Power Is Life
As a student of history, I know that until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, human beings on this planet lived difficult lives with many challenges. People were at the mercy of local weather conditions and long hours of work using uncertain and high cost energy sources. We don’t think about this now, but before the advent of fossil fuels, people burned wood, biomass and other fuel sources that are much higher polluting, less efficient and more harmful to health. Ships prowled the oceans hunting majestic whales to harvest the oil in their blubber for lighting lamps. Life expectancy was low, infant mortality was high, and except for the elites, life was harsh, brutal and short.
In a time when most people living in Western Civilization have on-demand hot and cold clean running water, safe and dependable food sources, heating and air conditioning, private motor vehicles and amazing mass transit, smartphones, computers, television, Blu-ray discs, a mind-boggling array of consumer goods and life-enhancing medical technology, we are blissfully unaware of the rigors of everyday life faced by our ancestors.
All of the conveniences of modern life that we enjoy today are made possible because of fossil fuels. Let me repeat: ALL of them. Before the advent of clean burning natural gas for heating, people used oil, coal and wood. These three fuel sources are all more expensive with higher emissions than natural gas.
As Alex Epstein points out in his excellent book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: “The people who went through the industrial revolution had a perspective that is hard for us to recapture but is essential for us to get: an understanding of just how vital it is for us to have access to cheap, plentiful, reliable energy, because the more we have, the more ability we have, and the less we have, the more we see just how weak we are without high-energy machines.” [Emphasis mine]
Epstein then goes on to cite a 19th century commentator on how valuable coal was to English society and notes that “This was at a time when, because of early-stage technology, coal pollution was far, far worse than, say, even China experiences today – and yet these commentators don’t even mention it; that’s how valuable they saw energy as being to their very ability to survive. Nothing was more important.”
In other words, coal was so important in the 19th century that they were willing to put up with the pollution that accompanied it. Fiction literature abounds with tales of “London fog” and the darkness in the city that accompanied it. It is true that this pollution was harmful to human life and steps were taken by the government to mitigate the problem. As time has gone on and burning technologies have improved, the pollution caused by burning coal has vastly diminished.
Coal – The Gateway Fuel
Coal was the fuel that ushered in the modern world in Western Europe and North America. The first steam engines were powered by wood and then coal. The industrial revolution in England and Western Europe was driven by the steam engine which gave humans the ability to vastly increase productivity in agriculture, craft industries and transportation by land and sea. As the railroads came into being, the ability to travel and move large quantities of goods increased exponentially. As steam ships came into use, the ability to meet schedules and decreased dependence on unreliable wind power increased worldwide commerce.
As the table above shows, using coal as a fuel source does emit quite a lot of CO2 and particulate pollutants. This produces undesirable externalities that leads society to demand improvements in coal burning technologies, shifts to other, cleaner burning fuel sources (like natural gas) or eliminate coal burning altogether, as the Environmental Protection Agency is now trying to do with its Carbon Pollution Standards.
However much environmentalists hate coal, however, it still provides around 40% of electricity generation in the industrialized world. Because of concerns about pollution and fears of carbon emissions possibly causing climate change, the pressure is on energy producers to develop and improve low emission coal technologies.
Just as coal powered the industrial revolution and the birth of modern western civilization, so now coal is the primary driver of modernization in other parts of the world including China, India, Africa and Southeast Asia. As people in these parts of the world gain access to cheap, reliable energy, their lives are improved for the better. I don’t know anyone who would want their wife to be in labor or their father to be in cardiac surgery in a hospital with an unreliable source of electric power.
The presence or absence of reliable electric power can literally be a matter of life and death as is told in the following story:
Tragically, a pregnant woman was unable to get necessary prenatal care and her premature infant died because an incubator wasn’t available.
If one holds human life as their standard of value, as Epstein points out in his book, then the energy produced by fossil fuels becomes a moral imperative because it preserves and enhances human life. If, on the other hand, one holds a pristine environment untouched by mankind as their standard of value, then less value is placed on human life and the quality of life.
Natural Gas Is Better Than Coal
Originally discovered as an unwanted by-product of oil production, natural gas is used primarily for heating and electricity generation. As the table above shows, it is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, and is also the least expensive. Natural gas is extracted either from oil fields or natural gas fields. It is collected at the wellhead, treated in a processing plant, and shipped by pipeline to the end users. It is the second largest fuel source for electricity generation in the U.S.
Because natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel, very few byproducts are emitted into the atmosphere as pollutants. The blue flame is a sign of perfect combustion.
Unlike oil, which is susceptible to unwanted pollution from accidents and spills, natural gas is piped directly from the processing plant to the customer. Pipelines are safer and more reliable than railroad cars, tankers and other means of transmission. The hysterical opposition by many on the Left to pipelines is incomprehensible and illogical.
While there are advantages to natural gas, as with anything else in life there are disadvantages as well. Some of them are the carbon emissions, methane, and to some minds, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Due to its widespread and increasing use, clearly society as a whole has judged that the benefits of natural gas far outweigh the costs and disadvantages.
Oil, Powering Our Transportation
One hallmark of modern living is quick, easy and inexpensive long-distance transportation. Until the advent of the railroads and motor vehicles, most humans throughout history were limited in how far they could go to their own two feet. Wealthy people, clergy, soldiers and a few others may have had access to horses and carriages, but for land transportation it was feet.
With the advent of the steam engine and the railroads human beings suddenly gained the ability to travel long distances relatively easily and quickly. The true revolution in transportation was the passenger vehicle. The United States has the largest passenger vehicle market of any country in the world, and we Americans love our cars! Roughly 90% of Americans own at least one car (the average household has 2.28, according to one study). While the number appears to be declining as more people choose to commute by different means, the car is a ubiquitous part of most peoples’ lives. The vast majority of these cars, trucks and buses are powered by gasoline or diesel fuel from liquid petroleum.
The motor vehicle industry is one of the primary drivers of our modern global economy. According to one report, the global car manufacturing industry is forecast to have a value of $904 billion this year, an increase of 24.1% over 2010. That means millions of jobs for people directly employed by the industry and the people supplying the industry, as well as those who make a living by driving. It is no exaggeration that the auto industry is the primary driver of manufacturing in America.
The externalities associated with oil burning are of course pollution caused by automobile exhaust and the related carbon emissions. Smog and congestion are definite problems in many medium to large cities worldwide. However, the federal government in the U.S. has implemented requirements for cleaner burning technologies and more fuel-efficient design, significantly mitigating the problem.
The conclusion is clear, however: modern society relies on cheap, plentiful, on-demand personal transportation in many ways. However much environmentalists may hate the automobile, it is here to stay and most people will not give them up willingly or tolerate excessively high gasoline prices. While some “hybrid” and electric-powered cars exist, they are currently more of an expensive niche, not a mainstream product. The proponents of electric cars seem to forget that 67% of electricity generation is from fossil fuels to begin with.
Costs and Benefits
Clearly there are costs involved with using fossil fuels to power our modern civilization. Particulate pollution (I don’t refer to carbon dioxide emissions as “pollution” because the majority of carbon emissions are due to natural causes) is a real problem. Oil spills, leaks, fires, explosions and other unpleasant things happen when harvesting, transporting and using toxic, flammable substances. When these things happen because of negligence or carelessness, those responsible should be held accountable. But to say that we shouldn’t use fossil fuels because of these things is as ridiculous as saying that we shouldn’t live because someday we’ll die.
I think it is entirely appropriate to be concerned about and careful in our use and treatment of the Earth and our environment. When it comes to the Earth’s climate, I believe – based on my study of the issues involved – that the climate changes all on its own, just like the four seasons in every year.
I think that responsible stewardship of our planet and its resources is also morally correct, because it promotes the life and flourishing of generations yet to come. I believe that energy and mining companies should be held to high standards of care in how they go about the business of drilling, digging, fracking, completing and harvesting mineral, oil, natural gas and other natural resources.
When unfortunate things happen, let’s hold those responsible accountable. However, condemning an entire industry and demanding an end to their activities based on these externalities is not realistic and is itself immoral.
I think it is perfectly appropriate to discuss and want to “change” an existing system for the better.
The people I take exception to are those who demand an end to the use of fossil fuels “because of the environment” or “the climate”, yet still are beneficiaries of the modern life that fossil fuels make possible.
The “fracktivist” who uses social media to demand the end to hydraulic fracturing is using fossil fuel generated electricity to power their computers and mobile devices. The clothes that a “green” wears to a climate change rally were produced using fossil fuels. The car, bus, train or plane that the same person uses to get to the “Earth Day” event all use fossil fuels. The natural gas the Colorado lefties use to heat their homes in our interminable winters is produced using fracking and is inexpensive because of fracking. The billionaire who lives in multiple large houses, travels in heavy limousines and private jets with investments past or present in fossil fuel companies yet promotes an energy-killing climate change agenda is the worst offender of all.
So-called “renewable” energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro power are very much in vogue these days, and the self-same “greens” and climate change activists who demand an end to fossil fuels are holding these out as the answer to every problem. (Of course, some of them seem to want humanity to either “return to nature” or go away altogether.)
However, renewable energy sources have costs and externalities of their own, which at this point in time far outweigh their benefits.
The first problem is unreliability. If the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, power is not being generated. Energy storage technology hasn’t evolved to the point where this problem can be overcome, so there is always a demand for a fallback energy source – in most cases fossil fuels or nuclear power.
The second problem is cost. As the table above shows, renewables are the highest cost source of energy. While this may mean nothing to a “limousine liberal” in their loft or mansion, it is very real to the family living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to get by. The same progressives clamoring for a job-killing minimum wage increase are demanding more expensive renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, drastically raising energy costs for everyone including these same minimum wage workers they claim to want to help.
The third problem is environmental side-effects. Wind turbines kill large numbers of bats and birds including eagles and other protected species. The EPA will move heaven and earth to protect a little field mouse, but doesn’t seem to care about the 1.5 million bird/bat deaths per year due to wind facilities. The wind turbines themselves require so-called rare-earth elements which are far more toxic than fossil fuels.
The town of Baotau in China is the largest source of rare-earth elements used in many technology devices. It is also home to a large lake full of toxic pollutants – far worse than would ever be found in an oil and gas drilling operation – that are the by-products of mining these elements.
As the guardian notes:
“The foul waters of the tailings pond contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukaemia [sic].”
Solar power, too, is not without its undesirable environmental side-effects, as reported by National Geographic: “Fabricating the panels requires caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, and the process uses water as well as electricity, the production of which emits greenhouse gases. It also creates waste. These problems could undercut solar’s [sic] ability to fight climate change and reduce environmental toxics.” The Left howls over the water usage involved in fracking, but remains strangely silent about these environmental impacts.
Balance is Key
Ultimately, fossil fuels will probably run out at some point far in the future. It is for this reason that I support the development of new energy technologies including wind, solar, and other “renewables”, the continued use of hydroelectric technology, and a renewed emphasis on nuclear power.
Using wind, solar and other renewable energy sources in a balanced portfolio of energy generation is desirable if it is economically feasible in the free market. I don’t support governmental mandates for percentages of energy capacity coming from renewable energy sources or similar hindrances. Let the free market sort it out. As time goes on and the so-called “green” energy sources become more economical, demand for them will grow and investors will increase their stake in these technologies, with more being brought to market by smart investors.
In the meantime, however, I remain grateful that I live a modern life with the technological conveniences we all enjoy, including the longevity and health made possible by fossil fuels.
By Richard D. Turnquist
May 27, 2015
Disclosure: I am not being compensated by any person, group, company or organization for writing and publishing this post (unfortunately).
 Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Kindle locations 1101, 1130