Policymakers will ban fossil fuels at our peril
According to reports, the Quebec government may ban all oil and natural gas development in the province. Meanwhile, the Trudeau government has been busy promoting what it calls a “Just Transition” future where fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and natural gas are deemed fundamentally incompatible with sustainable development. The future, we are told, lies in the development of wind and solar power, and biomass fuels such as corn-based ethanol and wood pellets.
Some commentators have pushed back against these policies, arguing that mandating an energy transition based on subsidized, non-scalable, unreliable and costly sources that have low energy yield (per unit volume) will produce rolling blackouts, energy poverty, higher food prices and environmental degradation.
Perhaps we can learn from history. It’s true, the world has seen significant energy transitions in the past, but under one key condition—that new forms of energy deliver widespread benefits compared to previous ones. This is what happened when coal, petroleum and natural gas displaced wind and biomass (trees, for example) power more than a century ago.
Crucially, coal made great quantities of energy available from smaller volumes than biomass (while alleviating crippling fuelwood and charcoal shortages). As economist William Stanley Jevons observed in 1865, “forests of an extent two and a half times exceeding the whole area of the United Kingdom would be required to furnish even a theoretical equivalent to [the country’s] annual coal produce.” Coal solved this problem while sparing the landscape.
Coal also had a number of advantages over water power before the advent of the now much-maligned hydroelectric dams. In 1838, economist Francis Wayland observed that water power, while often capable of “exerting great mechanical force” and often being “cheap [and] tolerably constant” could only be used in “situations where it has been created by nature.” Unfortunately, these locations were often “at a considerable distance from the seaports whence the manufacturer derives his supplies” and exports the products, thus often adding significant transportation costs to the price of manufactured goods. And of course, water could not always “be commanded in sufficient quantity” as many rivers and streams suffered from droughts, floods and freezing.
Windmills, which were used in the 19th century to power mills and pump water out of mines, suffered from similar problems. Jevons thus observed that while some windmills were “powerful machines,” their intermittency meant that “in a long tract of calm weather the mines were drowned, and all the workmen thrown idle.” Thus, while the wind was free, the real costs of “these machines were very great.” Moreover, windmills only proved somewhat useful in “open and elevated situations” and “no possible concentration of windmills” could “supply the force required in large factories or iron works.”
For these practical reasons, seemingly costlier coal-powered steam engines won the day. Steam power, Wayland remarked, could be used “to create any required degree of mechanical force.” It was “perfectly under human control” and could “be created in any place where fuel can be obtained.” It could also “be used at will, either as a stationary or a locomotive power” and could “be made to act with perfect regularity.”
In later years, refined petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel, kerosene and bunker fuel proved a superior alternative to coal in the transportation sector while natural gas proved preferable in electricity production and home heating. These substitutions occurred without government subsidies (now common for solar and wind power generation) because they delivered several technical and economic advantages. For instance, refined petroleum products have a higher energy density than coal and subsequently helped give much greater range to ships and railroads and displaced electric cars and trucks. Both petroleum products and natural gas burnt more cleanly and were easier to get out of the ground. They were also easier to handle, transport and store in a wide variety of applications.
Coal burning was never perfect, but with its judicious use, Jevons noted “almost any feat is possible or easy.” Giving up on its power and versatility would have thrown humanity “back in the laborious poverty of earlier times.” The same can be said for petroleum and natural gas. Ignoring the lessons of history will not make these realities go away.