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[Asphalt is becoming increasingly scarce. Due to its skyrocketing cost, what will be the repercussions of not having sufficient quantities to build roads? What will happen when few or no cars travel existing roads as a result of unaffordable gas prices? Jamey Hecht’s analysis and documentation clearly reveal Peak Asphalt as another consequence of Peak Oil.-- CB]

Peak Asphalt, Too?

Jamey Hecht


© Copyright 2006, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.

August 2nd 2006, 2:36[PST]- The word “asphalt” comes to us from Attic Greek; the “a” is a negation, and the rest of the word means “stumble, fall down, fail, collapse.” So, rendered literally, asphalt is what prevents collapse!  Asphalt caulking was used to make ancient ships secure from leaks, and the word came to mean “safe.”  There’s more irony there, since an average of 42,000 Americans are killed in auto accidents every year.  We drive on asphalt roads and live under asphalt shingle roofs; we’re surrounded by the stuff all the time.  It off-gases nasty fumes (for which there is no OSHA standard for workmen’s comp): “Health effects from exposure to asphalt fumes include headache, skin rash, sensitization, fatigue, reduced appetite, throat and eye irritation, cough, and skin cancer,” says the US Department of Labor.  Its decline might be a good thing in environmental terms, but for centuries the landscape will remain scarred by our vast web of deteriorating streets and parking lots and highways.  Rising tree roots, depaving farmers, earthquakes and weather attrition will take their toll on it all, as the two opposite ends of the petroleum product spectrum – gasoline and tar – recede from our reach.

Only about 7% of the road pavement material is asphalt itself; the rest is bulk “aggregate” material which the asphalt binds together.  But without that binding agent, the mountains of aggregate are nearly useless for roadwork, just as the 243 million registered cars in America are useless without gasoline (This number only refers to currently registered vehicles; the total U.S. car population including defunct cars is much higher.)

  Road construction is an important sector that moves billions of dollars through the economy each year.  It expands because of the monumental power of the auto industry in our political culture, and because the car congestion in our paved paradise creates demand for more and more roads and expansions.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Since 1960, the American population has increased 50% but the miles we travel each year have more than tripled. And 90% of our trips are in an automobile or light truck.”  

And the world car population continues to soar:

Car Population

From Robert Q. Riley, “TRANSPORTATION CHALLENGES OF THE 21st CENTURY,” September 7, 1999

Jan Lundberg’s has a series of excellent fact-sheets about paving with useful statistics like these:

  • An average of 1.5 million acres of farmland is lost to suburban sprawl each year, encouraged by road-building and car travel.

  • As of 1998, the U.S. spends nearly $200,000,000 per day building and rebuilding roads, in spite of predictions that congestion and delays will only get worse. Carpooling is being abandoned and commutes are getting longer due to sprawl development, tighter family budgets and government priorities which favor the oil, car and road-building industries.

  • To simply maintain roads in their current poor state would cost the U.S. $24.6 billion per year. Yet we spend typically $13.4 billion per year, assuring deterioration of existing roads. Meanwhile, $16.4 billion was spent to build new and wider roads. Federal, state and municipal governments cannot afford to maintain existing roads, but more are built as a result of powerful interests.

Mark Robinowitz recently contributed to FTW an excellent two-part story on “Peak Traffic,” now reproduced at  It included this succinct cartoon by Andy Singer:

No Exit

How the implications of Peak Oil seem to saturate the three panels of this cartoon! 

Asphalt is what’s left over when heavy crude is refined.  Saudia Arabia has plenty of it, but the contracts are with China, not the U.S.  We get our asphalt mostly from Venezuela, but President Chavez is not so interested in trading with the Empire that tried and failed to depose him.  For the moment, our asphalt shortage is more political than geological because what we’ve been devouring all these years is the good stuff – light sweet crude.  There is quite a lot of sulfurous heavy sour left in the ground.  Before asphalt’s source peaks (that is, before half of the heavy oil is extracted from the planet), there will be demand destruction from the decline of the car culture.  Of course, getting any kind of oil up out of the ground and through the appropriate refineries to a point of delivery will get more and more energy intensive and costly.  It won’t be long before the ethanol people start talking about making roads from corn.

Oil drives up asphalt tab
By Dave Scott
Akron Beacon Journal

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Akron, Ohio - Asphalt gathers at the bottom of the barrel at any oil refinery. It's what's left over after the gasoline, distillates, and fine lubricants are taken away.

It's black and gooey and smelly and an increasingly costly ingredient when your tax dollars are put to work on highways.

So with oil prices hovering around $70 a barrel - and orange-construction barrels increasingly popping up - asphalt prices are high and getting higher.

For companies, that means eroding profit margins. For governments, it is slowing the pace of roadwork . For consumers, it's another way oil prices are taxing their pocketbooks.

Asphalt-paving costs went up 14.2 percent between January 2005 and January 2006, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has experienced a sharp jump in the price of the material over the past year, said CDOT spokeswoman Stacey Stegman.

"We've seen an increase, depending on the type of asphalt and the area of the state, of between 20 percent and 60 percent in the last year," she said.

If the state is forced to continue to pay unusually high prices for asphalt, "it just means we'll have fewer projects" to fund, Stegman said.

Thomas Clayton, an official with the Colorado Asphalt Pavement Association, said his member companies have seen the same sharp rise in asphalt costs as in surging gasoline prices. Clayton said there still is strong demand from state and local highway departments for asphalt, despite the recent price rise.

"We haven't seen any scaling back," he said.

Local supply shortages have pushed prices higher, said Steve Douglas, general manager of supply and marketing for Suncor Energy in Greenwood Village.

Suncor produces asphalt at its Commerce City refinery.

"Asphalt has begun to be in very short supply," Douglas said. "As a result, we've seen asphalt rise quite substantially over the last few months."

Douglas said the increase in the price of asphalt has lagged behind the rise in crude-oil prices, which spiked two years ago. As a result, many refiners chose to make less asphalt, creating a shortage.

"Instead of making (more) asphalt, they're making more lucrative or higher-priced products, such as gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel," Douglas said. "We're seeing investments like that by refiners in the Rocky Mountains. They can also choose to run different types of crude which will yield less asphalt."

A 40 percent price increase is expected in August, said Mike Sekulich, president of Tallmadge Asphalt/Paving Co. Inc. in Brimfield, Ohio.

Asphalt from the refinery is sold by the ton and cost about $185 a year ago. It's about $250 now, Sekulich said, and might reach $350 later this summer.

Sekulich combines the asphalt with sand and gravel and uses the mixture to make roads and parking lots.

Denver Post staff writers Andy Vuong and Jeffrey Leib contributed to this report.

It'll be a bumpy summer on Utah roads
Asphalt shortage: High cost of oil hurts byproduct supplies, and street maintenance will suffer for it

“In some regions, the shortage is so acute that cities aren't able to smooth uneven patches left after streets are dug up for utility work.”

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Asphalt shortage delays paving
Chuck McGinness, Palm Beach Post
(4 March 2006)

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

A statewide shortage of liquid asphalt will delay the opening of another 10-lane section of Interstate 95 and is affecting other road projects in the area, transportation officials said Friday.

...A number of factors occurring at the same time created the shortage, said Jim Warren, Executive Director of the Tallahassee-based Asphalt Contractors Association of Florida.
Liquid asphalt is made from the residue at the bottom of the crude-oil barrel — the better quality oil is used to manufacture gasoline, diesel and heating fuel.

Oil refineries on the Gulf Coast are still recovering from the hurricanes , while other refineries along the East Coast were closed for maintenance.

A warmer than usual winter allowed for more road construction, increasing the demand for asphalt. And there is strong competition for ships in today's global market to transport the material to distributors.

"When these kinds of things happen, you just can't FedEx another load," Warren said.

The best crude oil for making liquid asphalt comes from Venezuela. But oil exports to the United States have been cut because of increasingly tense ties between the two countries.

The asphalt shortage is just the latest materials crisis to hit the road construction industry.

The hurricanes that ravaged Florida over the past two years and the statewide building boom have sent the cost of concrete and steel up more than 25 percent.

Asphalt prices skyrocket, highway officials scramble to adjust
Fri, Jun. 16, 2006
Associated Press

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

MILWAUKEE - Skyrocketing asphalt prices this spring are causing governments around Wisconsin to scramble to cover the cost of planned road building by using a lower grade of material, recycling some of it or considering a work cutback.

Homeowners and businesses are also debating whether to go ahead with plans for new driveways or parking lots at a higher price or risk it spiraling even further upward.

John Poblocki, owner of Poblocki Paving Corp. in West Allis, has been in the business for 38 years and says he's never seen anything like the recent increase in the price of asphalt.

"The price has been fairly steady for about 15 years," he said. "Some years it went up 2 or 3 percent, and some years not at all. But this spring it has gone up about 30 percent."
Poblocki and others said the primary reason for the boost was because the liquid component used in asphalt is derived from crude oil, which has been priced high at about $70 a barrel.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation spokeswoman Peg Schmitt said she was not aware of any cutback by the state on any road paving plans this year because of more expensive asphalt.

Some multiyear projects had asphalt prices locked in, which helped the agency keep road-building costs down, said Steve Krebs, the DOT's chief proposal management engineer for highway construction.

Counties are taking a variety of approaches to the price increase.

Waukesha County public works director Richard Bolte said his department had budgeted $2 million for asphalt this year, but bids came back at $3 million. The county is using a lower grade of asphalt in areas that have a lower volume of traffic and fewer trucks, Bolte said.

In Mequon, in Ozaukee County, city public works director Jon Garms said they're recycling old asphalt and using it along with new asphalt on some projects.

La Crosse County got prices set on a couple of smaller road projects in March before the asphalt costs zoomed, said Keith Back, the county's assistant highway commissioner.

But the county has been told to expect increases for the product on later projects and officials will have to decide whether to request additional money or cut back on roadwork roadwork.

Dane County has been able to divert funds from other projects that came in under budget to cover the increased asphalt costs, said Jim Matzinger, administrative manager for that county's Department of Public Workers highway and transportation section.

Poblocki said his business has not slowed down despite the high prices.

"People fear more price increases. It prompts them to sign contracts. People want to get a price locked in right now," he said, adding that the cost of a typical residential driveway is up about $300 from a year ago.

But Mike Bringe, owner of Quality Asphalt in Green Bay, said some of his potential customers for private jobs have decided against having asphalt work done.

"They just can't afford it," he said.

John Pandl, owner of Jack Pandl's Whitefish Bay Inn, doesn't want his customers looking out on a parking lot paved years ago. So he said he is going ahead with the paving project this spring despite the increased cost.

"I'm just a little guy. I do believe in the free market system. But what the oil companies have done, I think it's a little excessive," he said.

Erin Roth, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Petroleum Council which represents oil companies in Wisconsin, said one reason asphalt's prices increased is that many producers didn't purchase the petroleum component for their product during the winter because prices were high. But those prices have remained elevated this spring, he said.
In the meantime, he said, refiners are trying to make as much gasoline and diesel fuel as they can because of increased demand for those products during the summer and they don't have the capacity to produce more asphalt mix.

Patrick Goss, Executive Vice President of the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association, said the price jump is part of an increase in costs for all construction materials, which is partly due to international demand.

He said he hasn't heard from his more than 100 members that they've had any decrease in demand because of the price spike. But he said they've had to increase prices because they've had to pay more for liquid asphalt from suppliers.

"The market is going to dictate what the market is going to dictate and that's what my members have to pay," he said.

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