Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2018

Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant.  He was a public servant for 27 years and prior to that a diplomat for 10 years.

Blair King is a professional chemist and consultant who conducts risk analysis, as well as remediation analysis, of environmental hazards in British Columbia. He is also the author of several articles that have appeared on his blog, “A Chemist in Langley” and in print media such as the Huffington Post. Reading his articles is a pleasure for those who value sound, objective analysis based on facts. While he cares deeply about environmental quality, he courageously challenges the claims of environmental organizations and politicians when they depart from sound science and economics. I greatly admire his writing and his demonstrated integrity in the face of severe criticism from powerful advocates.


Thus, I hope that Mr. King will not object if I borrow an idea of his and apply it to a different context. In September 2016, Mr. King wrote a blog article in which he figuratively asked how reliant people in British Columbia are on fossil fuels. He invited his readers to follow along with him in thinking through a scenario in which some “mystical power” arrived on earth and, using some unknown technology, eliminated all fossil fuels from the planet instantaneously. As a thought experiment, he tried to answer the question, “What would happen?” with special reference to British Columbia. In what follows, I will repeat his thought experiment, but with reference to Ontario, where I live.


The National Energy Board occasionally publishes provincial and territorial energy profiles, in which it analyzes the energy supply and demand conditions in each Canadian jurisdiction. In its most recent profile of Ontario, it noted that, while most of the province’s electricity generation is based on non-fossil fuel sources (mainly nuclear and hydroelectric energy), in 2016 the breakdown of end-use demand by fuel was: refined petroleum products, 1,402 petajoules (PJ), or 46%; natural gas 919 PJ, or 30%; electricity, 494 PJ, or 16%; biofuels, 130 PJ, or 4%; and other, 104 PJ, or 3%. Including the share of natural gas as a source of electricity generation, fossil fuels thus accounted for about 77% of Ontario’s energy demand.


On day one without fossil fuels, all transportation systems (except a few electrically powered streetcars and a few thousand electric vehicles) would immediately stop. Stores would stop receiving supplies, as all supplies are transported from warehouses by gasoline or diesel-powered transport trucks. No new supplies would get to the warehouses, as the semi trucks that transport them depend on diesel fuel, as do railway systems.  Transport aircraft rely on aviation and jet fuel, and container ships rely on bunker fuel or diesel. Soon, the people living in urban areas like Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, London and Windsor would be first bidding for, and then fighting over, the remaining scraps in the stores. Once those supplies were gone, there would be nothing to replace them. There simply are not enough horses or horse-drawn wagons to move goods and food from the rural areas into the cities.


Someone may argue that electric vehicles would save the day. In 2017, electric vehicles represented less than 1% of new vehicle sales in Canada. Ontario has exactly zero electric transport trucks that can carry long-haul freight. The number of electric freight trains is just like that of electric trucks – zero. The same for ships or cargo planes – zero anywhere in the world.


After a few weeks, people would have exhausted their supplies of canned goods. General hunger, then starvation, would begin to set in. That would not necessarily be the worst problem. Potable water supplies and electricity supplied depend on diesel for pumps, and people with trucks maintain the electrical system. Without those pumps and trucks, the electricity supply would end and people would have to get water from rivers and lakes, if any were nearby. This assumes that the ending of fossil fuels happens during the warmer weather months. If it happened in winter, people would have to cut down local trees and forests to burn for warmth and chop through the ice on rivers and lakes to get water supplies. Getting wood and ice back to one’s home would be a perilous experience.


Within a couple of months (weeks if in winter), the city-centres would look like a scene from an apocalyptic science fiction movie, with corpses everywhere as the weakest lost out in battle for the quickly diminishing supplies of food, water and wood. Without working toilets and sewer systems, those still alive would be fighting dysentery, as human waste polluted the limited freshwater supplies. Anyone who could would move away from the city centres as quickly as possible to forage as far as they could roam on foot and on the remaining bicycles (the horses having been eaten).


The Greater Toronto area would be most savagely affected, as the large number of people there would stream out in every direction. There, they would discover that everything edible (from plant to animal) had long since been eaten by the people who live in the surrounding urban areas, who themselves would be streaming out into the Niagara peninsula and the areas east, west and north of the metropolis. Few would survive. The remaining settlements, if any, in the rural areas would be forced to hoard food supplies behind barricaded walls to keep the marauding survivors from the larger cities at bay.


Within a few months, or by the end of the winter, over 95 per cent of today’s Ontario urban population would have died from the lack of clean water and food, leaving a small minority fighting it out for the remaining crops.


In the developing countries, the 7.5 billion people now alive would be reduced to a few hundred thousand, who would be living in subsistence-level communities that were sufficiently isolated that they avoided the attention and attacks of the refugees from the cities. Survivors would eat most of the animals and much of the plant life. These would take hundreds of years to regenerate their populations.


This is the point of this thought-experiment. We remain extraordinarily dependent on oil, natural gas and coal for the energy services upon which modern life depends. When advocates claim that we can soon do away with fossil fuels, or that a transition away from fossil fuels would be quick and low–cost, be very skeptical.