Greens vs. Energy

This April 22, if you find yourself frustrated at rising gasoline prices, or rising electricity prices, or rising natural gas and heating oil prices, make sure you place plenty of blame on the environmentalists behind Earth Day; for decades they have found a reason to oppose every practical form of energy in the name of "saving the planet."

Start with their opposition to fossil fuels, including the oil that fuels our vehicles, the coal that powers our factories, and the natural gas that heats our homes.  Environmentalists have long thwarted drilling and mining projects on the ground that fossil fuels "destroy the environment."  What they neglect to mention is that over the last 200 years, fossil fuels, in fueling industrialization, have improved our environment in life-changing ways -- industrialization has brought far cleaner air and water, with far less susceptibility to poisons or diseases, and with far less vulnerability to climate.  Fossil fuels, to this day, provide more than 80 percent of the ample, affordable energy industrial civilization uses -- and yet environmentalists propose legislative caps to virtually eliminate these vital energy sources in favor of expensive, impractical "green" alternatives.  Imagine what that would do to your energy prices.

Environmentalist opposition to vital energy sources goes beyond fossil fuels; for decades environmentalists have worked tirelessly to stop the most practical non-fossil-fuel sources of power: nuclear power and hydroelectric power, neither of which emits CO2 when producing energy.

In recent weeks, environmentalist hysteria about "high radiation levels" coming from Japan would have you believe that nuclear power has been proven unsafe.  Just the opposite; we should take solace in the fact that numerous high-powered reactors, subjected to a once-in-a-century natural disaster, have not caused any deaths due to radioactive material.  Compare that to the hundreds or even thousands of deaths that can result from a dam breaking or from a natural gas explosion.  Today's hysteria is part of a long history of demonizing nuclear power.

Consider: in 1975 a fledgling nuclear energy industry reported that its members were producing electricity at a total cost of less than half of what coal plants could.  Better still, this industry was in its relative infancy; thousands of scientists and engineers were brimming with ideas about how to make power-generation better, cheaper, safer, and more efficient.  If the environmentalist movement had been interested in maximum human progress, and certainly if it had been really worried about a CO2-based global mega-climate catastrophe, it would have celebrated nuclear power.

But it wasn't, and it didn't.

Consider also that environmentalists have spent the last three decades shutting down as many hydroelectric dams as possible, despite hydro's proven track record as a cheap, reliable source of carbon-free power (albeit one more limited than nuclear, since there are only so many suitable river sites for producing hydropower).

The more energy production is restricted or stopped, the less energy supply will exist and the more expensive energy will be.  Yet the environmentalists righteously oppose fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro, 98 percent of the world's energy production, carbon-based and carbon-free.  Why?  Because environmentalism's concern with the alleged dangers of our carbon "footprint" is a ruse -- environmentalism is about minimizing any human impact on nature: on land, rivers, swamps, animals, bugs, regardless of the consequences to humans.  Environmentalists bemoan the prospect of human-induced climate change by fossil fuels, but they are indifferent to the fact that such fuels enable billions of people to cope with the climate (any climate) far better.  They oppose nuclear power because they think its high-energy, radioactive materials and processes are "unnatural" and therefore bad.  They oppose hydroelectric power because it dramatically changes the natural flow of rivers.

What about solar and wind power?  Environmentalists promote them not because they are practical -- after decades of subsidies worldwide, these dilute and intermittent sources of power play only a tiny role in energy production -- but because they supposedly have the smallest "footprint," since they don't directly involve mining or burning things.  But even in the case of solar and wind, note that environmentalists try to stop or delay many specific projects -- because they require a footprint, i.e., industrial development.

Huge, 400-foot-tall wind turbines or endless square miles of solar panels or enormous networks of "smart grid" transmission lines are frequently met with opposition once shovels might start hitting the ground.  While environmentalists are happy to wax enthusiastic about solar and wind in the abstract, note that environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the biggest opponent of Cape Wind, a windmill project off the Nantucket coast.  And note that environmentalists were the first to object to a giant solar project in the middle of the Mojave Desert in California.

If you think that there might be some form of practical "clean energy" that could appease the environmentalists -- say, geothermal -- you're missing the point.  The whole environmentalist idea of a minimal "footprint" is fundamentally anti-energy.  Mass-energy production requires making a substantial impact on nature -- by mining resources, diverting land, erecting power lines, generating byproducts or waste -- and therefore environmentalists can always find something objectionable.

This Earth Day, if you really want to live in a clean, beautiful, prosperous, high-energy world, reject the "green," anti-development agenda.

Alex Epstein is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, focusing on business issues.