Making the Case for Fossil Fuels
Earlier this past week President Obama unveiled his clean power plan, intended to address climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation. Not one to credit alternative points of view with good faith, the President said that the only opposition to his plans came from “special interests and their allies in Congress.”¹
Yet scientists, such as Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Ivar Giaever, pushed back at the assumptions underpinning the President’s plan. Although Giaever publicly supported Obama in 2008, he says “Global warming is a non-problem.” Commenting on the evidence contradicting alarmist projections for global warming, Giaeve says, “If you’re a physicist, for heaven’s sake, and here is the experiment, and you have a theory, and the theory doesn’t agree with the experiment, then you have to cut out the theory. You were wrong with the theory.” According to Giaever, “global warming really has become a new religion.”²
Even putting aside the global warming debate and completely accepting the President’s plan assumptions, it is projected to make very little progress towards its stated goals at great economic cost.
One of the most thoughtful responses to the environmental ideology that is the foundation of the President’s plan comes from Alex Epstein in his book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.³ He tackles head-on the most common claims leveled at fossil fuels: they are dirty, unsustainable, and harm the developing world. He argues that fossil fuels take a naturally dirty environment and make it clean; they take a naturally dangerous climate and make it safer.
Epstein debunks the common contentions about alternative energy sources, observing that not only are the sun and wind intermittent, unreliable fuels, but they always require fossil fuels as a dependable back-up source of energy. “Being forced to rely on solar, wind, and biofuels would be a horror beyond anything we can imagine,” writes Epstein, adding that “a civilization that runs on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy would see its machines dead, its productivity destroyed, its resources disappearing.”
As valuable as his analysis of energy economics, Epstein also makes a case for the improvements that fossil fuels make to the quality of life for billions of people, especially in the developing world. Worldwide, 1.3 billion people continue to live without access to electricity. This is equivalent to 18% of the global population and 22% of those living in developing countries. Theirs remains a largely a pre-industrial experience. As Epstein illustrates, energy enables us to improve nearly every single aspect of life, whether economic or environmental. Calls to “get off fossil fuels” are calls to degrade the lives of innocent people who merely want the same opportunities we enjoy in the West.
The average American uses machine energy of 186,000 calories per day, equal to that produced by 93 physical laborers, and the vast majority of this is produced by fossil fuels. The conversion of fossil fuels into energy has helped free us as humans from both backbreaking manual labor and the drudgery of many repetitive tasks. By demonizing fossil fuels, its opponents elevate the importance of preserving nature over the quality of human life.
In fact, it is ironic that some of the politicians who profess concern for the poor are at the same time so cavalier about the consequences of raising energy costs. Hypocritical as well are fossil fuel opponents, taking full advantage of energy profligate lifestyles, yet fully expecting others to do with less.
To be sure, alternatives may have a role as a power source. However the reliance of alternative fuels on either massive subsidies, government mandates or both should be a cause for concern. Products once dependent on such government support are rarely able to wean themselves from away from such largess to eventually become economically viable. Ultimately, the President’s energy approach risks making electricity generation less about the economics of competing fuels, and more about competing political special interests.