Acton Institute Powerblog

Fossil Fuels: The Best Hope for the World’s Poor

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Writing for The Federalist blog last week, American Energy Alliance Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Dan Ziegler remarked:

The environment isn’t getting worse—it’s rapidly improving, even as our economy grows and our energy use increases. The EPA recently released new data on air quality showing that total emissions of the six major air pollutants have dropped by 68 percent since 1970. This is all the more impressive considering that during this same period, America’s population has grown by 54 percent, we’re using 44 percent more energy, we’re driving 168 percent more miles in our cars, and our economy has grown by 238 percent.

It goes from impressive to astounding when you consider that natural gas, coal, and oil have driven this growth. Technological innovations have made obtaining these energy sources smarter, safer, and more efficient than ever before.

In other words, we don’t have to wreck our economy to save the planet—an important realization which casts the green lobby’s preferred policies in a new light. There’s also the very real possibility that such policies would provide very little environmental benefit and even harm the environment. [Emphasis in original]

I’ve been writing about this very subject for some time now on the PowerBlog and specifically how the opposition to responsible development of fossil fuels by churches and other religious groups is plainly bad for poor people. (See post here, here and here.) The greatest boon for the economy at large and the poor in particular is cheap and plentiful fuel. As noted by Mercatus Center Senior Fellow and George Mason University Professor Donald J. Boudreaux in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend:

Fossil fuels are the bedrock of modernity, generating cheap energy and widespread wealth. Environmental crusaders who would do away with these fuels fail to acknowledge the stark results in a world forced to rely solely on renewable energy.

Altogether, renewable energy sources—including wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal and biomass—generate one-tenth of the energy Americans demand. Without fossil fuels to fill that 90% gap, the economy would collapse, commodity supplies would dwindle, jobs would disappear, and households would remain cold, dark and haunted by hunger.

As domestic oil and gas production rise in the U.S., utility bills fall. The average American household saved $1,200 in disposable income in 2012 because of lower energy costs, according to the research firm IHS. By the end of 2015, these savings could grow to $2,000.

Boudreaux explained further:

In asking less-developed nations to ration carbon emissions, environmentalists are essentially demanding that they forgo the most revolutionary shift of the modern era: machines. Every day, as energy expert Alex Epstein observes in his new book “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” [discussed by your writer here and here], the average American relies on machines that exert the equivalent energy of 93 physical laborers. As a result, our lives are more leisurely than our ancestors could have ever imagined.

For hundreds of millions of desperately poor people in China, energy-fueled industrialization is the best hope for a better life. Asking the Chinese government to reduce carbon emissions means asking them to commit millions of their people to poverty, condemning them to a hand-to-mouth lifestyle. “Many people think that China should take the lead for driving the clean [energy] revolution,” Wang Yi, a climate-change expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told a United Nations forum on sustainability in 2012. “But China is facing a lot of challenges.”

It’s fashionable to bash fossil fuels. But these fuels have provided a better life for untold millions of people. And they offer the best hope for pulling billions more out of poverty.

The points made by Ziegler and Boudreaux are well-taken; however they will remain either ignored or shouted down by those who twist real-world science and economics to fulfill their utopian-minded political and wrongheaded environmental ends. Wait! Did I actually write “wrongheaded” to describe such lofty goals? Yes. As pointed out by Ziegler, there exist several unintended consequences for recent government-led environmental initiatives:

By curtailing energy production and use in the United States, along with the jobs they support, the administration’s policies will merely move this industry to countries with weaker environmental standards, including China and India. Less stringent standards in these countries are already causing pollution from China to cross the Pacific Ocean, negatively affecting the West Coast. The administration’s environmental agenda would worsen these problems.

Sadly, the EPA pending regulations aren’t the only examples of government pursuing policies in the name of environmental protection that actually hinder environmental progress.

President Obama’s failure to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline is another. It means that more oil will be transported by rail and barge, both of which have higher spill rates and produce more greenhouse gas emissions than pipelines. Ethanol mandates at the federal and state level actually increase smog and greenhouse-gas emissions. Despite its name, the Endangered Species Act has failed to save many species—in fact, environmental activists who sue the federal government in the name of protecting endangered species actually divert resources away from species recovery.

In short, we’re cleaning up our act significantly while at the same time lifting billions from poverty, only to witness ill-founded concerns prompting counterproductive measures. More’s the pity

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

Comments

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