Introduction and overview

In October 1978, when the Syncrude tar sands plant opened in Fort McMurray, Alberta, a Globe and Mail editorial said, "The supply of conventional crude oil (the easiest to extract) is not only finite, but perhaps going to run out this century. ... We will have to move to other sources of energy, or see civilization as we know it collapse."

The Globe editorial was right on one point. Civilization as we know it depends on vast amounts of cheap energy, not only from oil but also from natural gas, coal, uranium, and other sources. It's hard to make precise comparisons but it's likely that a key difference between life in Central Ontario today and life here 150 years ago is the amount of energy we use: in the order of 30 times more per person.

Perhaps more than anything else, the use of this energy makes possible the differences between the two ways of living in terms of comfort, convenience, productivity, and freedom from want. It's as if each person in Central Ontario now has available the work of 80 or more 'energy slaves,' i.e., 80 human equivalents working 14 hours a day, 365 days a year.1

The editorial was also right on another point: the supply of conventional crude oil is finite. The world didn't run out of oil before 2000, but some major sources are clearly becoming exhausted, including those of the contiguous U.S. and western Canada, where production of conventional crude oil peaked in the 1970s.2 Worldwide, the beginning of the end of cheap oil appears to be in sight, likely within the 30-year time frame of the Smart Growth Strategy.

More surprising may be the more imminent challenges the Central Ontario Zone faces concerning the supply of low-cost natural gas. These challenges are spelled out below.

Where the editorial was obviously wrong was in its suggestion that conventional--i.e., cheap--oil would run out in 20 years. Its continued availability in 2003 should be a caution against such doomsaying. However, much has happened since 1978. More is known about how to squeeze oil and natural gas from the depths of the earth. More is known about what is there and the challenges in extracting it. Above all, there is wider understanding now that the most important consideration is not when oil or natural gas literally runs out, but when supply falls off and cannot keep up with demand. That's the time prices can shoot up and put into question our way of life.

The good news is that we could live with just about as much comfort, convenience, productivity, and freedom from want while using much less energy, perhaps 50 to 75% less. It wouldn't be quite what we are used to--and would require many changes to get there--but it could be pretty good. Some of the needed changes have important implications for how we go about achieving Smart Growth, and these will be spelled out too.

The good news too is that much of the energy we would require for this new way of living could come from renewable, made-in-Ontario sources. Our energy future would be much more secure, and we would be freed of the burden of paying others for most of the energy we use. The requirements for producing quite large amounts of renewable energy also have implications for Smart Growth.

Because energy is so important for our way of life, and because of the real possibility of dramatic changes in energy availability--and thus prices--over the next 30 years, energy considerations should be front and centre in any planning exercise. We've managed for generations with only occasional worries about the vital matters of energy supply and price. All this could change soon.

1. McNeil, J.R., Something Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World, New York, W.W. Norton (2000).
2. For oil production in Canada, see Ivanhoe, L.F., Canada's future oil production: Projected 2000-2020, Hubbert Center Newsletter, Colorado School of Mines (April 2002), available at the URL below. Accessed October 22, 2002.