Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2017
Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant who was a public servant for 27 years and a diplomat for 10 years.
Many people, and especially among the young, believe the theory that humans are causing catastrophic global warming. They assert that Canadians must soon eliminate all uses of fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal. Thus, for example, the current controversies about whether and where to build new crude oil pipeline systems often include statements by the opponents of such projects that we do not need another single one, regardless of economic considerations.
To me, this view betrays a profound misunderstanding of the role that energy plays in people’s lives today. In this note, I will offer what I hope is a helpful explanation of that role.
Almost everything associated with our modern way of life depends on the use of energy. Before 1860, for example, people had to do far more work just to do simple things like cooking, making a living and moving. To go somewhere on land, you walked, used a bicycle or horse-drawn carriage or, where tracks were available, took a train pulled by a wood-fired steam engine. People cooked over wood-burning stoves and hauled water for drinking. There were few indoor toilets and people lit their homes with candles or lanterns that used whale oil. Everything took much longer to do.
The discovery of large oilfields and of ways to produce from them in the late 19th century, followed by the invention of the internal combustion engine to power cars and trucks in the early part of the 20th century, revolutionized the way people and goods moved. The invention around the same time of electricity and of ways to transport and apply electricity for lighting and heating allowed the application of energy to hundreds of new uses, a process that goes on today. Energy made work easier and allowed a massive increase in economic activity (investment, employment and trade) that improved living standards and expanded people’s choices of what to do and how to spend their time.
Today, about 86% of the energy used in the world comes from fossil fuels. The rest comes from a variety of sources, the most important of which are nuclear energy, hydro-electricity and traditional biomass (wood and dried animal dung). New renewables, like wind and solar energy, account for about one per cent. The proportions are different in countries like Canada, where fossil fuels account for only about 80%, but still by far the majority.
People use energy in different ways, of course. Some energy is used directly for its heat or power value. Some energy is used in a “secondary” form, as the result of converting basic energy sources through power generation into electricity. Finally, energy is used indirectly, in the sense that the products we use are the results of energy that was used to make it and deliver it to us.
An example of indirect, or embedded, energy use is the manufacturing and sale of a simple cotton t-shirt. Energy is needed to grow and harvest the cotton on farms; transport it to a factory; make, package and transport the chemicals used to bleach, dye, or condition the cotton; run the machines on which the t-shirt is processed; create packaging materials; ship the t-shirt to the store; and keep the heat on in the store. If one used a more complex product like a camera or cell-phone, the list of indirect energy uses would be much longer.
Each of the fossil fuels has unique characteristics that determine its usefulness. Oil has a very high energy density, in the sense that it offers a high amount of power compared to its weight and volume, and it is relatively easy and safe to transport and store. This makes oil an ideal source for transportation. Consequently, almost all (over 98%) of the energy used in cars, trucks, locomotives, marine vessels and aircraft is based on refined oil products. It is technically possible to use other energy sources, but usually far more expensive.
Natural gas similarly has comparatively high energy content but it takes up much larger volume and it is more expensive to transport and to store. This makes it a good source of energy for stationary uses like heating buildings or powering electrical generation. Natural gas has an additional advantage of having in it very few contaminants that would reduce air quality; it is a clean-burning fuel.
Table from Cambridge Prof. Michael J. Kelly’s paper shows relative energy density of different sources discussing how wind and solar do not address climate change and do not have the energy return on energy invested to support even basic society, let alone one of high culture and aviation.
Oil and natural gas are also extremely important sources of feedstock (i.e. building materials) for petroleum and petrochemical products. Without them, we would not have access to hundreds of products that most people consider either essential or highly valuable for modern life. The examples are almost endless, but allow me to cite a few that young people might miss if they were gone – televisions, cell phones, computers, most clothes and footwear, refrigerators, air conditioners, hand lotion and cosmetics, antiseptics, deodorant, purses, panty hose, eyeglasses, luggage, and credit cards. Without oil and natural gas, farmers would have no modern fertilizers, so food production would decline significantly. There would be no plastic products to supply a huge range of things varying from water pipes to ice cube trays. Life as we know it would have much less variety.
Image licensed from Shutterstock – See Keep Canada in the Black
Coal is also high in energy content, but it is heavier and has many more impurities combined with it, so that burning it in ways that do not impair local air quality is more expensive. However, coal is by far the most plentiful fossil fuel energy resource on the planet. Coalfields can be found in most of the world’s countries, and currently exploitable reserves could, at present rates of consumption, last over 3000 years. For many countries, the lure of coal is that it is plentiful, secure and cheap, traits that are highly valued in places where people cannot afford more expensive energy options.
So, what would happen to Canada’s current economy if we tried to stop using fossil fuels too quickly, before other energy sources were available at affordable cost and with reliable technology? We can get a glimpse of this by examining the current data on greenhouse gas emissions for fossil fuel consumption, as published by Environment and Climate Change Canada in its most recent National Inventory Report. The following table shows Canada’s emissions by sector for 2015 in terms of megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e).
Canadian Greenhouse Gas emissions by Sector (Mt CO2)
Sector Emissions Percentage
(Energy) 328 45
Transport 202 28
Fugitive Sources 57 8
Agriculture 59 8
Industry 51 7
Waste 25 3
Total 722 100
Of the stationary sources, mining and upstream oil and gas production constitute 105 Mt CO2e, and fugitive sources (all from fossil fuels production and transportation) constitute another 57 Mt CO2e. So, if Canada completely eliminated all production of oil, natural gas, coal and mining products like nickel, uranium, bauxite, and gold, we would reduce our total GHG emissions by 162 Mt CO2e, or 22.4 % of the total. That would still leave 560 Mt CO2e, or 77.6%, of the way to go. In the process, of course, we would shut down most of the economic activity, investment and employment in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories and do significant harm to the mining communities in every province and territory.
Shutting down Canada’s production of fossil fuels and mining products would not end our consumption of fossil fuels, either directly or indirectly. What would tackling that mean? Well, the largest energy consuming sector is transportation, where oil-fueled vehicles and other modes constitute about 98% of consumption. People like to hope that electric cars will catch on, but up to now, they constitute only 1.5% of new car sales, even with government subsidies of up to $14,000 per vehicle. Would we really be able to eliminate all cars and force people to go back to the era before cars? Would you be glad to go everywhere by foot, bicycle, or (if you were lucky) by bus at all times and in all weather conditions? The fastest growing source of emissions is commercial trucks. There are no electric-powered trucks even on the horizon. How would we move products around the country if we eliminated the trucks? The most emissions-intensive mode of transportation is aviation. How would Canadian react if they could no longer fly, but had to take trains or buses to move across the country (noting that both trains and buses run on oil products, too)?
Snowbirds would be “No Birds” – World travel by walking, biking, back to sailing ships.
Most of the stationary energy emissions not in the energy sector are in emissions-intensive industries. These include petrochemicals and manufacturing of automobiles and trucks, steel, iron, aluminium, cement and other products. We could eliminate 43 Mt CO2e in emissions if we shut down these plants, but that would also eliminate many of the best-paying jobs in the country. How would organized labour respond to that?
Much of the emissions in other sectors are the result of indirect, or “embedded”, energy use and emissions. In fact, according to studies in the United States, 46% of the total energy use in North America is indirect. A study by the American Enterprise Institute in 2008 broke this down in terms of sectors of the economy. The results, as percentages of embedded energy use, are shown in table 2.
Indirect Energy Use by Category
Activity Percent of Indirect Energy Consumption
Health care 27.5
Clothing and shoes 3.7
The purpose of the U.S. study was to determine where people could economize on their energy usage, not cut it out entirely. However, the global warming catastrophe theory, we are told, requires that we end all fossil fuel emissions. Using the U.S. study as a guide would therefore mean that people should either stop or cut back heavily on the production and use of pharmaceuticals, restaurant meals, use of drugs and physician services, use of premade meals and beverages, grain and meat products, air travel, and household cleaners. Some people may think those are great ideas, and they would certainly take us all back to an earlier era.
It might sound romantic to go back to the style and standard of living that people had in the 1860’s, but Canada did not have to support and employ a population of 35 million then. We may be able to cut back gradually and in ways that allow us to maintain our current standard of living, if in fact that proves necessary given the nature of the global problem. Perhaps, instead, a proper balance of fuels depends on the relative costs and advantages of fossil fuels versus others, and the challenge is to reach the right balance.
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