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Gas is suddenly cheap(er), and the reason is bigger than you think


Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn’t the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.

How did cheap gas happen?

In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.

Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler fall temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That’s why gas prices always fall in autumn.

But that’s not enough to explain this autumn’s decline, since gas hasn’t dropped this low in years. China is also using less gas than expected, but that’s also only part of the explanation.

The bigger explanation seems to be that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it’s totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that “OPEC is over.”

It’s that serious a shift in the market.

Will this last?

Yes and no.

The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven’t changed at all.

Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn’t changed either.

But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.

Of course, oil shale herf=”http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-10/u-dot-s-dot-shale-oil-boom-may-not-last-as-fracking-wells-lack-staying-power”>isn’t limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That’s a mathematical certainty. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn’t very scarce.

So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.

What does this mean?

Here’s what it doesn’t mean: There’s never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.

Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we’ve only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn’t be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.

So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody’s guess.

In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn’t change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that’s necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we’ve made on those fronts, and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.

There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy the windfall.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 28th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: economy, energy, environment, roads/cars, transportation



Sneckdowns take over the streets

The recent snow made for the best sneckdown spotting weather in DC since the term first entered our lexicon. Last week we put out a call for photos of sneckdowns in the wild, and plenty of you responded. Here are some of the best.


17th and Potomac Ave, SE. Photo by Justin Antos.

In the wonky world of urbanism advocacy, sneckdowns have gone viral. The term, referring to places where snow formations show street spaces cars don’t use, first popped up in New York. Since then it’s made headlines in Philadelphia, Chicago, Vancouver, and more.

It’s true that actual engineers shouldn’t design streets solely around piled snow, but certainly sneckdowns are a handy illustration of how we give too much pavement to cars.

Here are more local examples, sent in by readers.


14th St and Independence Ave, SW. Photo by @gregbilling.


M St and Jefferson St, NW. Photo by @gregbilling.


Rhode Island Ave and R St, NW. Photo by @MaryLauran.


Rhode Island Ave and Q St, NW. Photo by @MaryLauran.


4th St, NE. Photo by @TonyTGoodman.


Fairfax Dr and 10th St N, in Arlington. Photo by @guusbosman.


Greenbelt. Photo by msickle.

Thanks to everyone who sent in photos! Keep watching #dcsneckdown on Twitter for more.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 

February 18th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



Send us your sneckdown pictures

Now that’s we’ve had a big snow in DC, send us pictures of sneckdowns you spot in the wild. You can tweet them with hashtag #dcsneckdown, or email them to us at
sneckdown@beyonddc.com
. On Monday, Greater Greater Washington and BeyondDC will publish the best ones.


Sneckdown today in Southeast DC. Photo by Ralph Garboushian.

Sneckdowns are where snow formations show the street spaces cars don’t use.

GGW reader Ralph Garboushian sent us this one already. He describes it:

“Shoveling and plowing patterns in front of my house show how the intersection of Potomac Avenue, E Street & 18th Street SE could be made safer for both pedestrians and motorists. The current design is a disaster – I have seen several accidents at this intersection, including one that sent a car nearly into my front yard and another that took out a historic call box and nearly knocked down a utility pole. In addition, this intersection is right in front of Congressional Cemetery and on the way to the Metro and sees heavy pedestrian traffic.

The intersection’s poor design combined with motorists speeding down Potomac create a hostile and dangerous atmosphere for pedestrians. This intersection desperately needs traffic calming and these plow/shovel patterns illustrate how it could be done.”

We look forward to seeing more!

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

February 13th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



Map: How much snow does it take to cancel school?

This map shows approximately how much snow it takes to cancel school in various parts of the United States.


Map from Reddit user atrubetskoy.

On Reddit, the map’s author explains the methodology:

[It's from a] combination of a /r/SampleSize survey, City-data.com threads, NOAA maps and some other local news sources.

So while it may not be the most precise or reliable data, it’s still an interesting general look at snow closure patterns around the country.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 30th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment, maps



To see urban wildlife in the snow, find flowing water

Despite cities’ reputation as concrete jungles, most have a healthy collection of wildlife. Birds, rodents, deer, anything that can live on the margins of human activity. But what happens to that wildlife when the city is hit with winter weather?

With temperatures consistently below freezing, and even the mighty Potomac River frozen all the way across at points, wildlife is going to be looking for drinkable water. On Saturday, I dropped by fast-flowing Rock Creek to try and spot some. I wasn’t disappointed.

A Northern Flicker (top), Starlings (bottom left), a Downy Woodpecker (bottom center), and my viewing spot near P Street Beach (bottom right).

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 27th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment, galleries



“Sneckdowns” reveal street space cars don’t use

Every time it snows, vast sections of city streets remain covered by snow long after plows and moving cars have cleared the travel lanes. These leftover spaces are called “sneckdowns,” and they show where sidewalks or medians could replace roads without any loss to car drivers.


A DC sneckdown from the 2009 snow storm. Original photo by Rudi Riet on flickr.

The term sneckdown is a portmanteau of “snow” and “neckdown,” the latter being another term for sidewalk curb extensions. So it literally means a sidewalk extension created by snow.

Following the recent snow storm in New York, Streetsblog put out a call for photos of sneckdowns in the wild. They received plenty of responses.

Next time it snows here, be on the lookout.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 8th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment, roads/cars, transportation, urbandesign



NASA photo shows Earth with today’s storm

NASA’s GOES satellite took this amazing picture of today’s storm at 9:45 this morning. The DC area is obscured by snow and clouds, obviously, but you can see the storm covering the whole mid-Atlantic north of Florida.


Image from NOAA/NASA GOES Project.

December 10th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment



Pictures of Sunday’s solar eclipse

When the sun rose over DC’s east horizon on Sunday morning, it was in the midst of a partial solar eclipse. The moon was passing directly between Earth and the sun, obscuring the sun as seen from Earth.

To see the event, I woke up early and set up my camera at the best easterly-facing view I could think of – the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria. Here’s what I saw:

Eclipse over Alexandria. Full set of 25 pictures is on flickr.

November 4th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment, fun



See (but don’t smell) the flower of death

One of the world’s rarest and stinkiest giant flowers is blooming now at the US Botanical Gardens. But if you want to to see it, you have to act fast. It will likely wilt in just a few days.

The titan arum can reach 10 feet in height, smells like rotting dead flesh, and can go decades between blooms. When a bloom does happen, it’s a big draw at the usually-quiet botanical garden.

I went yesterday and took a few pictures. I barely noticed the smell.

July 23rd, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment, galleries, parks



Lost rivers of Washington

Constitution Avenue used to be a canal, and two creeks used to flow through central DC. David Ramos produced a series of maps showing where they went.

Imagine what a different city Washington might be today if these had been kept in place.


Image from David Ramos on ImaginaryTerrain.com.

June 3rd, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: environment, maps



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