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Energy crisis ahead

Whether or not Iraq was invaded for oil — it surely wasn't for dates or even democracy — the mess America has made of the occupation has sent oil corporations rushing off to Libya.

Just as Saddam Hussein was the darling of Washington before being deemed a demon, Moammar Gadhafi, yesterday's bette noir, is today's hero.

American businessmen, mostly from George W. Bush's native Texas, are in Tripoli eyeing oil concessions. Halliburton, the company Dick Cheney worked for, is there. So is Petro-Canada.

This black gold rush, however, does not represent a new hope so much as another desperate bid to stave off the coming crisis in renewable resources.

The crisis is coming sooner than predicted by the experts quoted in a four-part series in the Star this past week. It's coming this decade, according to a contrarian who has been prescient on the subject.

We know oil prices are at a record high. Production has peaked. No major new fields are being discovered. We are running out of oil, except in the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Natural gas has doubled in price in a year. A regional commodity that became continental will soon be traded worldwide, like oil: bought on one continent and sold in another, given the needs of North America.

That means huge Liquefied Natural Gas tankers. And LNG ports and depots. About 10 each on the East Coast, the West Coast and the Gulf Coast.

"LNG tankers and re-gassification terminals are the worst thing imaginable, from a security aspect," says Ed Schreyer. "One bullet by a terrorist, and you'd have a catastrophe."

The former governor-general has had a lifelong interest in energy policy. When he was premier of Manitoba (1969-77), his wife Lily used to say that his bedtime reading consisted of Manitoba Hydro tomes.

Schreyer kept informed while at Rideau Hall (1979-84) and in the next four years as high commissioner to Australia. He has since been teaching the subject at Canadian and German universities, being fluent in German.

Recently, he was at Queen's University in Belfast, delivering the Eaton Lecture, named after Timothy, who came to Canada from a village near that campus.

In his Belfast address, and in two phone conversations from his native Winnipeg, Schreyer warned of a "disaster of truly epic proportions."

He is no prophet of doom. But he sees clear dangers.

We are entering the end of the 100-year era of oil, he says.

"We are 10 minutes to midnight," notwithstanding "the `horn of plenty' school of unbounded optimists" or those pinning their hopes on new techniques of extraction. "Capital put into an old and exhausted field is like buying the Brooklyn Bridge."

Oil will still be around for another 50 years, he says. But "almost anytime soon, perhaps in this decade ... supply and demand will be out of balance and so will price — and so will almost everything else that makes for a stable society and civilization."

The coming "chaos and misery" would grind transportation to a halt, of course, but also industry and agriculture.

Food production is so dependent on oil — for mechanization, fertilization, herbicides, pesticides, feedlots, poultry and hog factories — that high prices and sporadic supply would have "the makings of a breakdown in the chain of food supply."

Natural gas won't rescue us.

Its overuse has led to depletion. So much so that the post-Sept. 11 assumption made by George W. Bush and Jean Chrétien, that Canada would be a backup source of gas for America, has proven to be an illusion.

Tellingly, the Bush administration has not complained, as it has a right to do under the North American Free Trade Agreement. It realizes, says Schreyer, that "the Canadian tar sands are strategically more important to its future needs than gas."

But the tar sands themselves are problematic. They need massive amounts of natural gas both to produce and to process.

Yet Canadians remain "blissfully ignorant" of all this, as also of the environmental degradation we are causing.

Paul Martin has already conceded that "we have no plan" that would enable us to implement the Kyoto protocol despite signing it.

"There's no let-up in fossil dependency, nor supply, nor CO2 escalation," says Schreyer.

"This is courting disaster — a form of irrational behaviour or collective madness."

He also bemoans the "infighting and complete lack of goodwill and co-operation" among environmentalists and proponents of solar, hydro, wind and other forms of energy.

"Many disparage and poor-mouth all renewable energy sources other than their own preference. Every duck praises its own slough. It's often a weird scenario, as though players of the same team and uniform prefer to attack each other instead of their opponents."

While environmentalists have done great service, Schreyer says, some have been "simplistic, aggressive and irrational" in holding back hydro or nuclear energy.

Meanwhile, Ontario Hydro's flirtation with deregulation has been disastrous: "The once impressive flagship of Canadian utilities in now half way up some ill-defined hill and stalled out."

What should be done, beyond ringing alarm bells?

Develop more hydraulic energy, a third more than the current total — especially in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.

Have a "sober and rational debate" on nuclear energy, and develop more of it.

Get serious about solar and wind, the latter along coastlines, mountain passes and the plains.

Build a national electricity grid. It would "cost a hell of a lot less than another gas pipeline."

Promote electric and hybrid-electric cars, for which the technology is already here.

For three years, Schreyer has been using cars powered by battery and gasoline. The engine shuts off when the car stops. You get going by pushing the electric pedal. As you gain speed, the gasoline engine takes over.

Toyota and Honda have led the way with these cars.

Yet in North America, the buzz has been over hydrogen and the fuel cell, neither of which makes much sense to Schreyer.

There are only two ways to get hydrogen: splitting the water molecule through electrolysis (expensive) or stripping it away from natural gas ("What for? Natural gas does virtually the same thing as hydrogen.")

As for the fuel cell, "that's at least 20 years away."

Perhaps that's the key, Schreyer says. It lulls us into postponing the long process of ending our dependence on oil and gas.

Why have politicians and policy makers been complicit?

The Bush-Cheney connection to big oil and gas is self-explanatory. As for Chrétien — he was big on the fuel cell — and others, Schreyer thinks they have been misled and "have not taken the time to inform themselves."

His hope is that "political leadership would, in due course, run from behind to catch up with public opinion."

hsiddiq(at)thestar.ca

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