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Book Essay

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The Immorality of Arguing That There's a Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

February 21st 2018

Oil Barrels 400px

In 2014, a young man named Alex Epstein - who's described as a "philosopher, energy theorist, and industrial policy pundit" - wrote a book titled "The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels."

Alex used this book to springboard to a career arguing the merits of his case on a website, magazine articles, YouTube videos and live debates. His website states that Alex will "accept a debate any time, any place." (I'll get back to this challenge later on).

Also, in 2014, Kathleen Hartnett White wrote a short book titled "Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case." Kathleen has held a number of very senior positions with government agencies and industry groups as an environment and energy expert.

Kathleen followed up on this book in 2016 with another book, "Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy," that she co-authored with Stephen Moore. Mr. Moore is also described on the Internet as an "economics and energy expert."

Kathleen rode these two books and her previous positions to a presidential nomination a few months ago to become the White House senior advisor on environmental policy (her name was withdrawn from consideration earlier this month).

The 2014 books written by Alex Epstein and Kathleen White appear to be unconnected although they share similar titles, theme, and the same year of publication. Neither Alex nor Kathleen cite the other in their respective books, but both do cite Robert L. Bradley and Robert Bryce. Those who have read my previous editorials and papers on the subject of alternative energy and fuels may recall that I have written about Messrs. Bradley and Bryce (my exchanges with Rob Bradley resulted in his asking me to write a thesis for his use in ongoing presentations, and my exchange with Robert Bryce resulted in my 60+ page rebuke of his book "Gusher Of Lies," which has elicited only stony silence from him).

As the titles of the two books and this rejoinder indicate, the premise of the Epstein/White books is that there is a moral reason for the use, and continued use of so-called fossil fuels. I write "so-called," because as my friend Tom Quinn always reminds me, the correct term is "abiotic fuels." The term fossil fuels evokes images from the old animated Chevron and Sinclair Gasolines' television commercials suggesting that dinosaur carcasses turned into pools of crude oil.

The reality is that fossil fuels (abiotic fuels) come from a time prior to the existence of dinosaurs and is derived from the decomposition of plant life and tiny organisms - not giant lizards.

But the subject of this article is not correcting the use of the term "fossil fuels," it is to address the premise and conclusions contained in Alex and Kathleen's books. Therefore any use of the term "fossil fuels" hereafter is done for simplicity.

The central point that both authors make is that America and the world would not be enjoying the high quality of life that we do if it was not for fossil fuels. To aid in their effort to make this point they connect the use of coal with liquid petroleum oil fuels and natural gas. This is basically a sleight-of-hand trick.

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One reason I say that joining coal with the other abiotic fuels (fossil fuels) is "sleight-of-hand" is the opening paragraphs of Kathleen's book in which she includes a brief tale of wilderness deprivation in the year 1800 from "The Rational Optimist," a book written by Matt Ridley. She then weaves Ridley's tale into the following statement:

"Use of the energy in fossil fuels unleashed economic productivity on a scale previously unimaginable. When innovative minds developed a steam engine which could convert the stored heat energy in coal into mechanical energy, the economic limits under which all human societies had formerly existed were blown apart. A life of back-breaking drudgery was no longer the inescapable condition of the overwhelming majority of mankind."

Her premise is incorrect. I'm not saying that coal isn't related to crude oil and natural gas in its original derivation, but I am saying that you can no more credit coal with our high standard of living then you can credit gasoline, petroleum diesel fuel, and natural gas for our high quality of life.

In the first place, any accolade due to our high quality of life should be given to the inventions that utilize various fuels...regardless of what those fuels are, not to the fuels themselves, and certainly not to coal or gasoline or petroleum diesel or natural gas. The inventions were all created without consideration to any specific fossil fuel. Internal combustion engines were created before the invention of either gasoline or diesel petroleum fuel.

As for coal, coal was used for heat and light for thousands of years before the invention of the practical steam engine. So you can't applaud coal for its role in making life better via the steam engine because of all those centuries of deprivation prior to the invention of the steam engine. If coal, in itself, was the salient ingredient to a high quality of life then surely the great scientific geniuses of earlier times would have invented usable steam-powered devices to propel trains, boats, and stationary machinery. They knew that steam existed, and how to produce it; and they had the ability to make and mold metals.

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An interesting side-note to the general understanding of how we are enslaved by, and chained to, a dependence on petroleum oil-based fuels is that coal mining in the early days of the industrial revolution was literally legal slavery.
(See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_coal_mining)

Furthermore, if you want to actually credit anything with the success of the steam engine to break the back of mankind's inescapable drudgery, the credit should go to water, not coal or wood or natural gas or any petroleum-based liquid. Without water there is no steam to power the engines. Moreover, without water there is no life, period! The mere burning of wood or coal or natural gas or oil-based liquid is incapable of powering any device.

Moving forward - technologically - to internal combustion engines, coal is irrelevant, gasoline is irrelevant, and petroleum diesel fuel is irrelevant. As I've said before, these fuels did not make the invention of the internal combustion engine possible. Samuel Morey, Nicholas Otto, Karl Benz, and Henry Ford never said to themselves, "Oh good, now that there's gasoline and diesel fuel I can invent the car."

Once again, internal combustion engines weren't invented as a result of the availability of gasoline and diesel fuel - and neither one of these fuels is needed. It simply happened that through a series of political events and circumstances, that petroleum oil fuels gained a foothold in the market. Then, via political corruption and tutelage, the oil industry bought their position as the dominant engine fuels; bringing with it wars, disease, and environmental disasters.

In Alex's book he commits several gaffs comparable to Kathleen's use of the tale from "The Rational Optimist." On page 13, Alex writes:

"This book is about morality, about right and wrong. To me, the question of what to do about fossil fuels and any other moral issue comes down to: What will promote human life? What will promote human flourishing— realizing the full potential of life?"

On pages 29-30, Alex writes:

"Ultimately, when thinking about fossil fuels, we are trying to figure out the right thing to do, the right choices to make. But what exactly do we mean by right and wrong, good and bad? What is our standard of value? By what standard or measure are we saying something is good or bad, great or catastrophic, right or wrong, moral or immoral?

"I hold human life as the standard of value, and you can see that in my earlier arguments: I think that our fossil fuel use so far has been a moral choice because it has enabled billions of people to live longer and more fulfilling lives..."

So you see that Alex, too, errs in lauding fossil fuels for the societal benefits of the devices that use the fuel; devices that could be better powered by non-fossil fuels. And by "better" I mean safer, cleaner, cheaper, healthier, and with increased performance.

The fact is that fossil fuels have been the cause of wars, disease, and ecological and environmental disasters. Every significant war in the past 104 years has been caused by petroleum oil. Tens of millions of people; no, make that hundreds of millions of people have been killed in these wars. To the war dead-toll we have to add the people who have died as a result of the illnesses caused by the use of petroleum oil fuels. Then there's the life-long injuries and disabilities suffered by untold millions more. There's nothing moral about any of this.

And if you're the type of person that considers other animal life to be essential, how can the literal slaughter of birds, fish, dolphins, turtles and other animals from the wars and environmental disasters be anything less than wicked and depraved?

Now, to be fair, the books written by Alex Epstein and Kathleen White are really meant to fight against the belief in man-made climate change (global warming, cooling, what-evering), not to denigrate alternative fuels. Therefore, they make their arguments to try and show how the benefits of using coal, gasoline, diesel fuels, and natural gas outweigh the concerns of (possible) climate change.

Even if it was correct to give some credit to fossil fuels for advances in mechanical devices (which it is not), the death and destruction caused by fossil fuels makes the argument for using them immoral.

If Alex and Kathleen only made their arguments a debate on the legitimacy of man-made climate change, I probably would not have gotten involved. I've already published my own position on man-made climate change, and so there is little that I could add or disagree with in their respective books. However, in their literary enthusiasm - or attempt to curry favor with the oil industry - they chose to include criticisms of ethanol and other alternative fuels or energy sources. Hence, I entered the fray. If they broke new ground in arguing against ethanol, and they were able to provide proof of their complaints against ethanol, it would have justified their inclusion in the debate about climate change - and very possibly I could have learned something new.

Instead, they both rely on lies and exaggerations about ethanol to make all the same old sophomoric arguments related to national economy, food, subsidies, and comparative energy content. This shows that they either know nothing about the workings of an internal combustion engine, or subsidies, or business and economics; or they simply decided to put their knowledge aside in the hope that anyone reading their books would also not know anything.

In the first chapter of Alex's book he recounts a chance meeting he had with a college-age Greenpeace volunteer on the streets of Irvine, California. The young woman calls out to him, “Do you want to help us end our addiction to dirty fossil fuels and use clean, renewable energy instead?”

To which Alex replied, “Actually, I study energy for a living— and I think it’s good that we use a lot of fossil fuels. I think the world would be a much better place if people used a lot more.”

Alex writes that he expected a series of retorts from the young lady, and how he would have responded to them. Some of the things he hoped she would say were:

• That fossil fuels cause climate change.

• That fossil fuels cause pollution.

• That fossil fuels are not renewable.

• That solar and wind can replace fossil fuels.

Alex's hypothetical responses would have basically concluded with details about how ingenuity and technology can (or eventually will) clean up the pollution, and how solar and wind is intermittent and unreliable. His closing comment would be that fossil fuels "...is the only source of energy that has been able to provide cheap, plentiful, reliable energy for the billions of people whose lives depend on it."

However, Alex writes, the young woman didn't respond in the manner he expected. I would say that he was left in a state of, um, let's call it "unfulfilled satisfaction."

If I was present at the time and place and overheard the exchange between Alex and Miss Greenpeace, and the conversation took place along the lines Alex thought it might, I would have said, "Imagine that instead of using petroleum oil fuels that fill our skies with deadly pollutants, we used clean fuels that can accomplish even better performance results with fewer wars, how much better off we would be? Think of all the people who wouldn't have died or become disabled."

And then I would have added that neither a solar source of energy nor a wind source of energy is unreliable and intermittent. Indeed, should the day(s) ever come in which the darkness of night doesn't turn to a lightened day then our entire existence on planet Earth would come to an end. And since wind currents are a direct result of a revolving planet and the same solar source, wind is a totally reliable source of energy. The only requirement is that the solar collectors be sufficiently sensitive to cloud covered days, and that the wind generators be positioned in places where there is always wind. But these requirements are virtually no different than the requirement for fossil fuel electric generating plants to be located within proximity to users.

To the point that only fossil fuels can provide cheap and plentiful energy, I would have reminded him (informed him) that ethanol could have, should have, and would have been the fuel to provide cheap and plentiful energy had the oil industry not bought their way into the dominant position.

Just because we now know that fossil fuels are far more abundant than it was ever thought possible, it doesn't mean we should be using them. Gasoline and petroleum diesel fuels are poisonous. They have always been poisonous, and they will always be poisonous. What's more, the additives required to make gasoline and petroleum diesel fuels non-corrosive and anti-knock are more poisonous than the gasoline and diesel fuel. Further, there is no such thing as clean coal. It's possible to reduce the harmful effects of mining/processing/burning coal, but not to entirely eliminate the terrible effects. And as the population continues to grow, and more coal energy plants are used, the harmful effects continue to grow in the aggregate even if individual plants spew fewer emissions.

Ironically, regardless of one's position on man-made climate change, ethanol is the solution. Whether ethanol should be a long-term permanent replacement for petroleum oil fuels, or just a mid-range solution until electric and electric-power generation from a harmless and low-cost renewable source can come into dominance, both sides of the climate change argument should rally around ethanol. Only the mistaken belief that there is something wrong with ethanol - which is usually funded by the oil industry - stops people on both sides from unanimity on ethanol's benefits.

If catastrophic man-made climate change is real, and it is not too late to prevent the cataclysmic results, then ethanol should be immediately adopted as the world's primary engine fuel because it would mitigate any further damage. If catastrophic man-made climate change is a myth, we still have pollution, diseases, war, and a struggling national economy to worry about. The switch to (domestically produced) ethanol would immediately end and erase all of these problems.

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Alex and Kathleen frame their entire position on the argument that "mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous— because human life is the standard of value." Using their own measuring stick, it must be concluded that using fossil fuels are immoral, and that the proposition that fossil fuels are moral is just as immoral.

At the top of this page I mentioned that Alex Epstein's website states that he "will accept a debate any time, any place." On January 19th, exactly one month ago, I made the challenge to Alex to debate the issue. I received a very cordial and quick reply from him. In it, Alex wrote, "I have at least 3 debates lined up already this year so whether I take additional ones will depend on how prominent I can expect the debate to be..." There were a couple of other minor requirements, and he asked if I could refer him to any of my work on the subject (in order to ascertain how prominent of an opponent I might be). I sent him several links (all included below), and we have touched base once since January 19th. As of January 30th, he's still processing the material I sent.

I don't expect that Alex will accept my challenge, partly because he'll find some reason to discount me as being worthy of his effort. But the real reason he won't accept the debate is because he'd lose, and then the career he built arguing that fossil fuels are moral would be destroyed. Of course I mention this in the hope that it stirs him into action, but I still don't expect him to follow through. I will be sending Alex and Kathleen a link to this story, and if they choose to respond I will add their response below.

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