Making the Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

By Alex Epstein
Portfolio, 2014

256 pp., $20.48.

In the anti-fracking film Gasland, producer Josh Fox proclaims that the process of extracting previously inaccessible oil and gas from shale pollutes water supplies, increases the incidence of cancer and leads to higher levels of seismic activity, despite ample contrary evidence. This self-proclaimed environmental watchdog and anti-fracking crusader has led extensive efforts to end or prevent fracking throughout the United States by obfuscating the truth and stopping communities from reaping the benefits of America's shale boom. Josh Fox and others like him are uninterested in looking for improvements in fracking technology and safety. Instead they seek to shut down shale exploration and other fossil fuel extraction altogether.

In his recent book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein challenges the ethical bias of environmentalists who oppose fossil-fuel use and deftly argues that fossil fuels have vastly improved the planet and the lives of its human inhabitants. He contends that a human-centric moral value that supports the well-being and prosperity of human beings ranks on a higher ethical plain than the utopian, environmentalist ideal of a "wild" earth or environment absent little or no human impact. Epstein's moral position is that man should serve human beings, not nature, and that it is wrong-headed and misguided to view man as a destructive force meriting punishment for cultivating the environment for his benefit. With fossil fuels, limiting their use creates reduced economic prosperity, higher levels of human starvation, lower life expectancies and higher rates of infant mortality.

To environmentalists, any transformation of nature is inherently bad and man bears primary responsibility for negatively impacting nature in the quest to develop and utilize resources. Epstein counters this view with the assertion that man’s very survival depends on transforming the environment and that the goal should be responsible resource use, not lack of human impact. Fossil fuel use should be embraced for the many ways they improve our lives, he contends.

To counter the fallacy of environmental harm from fossil use, Epstein reviews past predictions of resource depletion and planetary destruction that never came to pass. In 1972, the Club of Rome and ecologist Paul Ehrlich, then still a Stanford University faculty member, declared that we would run out of oil, natural gas, and certain essential minerals by 1993. In 1970, Life magazine reported that within a decade that city dwellers would need to wear gas masks to survive rampant air pollution, that sunlight reaching the earth would be greatly diminished and that hundreds of thousands of people would die.  Of course, none of these dire predictions came to pass and our air and water are cleaner than ever. 

Epstein applauds fossil fuels’ many benefits in developed countries and contrasts impoverished societies with their unreliable and low levels of fossil-fuel resources and utilization and the resulting poor sanitation, rampant disease, limited food production, and minimal transportation of goods. A poignant example is a hospital in Gambia, where infant mortality rates are extremely high due to lack of electric power for ultrasound machines to diagnose in-utero problems and incubators to save the lives of premature babies.

Epstein cites data showing that the more fossil fuels are used, the fewer deaths occur from droughts, floods, storms and other climate-related disasters. He compares undeveloped nations with low fossil-fuel use to developed nations and concludes that the latter have higher levels of safety because of better transportation for relief efforts, sturdier buildings and higher agricultural yields. Fossil fuels have enabled us to turn unusable water into usable water and eradicate disease through mass production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines and improved sanitation facilities. Plus, fossil fuels give us the opportunity to move to other climates or change our existing environment to be safe and comfortable despite climate challenges. The machines that run on fossil fuels have transformed the hazardous natural environment to a healthier human environment, Epstein says.

The author also examines the argument that renewable resources can augment or replace fossil fuels entirely. He notes, first, that not a single, independent free-standing wind or solar power plant exists anywhere in the world. He then delineates the problems with renewable energy. Compared to fossil fuels which are cheap, plentiful, reliable, easily extracted and naturally stored, renewable energies, solar and wind, are not plentiful, accounting for under two percent of our energy usage; cannot be naturally stored; and are not reliable because they depend on the vagaries of weather. While fossil fuels are intrinsically concentrated, solar power is diffused and requires many additional resources to concentrate its energy. Plus, it relies on fossil fuel-powered backup systems for off-peak periods. Although wind farms release no emissions, rotating turbines kill and injure more than a million birds and bats annually and cause pollution from extraction of rare-earth minerals needed to manufacture the turbines. Both wind and solar power require extensive land use and aesthetically degrade the landscape. Further, wind-energy production causes noise that many find disturbing. Epstein concludes that fossil fuel exploration actually impacts the environment far less than the renewables favored by environmentalists.

Today, dire predictions exist that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels will cause climate catastrophe within a few decades. The truth, Epstein writes, is that, although significant warming has not occurred for a few decades, humans actually thrive with warmer temperatures and plant life proliferates. Both conditions led to drops in climate-related deaths in the past, Epstein says, citing data to back up his claims from the UN Environment Programme’s, Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (CRED/OFDA).

Amidst the hysteria surrounding claims of global warming and campaigns to stop fossil fuel use, the question should be raised, “What ultimately benefits human life?” Far from being a danger to the planet, fossil fuels have vastly improved the quality of human life. Our real concerns should be about policies based on unsubstantiated and fallacious claims that would ultimately restrict our use of traditional energy resources that have served us so well. Ultimately, we should focus on how to continue improving the planet for human beings and not on saving the planet from human beings.

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