Our Transportation Future

Nova Scotia's transportation system relies on a steady supply of cheap, imported oil. Events, such as strikes in Venezuela or the potential for conflict in Iraq, can cause the price of oil to rise. In the short term, an increase in the price of oil rapidly influences the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel for personal transportation. In the longer term, goods, such as fruits and vegetables, also become more expensive because of higher transportation costs.

If Nova Scotians are to be protected from some of the effects of rising oil prices, alternatives to oil must be found. Many potential fuels exist; for example, electricity can be used to power vehicles, while hydrogen has been demonstrated in vehicles using fuel cells. However, both electricity and hydrogen have two shortcomings. First, neither can be used directly in the existing vehicular fleet without making changes to the fleet or to the distribution system. Second, it will be necessary to find cheap, reliable, and clean sources of electricity and hydrogen before they can be adopted for widespread use.

Biofuels; that is, transportation fuels that are obtained from wood-waste, purpose-grown sugar and oil crops, and other sources (including municipal 'green' waste), already exist and have been demonstrated in many countries around the world. There are a number of biofuels; the two best known are bioethanol (sometimes simply referred to as ethanol) and biodiesel. The principal advantage that biofuels exhibit over electricity and hydrogen is that they can be used in the existing transportation system without making changes to the fleet. (Interestingly, Henry Ford expected his Model T to run on ethanol from renewable sources, while Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, anticipated that his engine would run on vegetable oils.)

Bioethanol can be obtained from the fermentation of sugar; in Brazil, it is made from sugar cane, while in the United States, ethanol is made from corn. There are a variety of ethanol-gasoline mixtures: E10 (10 percent ethanol, also known as gasohol), which can be used directly in internal combustion engines; and E85 and E100 (85 and 100 percent ethanol), which require engine modification.

Biodiesel can be made from vegetable oils such as canola, soybean, as well as from waste cooking oils. A number of demonstration projects have seen biodiesel vehicles driven across North America, refueling at fast-food restaurants! As with bioethanol, there are a variety of biodiesel-diesel mixtures: B10 (10% biodiesel) through B100 (100% biodiesel). All diesel engines can run on B10, while most modern diesel engines can run on B100; the federal government is sponsoring a fleet of 155 transit buses to run on biodiesel in Montreal.

Since biofuels are made from renewable sources, they are considered carbon dioxide neutral, unlike existing refined petroleum products that increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels are also cleaner burning, producing less harmful byproducts in the environment.

Another advantage of incorporating biofuels into the energy supply for transportation is that it helps beleaguered farming communities since farmers can earn money by 'growing energy'. Saskatchewan and Manitoba have already recognized the importance of biofuels and have recently enacted legislation to encourage the development of an ethanol industry. Ontario has taken a slightly different approach and has eliminated the provincial fuel tax on biodiesel. In all cases, these actions help the farming communities.

So what do biofuels have to do with Nova Scotia?

At present, not much. Despite the fact that biofuels have been widely used for decades, the Nova Scotia government seems blissfully unaware of them. The provincial energy strategy, "Seizing the Opportunity", makes no mention of biofuels, bioethanol, or biodiesel. Ethanol is mentioned in the section on transportation as a "new, low-emission fuel". The possibility of a biofuels industry in the province is not discussed.

Given the Nova Scotia government's ignorance of biofuels, it should not be surprising that Nova Scotia has no legislation in place to require service stations to sell bioethanol or biodiesel. Nor is there legislation in place to encourage the development of a local biofuels industry.

Nova Scotia must begin the process of weaning itself off its unsustainable reliance on cheap oil by creating a provincial energy policy that makes biofuels available to all users of the transportation system. The benefits of such a policy will extend far beyond protecting Nova Scotia from the known insecurities associated with oil. It will also help the province take the first steps in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, improve local air quality, and help our agricultural community.

Published: Sunday Herald. January 2003

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Depleted Uranium

While poking fun at the 'radical lefties' who are questioning the rationale of putting thousands of Iraqi lives at risk simply to topple the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, James Lileks dismisses the effects of depleted uranium (DU) shells and their possible effects on Iraqi children. According to Mr. Lileks, "the shells were fired on the battlefields of Kuwait" and "depleted uranium is as radioactive as a tree stump" (7 February 2003).

In the first Gulf War, an estimated 340 tonnes of DU weapons were fired by the United States and its allies. According to a report issued by the Royal Society in 2002, almost 80% of all DU weapons - around 250 tonnes in the Gulf War region alone - are thought to remain buried in soil. The report suggests that children playing at the sites could be at particular risk.

According to the head of the British Medical Research Council's radiation and genome stability unit, failure to find traces of uranium from exploded DU weapons in urine does not mean DU is safe. If small particles of uranium oxides from these weapons are inhaled, they can be scavenged by white blood cells and deposited in tracheobronchial lymph nodes. The particles are highly insoluble and still emit intense localized alpha and beta radiation. If the radiation damages blood stem cells, it can result in leukemia.

Funnily enough, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, home of the world's first atomic bomb and nuclear weapons tests throughout the 1940s and 1950s, workers have been ordered to stop cutting trees in some areas around the laboratories. It seems that the trees might pose a radioactive hazard.

Published: Chronicle-Herald. February 2003

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The Offshore and Deep Panuke

For the past several years, Nova Scotians have been subject to a seemingly endless string of good news stories about offshore natural gas. Premier Hamm has touted Nova Scotia as a "world-class player in the energy industry", Halifax as "North America's newest energy capital", and that offshore energy will "help us build a strong, diversified economy". Last November, a report commissioned by the provincial government showed that over $5 billion was spent on offshore exploration between 1990 and 2000.

The not-so-good stories, such as the findings by academics at Memorial University that Nova Scotia's offshore natural gas appears to exist in small, potentially uneconomic pockets, are downplayed or dismissed by the provincial government. One such story that will not be easily dismissed is EnCana's recent announcement that it will delay the Deep Panuke project for a year.

While no one can dispute that there is natural gas 'out there' -- both Sable and Deep Panuke have proven that -- one must question whether the size of the reserves can justify the provincial government's unbridled enthusiasm.

The size of the proven reserves (that is, reserves currently being exploited) appears to depend upon whom is doing the measuring. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, in 2001, the proven reserves contained 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (down from an estimated 2.5 trillion cubic feet in 1999). Not surprisingly, various provincial energy strategy documents are considerably more optimistic and put the proven reserves at 6.3 trillion cubic feet -- about eight percent of Canada's established marketable natural gas.

As well as proven reserves, there are also potential reserves (areas where the geology suggests natural gas may exist). Potential reserves are best-guess projections, with some being more optimistic than others; for example, several exploration companies estimate Nova Scotia's total potential reserves to be 20 trillion cubic feet. At the other extreme, various investment analysts (as opposed to petroleum geologists) project potential reserves of anywhere from 40 to 50 trillion cubic feet. Even the most optimistic prediction of 50 trillion cubic feet of offshore natural gas is still only eight percent of Canada's ultimate potential resource of 593 trillion cubic feet.

When compared with other offshore natural gas players such as Norway, Nova Scotia appears very small. The energy strategy document includes a table listing some of Norway's offshore energy developments. The Frigg field, discovered in 1971, had 6.6 trillion cubic feet of reserves -- more than Nova Scotia's (optimistic) proven reserves. The Troll field, discovered in 1979, with 46 trillion cubic feet of proven reserves, is almost as large as the most optimistic of Nova Scotia's potential reserves.

Another way of looking at the size of Nova Scotia's potential reserves is to compare them with the demands of the principal customer of the natural gas, the United States. In 2001, total U.S. natural gas consumption was over 22 trillion cubic feet, meaning that Nova Scotia's potential reserves would have come close to supplying U.S. natural gas demand for about a year. By 2020, the U.S. is projected to consume over 36 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year, or about six months of Nova Scotia's potential gas reserves.

A natural gas field can also be discussed in terms of its reserve-to-production (or R/P) ratio. The R/P ratio divides the known reserves by the production, giving an estimate of the length of time the reserves would last if production were to continue at that level. For example, the energy strategy document states that Norway has 123 trillion cubic feet of natural gas with a daily production of 3.8 billion cubic feet, giving a R/P ratio of about 88 years. In Nova Scotia's case, with proven reserves between 2.2 and the optimistic 6.3 trillion cubic feet and a daily production rate of half-a-billion cubic feet, the R/P ratio is between 12 and 34 years.

Proponents of the offshore will try to put a positive spin on EnCana's one-year delay of Deep Panuke, claiming that this is only a temporary setback. Some may even call for the provincial government to subsidize the project or reduce the province's already generous royalty scheme. Expect calls for other offshore areas to be opened for exploration; the provincial energy strategy lists a number of potential sites, including George's Bank.

For most Nova Scotians, the promise of offshore riches continues to be an illusion. The grand vision of Sempra making natural gas available to the majority of the province has been replaced with a watered-down scheme that will see limited penetration into the residential market. Rather than subsidizing the extraction of natural gas or putting valuable fishing grounds at risk, the province should take a longer-term view. If companies can't access the natural gas using today's technology at today's prices, we can always wait a few years for improvements in the exploration and extraction technologies.

Nova Scotia's natural gas has been there for millions of years -- it doesn't have to be extracted before the next provincial election.

Published: Chronicle-Herald. March 2003

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Response to Glen Gill of Innovative Energy Consulting Limited

Glen Gill of Innovative Energy Consulting Limited is quite right, it is the duty of university staff "to better educate the people so that informed decisions can be made regarding the development of the people's resources" (letter, 31 March). Let's start with Mr. Gill's claim that "it is merely propaganda that the world is running out of or has very limited natural gas resources."

First, the world has a finite supply of natural gas. Whether natural gas is a fossil fuel or whether it was formed during the creation of the earth, the fact remains, each time one cubic foot of natural gas is consumed means that there is one cubic foot less of natural gas.

Second, although the world has vast supplies of natural gas, much of it is neither technologically nor economically accessible. The United States is a good example of the evolution of natural gas supply due to increased consumption. Prior to the mid-1950s, the United States was a net exporter of natural gas. By 2001, over 16 percent of the natural gas consumed in the United States was imported (mostly from Canada, although a small percentage was shipped in liquefied form from countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, Algeria, Nigeria, and Australia).

Published: Chronicle-Herald. April 2003

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NSPower's Green Power Programme 'Fundraising' Scheme

Many readers will have been mislead by the article on Nova Scotia Power's Green Power programme which stated that NSPI will raise $1.5 million this year from the sale of electricity from its two wind turbines (NSP fundraising scheme panned, 28 June).

The two turbines in question have a combined rating of 1.25 MW and should generate about 3.7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. With a premium of 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, NSPI can be expected to make an additional $150,000 per year from its Green Power sales (not $1.5 million). This was clearly stated in NSPI's Green Power Rider, submitted to the UARB in December 2001.

Having said this, there are at least two reasons why NSPI has no justification to charge a premium for the electricity generated from these turbines:

One of arguments NSPI makes for purchasing Green Power is that it will reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 3,200 tonnes annually. What they don't say is that in 2001, NSPI's emissions were almost 10 million tonnes.

Published: Chronicle-Herald. 5 July 2003

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Response to "Energy not the hot-button election issue it use to be"

In his review of the three major provincial parties' platforms, Roger Taylor appears content with the fact that none of the parties considers energy to be "a key issue in the provincial election" ("Energy not the hot-button election issue it used to be", 19 July). Mr. Taylor's unconcern is ill founded: instability in many oil producing regions, declining conventional sources of oil, and Nova Scotia's ageing population, means that energy is and will continue to be an important issue for all Nova Scotians. That the policies of all three parties fail to adequately address the issue reflects the limited vision of politicians who continue to equate "energy" with "offshore natural gas".

Energy is more than the export of our limited supply of natural gas to New Brunswick and New England: energy dictates how we move, how we heat ourselves, and whether we can meet our international obligations.

Cheap oil is central to our present modes of transportation. Despite its rising cost, the parties continue to focus on new road development and lowering automobile insurance, ignoring such alternatives as public transportation.

Wintertime in Nova Scotia demands home heating regardless of fuel prices. Rather than proposing policies that encourage Nova Scotians to reduce their dependence on oil; for example, by upgrading furnaces, adding insulation to homes, and building new homes (or retrofitting existing ones) to maximize solar gain, Nova Scotia's politicians promise to maintain the status quo with various proposals to keep fuel costs down.

Canada's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol will require Nova Scotia to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Despite the challenge to all Nova Scotians that meeting our Kyoto commitments will mean, no party has offered an adequate solution to the problem.

Published: Chronicle-Herald. 22 July 2003

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