Entries in oil and gas (2)


A Renewable Energy World is not Fantasy

Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail recently wrote that people who think renewable energy can replace fossil fuels are living in a fantasy world.                                                                                                 


Having spent the last twenty plus years in the renewable energy 'space' my husband and I couldn't resist correcting this claim so we each tried to set the record straight. I placed his response after mine.

No one who understands our fundamental dependence on fossil fuels expects solar, wind or biomass to replace oil and gas in the next few years. I agree with Ms. Wente,  we must not indulge in magical thinking. However, in the real world the transition to clean renewable fuels is already happening.

I suppose there were folks watching the Wright Brothers floundering with their new invention, tsk, tsking and eye rolling and disparaging their efforts. Did airplanes replace cars? Yet, look at how significant a role they play in society today.  We face a daunting challenge maintaining our standard of living and paying the real costs of our fossil fuel addiction.

We now have an entire planet of people who witness and desire a certain quality of life. We have, via technology, trade, and transit routes created expectations that this quality of life is achievable for all. There is no way to provide for that scenario by following the same formula we did in the West for a hundred years. That is a dangerous fantasy.  We used the initially cheap and abundant supply of energy dense oil and gas to power unprecendented economic growth. That party is over and Ms. Wente would serve her readers well by acknowledging this and not dismissing the very technologies that will be used alongside the remaining very expensive (and not just in dollars) oil and gas left to power our lives.

Let’s be clear about our present situation:

The price of oil and gas will continue to rise and cause havoc to our economy because:

An increasing share of one’s income is going to transportation. The price of using modern technology (fracking, deepwater and arctic drilling) to go to the ends of the earth, literally, to produce the last “available” oil and gas resources is very high. (filled up your tank lately?) As companies and communities are forced to deal with the expense of cleaning up the messes they create, the price will go up even further. Renting a drilling platform for deep-sea production cost at least a million dollars a day and that is only one part of the supply chain. My own three twenty something children have little desire to spend their meagre earnings participating in this situation and use public transportation as their main source of getting around. At the moment, we are a family of five adults sharing one Prius. So yes, we still rely on fossil fuels but this scenario is a far cry from the driveways dominated by 2, 3 or even 4 cars per household, and that was a blue collar one, that I grew up with.

An increasing share of one’s income will be required to buy food since modern agricultural practice is wholly dependent on ever more expensive fossil fuels. We, in the West will manage those extra costs but for most of the world it is the difference between having one meal a day or two or three. It can be argued that the “Arab Spring” and unrest in other developing nations is directly related to the sudden rise in the cost of basic food-stuffs which is directly related to the cost of fuel. 

Oil production margins are tight. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room between world daily production and world daily consumption of oil. This is great for corporate share prices which rise at the least indication of “trouble” anywhere in the world where oil is produced or shipped but it leaves consumers and businesses in a budget nightmare.

There was plenty of oil and gas supply when only a small percentage of the world’s population had access and need for it and it was basically spurting out of the ground. Now, every economy in the world has come to rely on fossil fuels. Just when supplies are tight and very expensive we have far more people consuming the product. Even the recent drop in consumption in NA and Europe (due mainly to new fuel standards and the financial meltdown) does not compensate for the growing appetite for fossil fuels in China, India and other developing economies.            

The world is increasingly dependent on electricity to power everything. Many devices and appliances, so integral to modern economies do not require massive amounts of base load supply.  The oft-cited boogieman – intermittent supply - of renewable energy sources like wind and solar are actually perfect for dealing with this. Manufacturers of appliances are finally creating products that can be synched with electricity supply versus being “on” all the time. Solar is the perfect peak electricity supply as air conditioners are used most on hot, sunny days. We’re not there yet, but given the same respect that lead to new ways to reach formerly unreachable oil and gas, the clean tech industry will be able to meet much of our electricity needs. Is it not wise to free up remaining oil supplies for food production, health care pharmaceuticals etc. and let people transport themselves around using electric vehicles?

Driving a few blocks here and there to pick up milk, or go to the mall, exhibits a sorry lack of either knowledge or respect for the energy dilemma we are in. We will transition to a much reduced fossil fuel dependent world, the question is what does that look like and how can we manage to do this is the most peaceful and fair manner? People who believe that all is BAU in terms of energy are the ones living in a fantasy. Putting forward a balanced perspective on the possibilities and promise of renewable technologies is what is required to create a future livable world. It will take great doses of knuckle whitening determination and having one’s (possibly wet) feet firmly planted in the real world; many of us are already using our time, talent and money doing this.  Eventually everyone else will too, because while facts can be dismissed, ignored and denied, reality happens!

Cathy MacLellan

And now a word or two from my husband who has dedicated the last 25 years of his life dealing with the technological challenges associated with solar energy.

In the real world….. Solar generation was the number one new generation capacity installed in Europe in 2011 where it was greater than new wind and natural gas combined. In 2012, 60% of all net new generation of Europe’s new 29GW of capacity was from solar based generation. Europe added almost all of Ontario’s current generating capacity in one year and most of it was solar!

In the real world….. in Germany, they have reached 22GW of electricity production from solar generation, which can power one third of the country during a weekday and half on the weekend.

In the real world….. Solar electricity installed is one-third the cost today compared to 2006. It is now cost effective in many regions with little or no government incentives. It would be completely cost effective if governments worldwide, according to the International Monetary Fund, eliminated the $1.9 trillion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear industry.  The International Energy Agency estimates that all renewable energy has a subsidy of $88 billion per year.

With the advent of the different variations of the electric car, plug-in hybrids, smart grids, centralized and distributed storage, the world is in the middle of a fundamental transition in our energy based economy. It started about 20 years ago and it will take about another twenty years to complete. This transition is happening much faster than even most solar experts had predicted let alone what the average person understood.

Welcome to the real world of the 21st century where energy will be distributed, clean, cheap and ubiquitous compared to the last century where energy was centralized, limited, dirty and not addressing issues related to the environment, people’s health, security, and price.



Ian MacLellan

President and CEO

Ubiquity Solar Inc.






Hydraulic Fracturing - Squeezing oil and gas from rocks

One of the great things about living in a University town is the continuing education opportunities that exist on campuses. Last night I attended a lecture by hydro-geologist Maurice Dusseault. It was meant for geology professionals (which I am not) and the general public (which I am albeit with a science degree).

The topic, so newsworthy today, was hydraulic fracturing. The professor was, thankfully, an animated type full of enthusiasm for his profession and the topic.

Initially, he was so passionate about the wonderful world of fracking and the tremendous resource that this process produces, I worried that I was in for a long night of preaching by a fully funded mouthpiece for the oil and gas industry.  What happened to a balanced academic approach?  Who knows, maybe all geologists share in this ‘wow, look at the energy bounty of the earth, let’s go get it!’ mentality.

As he proceeded to show chart after chart, graphs and lovely diagrams of the entire fracking process and the incredible resource of which North America is richly blessed, I had this unsettling impression that here was a man for whom the extraction of resources is akin to breathing. You don’t really think about it, you just do it.   There was absolutely no way that he could ever come to the conclusion that maybe we should leave this stuff in the little cracks in the shale rock. From his point of view, no problem should delay or defer the immediate utilization of this resource. Maybe the problem with the adoption of solar and wind energy is that it is too easy, especially compared to the Herculean efforts required to get that oil and gas out of those shale rocks. And obviously, there isn't enough possible problems with solar and wind, like leaks, contamination, and access, both above and kilometres below the ground to merit any attention, but I digress.

Fortunately, as the lecture proceeded he did present data and information that laid out both the challenges and the benefits of fracking.  

Here’s what I learned about hydraulic fracturing:

1. According to this expert, the shale oil and gas resource in North America, given our advanced extraction technology (and we are truly ahead of the curve on that) is massive, simply massive. During the Q & A I asked about reports that indicate a very quick (within 2 years) and steep decline in shale oil and gas production his figures didn’t seem to take into account. He cheerfully agreed that those reports are probably right and then said; “Well you have to understand, we don’t have years and years of data yet, we are only really going after this resource now.” Huh?

2. While extolling the advances in drilling technology, decreased water use, and better industry regulated practices (IRPs) he stated confidently that “more benign chemicals are used” and then added quickly and quietly that yes, this does add costs and the chemicals still are “not too pleasant.”

3. I found it very interesting that he repeatedly put up a slide and mocked fracking protesters whose signs apparently indicated a high level of ignorance about what was truly problematic with the process. While the media and protesters often focus on the possibility of contamination with ground water, Professor Dusseault made it clear that this was not a major problem.

The two main problems with hydraulic fracturing are the risk of intersecting with offset wells, and the need for better well design and abandonment methods to reduce gas seepage. He stated that there are “not thousands, but tens of thousands of wells that are leaking today.” Somehow I doubt that protestors given these facts would think: “Oh, really? I guess we should stop resisting this, no probs. then.”

One slide listed the following real problems with deep hydrological fracturing:

  • Pathways
  • Facilities leakage
  • Transportation Accidents    Large trucks carrying wastes need to be driven cautiously. The industry does not have a “jerk filter” and has learned that the best way to ensure proper driving of these trucks is to do so in convoy style, forcing all to drive slowly together. It reminded me of the need to have all the kids in preschool hold onto the rope for safe travel from the preschool to the park.
  • Storage facility accidents
  • Surface storage pits leaking
  • Surface casing too high
  • Drilling issues – CH4 seepage behind casings, not sealing wells properly
  • Lack of science, lack of data

Later, he admitted that the entire oil and gas industry has been forced to improve and do better because of the need for social consent. I would argue that the need for social consent was a direct result of people taking to the streets, even if they have some of their facts wrong, there still were problems that garnered an industry response. Given the list of real problems, why be so dismissive of protesters?

4. Gas is replacing coal to produce electricity. This is a good thing. I would have liked him to add that natural gas is also a finite fossil fuel that must help us transition to a truly sustainable energy generation model.

5. He put up a map of Canada that showed the longest pipeline in this country. The Trans Canada Pipeline (TCPL) carries natural gas from BC across 5 provinces to Quebec. He believes this will be converted to an oil pipeline and Ontario will soon be purchasing natural gas from US instead of BC.  BC has lots of natural gas and is building terminals to transport it to Asian markets. This might be one of the main reasons BC has no interest in helping Alberta carry their crude to the coast.

6. Risk = Probability X Consequences

7. The professor concluded with the following:

Energy and Environment are often:




Although I learned a great deal from his hour-long lecture, and agree with the above sentiments, I’m not sure he cleared up the dilemma that is hydraulic fracturing.