Two Ships Passing in the Night

By John Crouch | October 31, 2011

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean, two ships pass in the night. Both loaded with energy, bound to a distant port. Both voyages a result of government policies and incentives designed to encourage the energy market in a particular direction. 

But, the sad news is that only one of these cargoes is sustainable, and it is not going to my country, but is leaving my country. The cargo bound for my country, is not from my friends, but may, in some cases, be from the country of my sometimes and future enemies. The cargo from my country, and my friends in Canada, is full of renewable wood pellets, but it is bound for Europe and the U.K.
The cargo bound to my country, especially to the Northeast of my country, and to Eastern Canada, is crude oil. 

One cargo represents the energy future, and one, the energy past. One represents a sustainable future, and the other does not. Our two countries in North America are just not confronting the obvious, which is that for heating oil (and propane), one of the characteristics that make them so useful—the ability to transport them long distances, and store them for long periods—is also their long-term vulnerability.

In the case of heating oil, we are dealing with a product similar to diesel fuel. Known as a “midlevel” distillate, it comes from the same portion of the refinery column as diesel. Every day, thousands of new diesel-burning trucks roll off assembly lines all over the world. Households, schools and businesses that burn fuel oil for heat are competing with every trucker in the world for this fuel. Who do you think will ultimately win? At some point in the future, our children will be incredulous that we used this transport fuel for heat. “Didn’t you have anything else to burn,” they’ll ask? Of course the answer is, “yes, actually, we did have something else to burn that is reasonably stable, easy to store, burn and transport, but we shipped most of it, wood pellets, to Europe.”  

The bottom line is that the ships of oil will not always come our way, at least without changes in the cost structure. In the case of natural gas, we are already seeing some of the license applications for imported liquid natural gas terminals of the past decade, being altered and resubmitted as export terminals.  There may even be a few propane cargoes headed “outbound” in special circumstances and times of the year. Certainly the idea that we in the U.S. and Canada can use any fuel for heating we wish, and set the price of that fuel on the world market, is either dead, or will soon be. The two key fossil fuels that heat most of North America not connected to natural gas, are increasingly part of a tightening global market, which must inevitably impact all other sources of thermal energy, including biomass.

I am indebted to Charlie Niebling of New England Wood Pellet for the image of the two ships passing in the night. He used this during the exporting session at the Pellet Fuels Institute Annual Conference in July, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

When I think of my children’s future, I can only hope that someday North America will come to its senses, and stop encouraging the use of oil for heat, and instead, use wood pellets. It will be interesting how many dollars we send to the Middle East and Venezuela before we come to our senses.

Someday, we will take the right path toward sustainable, biomass, pellet heat, and as a result, the ships will no longer pass in the night.

Author: John Crouch
Director of Public Affairs
Pellet Fuels Institute