Peak Oil

$4/L Gas in Hamilton's Future?

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 23, 2005

The City of Hamilton is notorious for commissioning studies and then promptly ignoring them (see: Vision 2020). I fear they may be at it again, based on an article in yesterday's Hamilton Spectator (Paul Morse, "City gets help to plan for days of $4 a litre gas", August 22, 2005, Page A8).

Hamilton is taking a unique step in urban planning by commissioning a study into the fallout from a global energy crisis.

But a leading national energy expert says councillors may not like what that report says about the city's bid to create an aerotropolis in Glanbrook.

Richard Gilbert is an authority on "peak oil" -- the point at which global oil production lags behind consumption and begins to decline. The Toronto consultant to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), warns Hamilton is taking an extreme risk if it expands its urban boundary to include 1,200 hectares of farmland around John C. Munro International Airport.

Air travel in the ways we understand it is doomed," he says. "It's a very dicey business."

We at Raise the Hammer are, of course, consummate professionals and would never stoop to self-aggrandizement or smug vindication, but what the heck: we made essentially the same argument in our July 1 editorial. Jack Santa-Barbara also made a compelling argument in a Spectator op-ed on June 25.

Gilbert draws the obvious conclusion from the fact that air transport is a hundred times less fuel efficient than shipping or rail: "We are going to see the unwinding of the air freight bonanza, entirely because of high fuel prices ... To build an economic development concept on the expansion of air freight is something you seriously have to reconsider."

He also points out that money squandered on an economic hub with poor long-term prospects cannot be spent on "other kinds of development that will put Hamilton in better stead for an energy-constrained future."

Displaying the same pie-in-the-sky optimism that he shared with Raise the Hammer in our recent interview, Mayor Larry DiIanni asks rhetorically, "Do we honestly believe that airplanes will cease to fly through the air?"

Unfortunately for the Mayor's cornucopian ambitions, airplanes are as subject to the laws of physics and chemistry as anything else: without huge quantities of high-energy jet fuel to power them, airplanes will not fly. As petroleum supplies are increasingly constrained, air flight will return to its origins as an expensive toy for wealthy playboys.

There's simply no way wind or solar power is going to keep 380,000 kilograms of steel in the air, no matter how fervently we believe things will stay the same. And yet, the Mayor chastises naysayers for being "so into navel gazing that that we're just not going to open our minds" to airport-based opportunities for the city.

I would argue by contrast that refusing to look at the mounting evidence of an impending global energy crisis is the most dangerous form of "navel gazing" we can indulge in.

The article concludes with a quote from city planner Stephen Robichaud, who points out sensibly that accepting doomsday scenarios leaves no room for planning. Raise the Hammer agrees, but we worry that his alternative consideration, "how will consumers adjust [to more expensive energy costs] and what degree of technological change [will] offset some of their cost," may be a sign that the city is taking the issue seriously, or it might just a smokescreen for more business as usual planning.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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