Fossilised myths: new thinking on 'dirty' coal and dwindling oil
A new book claims that there is enough oil, coal and gas to last the earth at least 500 years - and it doesn't have to be polluting.
By Juliette Jowit and Felix Lowe
As Finland embraces a nuclear future another unlikely conversion has taken place in the energy business - Mark Jaccard likes coal.
For decades Jaccard was a leading expert in sustainable energy, darling of the environmental movement and bane of Big Oil.
But now he proclaims that the world can continue to rely on fossil fuels. And his reasoning, while consistent with his beliefs, comes as a huge surprise. The professor says he has not stopped caring about the environment; it's just that he now believes fossil fuels offer the most sustainable future for the planet.
Visiting London from Canada to promote his new book, Jaccard explains that after 20 years in the field, he decided to start again, con- sidering all the evidence about the most sustainable way of powering a growing and consumerist world.
'The more I explored it, the more I got caught up on two big myths: one is that we're running out of oil; number two is that fossil fuels are dirty,' he says. 'I believed that for 20 years.'
No longer. Jaccard's book, Sustainable Fossil Fuels, argues that coal, oil and gas are plentiful, and do not need to be polluting. It's not that Jaccard prefers fossil fuels per se; but he believes accepting and cleaning up oil, gas and coal power is a better way than trying, and failing, to quickly shift the energy-hungry world to still-doubtful and expensive renewable technologies such as wind, tidal, solar or nuclear power.
'If your goal is a clean energy system that endures, it's really hard to argue that you should stop using fossil fuels right away,' he says.
The first 'myth' Jaccard claims to puncture is that fossil fuels are running out. Most quoted information relates to easily extracted 'conventional' oil, gas and coal. Adding more controversial figures (though from the respectable UN and World Energy Council) for 'unconventional' supplies, that have traditionally been too difficult and/or expensive to use, Jaccard favours the view that there are enough hydrocarbons for humans to use for up to 2,000 years - or, more importantly, at least 500.
This is not science fiction, insists Jaccard; improving technology is putting more fossil fuel supplies within our grasp, and long-term higher oil prices will make it financially viable to extract even more. Already, he says, oil is being extracted from once prohibitively expensive oil-drenched sands in Western Canada (a million barrels a day now, rising to an estimated 4 million barrels a day by 2025), and from tar-like heavy oil in Venezuela.
'I'm actually very suspicious of science fiction,' he said. 'People say "are you a technological optimist, fantasist?". I say: "I'm not: here's where you can get my numbers, and here's where operations are going on now".'
The claim that there are plenty of fossil fuels is not new: Britain's Peter Odell, professor emeritus at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, and professor Morris Adelman of Massachu- setts Institute of Technology have argued this for decades. They inspired some of the book, acknowledged Jaccard, who is based at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
But burning oil, gas and coal causes some of the worst environmental pollution: principally carbon dioxide, the gas most blamed for climate change, and sulphur. Jaccard's alternative is that instead of oil, gas or gasified coal being burnt, it could be mixed with steam to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen, itself a clean fuel, can be used to generate electricity; the carbon dioxide can be captured in one place and stored underground in vast areas of rock from which fossil fuels have been extracted.
Again, this energy production technology is in use, albeit more modestly, to make fertilisers from natural gas, and in South Africa to make petrol from coal (a legacy of oil sanctions against the old Apartheid regime). Carbon dioxide and other noxious by-products are also already being stored: in Canada gas producers bury CO2 and sulphur, and the UK is sponsoring similar developments in China. BP is leading a pilot project to make electricity from oil and bury the CO2 under the North Sea.
Recently, too, the government's energy policy review emphasised that burying carbon dioxide (sequestration) was back on the agenda - a policy the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution suggested in 2000 could replace the more controversial rebuilding of Britain's ageing nuclear plants.
There are some risks, acknowledges Jaccard, but he believes they are manageable. Tree planting could absorb any carbon dioxide leaks, and carbon dioxide 'burps', which have killed people living near volcanoes in Cameroon and Indonesia, were exceptional, he says, adding that the risk of seismic shifts caused by carbon dioxide storage appear to be very low. 'I've been trying to find geologists who say there's a huge risk here and I can't find them.'
Based on the existing technology, Jaccard estimates the costs of producing power this way would be 25-50 per cent higher than current energy costs. If he's right, energy costs would rise from 6 per cent to 'about 8 per cent' of the average household budget in industrialised economies; or by 1 per cent above inflation over the next 25-50 years.
These technological challenges and costs pale beside the difficulties of replacing fossil fuels with other 'green' energy sources in the short to medium term, argues Jaccard. Energy efficiency leads to greater consumption without much higher prices; a new nuclear power plant would have to open every few days to replace the world's fossil fuel use in a century; and the problems of renewable low-density, hard-to-store, distant renewable energy sources will take a lot of time and money to overcome on the scale needed, he said. 'Over a century, renewables can definitely gain ground on clean fossil fuels, but it will take a long time.'
Jaccard is vulnerable to the accusation that neither unconventional fossil fuel supplies, nor carbon capture and storage, are original ideas. He could also be said to be too optimistic about converting the world's energy system to a technology that has not been proved at anything like the scale needed, and that some claim uses considerable energy itself to compress and pump the carbon.
Ironically, the most poignant concern comes from Jaccard himself. 'Clean and low-cost energy would free people to live and travel where they want, and consume as much as they want, which could intensify the pressure on valued ecosystems and the depletion of other non-renewable resources,' he writes. 'A sustainable fossil fuel future does not guarantee a sustainable human presence on this shrinking planet.'