A bridge too far: Big men and their little toys
May 24, 2005

The US -- with five percent of the world's population -- consumes 25% of the global oil supply. When George H.W. Bush said at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro that "the American way of life is not negotiable," (a point cited by Dick Cheney a decade later) it was the beginning of an era of more openly acknowledged tensions, which have not yet been resolved.  

Decades earlier, civic empire builders like Robert Moses, chief bureaucrat behind the large scale highway and public works expansions in New York City in the early half of the twentieth century, were already developing and rewriting the story of the modern city. His ambitious projects of the 1930s, 40s and 50s transformed the urban landscape of New York where he constructed new parks, bridges and tunnels. It wasn't until the late 50s that he was felled by the likes of Jane Jacobs and others in active neighbourhoods like Greenwich village where communities around North America were mobilizing against highway expansion and for the protection of historic neighbourhoods. Moses, however, went on to become President of the World's Fair in 1959, and continued to work for state government until 1968. He lived in the age of the post-war economy where expansion was everything and oil was dirt cheap.  

In late 1999, future US Vice President and oil company executive Dick Cheney stated, "By some estimates, there will be an average of two percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day."  

The Economist of just a few weeks ago featured a cover that simply said "Oil." Now, the Globe and Mail is running a feature series on the issue of oil depletion. Linda McQuaig has a book out called, It's the Crude, Dude (read the Seven Oaks review here). Everyone seems to be talking about it except our political leaders.  

With alternative sources of energy too costly to compete with oil, it will take significantly increased oil costs to make the market bearable for these initiatives unless governments intervene.  

A March 2005 report for the US Department of Energy entitled "The Mitigation of the Peaking of World Oil Production" stated:   "Without timely mitigation, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), accompanied by huge oil price increases, both of which would create a long period of significant economic hardship worldwide.   Waiting until world conventional oil production peaks before initiating crash program mitigation leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for two decades or longer."  

Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve which was recently approved by the Bush Administration will lower oil prices by less than fifty cents and only contains 10 billion barrels of oil - the amount that the US consumes annually.  

Kenneth Deffeyes, a geologist who worked with M. King Hubbert who came up with the supply curve known as "Hubbert's Peak" has even set the precise date for the peak in oil production at No.25, 2005, US Thanksgiving Day. Even US President George W. Bush has started to visit the oil rich republics of the former Soviet Union. China and India are busy securing oil supplies for their booming economies driven by middle class expansion.  

Canada is sitting on the second largest supply of oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, but the high costs of production have made it prohibitive to extract until now. There will be $87 billion in investment in Alberta's oil sands over the next ten years to double output to $2.7 million barrels a day.  

Unfortunately in BC, we are still planning multi-billion dollar highway expansion projects in the GVRD contrary to the GVRD's Livable Region Strategic Plan. The twinning of the Port Mann Bridge and additional highway expansion will have incredible consequences to neighbourhoods in the region and outlying areas.   Building our way out of congestion through highway expansion seems incredibly short-sighted, especially in the context of oil reaching $100 a barrel by 2010 and a public transportation sadly in need of a billion dollar overhaul.  

Not only does the decision-making process lack transparency, but there has yet to be a proper analysis of alternatives. At this stage, influential stakeholders including the BC Roadbuilders Association, the BC Trucking Association, the Port of Vancouver and others in the Gateway Council are pushing for this expansion. At the GVRD level, suburban councillors are running roughshod over their Vancouver and Burnaby counterparts. Both the Liberals and the New Democrats supported the project during the election.  

At the Port of Vancouver, which currently moves $43 billion in goods, an increase of over 48 percent from the port's last economic impact study in 2000, there is little evidence to suggest that this growth will slow down over the next ten years. The Vancouver Port Authority plans to invest more than $1.4 billion on terminal projects including expansions at Centerm, Vanterm and Roberts Bank.  

Few councillors have stepped forward to call for a congestion tax or tolls to address air quality in the region.  

It wasn't that long ago that people like Jane Jacobs defiantly said no to icons like Robert Moses. It wasn't that long ago that citizens said no to highway expansion in Strathcona and Chinatown.  

This is supposed to be a city with a history of innovative thinking; if we can't stop highway expansion in Vancouver we can't do it anywhere.

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