What have fossil fuels done for you lately?

The following post is a speech done by Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, at Moses Znaimer's 2015 Ideacity Conference in Toronto, Canada. Alex's speech was part of a three person panel including Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, and Lord Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer in the government of Margaret Thatcher. The Financial Post labelled the panel as a "carbon contrarian shocker." 

The entire speech done by Alex can be found here: http://www.ideacityonline.com/video/alex-epstein-the-moral-case-for-fossil-fuels/    

Alex is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, and President and Founder of The Center for Industrial Progress. 

Moses Znaimer: I’m now pleased to announce Alex Epstein, in fact I’m pleased to meet him myself. It’s been quite a chore getting you on stage here Alex. Alex is going to make a case, a surprising case, a case that you almost never hear anymore. A moral case for what is today’s environmental whipping boy, fossil fuels.

Alex Epstein: So, when I was researching the book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, I came across a story that I think captures a dimension of this debate that is almost never mentioned. The story is about a new born baby, the kind of baby that in the U.S. and Canada would be almost unremarkable. It weighed 3.5 pounds, so it was a bit premature, but using our technology that baby would be born healthy and grow up a healthy child and hopefully a healthy adult. But the baby was not in the United States or Canada, the baby was born in The Gambia, a very poor country in Africa. While in the United States or Canada, the baby would have been given an incubator to grow and be healthy, in the Gambia, they don’t use incubators in their hospitals. The reason is not just because incubators are a little bit expensive, but the reason is incubators require something that we take for granted, which is cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy, and in particular, reliable electricity. So, an observer who was at the hospital had to watch this 3.5 pound baby die because that baby did not have an incubator, because that baby did not have cheap, plentiful, reliable energy. 

This illustrates a truth that I think goes completely unmentioned in our civilization. We always talk about being green, about the ideal of minimizing our impact on the planet, it’s considered bad to have a footprint. But, if you think about it, nature doesn’t give us a good standard of living. The people in the Gambia have a very low footprint compared to ours. Human life requires transforming nature, improving it to meet human needs. In the process of that, and the process of using technology, we will always create risks and side effects, but at least most of the time, the benefits far outweigh the risks. And that’s what I believe for the most demonized technology in our civilization, which is fossil fuel energy. 

So, if you look at the trends, I like to start with 1980 because that’s the year I was born, and even in 1980 my parents were saying ‘we need to get off our addiction to fossil fuels’, and didn’t, they failed according to the prevailing morality. Right now we use 80% more fossil fuels worldwide than we did in 1980, and that’s considered a bad thing. Now, it’s important to ask, why do we use so many fossil fuels? Is it just an accident? I’m going to argue that it’s not. We use it for the same reason we use almost any other technology, because it is the cheapest, most plentiful, most reliable solution for the job. And when nuclear is a better solution, we use that, and when hydro, we use that, leaving aside different kinds of subsidies, but most of the time, fossil fuel energy is the way the most people can afford the most energy and get it most reliably.

With that in mind, I want to tell you another story about another baby. Now, this baby was born in a much worse situation than the baby in The Gambia. This baby was actually the baby of two friends of mine named David and Leanne, and this baby, a baby boy was born almost three months premature. But he had an advantage that the baby in the Gambia didn’t. He had something that thriving human life requires. He had machines to support his life, and he had the energy to fuel those machines, and overwhelmingly, it was fossil fuel energy. Without going into all the details, through all kinds of miracles involving hospitals and three month stays and helicopters even, this baby is completely healthy.

Now we almost never hear this mentioned when we talk about fossil fuels. The story I told you does not prove that fossil fuels are good or that they should be used. What it does illustrate though is that when we discuss fossil fuels, we don’t discuss it in a careful, morally responsible way.

The way I got into this industry – I’m not in the industry – but the way I got interested in this industry was not from the perspective of being born, I wasn’t born in Canada, I was born in the U.S., I was born in the Washington D.C. area, no connections to the industry growing up, no connections in my professional career, I came to all these conclusions and was broke most of the time, as you know, many writers are. I came to this perspective from philosophy, my background is moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is all about how to think carefully about issues, and I think there are three things that you need to be clear about when you talk about the morality of anything. One is, what is our goal? What do we consider moral? Two, what are the benefits of the thing? And three, what are the risks of the thing? We absolutely need to talk about any climate related risks, any pollution related risks, any depletion related risks, but we also need to be very careful about how big those risks are, and how they contrast to the benefits. Because if we don’t think about it carefully, then we won’t make the right decision.

So, the way I try to think about everything is, my goal is to maximize human well-being. I don’t believe in minimizing human impact, I believe minimizing any negative impacts to humans, but I believe we should make a good footprint on the earth, a big one, as big of one as we need to maximize our human well-being, and we need to look at the benefits and the risks.

A good way to understand the benefits and the risks, or the benefits and the concern of fossil fuels, is to understand what fossil fuels are. I often poll people and say ‘Do you think you could give me a good definition of what fossil fuels are or a good explanation of how they work?’ And you can think inside your head right now and think if you could give one, and most of the time people can’t, and philosophically this is a big problem. Because how are we going to have an intelligent discussion about something, and we don’t know what it is. Usually most of us don’t have trouble expressing strong opinions about fossil fuels and we call each other names, but we don’t really know what we’re talking about.

Briefly, what are fossil fuels? I think this is a helpful definition: They’re high energy hydrocarbons, many of which originated from ancient, dead plants. So, high energy hydrocarbons many of which originated from ancient, dead plants. All of these elements are important. So, if you take the graphic on the right, it shows the basic process by which, at least many of what we call fossil fuels originated (see Figure 1). Basically, it takes the energy from plants, which is energy from the sun, and through various geological processes, that energy gets super, super compressed into coal, oil, and natural gas.

(Figure 1)

Now, coal, oil and natural gas as you can see in the diagram on the left, they’re made up of primarily hydrogen and carbon atoms that have very strong chemical bonds. So, if you get this, you pretty much get everything both positive and potentially negative about fossil fuels. Because what happens is, we take these hydrocarbons and we burn them. So, when we burn something, we add oxygen to it. What happens when you add oxygen to hydrogen? What does it become? Water. What happens when you add carbon to oxygen? Carbon dioxide, CO2, so that’s the whole global warming concern. One becomes carbon dioxide, the other is water, and then the energy that was holding them together is released and it generates energy. Those are the two primary things we talk about today. We get energy from it, but we also get CO2 from it.

Now the other thing that we get from it that’s a little more subtle, that’s connected to the fact that it’s plants, is we can get different kinds of things like smog. And the way that works, is that plants aren’t naturally just made of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen, they also have things like nitrogen and sulphur in them. When you combine nitrogen and oxygen you get different nitrogen oxides, which can contribute to air quality problems, and when you combine sulphur with oxygen you get what’s called sulphur dioxide, I’m from the Los Angeles area, and they used to have really big smog problems. So that’s how it works, it’s all about these hydrocarbons from ancient, dead plants. 

I talked about the benefits, and one of the responses to that is there are no real benefits, there’s nothing uniquely beneficial about fossil fuels, we can just replace them with free, clean, renewable energy. This is a little cartoon that says look if we just get rid of fossil fuels, even if there’s no climate catastrophe we’ll be better off (Figure 2). I think this is a really false and irresponsible view. I think a person who summarized the core reason why was that you might not expect, was Jimmy Fallon. Is everyone familiar with the host of the Tonight Show?
(Figure 2) 

Before I show you Jimmy Fallon, this is just one graphic that I think shows the fallacy that saying ‘oh there are no downsides to getting of fossil fuels and switching to wind and solar’, this is one of the most dangerous mining operations in the world, it’s called a rare earth mine (Figure 3). This doesn’t exist with producing oil, coal, or gas, it does exist with producing wind turbines. In my book I have a story told by someone who went there about people getting large amounts of cancer, about softening bones, because people are dealing with very dangerous, radioactive materials, and the Chinese don’t have very good laws about these things. So, that’s an indication that we have a debate that’s not evenly focused on the risks and benefits of all technologies. They tend to only focus on the risks of fossil fuels and not the benefits, and then with solar and wind they tend to focus on only the benefits and not the risks. Whatever the conclusion ends up being, philosophically, morally, that’s not a good way to debate.

(Figure 3)
Here’s what Jimmy has to say:
“New Scientist Magazine reported on Wednesday that in the future, cars could be powered by hazelnuts. That’s encouraging, considering an 8 ounce jar of hazelnuts costs about 9 dollars. Yea, I got an idea for a car that runs on bald eagle heads and Faberge eggs.”
Okay, that’s funny right, but think about it, hazelnut energy is renewable energy, it’s plant based energy, it comes from the sun, just like the energy from solar panels and since the sun is the primary thing that causes the wind through heating, it’s the bases of wind energy. So, why is it so expensive? The reason is because energy is not just something we get from the sun, it has to be processed, all forms of energy are forms of a technological process, and to understand the energy and to understand the benefits and the risks, you need to understand the costs of the whole process. Because if the process of turning sunlight into energy is too expensive or too unreliable, it doesn’t matter than the sun is free if all the other elements are super expensive.

To give you a sense of how inefficient these technologies are compared to fossil fuels, nuclear and hydro, and by the way, nuclear and hydro are opposed by many of the same people who oppose fossil fuels. Let’s look at Germany.

Germany is considered the ultimate success story in solar and wind, they have what they called invested, I would call subsidized, more solar and wind combined, than anyone else. If you look at this graph, and this is the most updated data we could get from the German government, notice that A, the vast majority of the time it’s not even a significant percentage of the electricity, and this doesn’t include the heating for the cars or heating for the homes, but also notice the low points, notice that in the winter, when Germany needs the most electricity, there’s the least available (see Figure 4).

(Figure 4)

Sometimes there’s less than three percent of the max potential available. And that means the whole time, 100 percent of the time, they have to be prepared for it to produce virtually no energy. Here’s a fact, Germany is now at a record in terms of coal capacity, in terms of the ability to produce coal power, it’s at a record. Because they’re not renewables, they’re unreliables, that’s a much more accurate term for them. So, this whole experiment that makes Germans pay four times as much for electricity as Americans, think about what that does, particularly to the electricity bill of a poor person, or what it does to industry. If all of these solar panels and windmills went down tomorrow, there would be no problem and it would actually be easier to operate the grid. Now if the world’s fossil fuels went down, that would be a global catastrophe.

If we look at the past several decades we see that even with all the problems in China and India, as fossil fuel use goes up dramatically, so too does life expectancy. (see Figure 5)

(Figure 5)

As we wrap up, I want to take a look at the issue of climate, but I want to look at it from a different perspective that is normally taken. So, what we here about climate is things like ‘we’re going to burn up.’ (see Figure 6) 

(Figure 6)

In 1985 John Holdren, who is President Obama’s science advisor, predicted that by the year 2020 we would have a billion climate related famine deaths (see Figure 7). 

(Figure 7) 

A billion. So, what actually happened? What I want to look at is not exactly what the temperature has been, although you’ve looked at some interesting graphs about that that are important, I want to look at what’s the trend, and how many people are living and dying from climate. Because what we’re told is every time someone dies in a storm, this is an indication that our climate is more dangerous than ever. But they never show us the big picture, they never show us overall, how much more dangerous is the climate getting and is that a big enough problem to talk about reducing fossil fuels.

So, when I saw the truth of this, I was shocked. Because it’s not just that climate related deaths aren’t getting that much worse, it’s that as we use more fossil fuels, they get dramatically better. Climate related deaths, since CO2 emissions began, are down 98 percent. 98 percent (Figure 8).

(Figure 8)

This is almost impossible, in the way were taught to think about things, how could this be? Did we make the climate that much better through CO2? No. We might have made it a little better, I don’t know how much. Here’s what we do know though. There are three basic impacts to the world of climate and plants when we burn fossil fuels. One is, there’s a mild warming effect from CO2. There’s a more significant plant growth effect, but the third thing is the one we completely ignore, there’s an enormous climate protection effect from energy (Figure 9).

(Figure 9)

Nature doesn’t give us a safe climate that we make dangerous, it gives us an incredibly dangerous climate that we make safe. That’s why the more fossil fuels we put in people’s hands, the more cheap and reliable energy we have, the more we protect them from climate. So, when the Pope or the G7 talk about caring about the poor people, therefore, we should reduce CO2 emissions, they’ve got it exactly backwards. If you actually want to protect those people from storms, and floods, and everything else, we’ve got the evidence and the logic that they absolutely need more of the best forms of energy, including fossil fuel energy.

Going forward, I believe, our policy should be one of energy liberation, where we’re free to use as many fossil fuels as we want as long as we have proper pollution controls in place, and where we’re free to innovate with other technologies, like nuclear and hydro, and solar and wind if they ever become economic. 

So, you've seen some of the historical context, this is a pretty dramatic illustration of the fertilizer effect. This is what happens when you put more CO2 – what happens with plant growth. (see Figure 10)

(Figure 10)

The main overall lesson is not that my conclusion about fossil fuels is correct, I hope you check out the book, or check out the first chapter online at moralcaseforfossilfuels.com, it’s the methodology that I use that I don’t think is used in our culture. That methodology is saying, look, our goal should be to maximize human well-being, to improve as many lives as possible, and to do that responsibly, just as we look at all the benefits and risks of vaccines and look at the big picture, we need to do that for fossil fuels. I hope you find that framework helpful and thank you for having me. 


  1. Although I agree that we forget too quickly about benefits of hydrocarbon energy, I do not like when scientists , economists want to convince me with empathy on human desperation, poverty ..
    I could have written same article starting by " I know a primary school in Niger , in a very isolated village where getting a powerline is very expensive ,... kids have access to internet thanks to solar panels,.. ... etc ..


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