The road to a more diverse fuel mix in Canada

Biofuels, natural gas and electricity are gradually becoming a greater part of Canada’s transportation fuel mix, as we have explored over the last few weeks in our alternative fuels series.

Still, today, 95 per cent of the fuels used in transport are petroleum-based, and those fuels will continue to lead the fuel mix in the foreseeable future, said Brian Ahearn, Canadian Fuels Association vice-president, western division.
Transportation energy demand by fuel

That’s because they’re reliable, efficient, and easily accessed by the average driver.

They need to be.

“Transportation fuels are key to the mobility of people and goods, our quality of life and our prosperity,” said Ahearn. “The future strength of Canada’s economy depends on a reliable supply of quality transportation fuels.”

The petroleum industry has invested billions of dollars to create a reliable, efficient fuel production and delivery network, said Ahearn. That network supplies the large volumes of fuels demanded by Canadian consumers and businesses at a competitive price, he said. Any alternative fuel will need to achieve the same level of quality, reliability, and convenience at a competitive price before it can displace gasoline and diesel.

Petroleum-based fuels are on the move

As Canada’s fuel mix changes, so will petroleum-based fuels, as they have done over more than a century.

“We expect petroleum-based transportation fuels will continue to evolve,” said Ahearn, bringing improvements in vehicle and environmental performance, and significantly reducing all emissions.

Already, sulphur has been dramatically reduced in today’s gasoline, and lead was entirely removed years ago. Refiners continue to work on further sulphur reductions to meet regulations and engine manufacturers’ recommendations.

Alternative fuels will be a greater part of the energy mix, but transition will take time

There is potential for alternative fuels to play an important role in keeping Canada on the road, said Ahearn. They each have their pros and cons and specific applications. There’s a long way to go, though, to ensure they can supply security, convenience and quality at a competitive price to fuel consumers.

Biofuels today, for example, are added to gasoline and diesel and are generally less carbon intensive, but they also have a lower energy density and face technical hurdles to higher blending levels. Natural gas vehicles are still very rare; Canada has only 80 refuelling stations serving mostly heavy-duty vehicles. Electric vehicles make up a small percentage of Canada’s fleet, notably due to consumer unease regarding initial purchase costs, battery charging times and range.

Adding more alternative fuels to the mix will therefore be gradual, said Ahearn. “It will require technological advances to improve reliability and cost-effectiveness of alternative vehicles, and changes in consumer behaviour.”

Policy implications of the fuel mix transition

The transition to alternative transportation fuels is on everybody’s radar, but many complex factors need to be considered:

  1. The stakes are high. With our large country and dispersed population, Canadians are among the highest per capita users of transportation fuels in the world. Our economy and way of life depend on our access to reliable and competitively-priced fuels.
  2. There are no quick fixes for replacing petroleum-based fuels. All alternative fuels have environmental impacts, and achieving goals of reliability, affordability and sustainability will require trade-offs.
  3. Over the last century, markets and consumers have determined petroleum-based fuels to be the best transportation fuels to meet Canada’s needs. They are safe, convenient, reliable and competitively-priced, and they will continue to account for a large part of our transportation fuel mix for decades to come.
  4. Comparing the characteristics of alternatives to gasoline and diesel is a complex task. There is no single metric by which they can be assessed, and many factors need to be considered.
  5. Policy choices should be based on clear objectives and supported by science-based data. The best way to assess transportation fuels is through a comprehensive life-cycle analysis covering all stages of production, transportation and end-use, but data gaps remain.
  6. Significant gains can be achieved through a more efficient use of transportation fuels. Efficiency gains from conventional vehicles is perhaps the most cost-effective way of reducing transportation GHG emissions. It’s all about working together, noted Ahearn. Canada’s fuels industry has been working in tandem with automakers to improve the transportation sector’s environmental performance. “Progress has been made to date, and further progress on GHG reduction can be achieved when government and industry can work together.”

For more on the role of alternative fuels in Canada, check out the earlier posts in this series:

Today’s cars can’t run on biofuels alone

Is natural gas the next transportation fuel? The pros and cons

Plugging into the future of electric vehicles


For a comparison of petroleum-based fuels and their alternatives, read Fuels for Life.

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