Wake up and smell the asphalt

Hugo Chavez, peak oil and pavement cracks

Published July 13, 2006 1:03AM (EDT)

More often than I like to acknowledge, I find myself riding my bike up a steep hill in semi-rural Northern California, leg muscles screaming, about to bonk from improper calorie-intake management, desperate to distract myself from the remaining ascent. On one particular hill, touchingly dubbed "Papa Bear" by Bay Area cyclists, I sometimes strive to drown out the misery by contemplating the patterns of black asphalt goo that overlay the pavement beneath me, sealing the inevitable cracks that are every road's doom. These lines of tarlike substance have no geometric precision, they are squiggly and helter-skelter, almost organic in appearance.

The idea is to lose myself in their amorphous randomness, to forget my sore muscles, the hill, and evil gravity itself. In general, long-distance biking in the countryside is great if you want to sever your connections to the hurly-burly troubles of the world; all those suicide bombings, disappearing plant and animal species, climate change catastrophes and vanishing oil reserves. But climbing a hill, your mind sometimes needs a little help to let go. Some people think about the cold six-pack of beer waiting in the refrigerator at the end of the ride. I ponder the mysteries of asphalt cracks.

But don't look too closely, or the world sneaks back in and smacks you right between your straining quads. Because that black gooey stuff used to seal cracks in the pavement is your classic petrochemical product. Which means, of course, that it ain't as cheap as it used to be. Over the last 18 months, the price of a ton of the stuff has doubled in some regions. Go to Google News and do a search for "liquid asphalt" (the precious cement that binds the gravel and whatnot together that makes up your local pavement). You will find a host of local newspapers in Virginia, New Jersey, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Southeast Missouri, and Illinois, all noting in tones of alarm that local road construction budgets are ballooning out of control. So cherish those squiggly sealed cracks while you can. Because if oil prices keep rising, the rate at which your local potholes get filled, cracks get sealed, and surfaces repaved will inevitably slow down.

Liquid asphalt, historically, has been something of an unwanted stepchild, the leftover dregs of the crudest crude oils. One of the main suppliers of heavy crude to the United States is Venezuela. Venezuelan oil exports to the United States are on something of a downward trend, possibly as a result of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's attempt to diversify sales away from the U.S.

How do you like that? Right there in the pattern of asphalt crack sealant on my beloved Papa Bear is a primer to North-South power struggles, a pointer to an ideological clash between hardcore free trade/free marketers (who see Chavez as the Satanic Thug to end all Satanic Thugs) and socialist revolutionaries (who see Chavez as the Subaltern Messiah).

Venezuela isn't the only source for primo liquid asphalt. Canada's oil patch (which used to be called tar sands, until the marketers got nervous) is another great source. But the same general forces are working against all the wellsprings of traditional asphalt. As cheap sources of highly desirable low-sulphur light crude dry up, refineries are upgrading their technology so as to be able to turn the nastiest crude into the sweetest premium blend.

It could be worse. As one dark soul at EnergyBulletin joked, who needs roads when there won't be any gasoline? Not having enough asphalt on hand to patch the local 10-lane interstate will be a trifling concern when all of civilization has collapsed as a result of an overwhelming energy crisis.

But funny thing: in the greater asphalt ecosphere, by which I mean conferences such as the annual World of Asphalt, the National Asphalt Pavement Association, the Asphalt Recyling and Reclaiming Association, the good folks at Better Roads magazine, and such lesser satellites as the Asphalt Emulsion Manufacturers Association and the International Slurry Surfacing Association, I see little sign of panic. There the talk is of new technologies, such as "warm-mix" asphalt, which promises to greatly lower the temperatures at which asphalt can be mixed. This would require less fuel use (less oil!) for the production process, which could lower overall costs. Only problem is, right now, warm-mix asphalt is more expensive to make than traditional hot-mix. But then again, there's the added benefit that warm-mix asphalt reduces the kind of noxious emissions that contribute to global warming. Good news, bad news, same old same old.

There's also talk of upping the use of recycled asphalt, but that might be tough, because according to the asphalt industry, asphalt is already the most recycled product in the world! How about that -- supposedly, 80 percent of asphalt gets reused.

Amazing, isn't it? Next time I climb Papa Bear I will no doubt hardly even notice the ascent, as, in my attempt to lose myself from all worldly cares, I will be busily staring at the patterns of asphalt crack sealants and contemplating Latin America's Turn to the Left, the comparative advantages of conservation (reuse the asphalt) vs. new technology (warm mix!), and the impact of rising oil prices on the interstate system, the pride and joy of America's transportation infrastructure.

Maybe it's time to take up mountain biking.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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