Energy in, energy out: Getting off the fossil fuel treadmill

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The European Union (EU) fuel quality directive requires a 6 per cent reduction in the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of fuels used in vehicles by 2020. To help meet this target, the EU has calculated average GHG releases from biofuels, conventional crude, tar sands, and oil shale using a "life-cycle" approach, including emissions from extraction, processing and distribution.

Canada's federal government recently released a new report criticizing the EU's fuel quality directive: the Independent Assessment of the European Commission's Fuel Quality Directive's "Conventional" Default Value. The report does not challenge the EU's conclusion that development of tar sands and shale oil releases high amounts of GHGs.  It merely asserts that "some light and heavy conventional crudes have GHG intensities that are similar or even higher than those of crudes derived from natural bitumen," because of flaring "in oil fields where infrastructure is insufficient to handle the associated gas. " It cites Russia and Nigeria as countries where gas flaring increases GHG releases.

The report then argues that since the EU cannot prove that development of tar sands always releases more GHGs than conventional crude, no distinction should be made between the two.

Claims that tar sands are no different from conventional fossil fuels are doomed to failure. Tar sands are a less concentrated form of energy. Extracting oil from a conventional oil field is like having a large boulder poised right on the edge of a hill. It only takes a small nudge to send this boulder down, transforming its potential energy into kinetic energy that can do work. Tar sands are like a boulder several hundred metres from the edge of the hill -- a boulder that requires a lot of pushing before its energy is released.

Around 1970, the ecologist Charles Hall coined the term "Energy Return on Investment" (EROI) to describe this phenomenon. In a 2011 paper in the journal Sustainability he explains that "EROI is simply the energy gained from an energy-obtaining effort divided by the energy used to get that energy. For example, one barrel of oil invested into getting oil out of the ground might return fifty, thirty, ten or one barrel…"

Hall asks, "Since it appears that we will be living indefinitely in a world of decreasing EROIs, what are the economic, social and psychological implications?" He claims that "few issues are likely to be more important for the future of civilization," and warns of ongoing financial crises: "While this is not to discount the role of greed, corruption and mismanagement in all things financial, nor the enormous shift in wealth to the upper few percent over the past several decades, at the root of it all lies the decline in cheap, high EROI fuel that had once allowed the economy to do more work."

He goes on to explain, "to have a modern civilization one needs not simply surplus energy but lots of it, and that requires either a high EROI or a massive source of moderate EROI fuels... we are watching the beginning of the decline of civilization driven by a declining EROI. If things get a lot tougher, as many think, the low EROI energy that is available will go to growing food and supporting families. It is clear that we must understand energy and its changes if we are to understand changes in our economy."

Use of the phrase "responsible energy development" to refer to fossil fuel extraction is not helping Canadians understand energy. Physics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Energy infrastructure can be "developed" -- hydroelectric dams, power lines, wind farms, solar arrays, pipelines -- but not energy itself. Energy infrastructure for tar sands consists of huge trucks and digging equipment, along with upgraders and pipelines. This is all part of a boom and bust cycle -- infrastructure that will vanish when the tar sands are depleted or become too expensive to extract.

A key point of EROI analysis is that energy invested to get an energy return need not be fossil fuel energy. It is possible to transport goods and people, run factories, and generate electricity in a carbon-neutral world that uses only non-fossil-fuel energy sources. But this will require a more strategic approach to energy use. Hydropower is steadier than wind power and good for running factories, biodiesel works well in tractors with diesel engines that produce a lot of torque, solar energy is great for lighting, wood for heating, etc.

It's a bit rich when Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says that "Canada supports the EU Commission's objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions for transportation fuels but believes it must be based on science and facts." Canada's current government has shown a limited appetite for science and facts -- particularly on climate change. Arguing whether the "worst" sources of conventional oil have higher GHG intensities than the "best" sources of tar sands bitumen amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Climate change science says that there is no more time for baby steps. The fossil fuel treadmill has already brought us super typhoons, hurricanes, tornados, floods and droughts. Tar sands, conventional oil, shale oil, natural gas from fracking, coal stripped off mountaintops: all create financial crises, climate disruption, property damage and loss of life.

If Canada truly shares the EU objective of reducing GHG emissions it must stop "fighting" efforts to slow tar sands development, and do something positive -- such as developing a plan for transformation to a carbon-neutral society. Countries like New Zealand have already committed to a long-term objective of eliminating, as opposed to reducing, GHG emissions.

The need for a societal dialogue on energy -- one based on science and facts -- has never been greater. Let's get on with it.

Ole Hendrickson is a forest ecologist and current president of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: 4BlueEyes Pete/flickr

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