Engineers are warning politicians that the lull in oil prices will be short-lived, and New Zealand is headed for sustained job losses unless it boosts energy efficiency efforts.
Senior North Shore City transport strategist Archer Davis, speaking on behalf of Engineers for Social Responsibility, said a conservative estimate of a 4 per cent annual decline in oil supply raises the prospect of a 12 per cent contraction of New Zealand's economy over 15 years.
"We are looking at losses of jobs, people losing their income, we are looking at severe issues here," he told Auckland Regional Council members in a call to action after a joint conference of the engineers' group and the Sustainable Energy Forum on how to prepare for oil shortages.
"It will have a major impact and it will be ongoing - it won't be short term."
Mr Davis, a civil engineer with 30 years of managing local government services, said his calculations were based on an International Energy Agency indication three years ago of a 50 per cent chance of reaching global peak oil production in 2012.
That probability assessment of the leading international oil management organisation had since been overtaken by estimates of an even more imminent peak, after which supplies would become scarcer, costlier and of lower quality.
New Zealand could be left on even shorter rations as bilateral deals between producers and large consuming nations such as the United States and China sew up dwindling supplies.
Although the international body believed energy use could be reduced by 7 per cent by voluntary efforts, his conservative assessment was that New Zealand would need some type of rationing to achieve a 10 per cent cut by 2018.
Far more forceful measures would be needed to achieve the 20 per cent needed by 2022, requiring a lead time of about 10 years.
That was how long it had taken in the past to develop transport initiatives such as North Shore's network of cycling paths and the Northern Busway.
Mr Davis said New Zealand's only hope was to "decouple" energy consumption from gross domestic product by using oil and other resources far more efficiently.
Urgent measures needed in transport included ending government subsidies for "personal car infrastructure"; stopping free parking; converting public transport vehicles, including buses, to electricity; converting motorway lanes to public transport; supporting car "clubs" of shared vehicle use rather than individual ownership; and focusing on the development of small mixed-use town centres, but not remote "dormitory" communities, to reduce travel needs.
That meant "defending the MUL [Auckland's metropolitan urban limit] to the last councillor - I would hope".
Mr Davis said electric cars for personal transport were "a pretty long shot" at a time when households would be struggling to cope financially, with little to spare for costly purchases.
"It could be done but electric cars will cost $25,000 or more," he said.
"The break-even [for electric cars] against the internal combustion is only when petrol gets to $4 a litre, so unless that happens, it doesn't make economic sense."
But he said electricity was a far safer proposition for mass transport.