Sustainable Fossil Fuels
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Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspects in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy

Review of: Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspects in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy
By: Mark Jaccard
Cambridge University Press, 2005, 381 pages

Review by: Jason Hayes, M.E.Des., Communications Director, American Coal Council

Orifinally published: American Coal, Issue 1, 2007, pg. 16

 In his recent book, “Sustainable Fossil Fuels,” Mark Jaccard offers some refreshing arguments. He notes that not only will fossil fuels continue to provide us with abundant energy well into the future, they could do so sustainably. Furthermore, he argues that policy makers would do better to consider renewable energy sources as a very long-term – as in centuries – goal. In the meantime, he argues that we should rely on advanced technologies to allow the sustainable use of our abundant coal and fossil fuels.

Coming from a background of environmental science and energy, I was intrigued by the notion that fossil fuels might still be considered an “unusual suspect in the quest for clean and enduring energy.” The ACC has referred to coal as an economic, abundant/secure, and environmentally sound fuel source for many years, so the fact that fossil fuels can efficiently and cleanly meet our energy needs well into the future will come as no surprise to the readers of this magazine. What will be of interest is the avenue through which this admission is now coming.

Jaccard is a professor of environmental studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada – an unlikely advocate for coal. He notes that his support for the use of fossil fuel came after a great deal of research led to some unexpected findings. Jaccard admits that for most of his career he simply assumed that “sustainable” energy meant shifting from fossil fuels to renewables. As a result of his research, however, he learned that the issue is much larger than the often simplistic attacks leveled at fossil fuels – “carbon bad … renewable good.” He now argues that a sustainable energy system involves environmental, as well as social and economic aspects of energy use.

Jaccard acknowledges that while renewables play an important role, they cannot supply our baseload energy needs. He is also unconvinced that other energy forms could overcome the barriers they would face in replacing fossil fuels. The radical changes that phasing fossil fuels out of the current energy system would entail simply would not be economically, socially, or environmentally sustainable.

Jaccard suggests that supplies of fossil fuels are abundant and concerns of running out are unfounded. Improving technology and rising prices are making previously unconventional energy sources – such as western Canadian oil-sands deposits – economical. The challenge, in Jaccard’s opinion, is not obtaining the fossil fuels; it’s how to deal with the emissions that are associated with their use. He advocates for improving efficiencies and employing clean coal technologies, such as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) and CO2 capture and sequestration. While implementing these changes over a short time period will come at substantial cost, Jaccard argues that when compared with the costs of transitioning to renewables and phasing out carbon-based fuels, tech-fixes and updates to the current system are actually quite affordable.

Jaccard does advance one highly debatable assumption in arguing that the cost of these new technologies is not likely to be born without strong government intervention in the form of regulations and legislation. Forcing carbon reductions in this fashion could be every bit as problematic as mandating the phasing out of carbon-based fuels as government intervention in markets tends to have the outcome of choosing winners. This can be highly inefficient and have a multitude of unintended economic, social, and environmental consequences. Voluntary and market-based measures have traditionally been highly effective in encouraging the adoption of new technologies when they are economically and socially feasible.

Despite this area of concern, “Sustainable Fossil Fuels” is a valuable entry into the public policy forum on energy. Given his background and training, I saw Jaccard as “the unusual suspect” in his support of fossil fuels as a sustainable energy source. It is, however, refreshing to see that research and commentary from a traditionally anti-coal sector is now recognizing coal’s abundance, affordability, and increasingly clean nature.