Let’s be serious – fossil fuels are here to stay for a long time

By | February 15, 2019

(The following article appeared on the Opinion page of The Province newspaper in Vancouver on February 14, 2019.)

When I moved to a South False Creek apartment in Vancouver last year, the manager explained that the owners rarely renovated the units or updated appliances in the 30-year-old building. “But you can save money on heating,” he said. “Run the natural gas fireplace all winter to save on your Hydro bill. The natural gas is free.”

Cheap fossil fuels like natural gas support and enable modern civilization, and this cheapness, combined with other virtues like abundance, portability and energy intensity, are going to make the transition to a greener, cleaner world much more difficult and expensive than we can even begin to imagine.

We use the addiction analogy to describe our relationship to fossil fuels. But the relationship goes way beyond addiction. Addicts, with help, can live without the drug they’re addicted to. If fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow, life in Canada would grind to a halt.

We’re going to continuing using fossils fuels for a long time because alternatives don’t exist for many of our activities such as air travel, argues technical writer Stephen Gauer. Postmedia News

Virtually all cars, trucks, buses, trains, planes, and ships would be useless. Power grids in many provinces would fail. Homes and office towers would go dark and cold. If plastic (made from petrochemicals) disappears so do essential items like insulation, household plumbing and computer components. If synthetic fertilizers (made from natural gas) disappear, so does cheap food from our farms.

We have a large and very cold country and rank among the highest users of energy per capita in the world. Here is a dismaying statistic: replacing all fossil fuels with electricity in Canada right now would require 300 Site C dams or 300 Candu nuclear reactors, costing $10 billion each. Total bill: $3 trillion. The likelihood of building new energy infrastructure at this scale over the next couple of decades is zero. So is the likelihood that renewables like solar and wind will provide a significant slice of the new energy pie.

We’re offered tasty cash carrots to buy electric cars but we’re not biting. Despite constant media coverage and major drumbeating by the car makers, sales remain anemic. I test drove a GM Bolt recently, thinking it might win me over, but it didn’t. I liked the car but not the price ($38,000 after subsidies), the lack of power outlets in my parking garage, the lack of chargers for road trips and questionable performance in cold weather.

One compromise response to our energy challenge is to use more natural gas for the next 50 years while we figure out how to fully electrify our energy system. Natural gas is about a third cleaner than oil-based fuels at a fraction of the cost. It’s a practical and affordable way to reduce carbon emissions without wrecking our standard of living.

Natural gas can power cars, trucks, buses, ferries, freighters and even trains. The tanks are bulky, taking up three times the space of gas or diesel and that (plus the $10,000 cost of conversion) pretty much rules out cars. But buses, trucks, trains and ships could be good candidates. B.C. Ferries has started converting its fleet to LNG, cutting fuel costs in half. New ocean-going freighters and cruise ships can run on natural gas to save money and meet stricter standards on sulphur emissions.

The laws of physics eliminate the possibility of a Boeing 737 powered by natural gas or batteries. Jetliners can probably run on biofuel but that’s not much of an improvement over jet fuel, given the land and energy resources required to product fuel from plants. The $8-trillion global tourism industry depends largely on cheap, fossil-fuel air travel. What happens if that disappears?

Let’s be honest and admit we don’t have many answers to these energy questions. Let’s be even more honest and admit we’re not comfortable talking about changes that will affect every Canadian, challenge powerful corporate and political interests, and possible reduce our standard of living. Is it absurd to suggest this energy transition challenge, rather than carbon taxes, should be the No. 1 campaign issue in the October election? Justin, Andrew, Jagmeet — are you listening?

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