By DAVID SANBORN SCOTT
The Globe and Mail,
October 6, 2001 – Print Edition, Page A19
North America's obsession with preventing terrorist attacks on our soil
may be blinding us to an even greater threat: terrorist attacks on Islamic
While assaults on more of our skyscrapers and government nerve centres
would be unnerving, to say the least, imagine the impact of attacks on
Saudi Arabia's oil-production facilities. The economic effect of such an
event would be several orders of magnitude worse.
Crude oil is the imported commodity upon which the United States and
most democratic economies are absolutely dependent. Last year, the United
States imported 56 per cent of its oil, a quarter of that from the
Mideast; western Europe imported 60 per cent, almost half of which came
from the Mideast; 82 per cent of Japan's oil originated in the Persian
In these times of crisis, ask yourself how we'd fight a war without
oil. It was Japan's lack of oil that led to the Pacific war; that stopped
Hitler at Leningrad, that almost tipped the Battle of Britain the other
Far fetched? Not at all.
Saudi Arabia has long been a tinderbox, where hatreds between the
majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslims could trigger internal terrorism,
and where the profligate privileges of the House of Saud's extended royal
family are reminiscent of those of the ruling Pahlavi family in Iran two
decades ago. Many Muslims, not just extremists, despise such behaviour and
hate the way Saudi princes turned over sacred Saudi soil to U.S.
Extremist attacks on the country's oil facilities would teach a lesson
to lapsed Muslims, as well as strangle the great Western evil.
What's more, taking out Middle East or North and West African oil
production would probably be a lot easier than taking out Western
skyscrapers. Consider a few strategic factors: The average production rate
of an oil well in the United States is about 12 barrels a day. In Persian
Gulf countries, it is about 5,000 barrels a day. In all these areas,
tanker ports are few. A little sabotage would go a long way.
Forget about perimeter defences around the Persian Gulf. Our only
defence against this threat is to return to -- and this time implement --
the 1970's buzz phrase: "energy independence."
In North America, we must rapidly increase our harvest of indigenous
fossil reserves. As Canadians, we must expand the harvest of our Western
oil sands. And, however discomfiting, throughout North America we must be
prepared to drill for oil wherever it might be found.
Unfortunately, such a short-term path to oil independence will put us
in harm's way for an even more enveloping attack: global climate
disruption. Often named "global warming" and thereby trivialized, this
environmental juggernaut is predominantly caused by the carbon-dioxide
effluent from today's energy systems. ("Warming" is not the concern.
Shutting down the Gulf Stream and freezing Britain could be. Or flooding
the Netherlands, Florida and much of Southeast Asia.)
So, to avoid that, we must have a phased, two-prong strategy.
First, we must quickly strive for oil independence by almost any
Second, we must accelerate the coming hydrogen age -- which I prefer to
call the "hydricity" age because it will employ the two energy currencies,
hydrogen and electricity. Both hydrogen and electricity are carbon free
and so, when manufactured by non-fossil sources, send zero carbon dioxide
into the environment.
How will it work?
Both hydrogen and electricity are energy currencies, not energy
sources. Both can be harvested from any energy source, fossil or
non-fossil. Both are renewable: Hydrogen, for example, returns to water
after it is used. The two currencies are mutually interchangeable -- fuel
cells convert hydrogen to electricity; electrolysis converts electricity
to hydrogen. (The same cannot be said about our oil economy -- oil may be
converted to electricity but electricity cannot be converted to oil.)
Electricity will continue to power information technologies and some
fixed-route transportation, like subways. Because hydrogen is storable, it
will become the staple fuel of free-range transportation vehicles like
cars, trucks, buses, trains and ships that employ fuel-cell engines. It
will also power liquid-hydrogen aircraft that will fly farther (because
hydrogen weighs about a third of what conventional fuels weigh) and fly
cleaner (because the exhaust is water vapour.)
The synergies inherent in hydricity systems will permit extraordinary
technical, industrial and regulatory flexibility, thereby improving
efficiencies, reducing costs, adding security and bringing environmental
There's another benefit: Had a liquid-hydrogen-fuelled jumbo hit the
World Trade Center, enormous damage would have occurred but the towers
would not have come down. The towers collapsed because tons of burning jet
fuel softened the buildings' steel backbone, allowing top floors to
sledgehammer lower floors. Liquid hydrogen can't burn until it vaporizes
and then, being so much lighter than air, it's up and away. Structural
damage, fire and death would have been confined to the floors the aircraft
While the twin hydricity currencies can be manufactured from any
source, to avoid climatic disruption we must rapidly move to non-carbon
sources. We can harvest wind, tides, sunlight and the internal heat of the
Earth to produce hydrogen that, in turn, can power airplanes, buses and
our family cars. Whenever practical, those are the sources we should
These, however, will not be enough. To satisfy all our needs we must
have the courage to re-examine one of our favourite hates: nuclear power.
Ironically, nuclear power is probably the cleanest and safest of all
non-fossil sources and the only one with any prospect of delivering the
energy services we need.
Worried about terrorists? Wondering what would happen if a 747 were
aimed at the Pickering nuclear power plant outside Toronto? The answer: a
disaster. But a minor disaster compared with hitting the World Trade
Center. It's physically impossible for a nuclear power plant to blow up
like a nuclear bomb. And, unlike the Chernobyl design, it's unlikely a
Western reactor, struck by a jumbo jet, would release enough radiation to
cause civilian deaths.
It's often said that nations prepare for the next war on the experience
of the last war -- never more true than today. The weapons of this
21st-century war will not be more or better missiles -- and certainly not
missile defences. Our arsenal must include the technologies of
electrolysis, fuel cells, hydrogen liquefaction and storage, hydricity
infrastructures and, yes, CANDU nuclear power plants -- especially the
next generation of CANDU designs.
As we move toward hydricity, we'll find several opportunities for
synergy. For example, the bitumen of the Athabaska oil sands is hydrogen
poor, carbon rich. Harvesting this energy source today involves carbon
rejection -- sending it off as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yet,
it's technically feasible and economically attractive to build CANDU
plants that would provide heat for extraction, electricity for processing,
and hydrogen for upgrading the hydrogen content. Even oxygen, the
by-product of electrolysis, can be used in an upgrading process called
So we'd get more upgraded crude from every grain of oil sand -- with
less waste and environmental disruption. And, by using our best
technologies, the Athabaska oil sands could deliver some 330 billion
barrels of oil, compared with Saudi Arabia's reserves of 300 billion
Canada once led the world with a 20th-century weapon: It was called the
Avro Arrow. Today, we lead the world in some of these energy technologies
and have a chance to help build world peace and security, no matter what
shape the battle takes over the next few decades.
David Sanborn Scott, founding director of the University of
Victoria's Institute for Integrated Energy Systems, is vice-president of
the International Association for Hydrogen Energy.