Finally, even if you factor in a wide range of reasonable estimates about the quantity of oil supplies, you're still left with a relatively narrow window of time during which oil production is likely to peak.
The peak is probably going to happen by 2030. To claim a later date, the researchers wrote, you have to start getting optimistic in your estimations of global oil supply. When we hit peak oil, it won't mean that gasoline will vanish overnight, or even in a few years. But it would most likely mean the end of cheap gasoline. You may not feel that gas is cheap when you're paying for a full tank. It's never cheap right then. Even when I first started driving, in the late 1990s, and paid less than a dollar per gallon, I still drove away from the pump feeling disgruntled. Today, in early 2011, I pay closer to $4 a gallon, but that gas is cheap, too.
Gas has always been cheap in the United States, both compared to other developed countries and compared to the finite supply and the amount of work and convenience we get out of burning it. Gasoline is so cheap here that we built our entire lives around the expectation of being able to burn it whenever we want, no matter the reason. Gas is so cheap, I don't even think twice about driving alone in my car less than a mile to the grocery store, just because I want an errand done faster. Gas is so cheap, my father-in-law can use a snow plow in the winter, instead of a shovel. Gas is so cheap, my mother can go for a ride through the woods on a four-wheeler, just for fun.
Peak oil means all of that will likely change. We'll have to start considering whether we can afford certain aspects of our lifestyles that we currently take for granted.
For instance, right now, living in Merriam means owning a car. The whole town is designed around the idea that cheap gasoline will always be available. The main shopping center is a strip mall off the Interstate. Sidewalks—and easily walkable grid street plans—come and go throughout the neighborhoods, following the whims of past developers. Merriam has two bike routes, but one is mostly aimed at recreation. It doesn't follow any path that people travel daily for business, school, or shopping. The other bike route begins and ends suddenly, covering only a small portion of busy Shawnee Mission Parkway. There are bus lines that pass through town, but the service isn't particularly robust. Most of the buses are strictly for commuters, offering a handful of morning trips to downtown Kansas City and evening trips back. The system isn't really meant for general mobility. A trip from Merriam's main shopping center to my favorite Chinese restaurant in nearby Overland Park is a nine-minute drive. By bus, it's forty-four minutes, and you can't go for lunch or a late dinner. The buses don't run between nine a.m. and four p.m., and they shut down for the night after six p.m. You see the problem here.
As the price of gas climbs, and middle-class Americans have to start seriously thinking about whether they can afford a given trip, the residents of Merriam will find themselves without an easy, all-weather way to navigate the crazy quilt of metro towns that surrounds them. For those who work outside Merriam, it'll be harder to get to work. Inside Merriam, businesses will suffer the loss of the heavy traffic that now passes by twice a day.
Metro towns aren't self-reliant. Their fates have been tied to the fates of the towns they touch for decades. That interconnection works now because gasoline is cheap. What happens to a metro town when travel from one part to another is no longer easy and frequent, no longer something that can happen daily or hourly? What happens when the parts of a metro can no longer rely on the direct support of all of the others but are still on the hook for funding shared systems? What happens to the city at the metro's heart when it can no longer count on the social support, the financial investments, and the intellectual capital of people who actually live elsewhere?