Yager: Canada must start discussing energy science

No substitutes for oil have been developed on anything like the scale required

By David Yager
Cheap energy – fossil fuels – made food more plentiful and reduced the cost of everything including steel, plastics, cement and transportation. Getty Images photo

Famous American theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize recipient Richard Feynman wrote, “I would rather have questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned.”

So it goes for climate science which, as everyone knows, is settled. There is only one answer. Questions are not welcome.

Climate science is about the changing chemical composition of the atmosphere and how it affects the weather. It’s about the future.

Energy science is about how 7.9 billion stay alive. It’s about tomorrow.

Unfortunately, it gets the same treatment.

There have been no major energy shortages or price spikes until recently. Abundant and affordable energy is taken for granted. All it takes to replace fossil fuels with low-carbon energy is enlightened policy, political will and an undisclosed amount of money.

But the energy science debate is much better at “what” than “how.”

In a 2009 paper titled “Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil,” academics and ecologists Charles Hall and John Day analyzed how cheap and plentiful energy has supported population growth.

The authors reviewed historical writings about the relationship between population and resources back to Malthus in 1798. They then contributed their EROI (energy return on investment) model, which looked at future and alternative energy costs after cheap oil declined in the U.S. in the 1970s.

Another way of looking at this is the energy cost of energy.

Truly low-cost energy came from the massive conventional oilfields discovered in the U.S. and Middle East early last century. The investment was low and the energy output was enormous.

Based on EROI, the authors determined early oil discoveries were much cheaper than coal, hydro, firewood, wind, gas, nuclear, solar or biodiesel.

Civilization prospered and grew as cheap energy supported growth in food supply and all the other essentials of life.

Fossil fuels and food are closely related. They wrote, “…increased agricultural yield is achieved principally through the greater use of fossil fuel for cultivation, fertilizers, pesticides, drying…The fuel used is divided nearly equally between the farm, transport, processing and preparation.”

But not just food became more plentiful. Cheap energy reduced the cost of everything including steel, plastics, cement and transportation.

The authors concluded, “…energy use – a factor that had not been used in economists’ production equation – is far more important than capital, labor or technology in explaining the increase in industrial production in the U.S., Japan and Germany…The expansion of the economies of most developing countries is nearly linearly related to energy use, and when that energy is withdrawn, economies shrink accordingly…”

Economies that have continued to grow like the U.S. and Europe without increasing emissions have done so by outsourcing industrial supply to lower-cost regions like Asia. Their costs are lower in part because they use lower-cost energy from coal.

Those concerned about climate change are quick to label China, India and other developing countries as risks because of their reluctance to use less coal.

But in reality, emissions have only been moved from developed countries to underdeveloped countries. Total emissions continue to rise.

The authors state the key role of the cost and availability of energy is not sufficiently considered in 21st century public policy. “Most environmental science textbooks focus far more on the adverse impacts of fossil fuels than on the implications of our overwhelming economic and even nutritional dependence on them.”

And by focusing primarily on social and moral imperatives, political leaders are overlooking other implications. “The concept of the possibility of a huge, multifaceted failure of some substantial part of industrial civilization is so completely outside the understanding of our leaders we are almost totally unprepared for it.”

The key conclusion was, “No substitutes for oil have been developed on anything like the scale required, and most are poor net performers (EROI).”

Despite escalating concerns about climate change and fossil fuel emissions, 13 years later global consumption of oil, gas and coal continues to grow.

Because energy demand grows with population. While wind and solar are getting cheaper and will continue to do so, the new low-carbon energy capacity has only added to total supply. They have yet to materially displace the incumbent globally.

Hall and Day finished, “If we are to resolve these issues, including the important one of climate change…we need to again make them central to education at all levels in our universities, and to debate and even stand up those who negate their importance…We must teach economics from a biophysical as well as a social perspective. Only then do we have any chance of understanding or solving these problems.”

Europe is learning the hard way about the impact of energy cost and supply on everything.

In Canada, we need a meaningful national policy discussion about energy science.

Assuming it is even permitted.

David Yager is an oil service executive, oil and gas writer, energy policy analyst and author of From Miracle to Menace – Alberta, a Carbon Story. More at www.miracletomenace.ca

The unaltered reproduction of this content is free of charge with attribution to Canadian Energy Centre Ltd.