Running On Fumes

The gas shortage that began last week wasn’t supposed to last this long. Instead, it’s getting worse.

Esso, Canadian Tire, Petro-Canada, and Shell gas stations in Toronto are all suffering from gas shortages, and some of them are completely out of fuel.

The shortage, we are told, is due to a fire that happened at a refinery in Nanticoke, Ontario on February 15th. Also, it’s due to the CN rail strike. Also, it’s due to cold weather.

In other words, there are a lot of things going wrong at once. Robert Theberge of Imperial Oil described the Nanticoke fire as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” His comments were probably an attempt to minimize the problem, but for me they do the opposite. If our gas supply is so susceptible to disruption that it can be broken by a straw, we’ve got a problem.

In the early 1970’s, North American oil production peaked, giving birth to the energy crisis. People woke up and took action (efficiency, conservation), but eventually new supplies from the Middle East drove prices back down, and old habbits returned. Three years ago, when gas prices spiked in Canada, individuals (though not government) smartened up again, and started buying fewer stupid, ugly vehicles. Then, again, prices dropped, and the pendulum of behaviour swung back.

By evolutionary design, we humans are adept at reacting to immediate threats (“Ah! Lion!”), but not as good at detecting gradual ones or noticing long emergencies. Doesn’t mean we can’t do it, just means we have to try a little harder. Just as every oil field has a peak production, and just as North America peaked in the 1770s, it’s becoming increasingly likely that global oil production will peak soon as well. In fact, some believe it already has.

This week, as gas prices went back up (and as we actually started running out of the stuff), some drivers reacted with anger and confusion, as if they’d had no warning that this kind of thing could happen. But of course, CN will go back to work, the refinery will get back up to speed, and prices will go back down again. The temporary supply problem (the one that’s easy to notice, the lion) will be resolved and the illusion that our oil supply is infinite and secure will be restored. The looming global supply problem will remain, of course, but that’s the one that’s much easier to sleep through.

Something else will remain as well — one question: how many more warnings can we afford to ignore?

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