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Longing for a future without fossil fuels? Best take a closer look at that future

A trigger warning for sensitive readers and a parental advisory for those with children nearby: Today’s column makes extensive use of the “F-word.”

Even more shockingly, it does so favorably.

No, not that “F-word.” The one we have in mind is “fossil fuel.”

Fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas and their derivatives — are no longer seen as the engines of modern life and the drivers of the modern industrial economy.

The public perception, at least in some quarters and especially in the Northwest, is that they’re the source of much of contemporary life’s miseries, not to mention a threat to our existence. Despoilers of the planet might be one of the kinder things said about them these days.

Not that opinions about fossil fuels were uniformly positive.

Between the misbehaviors of Big Oil and King Coal, global security matters and a succession of environmental issues — including urban smog and acid rain, human safety in natural-resource extraction and transportation — there’s been plenty to kvetch about over the decades about finding and using fossil fuels.

But in the current climate, fossil fuels are no longer viewed even as a necessary evil. Instead, the push is on to save the planet’s beasts and children by blocking the production, shipment and use of fossil fuels, and to do it yesterday.

Thus the debate in Tacoma about blocking the proposed liquid natural gas ship-fueling and storage facility on the Tideflats; a ballot measure in Spokane this November to issue fines for trains carrying oil or coal through the city; the California legislative proposal to have the state’s entire electricity supply come from renewable sources; efforts to block coal, oil and LNG export facilities all along the West Coast; and a British proposal, floated last week, to ban sales of new gasoline and diesel cars starting in 2040.

Some of the proposals won’t amount to much more than symbolic protests even if they’re enacted, due to regulatory conflicts.

The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals just overturned a Portland ordinance designed to block a proposed propane export facility at the port, on the argument that it violated the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Spokane’s ballot measure is likely to meet the same fate, because railroad regulation is reserved for the federal government.

Others will merely shift the production, shipment and use of fossil fuels elsewhere.

Even as they mock the United States for questioning the Paris climate agreement, the Canadians will happily export U.S. coal (through Vancouver, British Columbia) or U.S. natural gas (in LNG form) that American ports are barred from handling, not to mention exporting (to us, among others) the fossil fuel resources produced in their country.

But some much bigger and important consequences loom as a result of the dash to a fossil-fuel-free future, including: what are you going to replace it with? What if there’s not enough of it, or it doesn’t work as well as what you’re placing it? And how much is it going to cost to switch the power grid and transportation sectors to that something else? (We’ll skip for now the debates over climate change’s existence, extent and whether fossil-fuel use has any role in it.)

There’s a reason the world made the shift from human and horse power and wood fuel to fossil fuels. Fossil fuels offer abundant supply (with a lot of that supply here), energy density, scalability, portability, known and proven technology, and a vast installed infrastructure for getting the energy in usable form to its users.

The drive to replace gasoline with electricity for vehicles is a perfect illustration of the questions, quandaries and tradeoffs that tend to get obscured. Aside from the matter of recharging stations, time and range, there’s the little matter of where the juice to power all those vehicles is going to come from, especially when coal and nuke plants are being decommissioned.

Renewables? It’ll take a lot of wind farms to come up with the replacement energy, and then there’s the matter of availability; fossil fuels are still needed to ensure base supply. Improvements in battery technology to permit storage of electricity for peak-demand hours will be a game changer — when it’s as plentiful and reliable as the current system.

(The Northwest is in an interesting spot in this. Hydroelectricity sometimes gets counted as a renewable, sometimes not. But if the region was starting from scratch today, do you believe those Columbia River dams and all the other hydro projects that power the Northwest would be permitted?)

Every energy source has its attributes and drawbacks. Innovations and advances in renewable and non-fossil-fuel energy are in the works. But fossil-fuel technology hasn’t been frozen in place either. Even if a fossil-fuel-free future becomes possible, its attractiveness might not be any more evident than it is now.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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