Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Surprising uptick in PNW gasoline consumption

with 4 comments

Scarcely a day goes by without somebody sending me something in my in box they think I ought to blog about. Generally speaking these are PR flacks who have not read the blog itself – and who often have not noticed that it is intended to address a largely Canadian – or more specifically, Greater Vancouver, audience. (Of course if you reside elsewhere I am pleased you find this interesting, but mostly, when I started this blog, I wanted to get people here thinking differently.) An email yesterday from the Sightline Institute was different – but arriving on Canada Day when I had a full slate of other commitments meant I missed a scoop. Well, not really, since I am sure everyone else was busy too. And this morning I find that the same email – or one like it – must have gone to the Sun since they have the story this morning.

So what does that leave me to write about? Well, the reasons for the increase in fuel use are largely speculative. You can read the Sightline report here (pdf file) and it is worth looking at the last page of sources where all the links are. There are also data tables.  But I cannot say I am convinced that “economic activity preceding the 2010 Winter Olympics” might be a cause of increased driving.

Post hoc ergo propter hocLatin for “after this, therefore because of this”, is a logical fallacy (of the questionable cause variety) which states, “Since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.”

The US recession has hit harder and is persisting longer than in Canada – so it is not really surprising that BC shows an increase in driving last year that exceeds that of the US. The winter Olympics may, of course, just be the way the at the Institute likes to refer to a time period – the wording is careful but the implication …

I think that instead of looking at correlation and confusing it with causality, some sort of consumer survey data might have been a bit more supportive of the thesis. As I have said before, I was not here in the critical Olympic period, but those who were reported less driving and more transit use. So why do the Olympics now get the credit for increasing gas consumption? It is clear however that this government – given the soft ball questions in the Sun piece – loves the opportunity to spin its tax policies. Carbon tax in BC makes hardly any difference to gas prices which bounce around by more per litre every day than the carbon tax adds to prices, so the idea that it might influence car use is bizarre.

B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen said in an interview Wednesday that … he wasn’t aware of the increased gas consumption at the pump

Isn’t that an admission of incompetence?

Refusing to fund transit expansion in Greater Vancouver, wasting money on pointless projects like turnstiles and building a bigger freeway and a lot more roads will of course do nothing to shift modes. But then the BC Liberals do not actually give a fig for such things.  Gas consumption increased – and at the same time we saw more transit expansion – so they clearly were not doing enough then and even less now and in the future. If you do not provide attractive choices people will not change modes. If the politicians continue to do what they always have done, people will continue to do what they always have done. Expecting anything else is madness. There is no real commitment to fundamental change – and whatever the BC Liberals may say about climate change what they do shows their real intention. As did the recent summit of “world leaders”. Who all ignored the real issue – the one that threatens our survival as a species – in favour of short term distractions, like serving their paymasters – large corporations.

I am not surprised that gas consumption goes up when unemployment falls – as did gas prices. I am not surprised that BC  is doing better economically than the US north western states closest to us, but I would not call that a”binge”.

I agree that the future for this region in terms of increasing car dependency is grim – but that is nothing new. I do not think that the Sightline Institute has, on this occasion, provided very useful information. But maybe I am missing something.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 2, 2010 at 9:43 am

4 Responses

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  1. Based on the kind of analysis conducted [in the 60s] by M. King Hubbert, with input from geologists in several countries, researchers at the University of Uppsala in Sweden have projected that the peak production of all petroleum liquids [not just oil] will occur in or soon after 2012.

    According to the US National Commission on Energy Policy, “a roughly four-per-cent global shortfall in daily supply results in a 177 per cent increase in the price of oil.” Another analysis [Perry 2001] suggested that a 15 per cent shortfall would result in a 550 per cent increase. Such a shortfall would be considerably less than the 35 per cent shortfall for 2025 [projected as a possibility by the IEA, June 2006]. Thus, an increase in the price of crude oil by a factor of at least six could be expected by [2025]. Such an increase could translate into increase in retail prices of oil products by at least a factor of four.

    This estimate of the extent of price increases must be regarded as tentative. [. . .]

    Nevertheless, we believe . . . that prices of petroleum-based fuels are likely to rise steeply over the next decade. Such increases are the main reason we anticipate one or more transport revolutions.

    Transport Revolutions, Moving People and Freight Without Oil, R. Gilbert + A. Perl (2008, p. 127, 132 & 133)


    July 2, 2010 at 11:05 am

  2. It is obvious that the Carbon Tax needs to keep increasing and that especially with the transit funding shortages, the revenue should be used to fund transit and cycling expansion so people have choices. To make it fair, the tax revenue from a region should be used to fund improvements in that region only.

    People can always send a quick message to the Premier


    July 2, 2010 at 8:34 pm

  3. Well, after being car=free for 7 months, and again a car owner since Mid May, I’ve driven less than 300 km in 6 weeks (and even that seems high)…

    As a pass-holder I find frequency is the key; I’ll take the bus on the weekend when frequency is high.. becuase sure, I can time my departure to catch the bus within a minute or two, but if the return frequency is 15 minutes… and my arrival at the return bus stop is random (ie, 1 – 15 minute wait), I may just take the car. If the frequncey is 1/2 that, (ie, 1-7 minute wait), I’ll choose the bus, every time.

    Dave 2

    July 3, 2010 at 9:10 pm

  4. As one of the authors of that report — I actually quite agree with your perspective, Stephen! There’s a lot more to the increase in BC gas consumption than just the Olympics — a less severe recession, as you point out, possibly some exchange rate effects, etc. There may even be a few timing issues in the data. The Olympics is just one factor among many, as we point out in the report.

    In fact, we hesitated to mention the Olympics at all — but the specific monthly timing issues seemed compelling to us.

    First, as 2009 wore on, the cumulative year-over-year difference in BC gasoline sales from 2008 widened. In the first quarter, gasoline sales were up just 4% year-over-year. By June, the year-to-date figures were up 8.6%. By December, the year-to-date consumption increase had reached 11%. (We reported a per-capita increase of 10%, which is 11% absolute increase, but accounting for population growth.)

    In short, in the runup to the Olympics, gasoline sales kept ramping up. Part of that may have been anticipatory purchases in advance of the Olympics, and part was to deal with growing consumption due to increased economic activity.

    Second, the gasoline sales figures absolutely skyrocketed during the Olympics themselves, a fact we allude to only indirectly in the report. The BC ministry of finance kindly provided monthly data through March 2010 — it was another 15% year-over-year increase, after the 11% year over year increase in full-year 2009 over full-year 2008. The sales spike during the Olympics was so striking that I checked with the Ministry of Finance to make sure that the numbers were correct, and they reassured me that they’d triple-checked their figures. The only possible explanation, in our view, was the Olympics, since it’s the only factor that could explain the spike in gas consumption in Jan-Mar 2010 over an already-elevated Jan-Mar 2009. And spiking sales to gasoline retailers, even as late as March, also suggested that they weren’t just laying in stocks for anticipated sales, but were actually replacing stocks drawn down by previous sales.

    Finally, we did check into consumer spending trends. Most of the information we found felt somewhat anecdotal. But the anecdotal evidence did suggest higher retail activity in BC compared to other Canadian provinces — which, again, pointed to the games as a partial explanation.

    But regardless — there is a wee bit of post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc in play, and the final numbers may, in fact, suggest that the Olympics played a less important role than we’d thought based on the early data. But the correlations seemed to me to be too strong to attribute to chance. We’d simply never seen anything like that jump, and the monthly timing of the runup in gas sales matched Olympic preparations and festivities quite closely.

    Clark Williams-Derry

    July 9, 2010 at 12:32 pm

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