Next week, the energy industry and in particular the fossil fuel industry gets together for its largest gathering, CERAWeek, featuring everyone from the Saudi Arabian oil ministers to the CEO of Shell to the Secretary of Energy. Most of the attendees will be industry members and, from looking at the program and the title “Energy Transition: Strategies for a New World,” there are two topics most prominent in everyone’s minds: how to survive the current low-price environment and how to survive political efforts to shrink the industry–efforts that will come to a head in the 2016 US elections.
These topics are related: In a low-price environment where profit margins are slim to non-existent, an industry needs to be as free from destructive government controls as possible–and yet the industry faces the threat of unprecedented government controls. For its own sake and for the sake of billions of people’s lives it energizes, the industry needs to vigorously fight back against the anti-fossil fuel effort–and do so on moral grounds.
The stakes could not be higher.
2016 is the most significant energy election this century. In 2015, at the COP21 summit in Paris, President Obama tentatively committed the United States to join an effort that would restrict emissions of CO2, an inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel use, by over 25% in the next 9 years and by over 80% in the next 35 years.
Given that fossil fuels comprise 86% of the world’s energy use, and that the international coalition is also hostile to non-carbon nuclear power use (4.4%) and hydroelectric power use (6.8%), and given that the two preferred sources of energy, solar and wind (combined 1.6%), are unreliable and dependent, given that about 3 billion people have very little access to modern energy and an estimated 1.2 billion people have zero electricity, this must be taken gravely, gravely seriously.
A President Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would almost certainly commit our country to dismantling the fossil fuel industry. The Republican candidates have barely talked about energy at all, but they are at least open to not only preserving but even liberating fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric energy.
So what should the industry do?
The conventional wisdom is that the industry should not fight anti-fossil fuel efforts so much as slow them down by making the moral case that the industry is a necessary evil that, unfortunately, we won’t be able to replace with a green energy industry for many decades.
But to do so is both immoral and impractical. The fossil fuel industry is not a necessary evil, it is a life-enhancing good–and it needs to make that case loud and clear this election season.
The “necessary evil” view of fossil fuels concedes the basic premise of the anti-fossil fuel movement: that any benefits of fossil fuel use are far outweighed by their long-term destruction of the planet via resource depletion, pollution and above all, global warming. But this premise, which is often couched in scientific and mathematical garb–97% of climate scientists agree, 2 degree threshold, carbon bubble, etc–is both old and wrong.
Today’s catastrophists conveniently ignore that, 35 years ago, they predicted planetary destruction today–and that in fact not only have fossil fuels provided 81.5%more life-giving energy than they did back then, our planet has become a far better place for human beings to live.
Predictions that increasing atmospheric CO2 from .03% to .04% would cause runaway warming were met by the reality that CO2 causes mild, manageable and arguably desirable warming— and certainly a desirable increase in plant growth. Predictions that pollution would be ever-worse were met by the reality that human technology can progressively purify our endeavors. U.S. air pollution has declined radically since the 1970s despite a 13.3% increase in domestic fossil fuel use. Predictions that we would “run out of fossil fuels” were met by the reality that there are many, many times more potential resources underground than we have used in the entire history of civilization—and that technologies like shale energy and oil sands energy are making those potential resources into actual fuel that heats our homes, powers our tractors, and runs our hospitals.
The dissonance between fossil fuel rhetoric and reality is captured by the Presidency of Barack Obama. In 2007 he campaigned on ending “the tyranny of oil,” and analogized the fossil fuel industry to “the tyranny of fascism and communism” (the Nazis and Soviets, who slaughtered a combined 100 million individuals). Yet his presidency has been propped up and likely lengthened by the ingenuity of the fossil fuel industry–particularly the shale energy revolution that produced immense amounts of life-giving energy from abundant but once-useless rocks.
If good and evil are measured by the standard of human well-being and human progress, we must conclude that the fossil fuel industry is not a necessary evil to be restricted but a superior good to be liberated. Why, then, do so many oppose it? Moreover, why is there such widespread hostility toward non-carbon, practical sources of energy such as nuclear and hydro, and so much eagerness to embrace unreliable solar and wind? Because our moral discussion of energy has been co-opted by the false ideal of “green energy,” which evaluates forms of energy not by how much they benefit human well-being but by how little they impact the planet. Green energy advocates regard it as “unnatural” and therefore wrong for human beings to impact climate, even benignly–or to harness radioactivity, even safely–or to dam a river, even if it benefits millions of human beings.
The green philosophy is a philosophy squarely opposed to energy growth, since all forms of energy and productivity entail significantly impacting–transforming–the planet to meet human needs. It is, therefore, an anti-human philosophy. It should be rejected and be replaced by the humanist philosophy, which seeks to maximize human well-being and recognizes that transforming our environment, done rationally, is not a vice but a virtue.
We don’t need green energy–we need humanitarian energy.
It is morally irresponsible and practically devastating for the fossil fuel industry to legitimize and compromise with the moral movement against its existence. It should instead make the moral, humanitarian case for fossil fuels–to the public, to its employees, and to politicians.
How to do so?
There are 3 basic steps industry leaders can take to move the needle.
1. Speak up. Tell the media and the world: “What our industry does is not a necessary evil. It is a life-enhancing good, and we should be free to do more of it not forced to do less of it.”
2. Educate your employees. At a time when the existence of your industry is at stake, your employees need to know why what they’re doing is so important–and explain it to others. Give them the time, resources, and training to become champions.
3. Demand energy freedom from politicians. For all the industry’s supposed political influence, the topic of energy freedom has barely come up in the Republican debates or rhetoric. This is the most important energy election this century. It needs to be an issue and you have every right to demand that it be an issue for politicians you support.
(I’ve written out more detailed suggestions here.)
I will be at CERAWeek next week and I hope to meet many people who are eager to make the moral case for fossil fuels and humanitarian energy. I especially hope that some of the panels talk about the need to stop apologizing for being a necessary evil and to start championing themselves for being a life-enhancing good.
The 2016 election presents us with a once-in-a-lifetime energy opportunity–and energy danger. There is no middle ground. There can be no more standing down. It’s time to stand up.