Monday, June 25, 2007

Pellegrino Pipeline

Gasoline at the pumps seems to have permanently settled above the $1/litre mark and people are complaining that it's too expensive. I had a refreshing drink with a friend at Starbucks today when I realized that the small 250ml bottle of San Pellegrino water that he was drinking cost $2 and therefore $8/litre. My orange mocha came in at about $10/litre. Perhaps we should ask why gas is so cheap.

Petroleum powers our economies just as water and mocha powers our bodies. Because we need so much petroleum to fuel our transportation networks we have set up a very wide and efficient framework for getting the oil out of the ground, quickly to refineries and ultimately available as gas to pump into our cars. The economies of scale are so great that after all that work and distance we can deliver it to your gas tank for about one eighth the price of Pellegrino which is also extracted from the ground. It should also be noted that oil companies still make more profit than mineral water companies.

If there was significantly more demand for European mineral water then we would eventually set up pipelines from their sources in France or Italy, get it quickly into giant tankers and deliver it to pumping stations where you could fill up on Evian for a fraction of the price you would pay today. But no such demand exists to drive the building of such an efficient infrastructure to deliver mineral water.

There's another major difference between the two essential fluids. If we run out of Pellegrino we can drink tap water, well water or sip from a puddle in the forest. If we run low on gas then we're somewhat screwed because we've built these giant factories that continue to produce giant rolling machines that can run on gas and only gas. There is no substitute and a massive retrofit would be required for our economies to continue.

Because we demand cheap products we have come to rely on intricate networks to deliver essential goods from far away lands. This super-efficient system actually makes us more vulnerable to collapse. If the gasoline supply chain is disrupted then the entire economy could screech to a halt. Just as we have alternative power sources for our bodies we need to develop alternative power sources for our economies.

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