Silver-bullet go-green solutions do more harm than good

CALGARY, ALBERTA - People looking to solve personal problems often accept superficially analyzed "silver-bullet" solutions. Public-sector policy makers are also vulnerable to this phenomenon. A classic example is the search for "green alternatives" to hydrocarbon energy.

It's been 15 years since Ballard Power listed on the TSX. Ballard's vision of hydrogen-fuelled cars, powered by fuel cells emitting nothing but water, was enthusiastically embraced by policy makers and investors.

Within a few years, Ballard's stock market capitalization soared to tens of billions of dollars. As then-head of one of North America's largest natural gas producers, I should have been a big booster of a hydrogen-fuelled future. Why? Because hydrogen is manufactured mainly out of natural gas.

But it was clear to me there simply weren't enough natural gas resources to supply existing users, plus fuelling a significant percentage of North America's auto fleet. That remains true today.

The alternative method of producing hydrogen is the electrolysis of water. There's enough water, but the electrolysis process takes a lot of electricity. Producing hydrogen in large quantities would require many new power plants, and most power plants burn hydrocarbons. The long-term zero-emissions answer would be a massive nuclear power program, but don't count on that happening any time soon.

Ballard has swapped its shareholder-value-destroying hydrogen car trip for stationary power-generating fuel cells. That makes a lot of sense and I wish them well. Unfortunately, policy makers take a lot longer to face reality... or to even bother to find out what the reality is.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of a state where fantasy is a profession, continues to proclaim California as the hydrogen highway state, and has managed to convince B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell to come along for the ride. Too bad neither thought to ask energy producers where all that hydrogen is going to come from.

The latest alternative-energy silver bullet is biofuel. Canada, the United States and much of Europe have mandated minimum ethanol or plant-oil content in motor fuels, with the stated intent of reducing fossil fuel emissions. It turns out that producing Canadian grain-based ethanol and U.S. corn-based ethanol uses almost as much hydrocarbon energy for tractor fuel, fertilizer and distillation as the ethanol product yields. Scientists call this a "marginal energy balance."

There is also strong evidence that intensive biofuel farming practices are resulting in the drainage of sensitive wetlands and unsustainable water use. Then there's the eruption of the huge food-versus-fuel conflict. While subsidized American corn belt farmers buy bigger tractors and more expensive pickup trucks, Mexicans riot over a 400-per-cent rise in the price of tortillas. And it's not just in Mexico; food prices have soared around the world.

Palm oil is blended with mineral diesel fuel to create biodiesel. Borneo is a great place to produce palm oil, provided you first burn down a large part of one of the world's most important rain forests. A visit to this land of the endangered orangutan and previously little-disturbed aboriginals is a depressing lesson in misguided silver-bullet solutions. The air is blue with smoke, as hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of rain forest are burned and replaced with palm oil trees. It's ironic that a policy supposedly aimed at environmental improvement is polluting the air and permanently destroying the rain forest lungs of our planet.

Some authoritative institutions are finally speaking out. A recent OECD report warns that "powerful incentives to replace forests, wetlands and pasturelands with bioenergy crops" and "overall environmental impacts of ethanol and biodiesel can very easily exceed those of petrol and mineral diesel."

The European Parliament is considering a law to ban use of biofuels from crops grown on former forests, wetlands and grasslands, and would also require that a biofuel deliver a minimum level of net greenhouse gas savings. If they truly enforce such restrictions, it will be tough to find qualifying biofuel.

The real potential for ethanol depends on the success of research aimed at its production from waste materials, including switch grass, straw and corn stalks. When this technology might become viable is hard to say. Meanwhile, mounting evidence that current biofuel production methods are doing more harm than good hasn't stopped those greenwashing TV ads.

But I did note that, in response to yet another damning study, a spokesman for Canada's ethanol lobby asserted that it will all get better when cellulosic ethanol becomes feasible. This begs the question of why governments continue to mandate the use of biofuels that damage the environment instead of supporting research into biofuels that would protect it.

The saga of hydrogen and biofuels has followed the green silver-bullet formula. Tie your wagon to rhetoric and government subsides, label the skeptics as anti-environment troglodytes and, if you're David Suzuki, call for the non-believers to be jailed.


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