The Telecommuting Oil Crisis: Part 2

Almost two years ago I wrote about the potential effect on telecommuting of reduced oil prices.  The point was that cheap oil might spur more private auto use for commuting, thereby reducing demand for telecommuting — a new telecommuting oil crisis. Let’s see how things have turned out so far.

Oil prices did dip below $40 per barrel for some months as Saudi (and OPEC) oil production remained at normal levels. As was the Saudis’ intent, many US shale oil and gas producers were faced  with  production and distribution costs exceeding the prices received for their product. Some were forced to go out of business.

But not all of them. A few of the larger and/or more resourceful producers have been able to reduce costs and keep their heads up even at the lower prices. So the US has been able to retain its greater independence from foreign oil. And now the Saudis have given up on their strategy and (again with OPEC) are starting to raise oil prices again.

Meanwhile, the American car buyers have been flocking to gas-guzzling SUVs, according to many news reports. Short-term thinking is by no means extinct in America. This trend, while helping to satisfy the “mine is bigger than yours” approach to world domination, has added to urban traffic congestion. Commutes that once were 24 minutes each way are growing into the 30+ minutes range. But, since employers think they don’t pay for increased commute times, why should they worry? The relationship between the numbers of SUVs on the road and traffic congestion is apparent to most drivers stuck behind one. On the other hand, congestion pressure increases drive up demand for telecommuting, no?

Then there’s the energy impact, a clear case of cognitive dissonance. Cheaper oil increases demand for more oil for SUVs at those prices. That demand triggers search for more oil reserves to be tapped. That also increases CO2 production from vehicles (transportation accounts for about half of oil use). The increased CO2 production has the effect of accelerating global warming, which means hotter days and nights, and more use of air conditioning, not to mention rising oceans and shrinking ice sheets. That increased use of air conditioning, at least in regions where electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants, also results in increased CO2 production.

And so on. So, if I want to buy an SUV so that mine is bigger than yours (and car companies want to sell me because the profits are higher) I’m just doing my bit to increase global warming. Of course, as oil prices return to near-$100 per barrel there might be a new tranche of SUVs on the previously-owned market.

But wait, isn’t this blog about telework and telecommuting? Yes, it is. In my personal case I own a hybrid car that goes about 4,000 miles (about 6,500 kilometers) annually. Because I’m a teleworker but live about 2 miles (uphill both ways) from the nearest supermarket. I’m trying to contribute as little as possible to global warming.

An increasing  number of the people I’ve talked to over the past two years are telecommuting at least part time. That may not be a statistically significant sample but it is an indicator that teleworking/telecommuting is still on the increase, independent of the vagaries of oil pricing — and the energy consumption of the teleworkers is on the decrease.

Just not fast enough for our (or our kids’, or their kids’) long term future comfort.


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