By: Peter Boag
Mobility is a vital enabler of economic activity and Canadians’ high standard of living. Moving people and goods underpins virtually everything we do. This is true for any nation but especially true for Canada with our vast geography and dispersed population.
If mobility is a vital feature of economic and social well-being, then it stands to reason that the fuels that enable our mobility are equally vital. Ships, planes, trains, trucks and automobiles don’t run on air. They rely on a secure and reliable supply of affordable, fit-for-purpose fuels. Transportation accounts for nearly 30% of Canada’s total energy consumption.
Petroleum fuels—primarily gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel—are the workhorses that power our transportation system. They are sophisticated energy products formulated to meet a demanding set of performance expectations. They are energy dense, making them ideal for mobile use, and they score high marks for availability, safety, reliability and affordability.
Today, petroleum fuels meet 95 per cent of Canada’s transportation fuel needs. Each year, Canadians consume some 100 billion litres of gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels. A complex and extensive refining, distribution and retail infrastructure, developed over a 100+ years, ensures that the right fuels are available at the right place, at the right time.
Canada’s transportation fuels future is a growing policy focus for our governments. Alternatives to petroleum fuels draw a lot of attention, driven primarily by the goal of reducing transportation GHG emissions. Other drivers of alternative fuels include the view that greater energy security can be achieved through diversifying our energy mix, and a belief that alternatives represent an opportunity to mitigate rising costs of petroleum based fuels. Some proponents see alternate fuels as partial substitutes for petroleum fuels; others with more extreme ‘off oil’ agendas view alternatives as complete replacements for petroleum fuels.
Without doubt, Canada’s future transportation fuel mix will be much more diverse than it is today. In the years to come, alternatives to petroleum fuels will play a much larger role in fuelling our transportation system. However, petroleum fuels will continue to do the heavy lifting well into the future. Making choices about the optimum mix and pace of change is a daunting exercise. There are no quick-fix solutions for fuelling a reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable transportation system. The issues are complex, multi-faceted and involve considerable uncertainty.
Two fundamental truths underpin the due diligence essential to making the right choices about our future fuel mix. One, all alternatives to petroleum fuels create environmental impacts—there is no perfectly ‘clean’ fuel. Clean energy is a relative, not an absolute term. Two, alternatives to petroleum fuels have characteristics that make them more or less suitable for use as a transportation fuel, and there is no single metric by which they can be assessed.
Comparing the environmental impacts requires a rigorous evaluation across the full life cycle of fuel production, distribution and consumption—it’s not just about tailpipe emissions. A credible evaluation of life cycle environmental impacts must span the complete spectrum of air, water and land impacts. This is no easy task, since each fuel is produced and delivered in its own way, using a wide variety of feedstocks, and different technologies and infrastructure. Uncertainty further complicates matters—life cycle analysis is not (at least yet) an exact science.
Comparing suitability for transportation fuel use involves assessing a range of factors including availability and reliability of supply, cost, performance characteristics, and vehicle fleet and refuelling infrastructure implications. Can alternative fuels meet consumer expectations for availability, safety, reliability and performance? Can they be supplied in the time frame needed, in the volume needed and at reasonable cost? Will the alternative fuel require a different vehicle fleet and/or a new fuel distribution infrastructure, and at what cost?
Any objective analysis will confirm that gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel have a long life ahead of them. They will remain our transportation energy workhorses well into the future.
Petroleum fuels compare favourably to alternatives on the basis of full life cycle environmental impacts, and their environmental performance continues to improve. In the past 10 years, industry has invested $8 billion to improve the environmental performance of refineries and the fuels they produce.
Looking ahead, optimizing the efficiency of conventionally fuelled vehicles provides the lowest cost alternative for GHG emission reductions for personal transportation. For example, we need only look to Europe to see what can be accomplished through greater use of turbocharged diesel engines in the passenger vehicle fleet.
Petroleum-based fuels are clearly superior when it comes to evaluating overall suitability for transportation—they remain the best options to get you where you want to go. They are reliable, convenient, and widely available through an established and comprehensive supply infrastructure.
Vehicle manufacturers and fuel providers have worked together to optimize fuel/vehicle performance. On a full ‘systems’ basis that considers fuel costs, as well as incremental infrastructure and vehicle costs, they are the best option available—by far. There is a reason why markets around the world have determined them to be the best energy sources to meet our transportation demands, for more than 100 years. Indeed, much of the ongoing research and development work on alternative fuels focuses on making alternatives emulate the superior attributes of petroleum fuels.
It’s important that we make the right choices about our transportation energy future. The stakes are high. Wishful thinking is no substitute for rigorous due diligence and a thorough understanding of the options and their implications, including unintended consequences. Our destination—a reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable transportation system is too important.
Peter Boag is President of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute (CPPI), the national association of major Canadian companies involved in the refining, distribution and/or marketing of petroleum products for transportation, home energy and industrial uses.
Mr. Boag has a near 20-year track record of successful public policy advocacy and industry association leadership. He was appointed President of CPPI in 2007, having previously been the President & CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada.
As CPPI President, Mr. Boag provides executive leadership to a team of business and public policy professionals in CPPI’s national and three regional offices. CPPI work focuses on the development of public policy and regulation that serves the long term interests of the Canadian consumer and the Canadian petroleum industry, with emphasis on environment, health and safety issues.
Mr. Boag is a former military pilot; he served in the Canadian Forces from 1975 to 1982. Between 1982 and 1992, Mr. Boag was an aircraft accident investigator for the federal government.
Mr. Boag is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, and has a Masters degree in Business Administration from Queen’s University.