The Fossil Fuel Industry Must Vigorously Defend Itself Against Attacks From Environmentalists

Dear Fossil Fuel IndustryExecutives:

Imagine you are talking to the VP of Communications for a tobacco company, who claims that he has a new strategy for winning the hearts and minds of the public:

*     “We will explain to the public that we contribute to economic growth.”

*      “We will explain to the public that we create a lot of jobs.”

*     “We will link our industry to our national identity.”

*     “We will stress to the public that we are addressing our attackers’ concerns—by lowering the emissions of our product.”

*     “We will spend millions on a state-of-the-art media campaign.”

Would you be convinced? I doubt it, because none of these strategies does anything to address the industry’s fundamental problem—that the industry’s core product, tobacco, is viewed as a self-destructive addiction. So long as that is true, the industry will be viewed as an inherently immoral industry.  And so long as that is true, no matter what the industry does, its critics will always have the moral high ground.

Sound familiar? Substitute “fossil fuels” for “tobacco” and you have the fundamental communications problem the fossil fuel industry faces.

You might say that it’s offensive to compare the fossil fuel industry to the tobacco industry—and you’d be right. But in the battle for hearts and minds, you are widely viewed as worse than the tobacco industry.

Your attackers have successfully portrayed your core product, fossil fuel energy, as a self-destructive addiction that is destroying our planet, and your industry as a fundamentally immoral industry. In a better world, the kind of world we should aspire to, they argue, the fossil fuel industry would not exist.

President Obama has described the oil industry as a “tyranny.” Allegedly “pro-oil” former president Bush coined the expression “America’s addiction to oil.” There is far more public hostility to the fossil fuel industry than to the tobacco industry. And it is accused of being far more damaging. As Keystone pipeline opposition leader Bill McKibben put it to widespread acclaim, the fossil fuel industry is “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

Why is the industry viewed as immoral? Because for decades, environmentalist leaders have made a false but unanswered moral case against the fossil fuel industry—by arguing successfully that it inherently destroys our planet and should be replaced with environmentally beneficial solar, wind, and biofuels.

According to this argument, it destroys our planet in two basic ways: by increasing environmental dangers (most notably through catastrophic global warming) and depleting environmental resources (through using fossil fuels and other resources at a rapid, “unsustainable” pace).

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.

There is only one way to defeat the environmentalists’ moral case against fossil fuels—refute its central idea that fossil fuels destroy the planet. Because if we don’t refute that idea, we accept it, and if we accept that fossil fuels are destroying the planet, the only logical conclusion is to cease new development and slow down existing development as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry has not refuted the moral case against fossil fuels. In fact, the vast majority of its communications reinforce the moral case against fossil fuels.

For example, take the common practice of publicly endorsing “renewables” as the ideal. Fossil fuel companies, particularly oil and gas companies, proudly feature windmills on webpages and annual reports, even though these are trivial to their bottom line and wildly uneconomic. This obviously implies that “renewables” are the goal—with oil and gas as just a temporarily necessary evil.

Another way in which the fossil fuel industry reinforces the moral case against itself is by trying to sidestep the issue with talk of jobs or economics or patriotism. While these are important issues, it makes no sense to pursue them via fossil fuels if they are destroying our planet. Which is why environmentalists compellingly respond with arguments such as: Do we want economic growth tied to poison? Do we want more jobs where the workers are causing harm? Do we want our national identity to continue to be associated with something we now know is destructive?

The industry’s position amounts to: “our product isn’t moral, but it’s something that we will need for some time as we transition to the ideal fossil-free future.” What you’re telling the world is that you are a necessary evil. And since the environmentalists also agree that it will take some time to transition to a fossil-free future, the argument amounts to a debate over an expiration date.

But your industry is not a necessary evil. Your industry isn’t destroying our planet and depleting resources, it is improving our planet and creating new resources. “Renewables” are no more the ideal form of energy than wood is the ideal material for skyscrapers. There is a powerful moral case for your industry that can enable you to take the moral high ground against the environmentalists, and win the public support you deserve. I’ve summarized it in a new manifesto, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: The Key to Winning Hearts and Minds.”

Every day you concede the high ground to environmentalists not only means millions of dollars in projects delays, but another blow against the rights of peoples around the world to life, liberty, and the pursuit of energy.


Alex Epstein

Founder, Center for Industrial Progress