SELLING TODAY WHAT WE'LL NEED TOMORROW
J. TUZO WILSON
An unemotional, non-ecological, apolitical view
We were at Mont Gabriel deep in the Laurentians last fall, about 100 of us attending an Ottawa-sponsored conference to discuss the scientific problems involved in developing the petroleum reserves of the Arctic, and as I listened to the papers I kept recalling scenes from my boyhood in Ottawa 60 years before. Automobiles existed, of course, but they were few and unreliable. The normal means of going anywhere — apart from electric streetcars or trains — was by horse carriage. Deliveries, including coal to heat the house, were by horse and cart or sleigh. Few streets were paved. It was a slow, dirty time, almost without oil and natural gas. Radio, television, airplanes and computers had not been developed.
While I was pondering the experts’ views it suddenly occurred to me that, due to the accelerating rate of consumption of energy and the depletion of some fuels, we may well see the same situation come around again.
Most Canadians are by now aware that our industrial society is facing an energy crisis of unprecedented proportions. Some authorities, notably a group of international scientists and industrialists calling themselves the Club of Rome, are going so far as to state that what is being demonstrated is the need for a complete reversal in our attitude toward “growth” in the economy, which has traditionally been the great aim and boast of North Americans.
It is becoming painfully obvious that the growth curve of our industrial society predicated on the unlimited and ever expanding use of energy is on a collision course with the downward curve of resources production. Many prefer to close their minds to the obvious, because realization demands a most unpleasant reversal of the attitude of most North Americans. Instead of seeking to exploit we must conserve; instead of trying to increase consumption we must curb our appetites.
Such revolutions in thought and behavior are painful, difficult and subject to intense opposition; but those which have been successfully negotiated have brought great rewards. This was notably true of the one associated with Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, which overthrew the old view that God had created the earth as a dominion for man at the centre of a rather small universe and introduced our current ideas that the universe is vast and governed by impersonal laws. This laid the whole basis for science and engineering and the birth of the modern era. Science and technology so improved food production and hygiene that the population of the western world, which had remained constant for the 1,000 years since the end of the Roman Empire, began to grow and has grown ever since.
Looking back at the benefits achieved, it seems incredible that the new ideas were opposed, but the “establishment” of the time certainly opposed them and harassed their proponents.
In spite of the opposition of conservatives other lesser scientific revolutions have also been accepted, including Darwin’s evolution, Einstein’s relativity, atomic physics and, today, ideas of a mobile earth in which the continents are not fixed but are slowly drifting about.
Today we face another revolution in thought that ranks with that launched by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, but it is economic rather than scientific. The Club of Rome commissioned a book, The Limits To Growth by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows and others, which points out that the growths in population, in use of resources and in pollution which began in the Renaissance cannot continue much longer and must either level off or fall drastically. Since such a radical change in our way of life will be socially disturbing and a handicap to business. The prospect appeals to no one and there is a widespread tendency to ignore the issue and hope that it will go away.
The stupidity of such an attitude can be well illustrated by the thoughtless lack of control with which hunters exterminated the passenger pigeon and the manner in which whalers today are destroying the last big whales and their own livelihood forever. It is not change itself that is disastrous, but the failure to react to it in time. Revolutions in ideas which have been accepted have brought benefits to mankind. But problems, too, and we must face the problems. I raise these issues because if economic changes are to be made they must be accepted by the mass of the people and hence must be openly debated, and because the challenges of economic change must be accepted when they are made. A new scientific thought, on the other hand, can be effective if accepted only by practising scientists and engineers, and their acceptance can be leisurely. The ideas of Copernicus are still hotly denied by the FlatEarth Society, and the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis is still enjoying equal time with Darwin’s ideas in California schools. Copernicus’ ideas could be accepted slowly without harm, but if enough food is not grown people will starve.
The most immediate challenge facing North Americans today is not starvation, or pollution, or social unrest, it is that our demands for energy have been doubling every 10 years, that most energy is made from petroleum and that the United States has used up half of all its crude oil and much of its natural gas. This does not necessarily mean disaster, but it certainly requires change.
Any rapid rate of doubling cannot long continue, as the parable of the successful courtier illustrates. When asked to name a reward he requested that he be given one grain of wheat on the first square of a chess board, two grains on the second, four on the third and so on by successive doublings for all 64 squares. His king readily agreed, thinking in terms of a few grains, a few bushels or a few sacks, not realizing that the last square would need 1,000 times the world’s production for a year.
The authority on United States supplies of petroleum who is most respected is Dr. King Hubbert, because his forecasts have proved to be correct. He was formerly Director of the Shell Oil Company’s research laboratories in Houston, Texas, and is now with the United States Geological Survey in Washington. In 1962 he wrote a very percipient paper for the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. After discussing 14 estimates by different authorities on United States reserves of crude oil, he concluded that the / continued on page 84 ultimate potential reserve in the United States was 175 billion barrels. Of this, he stated, 67 billion barrels had already been produced and 99 billion barrels had been located. He estimated that some 76 billion barrels might still be discovered. He then predicted that “the culmination in the rate of production should occur in the late 1960s.” At the same time King Hubbert also predicted that the United States would reach its peak of production of natural gas about 1978. At that time both the United States government and the petroleum industry were far more optimistic, but seven years later, in a book entitled Resources And Man, Dr. Hubbert revised his figures downward on the basis of new information and warned that United States oil production would peak in 1968 and would be almost all gone by the year 1999.
After oil was discovered in Alaska, Dr. Hubbert revised his estimates in 1971 and stated: “While these quantities are significant, they still represent only a few years’ supply of petroleum and natural gas requirements of the United States.”
I met Dr. Hubbert at Colgate University in September last year, when we were both members of a panel, and he showed me figures produced by the petroleum industry that proved his earlier predictions to be correct. United States production of crude oil began a steady decline about 1968.
It is now being widely reported that by 1985 the United States will only be producing half its petroleum needs. To meet the deficiency the demand must be reduced, petroleum must be imported in enormous quantities or substitutes developed. Probably all these eventualities will happen.
Dr. Philip H. Abelson, the highly respected editor of Science, has just urged Americans to conserve energy. The laws of economics will see to it that we accept his advice for the growing scarcity of supplies will inevitably force the price of fuel and energy to rise.
One can, of course, import fuels from abroad, but the problems of moving vast quantities of crude oil and natural gas over great distances are complex and difficult. Both are splendid fuels and now the chief source of energy in North America; gasoline is made from crude oil. Although both are usually carried in pipelines or tankers, the problems are quite different. In particular, if natural gas escapes it burns or disperses, whereas crude oil makes an appalling mess. Oil is more quickly and widely dispersed on water than on land so the loss of a supertanker would be a prodigious disaster; on land a leak would be less serious. Natural gas is mostly methane, which cannot be stored under low pressures in tanks like propane, the common bottled gas. Methane is only liquid below —263 degrees Fahrenheit; nevertheless special tankers built like Thermos bottles are already carrying it from Algeria to Europe and North America. Both products are, of course, also carried in small quantities in trucks, railway tank cars and airplanes or they can be converted into electric power. Some experts advocate the use of one of these methods to bring power from the Arctic for they have the advantage over pipelines of versatility and the ability to transport more than just petroleum.
The regions that have the very large quantities of petroleum needed to supply the insatiable demands of the United States are few. Supplies are generally postulated as coming from the Middle East and North Africa, which are the chief source of fuel for Western Europe and Japan and which already send some tankers to the Atlantic coasts of Canada and the United States. Deepwater ports able to take much larger supplies are under construction. Soon Iran and the Arab countries are likely to own the majority interest in the producing companies. One can imagine the immense financial, political and strategic implications if the United States and all the rest of the western world have to depend upon those countries for petroleum and pay them billions of dollars a year.
Another probable source is the Soviet Union, which has great reserves in both Europe and Siberia. Part of these supplies could conceivably be moved by pipeline across Bering Strait and the rest by tankers across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Again deepwater ports and supertankers are involved and also a huge trading agreement with the Soviet Union.
A possible source which has been scarcely mentioned lies in the great tropical basins of the seas off southeast Asia. Only tiny parts of the landward margins of these basins have been brought into production in Borneo, Taiwan and Indonesia. For obvious reasons exploration has been limited, but papers published in obscure technical journals by leading American geologists and geophysicists show that these basins are huge and that reserves are likely to be large. Supertankers could carry the products across the Pacific, relieving the United States of dependence upon the Middle East and the Soviet Union.
One can speculate in what ways the need to import petroleum and the location of possible sources may be influencing American foreign policy, but the development of adequate supplies and the installation of facilities in either Siberia or East Asia would take years and shortages will not wait. This makes obvious the importance of the new reserves in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. They are the closest and strategically the safest to the U.S. It is unfortunate that by world standards the basins there are of moderate size, and hence can only have moderate reserves. The size of a basin provides a rough measure of its potential petroleum production, and estimates so based suggest that the total Canadian reserves in both Alberta and the Arctic are less than 2% of the world’s total.
On the north coast of Alaska about 15 billion barrels of crude oil and much gas have been discovered and more than enough may be found to add about 10% to the total United States reserves, or a very few years’ additional supplies. Nevertheless for one sale of leases the Alaskan government was reported to have received $900 million. Since the Arctic coast of Alaska is shallow and without harbors for tankers it is likely that pipelines will be built. At present for an oil line the shorter and cheaper route across Alaska is being favored over the longer route up the Mackenzie Valley. Supertankers would then carry the crude oil to Puget Sound or California and the system could become the initial part of any larger trans-Pacific organization that may develop.
Along the adjacent coast of Canada much gas has been discovered in the delta of the Mackenzie River. One may hope that significant discoveries of oil will follow, but it is not clear that any oil pipeline is yet required in Canada. On the other hand a gas line may be needed at a cost of the order of six billion dollars. Perhaps this could be reduced if Canada gets as much for leases as Alaska and if a branch line to tap the Prudhoe Bay gas helps to pay the cost.
The third discovery has been in the Arctic islands, and only gas has been reported to date. To build pipelines across the wide and deep channels between the islands would be a problem made more difficult by the icebergs that occasionally run aground and scrape these coasts. Tankers to carry liquefied gas out to the Atlantic may be a better solution. There is a technical problem to be overcome in liquefying gas in cold weather without producing a fog of ice particles, but the industry has an excellent record in overcoming technical problems.
More finds of oil and gas will undoubtedly be made in the Arctic, but the moderate size of the basins indicates that this will do little more than double Canadian reserves. Even the maximum discoveries would alleviate the American problem for only a short time, but could provide fuel for Canada for much longer.
Of course alternatives are available, but are they in a state to supply a major part of North America’s needs within a dozen years? There are large reserves of tar sands in Alberta, of oil shales in the U.S., and of coal in both countries from which oil or gas can be made, but in spite of efforts already made can the huge plants needed be built in time? The costs of these fuels will be much greater and the low price of petroleum has handicapped the development of alternatives. Some engineers advocate using wind, tides or the earth’s internal heat as sources of power. All are possible but not on the scale required. Can one imagine heating Winnipeg in winter with windmills? There is talk of solar power. True, it is unlimited, but it is not intense — cool compared with the heat of an oil fired boiler — and the problems of harnessing solar energy in the quantities required seem beyond our present means. Hydroelectric power is splendid but undeveloped sites are scarce or far away.
There remains nuclear power by fission of uranium or by fusion of hydrogen or lithium. The first is the great standby,, and one to which Canadians have made great contributions, as the award this autumn of a Royal Medal to Dr. W. B. Lewis of Chalk River acknowledges. Unfortunately fission produces radioactive wastes which remain active, deadly poisons for thousands of years. Hannes Alfvén, the Swedish Nobel prize winner, considers these poisons so dangerous and the chance of their eventual release so great that he has concluded that “fission energy does not represent an acceptable solution to the energy problem.” The second, by atomic fusion, would be less dangerous but it has never been achieved. Fundamentally, the problem is to harness the explosion of a hydrogen bomb.
What are the alternatives to petroleum fuels to keep the cars, trucks and trailers rolling? An unresolved technological difficulty is how to run an automobile on electric power. As a boy in Ottawa, I recall the electric car that a wealthy lady drove at a leisurely rate around the unpaved streets. It went perhaps 100 miles on one charging. In spite of great efforts the performance of the electric car has not been greatly improved today. This example and another, the search for a cure for cancer, show that great effort does not necessarily guarantee success in technological search. The suggestion that hydrogen, generated by electric power, will take the place of gasoline involves the development of a whole new industry. It ignores the problem of carrying hydrogen in a car and the highly explosive nature of the mixture of hydrogen and air should it leak.
Canadians have a good supply of resources to produce energy — petroleum, tar sands, coal and uranium — and the question of how we should develop them best is difficult and answered differently by different people.
One strong view is that of the conservationists who are concerned that pipelines will ruin the Arctic environment. Last winter I visited the experimental station operated for two years by petroleum companies at Inuvik and I believe they have demonstrated that they can build pipelines that will do little damage. Dr. Robert F. Legget, formerly of the National Research Council, has said that the technology is available to build roads that will not harm the environment, but safe roads and pipelines may be expensive, and time is needed to plan them.
A much greater hazard, and one which can hardly be avoided if crude oil is to be imported, is the possible loss of tankers and, particularly, supertankers. The results have already been demonstrated by the wreck of a small tanker, the Arrow, off Nova Scotia. So, too, the extraction of coal, tar sands and oil shale in large amounts will produce great devastation, huge areas of waste rock or sand, unless strong and expensive controls are instituted to demand restoration.
A middle ground will have to be found between the views of extreme conservationists and those of average North Americans who do not share a desire to go back to primitive living and who hence demand abundant energy.
Another view is that of the petroleum companies that have invested large sums of money in the Arctic and want a return upon it. Most of them are multinational and consider that if eastern Canada has depended upon imports of Venezuelan crude oil and U.S. coal, it’s reasonable to expect that the U.S. would turn to Canada for natural gas. They also consider that Canada cannot afford to bring Arctic gas to market unless a portion is sold to the U.S.
This country is fortunate in having great mineral resources which we have always exported. We will undoubtedly continue to do so, but Canadians are coming to realize that minerals are not renewed and that prices are rising rapidly. Our situation is that we depend upon exports for money and politically it would be impossible to halt exports, but like the nations of the Middle East we can demand higher prices and greater control.
The views of the petroleum industry were well summed up by a leading spokesman at a recent conference I attended in Calgary. He said: “We have a short-term problem of shortages in North America. I wish these academics and biologists would stop causing delays so we can get on with the job of building pipelines and supplying the market. There is no need to worry about longterm problems. New discoveries and advances in technology have always taken care of the future.”
Unfortunately he was a public relations man and I am a scientist and less optimistic. Why would anyone contemplate spending billions of dollars to bring gas from the Arctic if one could find it at Edmonton? Are we doing enough to prepare the alternative technologies? How does anyone know that they will be ready in time?
The ideas of economists and politicians are generally similar in that they are essentially based upon short-term views and upon faith that, given a free market, changing prices will solve all problems. One would like to believe them, but the example of the demise of the whaling industry shows that the crass cupidity of a few can destroy a renewable resource that should have continued for ever.
The petroleum industry, since it depends upon a finite resource, will be finished as we know it today in less than a century and much greater thought and effort should be devoted to its replacement.
This transition will be an economic revolution and the difficulty of revolutions is that they change the ground rules and invalidate old arguments that had previously seemed logical. Arguments based upon the notion that the earth was the centre of a little universe created especially for man became quite inappropriate after Copernicus.
My chief concern is that today many intelligent men still believe in ever greater growth and exploitation which amounts to a belief that resources are limitless, that replacements will always be found, that new technologies will be developed in time. Others who have seen that we live in a finite world with limited supplies consider that arguments based upon such premises may be quite wrong and misleading. One can still believe in competition and some freedom for enterprise, but unfortunately the situation also demands controls.
Still another input is needed and that is from scientists and engineers, who have been trained to think quantitatively and who will have the responsibility of developing the alternatives.
Experts disagree on just how long it will take for the crisis facing our industrial civilization to become desperately serious, but it really doesn’t make much difference. The pessimists say 10 years, but double or even quadruple that estimate and the crisis is still less than a lifetime away.
The demands for gas and oil are so insatiable and rising so rapidly that it is clear that Arctic petroleum reserves offer no long-term solution to the problem of energy supplies. They would only meet United States needs for a few years at best, but Canada needs this energy for her own survival and these resources should be husbanded carefully.
There is one thing Canadians should always remember. In many parts of the world including much of the southern United States people will be uncomfortable if heating fuel is cut off, but in Canada many people would die. We need our energy fuels just to stay alive in our rigorous climate and fuel for our future is essential. We cannot return to the use of wood and coal, and nuclear power has not yet been developed to be an adequate alternative to fossil fuels.
North America is today facing the problem met by all ancient peoples, that we are reaching the limit of our resources. Many nations and tribes in the past were unable to cope with the necessity to change and perished, but the more successful of past civilizations developed equilibrium conditions and survived and even flourished for centuries or even millenia.
Canadians can hope to do the same, but only if we recognize our problems in time, reduce our demands, conserve our resources, revise our philosophies and put far greater efforts into finding substitutes until alternatives, perhaps dependent upon energy from fusion, can be found. Nothing could be worse than to bury our heads in undeveloped tar sands. ■