the exponential decline in net exports under Jeffrey Brown’s Export Land Model. As he shows, given the current trends, China and India would be taking the entire global available oil exports in the next 16-17 years, if I remember correctly. He qualifies that scenario by saying, of course, that he doesn’t think that’s going to happen. But what will happen? The geopolitical feedback loop I think we need to think about is whether Saudi Arabia and other important producer/exporters will decide at some point to stop exporting and keep the oil at home for domestic consumption when faced with exponentially depleting production and domestic unrest. And if one country decides to do that, will others fall in line, creating the mother of all oil crises?

  2. Donald says:

    Well you can run vehicles on an ethanol gasoline mix – it is also possible to run on 100 ethanol. In Brazil they run on a mixture although 70 -75 % is currently gasoline.

    Given the importance of trucks – boats -tractors then US could do worse than to invest more heavily in ethanol production as cars that run on 85% ethanol are already being built.

    This would hopefully waylay any immediate transportation crisis