How reliant are we on fossil fuels in British Columbia?

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog post that included a thought experiment of a world where fossil fuels had magically disappeared. As many of you know, I write a blog for the Huffington Post Canada and I decided to adapt that scenario for a blog post there. I recognized that the post would not be typical for that venue, but I figured that it would be informative and educational to their core audience. However, after having 32 blog posts accepted (with only one request for additional references) this time the post was rejected outright. When I asked why? I was informed that the:

apocalyptic thought experiment was not a good fit for the blog platform

and that:

Blogs must be based on facts, using concrete examples, and in this case, it was mostly hypothetical. Unfortunately, we cannot verify the scenario that you have conceived.

I must admit, having a thought experiment described as “hypothetical” represented a mildly-amusing tautology but did little to satisfy my curiosity. I was more interested in the fact that the blog editors could not “verify the scenario” that I had conceived. That represents a fascinating conundrum. I presented a  scenario that describes the logical consequences of our current energy system and the editors could not verify what I said was correct?

Oddly, enough, this was the reaction from a number of people who read my original blog post. They questioned my conclusions because the outcome was so apocalyptic. It just didn’t seem right to them. Sadly, this response shines a blinding light on the absence of energy awareness in the general populace. The general populace have simply internalized the role fossil fuels plays in maintaining our society and simply take that service for granted. They appear to have done this to an extent that they don’t even realize how completely we depend on fossil fuels for our day-to-day existence.

As a consequence, I feel it is necessary to present some basic facts about the fossil fuels we use on a daily basis. As I wrote in a previous post:

Depending on your reference, BC’s total energy consumption, inclusive of the energy required to create secondary electricity, was approximately 1,142 PJ in 2000 (ref)…This translates to approximately 317,500 GWh of energy. According to BC Hydro, in 2012 BC Hydro’s total energy requirements were 57,083 GWh (ref). This means that BC Hydro supplied less than 18% of the total energy used in BC and that renewable electricity component represents approximately 17% of our yearly energy needs….Of that over 82% remaining energy about 33% (approx 380 PJ) was supplied via fossil fuels (excluding natural gas); about 26% (approx 300 PJ) was supplied via natural gas; about 20% (approx 225 PJ) was supplied via burning of waste biomass in industrial facilities; and the remaining was supplied via coal and coke (mostly for use in cement plants) (ref).

As described, fossil fuels represent approximately 59% of all the energy used in British Columbia. According to the Globe Foundation Endless Energy Project Report (Globe Foundation)  domestic transportation accounted for 87% of motor gasoline and diesel fuel sales in BC in 2000 (the last year this data was fully compiled). According to the Globe Foundation, in the year 2000 BC had 210,000 light commercial vehicles, 75,000 medium heavy trucks, 10,000 heavy trucks, and 800 ferries and coastal vehicles and virtually every one operated on fossil fuels.

I’m sure someone is going to ask about electric vehicles,well in 2015 plug-in electrical vehicles represented 0.33% of new vehicle sales in Canada. Electrical vehicles represent a rounding error in total cars and personal trucks on the road in B.C. As for hybrid, well they depend on fossil fuels to operate and would stop doing so absent fossil fuels.

As for transport trucks, the ones that carry the containers of foods and other necessities from the farmers, docks and rail yards to the warehouses? At this time Canada has exactly zero electric transport trucks carrying long-haul routes. Admittedly Mercedes Benz is testing a potential electric transport truck but that truck currently has a maximum range of 200 km which means it would just barely be able to go from Vancouver to the valley to pick up a load of food and return to town. As for carrying loads of food over the Rockies? Not a chance. Moreover, that is a single prototype. If you took the current generation of transport trucks of the road entirely, the store shelves would go bare in days.

Having addressed personal vehicles and commercial trucks, how about freight trains? Care to guess the number of electric freight trains that exist in Canada?  I’ll give you a hint, it is a round number that is one less than 1 (ref). So absent fossil fuels there won’t be any trains to transport food or necessities from the dockyards and farms to the rail yards either.

Well we’ve addressed trucks and trains how about electric container ships or electric cargo planes? That is an easy one are there are exactly zero of either operating in this world. There are some suggestions that a new generation of container ships could be designed to operate using  some form of hybrid electrical/sail/biodeisel but that is still on the drawing board and we don’t even have a prototype out there.

Now nothing I have written to this point is very contentious. We all know that every significant means of bulk transportation in the world still relies on fossil fuels and would cease to operate the moment fossil fuels disappeared? So what is so wrong about simply admitting that this is the case? Well to do so would be to admit that we rely on fossil fuels to feed us, clothe us and keep us warm. Instead the activists pretend that we live in a world where we can simply stop using fossil fuels and all will be good. Well the answer to that is: “balderdash” or “poppycock”. In the year 2016 we are utterly and completely dependent on fossil fuels to provide us with the overwhelming majority of the necessities we use every day. Absent those fossil fuels Canadians would starve. That a Huffington Post editor cannot figure this out without verification simply demonstrates how little these gatekeepers understand about everyday energy use.

I have been asked, whether this rejection will mean the end of my blog on the Huffington Post? My answer is: no, you don’t give up on informing people because they are ignorant, you re-double your efforts to inform them. While I enjoy this blog, it has nowhere near the reach of a post on the Huffington Post. So I will continue to write simplified versions of my work for distribution on that system as it is the only access I would otherwise have to that much larger target audience and frankly, that is the audience that most needs to be informed by people like me.

I will leave this post here. I could go on to describe how our electrical and potable water systems also rely on fossil fuels but that would simply be beating a dead horse. Instead I will leave you with the edited version of the post that was rejected. Since I don’t write the headlines/titles of my posts I will simply refer to is as:

The Post that shall not be read 

I have written a lot about fossil fuels and renewable energy. In my posts I have discussed how much  energy we use in B.C. and where that energy comes from . At my blog I have discussed the steps it will take to achieve a fossil fuel-free future and the recognition that this process has to be gradual and will take decades to achieve.

My pragmatic posts have been rebuffed by activists who claim that we are not weaning ourselves off fossil fuels quickly enough. Some claim we should do it immediately. I have explained that doing so is impossible but a lack of energy awareness in that community is not uncommon and energy arguments tend to be ignored.

Now to be clear, I agree that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as we can; but we need to do so in a controlled manner. To explain why, I created a little thought experiment. In this thought experiment we will assume that a mystical power has arrived on Earth and using some unknown technology eliminated all fossil fuels from the planet instantaneously. What would happen? Since I live in Langley, I’m going to consider this from the perspective of an inhabitant of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

On day one without fossil fuels all transportation systems (except Skytrain and a few hundred electric vehicles) would immediately stop. Stores would cease to get new supplies as all supplies are transported from warehouses by transport trucks. No new supplies could get to the warehouses as the railway system depends on diesel; transport planes on aviation fuel; and container ships on bunker fuel or diesel. Soon the folks in the urban areas would be fighting over the remaining scraps in the stores and once those supplies were gone there would be nothing to replace them.

Starvation would not be the biggest concern though as potable water and electrical supplies are dependent on diesel for pumps and the electrical system is maintained by men and women with trucks. We in British Columbia pride ourselves on getting most of our electricity from non-fossil fuel sources but absent those pumps and those trucks within days (perhaps weeks if we didn’t have any storms) our electricity supply would be down as well. With no electricity and no diesel all the pumps would fail and Vancouverites would suddenly discover that living in a rain-forest means nothing if you don’t have access to clean, potable water.

Within a couple weeks, the city-centers would look like a scene from The Walking Dead, with corpses everywhere as the weakest folks lost out in the battles for the gradually diminishing supplies of food and water. Absent the sanitary system, the remaining folk would be fighting dysentery as human waste polluted the limited freshwater supplies. Anyone with the capacity to do so would be moving away from the city-centers as quickly as possible to forage as far as they could roam by foot and on the remaining bikes (the remaining electric vehicles having used their last charge after the electrical system failed).

In the Lower Mainland, the city folk would be streaming out towards the valley where they would discover that virtually everything edible (from plant to animal) had long since been eaten by the 300,000 people who formerly lived in the valley.

Within a few months over 90 per cent of our regional population would have succumbed to the lack of clean water and food leaving a small minority fighting it out over the few remaining crops.

Come winter, absent fossil fuels, the survivors would go back to burning wood for heat and in doing so would add to the ecological devastation wrought by the first wave of city folk cleansing the ecosystem of everything edible.

Certainly, in parts of the developing world, and in portions of the prairies, subsistence-level communities might remain intact but they would be re-building on a planet that had been systematically stripped of everything edible by the 7.4 billion souls who did their best to survive and in doing so wrought an ecological apocalypse.

In television shows like The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse addresses our population density before the billions of hungry humans have had a chance to devastate the planet. In a post-fossil fuel world, those 7.4 billion souls would be fighting tooth and nail for every scrap of food. Whatever small, large or mid-sized animals left behind would take hundreds of years to regenerate their populations. The ecosystem that regenerated would look very different than the ecosystem that existed before humans.

Climate change may represent a real threat to humanity, but absent fossil fuels it is likely that 7 billion or more people would pass away in the first six months in this post-fossil fuel world, as would virtually every edible large/mid-sized animal. That is why as a biologist, a humanist and a pragmatic environmentalist I seek a transition away from fossil fuels that is strong, steady and sustainable.


This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Fossil Fuel Free Future, Pipelines, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to How reliant are we on fossil fuels in British Columbia?

  1. DaveH says:

    “Blogs must be based on facts, using concrete examples, and in this case, it was mostly hypothetical. Unfortunately, we cannot verify the scenario that you have conceived.” I wonder if Huffington Post Canada would also reject an “apocalyptic thought experiment” blog posting which depicted the end of civilization from climate change based entirely on unproven and hypothetical climate models?


    • Oswald Thake says:

      I suspect the answer is pretty obvious, Dave. It’s the Huffington Post fer Chrissake; they could give spinning lessons to spiders!


  2. “about 20% (approx 225 PJ) was supplied via burning of waste biomass in industrial facilities”

    How much CO2 would be prevented if that waste biomass was natural gas …. let alone of it was from Site C or some other new hydro dam(s).


  3. pessling says:

    S.M Stirling has entire Fanrasy Fiction/Science Fiction series that basically follows this premise. In his hydrocarbons don’t magically dissappear, rather electricity no longer works nor does explosive combustion. Which means in essence the same outcome as your thought experiment


  4. Dean L says:

    I’m always a little bewildered when certain people boast loudly that B.C. can do without the jobs the resource industry provides, and that “tourism” is the economic strategy to pursue… they seem oblivious to the fact that a 6″ pipe full of jet fuel running to Sea Island operated by Kinder Morgan, is the primary thing energizing the tourism industry.

    Thanks for trying to educate the masses, as you point out, they take a lot for granted.


  5. Ilk says:

    Hypothetical? Well, there is one thing, that the energy supply stops suddenly. That wasn’t really the point, and it doesn’t really matter, but there are plenty of more likely scenarios where the energy supply drops off, like we run out of it eventually for example, or the anti-oil, anti-gas, anti-coal, anti-nuclear, etc people win and we are gradually cut off.

    Does anyone remember the OPEC crisis? The one which was going to change everything about how we lived. How did that non–hypothetical experiment work out?

    Expecting an all wind and solar solution to work is a “let them eat cake” idea.


  6. Pingback: A challenge to the climate activists, Leapers and anti-pipeline activists | A Chemist in Langley

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