Petrol Woes

Monday, March 12, 2007


Written by Greg Beneteau

Around the middle of February, a fire broke out at Imperial Oil’s Nanticoke oil refinery, leading to what has become known as Ontario’s gas shortage. Paired with the occurrence of the fire, Canadian National Rail workers went on strike, seriously hindering the transportation of what limited supplies existed.

Around the last week of February, Petro-Canada stations in the Greater Toronto Area began to shut down as they ran out of gas. By the beginning of March, Ontarians were beginning to also see ESSO and Shell stations come up dry as well. Long line-ups at the few stations that remained open began to cause turmoil, as customers tried their best to hoard what they could. Gas stations began postings signs asking patrons to limit their consumption to $40 per visit, and the price at the pumps inevitably rose to over a dollar per litre.

Though the shortage proved to be temporary, and though it has been matched with credible reasons for its occurrence, Canadians ought to treat this as a warning.

Global oil supplies are becoming increasingly scarce, and scientists have been predicting the global production peak to be eminent. It is unclear when exactly the peak will be reached, but it is clear that that point is not far off. Estimates range anywhere from 5 to 30 years, with the majority of leading experts preferring the former. However we will not know that the peak has been reached until after the fact. The passing of the peak does not mean gas will cease to exist, just that the rate at which we can produce it will begin to dwindle, while demand continues to increase. What will result is a gap between supply and demand, and the inevitable spike in price will follow.

If anything, this shortage highlights how vulnerable the supply chain really is, and should be cause for concern. One issue that many raised was the prioritization of the supply. Clearly emergency vehicles are a higher priority for access than are the average consumer, and cities made it very clear that police cars would not run out of fuel. But this is a evidence of what we are likely to see once the global production peak is passed, and we have to seriously begin to consider what we feel are the important channels for a dwindling resource.

A similar situation on a larger scale would necessitate a prioritization of supply, and this is not something that the public is likely to have any say in. After police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, etc, who comes next in the picking line? For instance, what order do the following take in the line of access to fuel in an emergency? – school buses, city councilor cars, food transportation vehicles, road maintenance trucks, etc. Every group would be clamoring for petrol, and would argue that their needs trump others. But who would actually make the decision, and why have we not had a national debate on the subject yet?

The current situation looks bleak, and it is unlikely that the recent shortages will spawn the debate the subject demands. If there ever was a case of poor planning, it is most certainly would be that of our fuel supply.

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  1. Posted by: Mike on Mar 14, 2007 @ 11:11am

    First off, your facts are off. ESSO is Imperial Oil, not Petro-Can.

    Also, while I agree its important to conserve and try to extend the global production peak, remember that's the peak, not the end of our supply. If this peak is indeed accurately forecast (and it has the potential to be way off either way), there will still be lots of oil to last us while we continue to research realistic, economically logical alternatives.

    With regard to emergency vehicles and other city/government vehicles, when was the last time you saw a snowplow or police car pull into the local gas station? They have access to a private filling station with a separate fuel supply.

  2. Posted by: John L on Mar 17, 2007 @ 4:38pm

    I'm inclined to think the key is to not go into a panic at what looks like a minor blip in a system we take for granted. Typically drivers have became used to the idea that gas is easily available wherever they choose to buy it. Suddenly, for a couple of weeks that wasn't the case, however there was never a time when a bit of planning couldn't keep gas in the tank. Put another way the good news is that things are fine about 99.9% of the time. Let's focus on real problems.

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