How Much is a Trench-Digging Gallon of Gasoline Worth?

To increase our resilience — especially here in wildfire country — we are creating a gravity-fed water system. This project has given me a personal metric for valuing the energy packed into fossil fuels.

When I dug up 76 feet of existing water pipe buried about 18 inches deep, I achieved about 6 feet per hour.

But for the 2200 feet of new water lines, we estimate getting only 3 feet per hour because chopping tree roots and prying out boulders would slow us down considerably. So trenches for the new pipe might take around 730 gruelling hours of hard work (hacking those roots is slow going).

090528_robyn_trenching_200.jpgInstead, we rented a trencher, a robust machine which dug the 4-inch trench, cutting most tree roots and even belching out boulders the size of a soccer ball. In two days, we used 10 gallons of gasoline, plus maybe 2 gallons in our automobile to get and return the trencher. Those twelve gallons (and our 24 work-hours), then, equal about 730 hours of hand labor.

That comes to 61 work-hours per gallon. At $8/hour minimum wage, the labor equivalent would cost $488. So the trench-digging work-power in a gallon of gasoline is worth $488 of human labor (or more). We paid a miniscule $2.65 for that gallon. (I recognize this simple calculation doesn’t take into account the fossil fuel energy embedded in making and transporting to us the trencher, or our car, or the asphalt roads, and much more. But the point still holds even if the number is reduced a bit.)

Given that perspective, gasoline is WAY too cheap. It’s such an incredible bit of magic: densely powerful and portable, it enabled us to do work that we might not do otherwise (or that would take us much, much more time). No wonder cheap fossil fuels have enabled humans to change Earth’s face so quickly, from industrial agriculture which feeds overpopulation, to creating gigantic vehicle-clogged cities. And, of course, travel to the moon and the production of a myriad of astounding creations.

As peak oil deepens into our culture and the prices go up, it will still be a bargain at a much higher price. You bet we’d pay $30 or $50 a gallon instead of doing the 61 hours of work. I realize fossil fuels are not sustainable in the longer run. I’m glad it’s here now for such uses.

Now, I just wish there were a trench cleaning-out machine to shovel out the dirt.  :-}


  1. I can see how gasoline is so usefull for all the machines we use daily, However we really need to start introducing alternative fuels at a higher rate.

  2. You know, I never thought of it that way before! I have been saying to my friends that gas was too cheap but not for the same reason you just gave. Wow, it’s true though, I mean everything we do is so much easier and we, at least in America just take it for granted. Everything from going to the store to cutting the lawn. What a tough world it must have been without gasoline.

  3. Paulianne says:

    re: trench cleaning-out machine

    Perhaps you can borrow my best friend’s LARGE, energetic (6 1/2 months old) lab puppy. I can easily imagine him in a trench with dirt flying out in all directions as he digs for a bone or favorite toy.

  4. Hi Stuart,
    I’ve thought about the prioritization of petroleum and biofuels. At least here in America, the military will get theirs first (the military is the largest user of fossil fuels in the world). Hopefully they’d ration the remains as you suggest (of course first giving generous rations to the top banking and government officials. 😉 )

    I’m guessing that small engines like the trencher or chainsaw could easily be fueled by biofuels without hugely denting the food supply, because the quantity is relatively small (sure wish they had cellulosic ethanol worked out.) However, they’ll be in competition with off-road vehicles and jetskis and powerboats, right? This is gonna be interesting as it unfolds.

  5. Stuart M. says:

    It is hard to imagine life without gasoline-powered motors. I suppose in the old days, a project like digging a 2200 foot trench required many workers with picks and shovels (a chaingang?). Almost every task on a farm required horses and many hands. Any farmer trying to go it alone could maybe farm at a subsistence level. Big farms in Europe required serfs/peasants to eek out a profit for the landowners. We know what cotton farming in America required! At the beginning of industrialization, landowners decided sheep farming was much easier. The sheep took care of themselves and didn’t require so much labor. The wool could be sold profitably to the growing textile industry. Farm laborers were chased off the land and had to become the workers in the factories of the cities. The capitalist industrial juggernaut was well underway. Here we are at the pinnacle of the industrial era and the oil is running out. Will we slowly devolve back to the farm economy? I don’t think so, although I can imagine worse things. Maybe we will drift sideways for awhile. Gasoline will become much more valuable, but there are alternatives waiting in the wings, each with its own problems. I can see a future prioritizing of petroleum/biofuel usage: farming, emergency vehicles, freight transport and mass transit will get what they need. The people will have to make do with less mobility. Electric cars? Uh-oh, I read somewhere that there isn’t near enough lithium in the world to make enough car batteries for everyone. Gosh, the government buying GM sure is looking pretty stupid.

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