The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

November 2014, Vol. 241, No. 11

Alex Epstein

Popular opinion about fossil fuels can be summarized in one word: addiction.

The industry’s attackers have successfully portrayed its core product, fossil fuel energy, as a self-destructive addiction that is destroying our planet, and your industry as a fundamentally immoral industry.

Like any immorality or addiction, the argument goes, we may not pay for it at the beginning but we will pay for it in the end. Thus, the only moral option is to use “clean, renewable energy” like solar, wind, and biofuels to live in harmony with the planet instead of exploiting and destroying it. And we need to do it as soon as is humanly possible. This is the moral case against fossil fuels.

But, as I explain in a new book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, if we truly think critically about the morality of fossil fuel energy, both its benefits and its risks, fossil fuel energy is not a dangerous addiction but a healthy choice.

But what does it mean to be moral? I believe an activity is moral if it is fundamentally beneficial to human life. By that standard, is the fossil fuel industry moral?

Yes.

By producing the most abundant, affordable, reliable energy in the world, the fossil fuel industry makes every other industry more productive – and it makes every individual more productive and thus more prosperous, giving him a level of opportunity to pursue happiness that previous generations couldn’t even dream of. Energy, the fuel of technology, is opportunity – the opportunity to use technology to improve every aspect of life.

Including our environment.

Any animal’s environment can be broken down into two categories: threats and resources. (For human beings, “resources” includes a broad spectrum of things, including natural beauty.) To assess the fossil fuel industry’s impact on our environment, we simply need to ask: What is its impact on threats? What is its impact on resources?

The moral case against fossil fuels argues that the industry makes our environment more threatening and our resources scarcer. But if we look at the big-picture facts, the exact opposite is true. The fossil fuel industry makes our environment far safer and generates new resources out of once-useless raw materials.

Let’s start with threats. Schoolchildren for the last several generations have been taught to think of our natural environment as a friendly, stable place – and our main environmental contribution is to mess it up and endanger ourselves in the process. Not so. Nature does not give us a healthy environment to live in – it gives us an environment full of organisms eager to kill us and natural forces that can easily overwhelm us.

It is only thanks to cheap, plentiful, reliable energy that we live in an environment where the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat will not make us sick, and where we can cope with the often hostile climate of Mother Nature. Energy is what we need to build sturdy homes, to purify water, to produce huge amounts of fresh food, to generate heat and air-conditioning, to irrigate deserts, to dry malaria-infested swamps, to build hospitals, and to manufacture pharmaceuticals, among many other things.

And those of us who enjoy exploring the rest of nature should never forget that oil is what enables us to explore to our heart’s content, which pre-industrial people didn’t have the time, wealth, energy, or technology to do.

Nowhere is the necessity of energy, and thus fossil fuel energy, more evident than in protecting us from the climate. The climate is inherently dangerous (and it is always changing, whether we influence the change or not). Energy and technology have made us far safer from it.

In the last 80 years, as CO-2 emissions have risen from an atmospheric concentration of .03% to .04%, climate-related deaths have declined 98%. Take drought-related deaths, which have declined by 99.98%. This has nothing to do with a friendly or unfriendly climate, it has to do with the oil and gas industry, which fuels high-energy agriculture as well as natural gas-produced fertilizer, and which fuels drought relief convoys.

Fossil fuels make the planet dramatically safer. And dramatically richer in resources. Environmentalists treat “natural resources” as a fixed pile that nature gives us and which we dare not consume too quickly. In fact, nature gives us very little in the way of useful resources. From clean water to plentiful food to useful medicines, we need to create them using ingenuity.

This is certainly true of energy. Until the Industrial Revolution, there were almost no “energy resources” to speak of. Coal, oil, and natural gas aren’t naturally resources – they are naturally useless. (Or even nuisances.) Those who first discovered how to convert them into energy weren’t depleting a resource, they were creating a resource. The world was a better place for it.

It is obscene to call today’s new resource creators in the shale energy industry and the oil sands energy industry “exploiters” when they have turned stone and sludge into life-giving energy – a feat that may ultimately extend to trillions of barrels of once inaccessible oil (in all of human history we’ve used just over a trillion barrels). The fact that oil is a “finite” material is not a problem, any more than the “finite” supply of rare-earth metals is a black mark against windmills. Every material is finite.

Life is all about taking the theoretically finite but practically limitless materials in nature and creatively turning them into useful resources. The fossil fuel industry does it, the “renewable” – actually, the “unreliable”- energy industry doesn’t. End of story. “Renewables” are no more the ideal form of energy than wood is the ideal material for skyscrapers.

And by creating the best form of energy resource, the fossil fuel industry helps every other industry more efficiently create every other type of resource, from food to steel.

Your industry is fundamentally good. It minimizes environmental threats and maximizes environmental resources. This truth, along with the rest of the moral case for fossil fuels, is something the industry needs to understand and communicate–for all our sakes.

Alex Epstein is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (Portfolio, Penguin) and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress.