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Gas is suddenly cheap(er), and the reason is bigger than you think

Gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon in much of the US, and the explanation isn’t the simple seasonal differences that always make gas cheaper in autumn. The bigger reason: US oil shale deposits are turning the global oil market on its head.

Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

Photo by Wil C. Fry on Flickr.

How did cheap gas happen?

In the simplest terms, supply is up and demand is down.

Travel drops between the summer travel season and the holidays, and cooler fall temperatures actually make gas cheaper to produce. That’s why gas prices always fall in autumn.

But that’s not enough to explain this autumn’s decline, since gas hasn’t dropped this low in years. China is also using less gas than expected, but that’s also only part of the explanation.

The bigger explanation seems to be that supply is also up, in a huge way. North American oil shale is hitting the market like never before, and it’s totally unbalancing the global oil market. Oil shale has become so cheap, and North American shale producers are making such a dent in traditional crude, that some prognosticators are proclaiming that “OPEC is over.”

It’s that serious a shift in the market.

Will this last?

Yes and no.

The annual fall price drop will end by Thanksgiving, just like it always does. Next summer, prices will rise just like they always do. Those dynamics haven’t changed at all.

Likewise, gasoline demand in China and the rest of the developing world will certainly continue to grow. Whether it outpaces or under-performs predictions matters less in the long term than the fact that it will keep rising. That hasn’t changed either.

But the supply issue has definitely changed. Oil shale is here to stay, at least for a while. Oil shale production might keep rising or it might stabilize, but either way OPEC crude is no longer the only game in town.

Of course, oil shale herf=”http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-10-10/u-dot-s-dot-shale-oil-boom-may-not-last-as-fracking-wells-lack-staying-power”>isn’t limitless. Eventually shale will hit peak production just like crude did. When that happens it will inevitably become more expensive as we use up the easy to refine reserves and have to fall back on more expensive sources. That’s a mathematical certainty. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, oil shale isn’t very scarce.

So the bottom line is that demand will go back up in a matter of weeks, and the supply will probably stabilize, but at higher levels than before.

What does this mean?

Here’s what it doesn’t mean: There’s never going to be another 1990s bonanza of $1/gallon fill-ups. Gas will be cheaper than it was in 2013, but the 20th Century gravy train of truly cheap oil is over.

Oil shale costs more to extract and refine than crude oil. Prices have to be high simply to make refining oil shale worth the cost, which is why we’ve only recently started refining it at large scales. Shale wouldn’t be profitable if prices dropped to 1990s levels. In that sense, oil shale is sort of like HOT lanes on a congested highway, which only provide benefits if the main road remains congested.

So shale can only take gas prices down to a little below current levels. And eventually increased demand will inevitably overwhelm the new supply. How long that will take is anybody’s guess.

In the ultimate long term, oil shale doesn’t change most of the big questions surrounding sustainable energy. Prices are still going to rise, except for occasional blips. We still need better sustainable alternatives. Fossil fuels are still wreaking environmental catastrophe, and the fracking process that’s necessary to produce oil shale is particularly bad. It would be foolish in the extreme for our civilization to abandon the progress we’ve made on those fronts, and go back to the SUV culture of the 20th Century.

There will probably be lasting effects on OPEC economies. The geopolitical situation could become more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy the windfall.


West Colfax Mobility Improvement Project Completed

This past weekend, the West Colfax Business Improvement District (WCBID) celebrated the near completion of a mobility improvement project on West Colfax Avenue between Federal and Sheridan Boulevards. The project, which has been in planning and development for nearly three years, includes new pedestrian-scale signage, seven artist-designed bus shelters and entry monument signage on both ends of the corridor. The project aims to encourage pedestrian traffic and mass transit use on West Colfax and throughout the surrounding neighborhood by connecting people to local parks, light-rail stations and other destinations such as the new Denver Library branch set to open on West Colfax in early 2015.  All aspects of the project incorporate the WCBID’s logo therefore helping to create a brand for the up-and-coming West Colfax corridor. The “W” logo can be seen on the entry monument shown in the photo below.

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Funded by the Denver Office of Economic Development the new signage, bus stations, and branding is also intended to help jump start additional redevelopment along the corridor. Together with bicycle signage also being installed throughout the neighborhood, these new elements form a wayfinding system that is designed to comprehensively connect pedestrians and bicyclists to neighborhood assets. Together with the bus shelters, these directional signs and enhanced transit amenities support WCBID’s efforts to encourage pedestrian and bike transport in West Colfax and create a more healthy, dynamic and  interactive community culture that will support local businesses.

While this project certainly isn’t as monumental as the recent reconstruction of 14th Street downtown or as pretty as improvements to South Broadway or North Tennyson Street, for example, there is certainly something unique to be seen here. I believe that the exciting thing about this project (unlike so many other pedestrian improvement projects) is that it anticipates the pedestrians rather than simply acknowledging an existing pedestrian presence. As it exists today, there is very little pedestrian traffic on West Colfax, but with new developments coming online including Mile High Vista at Colfax and Irving and the redevelopment of the St Anthony’s hospital, there is potential for more pedestrian traffic in the near future. Additionally, acknowledging and enhancing what little pedestrian traffic is already on the street goes along way toward encouraging more pedestrians to make their way onto the corridor. Putting just a few more people in front of existing businesses and empty storefronts just might be the ticket that sparks additional redevelopment.

Here’s a closer look at the components.

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The wayfinding signage (above) and entry monuments designed by Tom Rodgers with Hyperform Design Cooperative (as part of a larger master plan for the corridor executed several years ago) are designed to reflect the rich history of mid-century “Googie” signage on Colfax Ave while also giving the corridor a bold modern look. The entry monument on the east end (pictured earlier) replaced an existing, but tired, welcome sign located at Colfax and Irving, while on the west end of the corridor, Dan Shah of the WCBID somewhat miraculously managed to convince the Walgreen’s corporation to mount an identical sign on the concrete wall surrounding their parking lot at the intersection of Sheridan and Colfax. The wayfinding signs are located on both sides of Colfax Avenue and occur on nearly every block throughout the corridor. They help to continually reinforce the theme set up by the entry signage.

2014-10-22_Orange Bus Stop 2014-10-22_Bus Stop Detail

The bus shelters, designed by local artist Emmett Culligan, also pay homage to the mid-century modern car culture with their unique “inflated” stainless steel columns and bright colors (as seen in the pictures above). Each of the seven shelters is painted a different color of the spectrum and has matching plexiglass panels. As you travel down West Colfax from east to west the stations are placed in spectral order from red to purple. Interestingly enough, however, the shelters aren’t actually new. In order to complement the WCBID’s other sustainability goals (you can see the solar streetlight in the photo above) the BID and the artist worked with RTD to refurbish and place seven identical bus shelters along the corridor. This was no easy task as only three of the shelters already existed on West Colfax. In order to create the rest of the set, RTD and the BID swapped out three non-matching shelters from West Colfax with matching shelters elsewhere in the system and pulled one more matching shelter out of storage. A pretty amazing feat if you ask me. Once the refurbished shelters were placed on site, the artist simply mounted his inflated stainless steel tubes to the corners of the existing shelter to finish off the new look (the “inflated” tubes are made by blowing compressed air into extremely hot steel to create the “air-stream” like forms).

So next time you’re traveling by on West Colfax (in whatever transit mode you happen to be taking) check out the new bus shelters and wayfinding signage. And maybe (if you’re so inclined) linger a bit and imagine a fully revitalized corridor complete with shops, restaurants, new housing and, most of all, healthy and sustainable pedestrian street life. It’s not so much of a distant future.


Help Create “Great Paths” for Walking in Northwest Denver!

By Jill Locantore, WalkDenver Policy and Program Director

Donate to “Great Paths: The Boulevard at Jefferson Park” on Thursday, October 23 and your contribution will be matched dollar for dollar!

WalkDenver is leading a project called “Great Paths” that will make walking in northwest Denver neighborhoods more safe, comfortable, and fun. Like many urban neighborhoods, northwest Denver is experiencing a true renaissance. With new restaurants and businesses opening their doors on and near Federal Boulevard, there are more places to visit and more people moving in to enjoy these amenities. Residents would like to walk to local destinations but there are many barriers that discourage walking such as busy streets and poor sidewalk conditions.

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On Thursday, October 23, we have just 24 hours to raise $8,000 ($4,000 from local donors and $4,000 in matching funds) for the Great Paths project, which will fund:

  • a community mapping exercise that will identify the top destinations for walking in northwest Denver and a priority path that connects these destinations
  • improvements to that priority path such as pedestrian wayfinding signs or public art; and
  • a series of fun community events that will raise awareness of and celebrate the improvements to the priority path.

Will you help make this project a reality? Every dollar you contribute to this project will be matched 100% by our national partner, but you must donate on October 23!

The Great Paths project is led by WalkDenver and involves a unique coalition of neighborhood interests including the Federal Boulevard Business Improvement District and Partnership, Jefferson Park United Neighbors, and Sloan’s Lake Citizens Group. Our national partners, ioby and the Transit Center, are providing the matching funds.

Please join us in this effort, which will demonstrate the type of quick, low-cost improvements that can improve walkability in neighborhoods throughout Denver. You can learn more about the project and make a donation directly through WalkDenver’s ioby campaign page here.


Denver Urbanists Unite! MeetUp #8 Coming October 8, 2014

Hey! Do you love cities and consider yourself an urbanist?

Please join us for Denver Urbanists MeetUp #8 on Wednesday, October 8, 2014 starting at 5:30 PM at McLoughlins Restaurant and Bar, 2100 16th Street. Please note the new location! McLoughlins is a great neighborhood pub right next to the Highland side of the Millennium Bridge.

Never been to one of our MeetUps before? Stop by! There is no program or anything formal, just a bunch of friendly people getting together to chat about city-building and to promote a positive urban agenda for Denver. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people and build relationships.

Click on the link below to see additional details. It’s free! Registration just helps give us an idea of how many people to expect. You don’t need to bring the RSVP ticket with you, and if you don’t register, that’s OK too. Stop by anyway!

Denver Urbanists MeetUp #8 Eventbrite RSVP

We hope to see you at Denver Urbanists MeetUp #8 this Wednesday, October 8 at 5:30 PM at McLoughlins!


CU Denver Students Celebrate PARK(ing) Day 2014

by Jenny Niemann, CU Denver Master of Urban and Regional Planning student

On Friday, September 19, the Planners Network – CU Denver Chapter turned a parking spot at 14th and Larimer into a temporary parklet. Graduate students in the University of Colorado Denver’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning Program participated in the International PARK(ing) Day to raise awareness about the vast amount of space dedicated to parking spots in the US and to start a conversation about more productive uses of these spaces.

PARK(ing) Day “is an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks. The project began in 2005 when Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK(ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organizations and individuals (operating independently of Rebar but following an established set of guidelines) creating new forms of temporary public space in urban contexts around the world.”

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The Planners Network – CU Denver Chapter parking space was filled with seating, games, books, and an opportunity for Denver residents to participate. Seemingly surprised by the unusual furniture set up in the middle of a parking space, many pedestrians stopped to read an information board describing PARK(ing) Day goals and the state of parking in the US. Passersby were asked to contribute to a board asking what else this 9′ x 18′ space could be besides empty asphalt dedicated only to cars. Ideas ranged from bike parking to affordable housing and a water slide. Throughout the day, students from the College of Architecture and Planning utilized the space for studying and socializing with peers.

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Books were also collected for a “park library” and visitors were invited to take a book home with them. Remaining donated books were given to The Arc.

Students hope to continue PARK(ing) Day efforts throughout the year and more Denver organizations will host parks for PARK(ing) Day next year, which is always held the third Friday in September. For more information on international PARK(ing) Day, see http://parkingday.org/.