2019 Honorary Address
An Evening with Dr. Scott Tinker

By: Victoria & Ken Wallace  |    May/June 2019

Brief Summary of the Honorary Address:

The 2019 CSPG Honorary Address by Dr. Scott Tinker was held on February 28th at Mount Royal University and was moderated by Danielle Smith (radio host of Afternoons on NewsTalk770 in Calgary).  
Dr. Tinker joined the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences in 2000.  Prior to this appointment, he worked in the oil and gas industry for 17 years.  Currently he is the Director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, the State Geologist of Texas and a professor holding the Allday Endowed Chair at the University of Texas at Austin.  His passion is education and actively engages amongst often opposing groups – industry, government, academia and non-government organizations (NGOs) – addressing difficult challenges in attempt to find a ‘radical middle-ground’.  His latest education project is the Switch Energy Alliance, more information can be found at SwitchOn.org

In a time where many Albertans are frustrated with the progress to regain economic strength in one of our core industries – oil and gas, to attract global investments and more importantly, to gain access to global markets (#buildthatpipe) - this year’s Honorary Address provided some much needed food for thought.  Western Canada has vast resources, yet we struggle to develop it as vigorously as our southern neighbour.  Despite the fact that developing our resources is good for the entire country, there are many opposing views often vilifying the oil and gas sector.  Is this just a classic example of NIMBYism (not in my back yard), is there a huge disconnect from industry to the average person, or perhaps both?  
Poverty, climate change, and energy are interconnected global challenges.  Dr. Tinker’s presentation is based on two opposing premises: 1) climate change is the major issue of our time and fossil fuels are the problem, and 2) poverty is the major issue of our time and fossil fuels are the solution.  These very polarizing, divisive topics appear to be at odds with each other, but does a compromise exist?

The developed world has leveraged energy to create a (largely) prosperous society.  Developed nations (including Canada) have primarily done so using non-renewable energy (fossil fuels for the most part).  Now, the developing world is trying to achieve the same level of prosperity enjoyed by the West.  Dr. Tinker began his presentation reviewing several case-examples of struggles and challenges faced by communities in developing countries, but a combination of remoteness, lack of existing infrastructure, politics and corruption and related issues, have historically been too great for them to overcome.  Many of these problems can be solved using 21 century solutions, often in different, innovative and creative ways than has been done in developed countries.   

Dr. Tinker postulates that economic poverty is tied to energy poverty, since poverty decreases people’s chances of access to energy.   Scott provides several alarming statistics.   Approximately one billion people in the world do not have access to electricity. The distribution of something as simple as electricity is shocking “[the average North American] fridge consumes nine times more energy than one person in Ethiopia”.  And this is only talking about one realm of energy – electricity.  

You cannot say “eat your whole plate of food, because [someone in the world] is starving” – that does not address poverty in the slightest.  And you cannot be mad at a farmer for producing food, because they are addressing a need, and same goes to energy makers.  If energy poverty can be overcome, this can improve access to many things we often take for granted, such as: food/nutrition, clothing, shelter, clean water, food storage (i.e. cold storage), education, healthcare/medical services, decreased birth rates, decreased unemployment rates, decreased crime, enhancement and empowerment of women and reduced rates of migration for 2.5 billion people of the world.  That is over one third of the world’s population.  Is this segment of the world not entitled to prosperity and a better standard of living?  As Dr. Tinker states, electricity does not end poverty but poverty cannot be ended without electricity.  It is time to give power to the people.  Of course this is no easy feat, as one of the greatest barriers to ending energy poverty is corruption.  

Electricity-use, associated-carbon and the environment are at the heart of the climate change-versus-energy discourse.  The increase in CO2 emissions from the Asia-Pacific region has grown from less than 1 gigatonne to a staggering 16 gigatonnes in 50 years, whereas the rest of the world’s CO2 emissions has remained relatively constant (or in some cases, decreased slightly) over the same period.  A large factor in this increased CO2 emissions in the Asia-Pacific region stems from the fact that more than half of the electricity is supplied from coal.  

The Asia-Pacific region is not completely to blame, as they have become the world’s preference for out-sourcing manufacturing.  Many of the world’s countries off-load their carbon dioxide production onto China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.  Should the clients of these countries not be held responsible for the carbon emitted in the making of the products they purchase?  Perhaps manufacturing-focused countries should charge a carbon levy to compensate for the carbon emitted associated with the production of the goods they make?

Transportation is also an important topic in to the energy discussion.  In 2016, less than 2% of light-duty vehicles were plug-in electric vehicles.  Granted the electric vehicles will become more affordable, however is it really greener?  Electrek.com states that the battery pack of a 70kWh Tesla Model S weighs 1000 lbs and estimates that it contains approximately 63kg of lithium.  What happens when these batteries die?  Cars die/get replaced?  How will they be disposed of?  But a better question yet – where is this electricity coming from?  Electric vehicles shift simply CO2 emissions from the tailpipe to the power plant. 

Inspired by these numbers, the authors did some additional research to link “zero emission” electric vehicles to Alberta.  According to the National Energy Board, the 2017 electricity-mix in Alberta was sourced approximately 50% from coal, 39% from natural gas, and the balance, 11%, from renewable sources such as wind, hydro, and biomass – meaning electric vehicles in Alberta are primarily powered by fossil fuels.  
Moving on to the topic of renewable energy, Dr. Tinker concedes that renewable energy is an important component of the future energy-mix, but that wind, solar, and hydroelectricity all have their implicit challenges.  Each renewable energy source requires vast areas in order to make significant energy contributions. They suffer from intermittent reliability due to naturally occurring changing conditions in wind, overcast, and precipitation.  Furthermore, not all renewable energy sources work everywhere; the challenges with reliable renewable energy can increase with increasing distance from the equator.  Additionally and perhaps most importantly, while the sun and rain are renewable energy sources, the materials used to harness said energy are not.  Many different metals and rare earth elements are utilized in the materials to make such items as wind towers and solar panels, and not only are these generally mined for, but we also need to mindful of the way we dispose of them.  Dr. Tinker summarizes renewables so eloquently “[you think] renewable energy is green – it’s not.  It just shifts the effect from the atmosphere to the land.”  

The global energy equation is varied and complex.  Politics, economics, and passion run deep on all sides of the environment and poverty debate.  It is difficult to hold a civil energy discussion in a debate where often the loudest voices get the most attention.  Perhaps a starting point could be the following three questions: 1) Does every person on this planet deserve what so many of us take for granted?  2) Is the environment important?  3) Is the global demand for energy increasing?  If the answer to the previous three questions is YES, then a middle ground must be reached.  A compromise: a balanced approach that is achievable, energy-efficient, and works in favour of the majority.  This idea may seem radical; a “radical middle” as Dr Tinker puts it.  But maybe instead of seeing it as radical, it should be viewed as the “pragmatic middle”.

How is this compromise achievable?  The path to success is long and challenging; there is no easy answer.  But it may start with awareness and education.  Most people do not know where energy comes from, but they think they do.  Therefore, it is so important to enlighten people with facts and data.  Us, the experts, must engage in energy education.  We must help those around us understand that energy powers our lives. 

The truth is, demand for non-renewable fossil energy remains strong; and resources of such fuels are vast.  Growth of renewable energy sources has not increased as quickly as growth of non-renewable energy sources.  Energy transitions are achievable, but energy transitions take time.  No sizable form of energy, whether renewable or not, comes without environmental impact.  But – we can get better.  We can improve, become more efficient and advance our technologies to ensure that each and every person can enjoy this great planet today and in generations to come.  

As geoscientists our contribution, impact and perspective to this discussion is crucial.  Educate with facts and data, and put forward thought-provoking interpretations to act as a basis for civil discussions to proceed.  As Dr. Tinker summarized, energy sources will vary by region, and no form of energy is “good” or “bad”, but energy itself underpins modern economies and helps lift the world from poverty.